Rogue's Star to Watch: John Boyega

Friday, 29 July 2011 15:54 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue's Star to Watch: John Boyega

There is a moment in every great actors career where the performer transforms from a supporting player to a movie star in front of the audiences eyes. This is commonly referred to as an actor’s “breakout moment” and we always know it when we see it. Whether it’s Eddie Murphy taking command of the bar scene in 48 Hrs., or Tom Cruise dancing around in his underwear in Risky Business, the importance of these moments are never lost on the audience and always indicates that the performer is here to stay. Rogue’s Star to Watch is dedicated to highlighting these career-making performances as they happen and recognizing the exact moment when a new star is born.

Odds are, you haven't yet heard of British actor John Boyega, since he makes his feature debut in Attack the Block, the sci-fi action-comedy hitting selected theaters today, July 29th.  Rest assured, though, you'll be a fan of both Boyega and the movie very soon.  The film is a loving, intelligent riff on the creature features of the 1980's, centering on a group of would-be thug teenagers in a South London project who find themselves waging a pitched battle against vicious, shiny-toothed extraterrestrials. 

The British production, which is also the feature debut of writer-director Joe Cornish, has built up an insane amount of geek hype since its North American debut at South By Southwest earned ecstatic reviews.  This is one instance in which the hype is completely deserved; it's a good story, energetically told with a great sense of humor. 

Though actors Nick Frost and Jodie Whittaker play supporting roles, it's a group of unknown young actors who carry the story, and it's John Boyega leading the ragtag crew as Moses.  Even if he weren't just seventeen years old at the time of filming, Boyega's performance would be a marvel.  When we first meet him, he has the dangerous, steely charisma of a western gunslinger, and as the story progresses he effectively conveys a hidden depth as Moses comes to understand the consequences of his actions and ultimately rises to the occasion in a huge way.

IAR's own Jami Philbrick had the chance to sit down with Boyega during the Los Angeles Film Festival last month.  The ebullient and good-natured young actor, now nineteen years old, talked about the protagonist's arc, saying, "I play a character called Moses. Moses is the strong and silent type. You meet him at the point where he's trying to make two decisions either to get on the good path or choose the bad path."  Though it's not overstated, the film incorporates some sly social commentary.  "This is due to his circumstance of not having a family behind him. Not really have that rock in his life to put him on the right track," he said.  "And all that is interrupted by an alien invasion that just lands in south London. Basically because of the danger of this alien show he has to find the good in himself and become a hero and defend the block, defend the people from an alien invasion."

While the concept behind the film might sound at first like a novelty gag, it is executed with aplomb on both the comedic and action fronts.  Still, even Boyega himself wasn't sure when he was introduced to the idea.  "The first time I heard about it I thought it was crap," he said.  "My agent was like, 'alien invasion set in south London and these boys have to fight the aliens,'" he explained.  "Just because of what we've always been fed in terms of urban films back home, I never knew we were gonna do it on a cinematic scale, but when I read the script, when I read the director's breakdown where he envisioned it, I was all game. Fell in love with it. The story is amazing."

Boyega had some unexpected influences in portraying Moses, including Marlo Stanfield, the imperturbable drug kingpin played by Jaime Hector on seasons 3-5 of the HBO series The Wire.  Even though he was working with young, relatively inexperienced actors, Cornish relied on them to each to bring such unique ideas to their characters.  "The thing is, Joe gave us a lot of freedom to put in our own versions of what we felt what the characters would do or say. And he gave us a lot of freedom, fifty fifty, we worked together on it," Boyega said. "It was amazing for him to give us such freedom with it. And in that we could create these characters that people kind of love. One thing as a gang we did incorporate into it is the fact that they all have different reasons."

Attack the Block has been screening regularly and building excellent word of mouth throughout the summer, with Boyega and executive producer Edgar Wright (co-writer and director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World) largely acting as the combined public face of the film, attending abundant Q & A's.  The unanimously positive reception for both the film has not gone to his head, nor has it particularly surprised him. "Not surprised, but humbled by it. Very, very humbled by it," he explained.  "I'm an extremist when it comes to being determined and I believe you put so much work into it and we already knew where they were going with their goal and so it being accepted is fantastic. But what surprises me is the fact that people get it and they get the story and they get the characters and that for me has made me happy."

Attack the Block  opens in U.S. theaters July 29th. 

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