As we come to the end of 2013, we can look back over a strong, memorable year for black, British actors. We’ve seen Idris Elba controlling gigantic robots, David Oyelowo establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s most dependable stars, and Chiwetel Ejiofor turning in a performance that could deservingly earn him an Oscar in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. With younger actors back in the UK contending with frustrating typecasts, the success of the aforementioned performers is of great inspiration to the likes of John Boyega, who we had the great pleasure of speaking to in the build up to his latest project The Whale – which airs on the BBC over Christmas.
“It’s a promising time for black british actors,” he said. “I’m observing, because I’m seeing greatness right now and I would very much like to be a part of that. The only way you can be a part of that when you’re young, is to observe and to learn and to gain some wisdom. Chiwetel, David and Idris do what they do and they live for their art. They take it very seriously.” Ejiofor in particular is an actor Boyega knows extremely well, working together on Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which opens theatrically next year. “Chiwetel is a very interesting fellow, he’s so invested in the work. There are loads of people with talent, but work ethic is a big thing and I’m only starting to realise that. I used to think that talent would just drive you through but work ethic is an element. These guys are killing it right now.”
Boyega tells us that these actors are not only opening doors for themselves, but for younger actors too – and this ability to portray such a variety of roles is deeply encouraging for the representation of black actors. “I feel like in my age bracket these guys are opening the doorway for me,” he professed. “I’m able to do certain roles because these guys have shown that we can do this. The world is diverse, black people can be in superhero suits too. They don’t always have to be in the streets killing someone – so for me it mirrors who we are as human beings, forget race. We’re different, we’re into weird things. Everybody is weird, let’s be honest, every single person, so it’s amazing to see that. So encouraging.”
Moments preceding the interview Boyega ogled over a PS4 like any 21-year-old would, showing off that boyish charm and affability that has seen him rise up through the ranks steadily since his debut showing in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. But as soon as we got down to business, his distinct shrewdness and pragmatism were on show, as he discusses how fascinating a project Half of a Yellow Sun is to him, as a feature depicting Nigeria’s struggle for independence.
“It was intriguing. I’ve been to Nigeria twice before and I was exposed to the village, where my dad grew up, but going back and having a historical journey, me and Chiwetel going to the slave museum, it was intriguing. It’s raw history,” he said. “With that movie, I was so happy to be a part of it, because it’s a part of me. When I’m at home, I’m in Nigeria. My parents are Nigerian and they don’t speak to me in English. My mum has tribal marks and it’s just a part of me. So it was a blessing to go back home and act, in the sun, in Africa, with a fantastic cast, I had a good time with that project.”
Boyega has been taking his acting skills from the silver screen to the smaller screen too, as he stars in The Whale – a TV movie inspired by Moby Dick. However Boyega admits that the line between television and film is becoming increasingly blurred. “It pretty much felt like I was shooting a movie. You’ve got this big ship, fake thunder, rain, underwater stuff, green screen, reacting to nothing… It felt like a film to me.
“As an audience member, there’s more of a cinematic feel on TV now, they’ve got orchestral music behind the scenes, they’ve got these fantastic actors, the shots are cinematic, it’s big scale, great costumes… It’s all massive. It feels like you’re watching a film, just in the comfort of your own home. The line is blurry because you’re able to be in this zone, you don’t have to be in a building which is specifically catered to movies to feel like you’re invested in a story. But there’s still nothing like going to watch a film at the movies. It’s good to watch a film, eat popcorn with members of the public and share an experience. The lines are blurred, but they will always be two very different things and experiences.”
One matter that is not quite so blurry for Boyega, however, is his determination to stay in his hometown of London, and resist the temptation of a move to America. “I have an agent in America and a management company as well, but I love London,” he continued. “I’m a big London dude. I’m so obsessed with this city it’s crazy. I’ve had the option to move to LA but I’ve been like, nah, I’m not doing that. I’ve been out there so many times, and thankfully because of certain actors they’ve given people like me the opportunity to stay in London, put myself on tape for something and not have to go there at all. For me that’s comfortable. I love my city, I love the greyness, it’s who we are. I’m just adamant about staying here.”
It’s been quite a journey for the young performer, and following on from his leading role in the acclaimed Attack the Block, he’s appeared in a variety of projects for both TV and film, establishing himself as one of Britain’s most promising up-and-coming leading actors. However it’s still a world and industry that surprises Boyega, who admits that he’s still struggling to come to terms with this level of exposure. “You don’t know what to expect when you first make a movie, but it just catapults you into this world you’re not used to and you just learn on your toes,” he declared. “It just exposes you to this whole world of movie making and actor stuff they speak about in people’s biographies and stuff. It’s amazing, getting in your dad’s car and seeing yourself on a bus stop. It’s insane. Going to the cinema and it’s you playing every single day, it’s crazy.”
But is it something that Boyega can ever see himself getting used to? “I dunno, man. I’m still wondering how Chiwetel is doing it. We were in Toronto and I was just walking down a high street and he’s probably never been there before but his face was everywhere. I was like, how do you process that? I mean. how does Jennifer Lawrence do it?” A question we ask ourselves daily, John.
The Whale airs on BB1 at 9pm on Sunday 22nd December.