John Boyega was born in London to parents who grew up in Nigeria and raised their children in a home that felt like a piece of their home country in the UK.
“When we walked into our house, it was Lagos to us, it was Nigeria,” Boyega said in a recent interview. “The way we were disciplined and the lessons we learned were all directly related to Nigeria.”
This meant he was always told he was going to work hard, education was a priority, Bible study was on Tuesdays, and church was on Sundays. At services, he played the drums, his sister played the keyboard and his father was a minister.
“Other ministers were telling the story of Noah’s Ark in a pretty simple way,” he said. “But my dad would give characters to the animals and break down the story so you could tell and he would act things out.”
Boyega inherited his father’s talent for storytelling and was drawn to acting. Hollywood, however, seemed distant. “Growing up in inner city London, American films felt the opposite,” he said. “We didn’t even have the same accents.”
American movies don’t get any bigger than the Star Wars franchise, which lifted Boyega to international stardom when he was cast as Finn – the stormtrooper-turned-resistance fighter – in the latest trilogy, culminating in “The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019. This month, Boyega stars in the movie “Breaking,” as a father and former Marine who robs a bank to avoid homelessness.
Here, he talks about the films that inspired his career, the music that brings him closer to home, and the extra-spicy chicken he has. These are excerpts from the conversation.
1. Burnaboy He is one of the most prolific leaders in bringing Afro beats to the fore. The lyrics, melody, soul and spirit of his music include what we know as African and what we know as Nigerian. His song, “Time Flies”, is almost like a moving letter to me. I love his music.
2. “MJ the Musical” I think Michael Jackson was one of the main factors that motivated me to act. It was the music videos for me, the imagination, the dance moves, the energy of the performance. Going to see “MJ the Musical” on Broadway recently was mind blowing. The lead actor, Myles Frost, was an absolute star.
3. “Coming to America” This movie is a lifelong classic in my family. The first time we watched it, my father walked in during the scene where the woman says to him, “The royal penis is clean, your highness.” It was really embarrassing. I watch it at least once a year just for a laugh. There is always something new that I find.
4. Young Vic Theater Especially for me growing up on the theater scene, the Young Vic in London has always been a place where you can see new writers and directors come in and do really good plays. Last time I was there I was actually working at the Old Vic a few yards away.
5. New Africa Sanctuary: I visited Fela Kuti’s hall for the first time in 2017 to see a concert by his son, Seun Kuti. It was the first time I was with my boys in Nigeria. We had a great night. Now I go back every time I go to Nigeria. For me, it is one of the most prolific cultural hubs, especially if you love afro beats and want to hear music from the same lineage of the king of afro beats, who is the great Fela Kuti.
6. “Half a Yellow Sun” I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, after I was offered a role in the film. Knowing that I was going to be in the feature while I was reading it brought me closer to a story that I didn’t know from my own culture.
7. Hans Zimmer I will listen to any film score by Hans Zimmer. I don’t always listen to music that tells me what to think. I find that with film scores, especially if you’re an avid listener, the songs can change and mean something completely different. Also, I like to practice on one of his songs called “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” from the score of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”. It lasts over 10 minutes and it gets me through a lot of my workouts.
8. “Childhood” I never thought I would exist in American films. But when I watched ‘Kidulthood’, which had Black Brits in it, I thought, wow, you can be an actor. The accents in it, I’m sure they were local, from places I knew in London. It kind of opened my eyes that there was British film and there were opportunities in British film for black actors.
9. Chicken Cha Cha This is one of my favorite places to go in Santa Monica. This is a truly grounded Jamaican/Caribbean inspired restaurant. I literally took my mom and my nephews there. The food is delicious. I get the half Cha Cha chicken – extra spicy – plantains, rice and beans, and salad on the side.
10. “Star Wars: Battlefront” It’s the video game I play the most. I started playing it before Finn was an idea, long before I was cast in the movies. Now sometimes I play as a Finn against people I don’t know. So being a fan of it and being there now is something I’ve always kept a secret.