The actor played his first lead role in the British science fiction film about a teenage street gang, who have to defend themselves from predatory alien invaders.
That was also where J.J Abrams, the writer/director/producer of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” first saw him. He would later cast him as Finn, a major character in the biggest film franchise in the world.
Since his 2015 debut as Finn in “Star Wars,” Boyega has enjoyed a meteoric rise to global fame, and in 2017, he was listed by Forbes as the 10th highest grossing actor of 2017.
At the Accelerate Masterclass which held on April 6, 2018 and was hosted by Nigerian filmmaker Seyi Babatope, Boyega shared how he landed a role in the “Star Wars” franchise.
Meeting J.J Abrams
Boyega met J.J Abrams during one of his visits to LA. He was in the lobby with Nigerian-American actor Dayo Okeni when he saw the director walk out of a room with Tom Cruise.
“They both stop and J.J Abrams goes, ‘your name is John Boyega right? You were in that film ‘Attack the Block. And I go ‘yes.’ And he goes ‘I’m gonna get you in something. I am going to think about it, but I am going to get you in something,” Boyega recalled.
The meeting opened a door for the actor to have more personal conversations with Abrams, who would give him pointers on who to talk to, and the right strategy to certain roles.
“Star Wars” came at a time when Boyega wanted to take a break
Before “Star Wars,” Boyega had auditioned with big studios for roles in movies such as“Maleficent,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Kingsmen.”
“I was trying to get in on all these big ones,” he said. But he was tired. The money wasn’t coming. He was trying to get to auditions, but his car had just been towed.
“These things were happening back to back and it was very annoying. Financially, things were not going well for my parents.
But they would expect that at least if things aren’t going well for them, I should be in school securing your future. And at that time, it didn’t look like I was.”
Boyega spent most of his time at home, studying, watching all his films, and reading through contracts. He was getting himself prepared. But nothing seemed to be happening.
“What was so funny and interesting was that every actor around me was getting auditions, except me. And my boys would come up to me and say ‘yo man, can you put me on tape?’ And I put people on tape for my role as Finn.
I would be behind the camera, and put them on tape, and help them with their lines. And I was thinking, ‘Lord, what the hell is going on? Everyone is getting auditions but me. Where’s my shot? Where’s my chance.’
He called his agent, Femi Oguns, to ask how he was going to get auditions and opportunities, and he got the response, “John, John, John, will I ever fail you?”
“What you need to know is that the casting director that cast you in “Attack the Block” is the casting director for “Star Wars.” So what we are gonna do is get you through that door,” Oguns told Boyega.
And he told him something, which Boyega considers very important: “I can only get in, the rest is up to you.”
His 1st “Star Wars” auditions
His first “Star Wars” audition didn’t go as planned. It was horrible because he was very nervous.
“The casting director, Nina, said to me, ‘what you did in there was crap. It was nonsense. What you need to do is get it all together. We need to get just one clip on tape that can work. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You just need to embody what you’ve read.”
A second audition
Boyega got a call for his second audition while he was on a train. At that time, he was having very serious credit issues and had just hired a Nigerian lawyer based in Tottenham to change his bank account from minus to plus.
That was when he got a call that J.J, Abrams wanted to see him for his second auditions in Star Wars.’ And he thought, “cool, now I am really gonna put the work here.”
Over the eight months that he auditioned for Star Wars, Boyega had to deal with real talk from professionals. He learned how to take corrections. He couldn’t be too sensitive.
“And at that time, they would say to me “John, you’re fat.’ You need to lose some weight for this role. So I was in the gym. I would travel all the way to North West London, train with a particular trainer, and I was drinking like gallons of water a day. I carried it with me everywhere I went.”
To further prepare for the role, Boyega would watch behind the scenes of “Star Wars,” special features about other actors who have auditioned for a part. Those were his motivations.
Things looked like they were going well for Boyega. “They kept calling me back and putting me together with other actors. They were bringing me to set and showing me stuff.” And then there was another spike.
Boyega had previously been working on a TV show called “24.” But he didn’t tell “Star Wars” that he had filmed so late. “I was too prideful,” he recalled.
So when it was time for his next Star Wars auditions, he ruined it. He was tired and forgot his lines.
“It was really really rubbish and embarrassing. Because at that time, it felt like I have hustled for this opportunity, and now I’m here, and I have ruined it.”
Finn (John Boyega) and Phasma fighting in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lucas Film/Walt Disney )
After his “Star Wars” auditions, he got an offer to be in “Terminator.” And another to be in “Power Rangers.” He also got a call from Zack Snyder, who wanted him to play Cyborg in ”Justice league.”
Boyega was excited, but he was also in a dilemma because in Hollywood, when you test for a movie, you can’t book any other part unless you tell them you’re done.
“So these three movies want me, but Star Wars won’t let me know whether I got the part or not.”
His agents from the United States flew over to London to discuss his options. They told him to either pick any of the above-mentioned films, and miss out on “Star Wars,” or wait on “Star Wars” and end up missing out on everything.
“And I was like, ‘let me contact a few pastors and ministers. Something like Star Wars, you are either set for life or you’re going back to your normality. This is spiritual now.”
So he went to his mum, who he described as very spiritual and sees things. He said to her, “Mum, there’s an opportunity. All I need is for you to just pray for me.” And she goes ‘I have been praying for you.’ What’s the difference this time?
None of Boyega’s representatives had faith or hope in “Star Wars” happening. But Boyega couldn’t imagine missing out on “Star Wars” because he just wanted to book something. He eventually decided to say no to everybody else and stick with Star Wars.
“I can’t lie, it was a heroic moment, but in my heart, I was like, ‘this is bad, this is a really bad situation.’
On the night of the premiere of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” Boyega got a mail from Abrams, asking him to come to Mayfair.
With just 75 pounds in his account, Boyega spent all his money transporting himself from Catford to Mayfair, which in Lagos terms, is like moving from the mainland to Island.”
He was nervous. “If I hadn’t felt every muscle in my body, that day I really truly did. Because your heart is pulsating, your chest is beating, your blood is boiling.”
When he got to the restaurant, Abrams thanked him for his patience through the long audition process.
“And I was like Ayele ibosi… You don’t start with those lines, it means something isn’t right,”Boyega said.
“We respect you for everything that you have done and there are just a few questions that I need to ask you. ‘Are you ready to become a leader because this would mean something more than just a role?” Abram said to him.
Boyega, who thought he had lost the role, thought that was his chance to buy another audition for another role. So he said, “J.J, I know I messed up in the last one, let me try and explain…”
But Abrams continued, “John, do you have any skeletons in your closet from the past that we need to know about?”
“We had those discussions and I thought it was my moment to try and explain. He goes “John,” I go “J J,”. He goes “John,” I go J J.. He goes John, you’re starring in Star Wars.”
John recalls everything suddenly looking different. “The colours on the wall were now brighter, the sun was shining. I felt amazed. I was like, ‘finally.’ For one minute, my mind went through everything I went through, everything I had to sacrifice, because I suffered so much for this. I put my whole life for this. It’s hard trying to explain to people that you have a dream and your life has never reflected that, your family has never reflected that.
You know, my mum and dad were just seen as a number in the minority in the UK that were given average wage.
Boyega, who had no money to get home, walked from Mayfair to Tottenham Court road, where he met and broke the news to Femi, “We did it. We made history,” he said.
In 2015, once the Star Wars cheque cleared, Boyega paid his tithe and offering, bought his mum and dad a house, and reinvested the money: He founded Upper Room Productions with Femi Oguns as his producing partner.
They eventually co-produced the 2018 science fiction action film,”pacific Rim 2.”
As for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the movie which was released on December 18, 2015, went on to smash box office records and earn a cool $2.068 billion. The sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, helped cement Boyega as a bankable star in Hollywood after it made $1.3 billion.