Making it in Hollywood

John Boyega

CNBC Africa’s Esther Awoniyi caught up with Hollywood Actor John Boyega on today’s episode of Beyond Markets. He shares some insight on his journey so far in Hollywood. She started their conversation by asking about his new film Pacific Rim Uprising.

Pacific Rim Uprising is actually the sequel to the first Pacific Rim which starred Idris Elba and I actually play his son. It’s about a young man who is a bit of a rogue, a bit troublesome and he has to change his ways and become a leader for the next generation of pilots. There’s a big war, cities are destroyed and it’s a big action epic.

Let’s talk about the numbers. How big is this movie?
$150 million.

Were you nervous about handling that kind of money and were you nervous about the finished product?
Thankfully my production company Upper Room entertainment co-produced the movie with Universal so handling funds wasn’t necessarily the issue, but it’s having to shoot a movie like this which such scale in a short amount of time which for us is 7 months. Normally these movies take longer, and it came with its challenges.

So you were both producer and you were also the star. What was that like?
Yes. I wore two hats. It was fantastic. You find yourself acting and then once they call cut, you run over to the monitors and do your producing and guide the story in a creative way.

It was your first time producing. How nervous did that make you?
I wasn’t nervous because I felt that I was backed up by a great team and also this is something I’ve prepared for a long time. I actually founded my company in 2015 so I had a few years to warm up and know the industry behind the screens and as well as in front of it.

Talk to us about other projects in the pipeline?
I’m actually developing a British Television series with a newcomer director called Sebastian Till and I’m teaming up with the production company that did my first movie, Attack The Block. I’m teaming up with them. I won’t star in this one, so I’ll only wear one hat as a producer and basically it’s a show about our childhoods as black Nigerians growing up in the U.K in London. It’s about the challenges we faced, the clashes between our cultures and a lot of exciting stuff.

So not exactly sci-fi because you’ve been cast into that genre a few times and you’ve said that you’re open to other genres except for horror.
Horror is a bit to scary for me but I have dabbled in other genres. I did a drama out in Nigeria called Half of a Yellow Sun, then I did a movie called Detroit. I like to mix it up a bit so drama is what I want to fixate on right now.

There’s this ongoing conversation about diversity in hollywood and there’s talk about including Africa in the storytelling. I know that you’ve said through your production company that you’re looking for good stories wherever you can find them. What are your thoughts on Nigeria’s movie industry and coming into Nigeria to tell those great stories.
I think its a great opportunity to produce. I now have the opportunity to lead this ongoing movement of merging the worlds of Nollywood and the quality of Hollywood. I think Nigerian stories are dear to our hearts but need to be captured in a great way and we can’t do that without Nigerians who know Nigeria for what it is. I’m one of those I just got back, so even though the passion is there we still need people that are on the ground to show us the way and teach us.

There are a couple of good actors and producers here. So how do we take that a bit further?
The thing is to capture epic stories and to film Nigeria in a way that has never been seen before but that always starts with a script that comes from an interesting perspective.

So should we expect something in the not too distant future?
Absolutely. We’re still in the writing stage. Black Panther was a larger than life imagination project, now we need some true Nigerian original stories. We can go from the spiritual realm to the rich history that Nigeria has. It’s something that we want to explore. The great careers of people like Fela Kuti. These are stories that are important to be told.

There are going to be screenings of Pacific Rim Uprising in Lagos and you’re going to be popping up in cinemas as well. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes. I won’t tell you when exactly but we’ll be popping up in front of some Pacific Rim fans. It was very important to me to finish off the long press tour with Nigeria and do some nice screenings here.

What’s the feedback you’ve heard so far?
Everyone loves it. It’s great because producing this, I had the ability to merge the worlds a bit and give subtle hints that the lead character was Nigerian. So Wizkid’s Daddy O was something that we put in the movie. You’re going to see some people in Ankara. There’s an African vibe to it which is something that’s always exciting to do.

And are there plans for a sequel?
Well it depends. Currently we’re on good numbers. We started strong domestically now we’re waiting on international and we haven’t yet released the film in Japan. There are a few other territories we’re waiting on and that will determine our expectations.

But what are your expectations?
I’d love to expand the story to get more insight into the character and to bring in new characters as well would be very very cool.

Actors especially those that are not American have a difficult time of breaking into Hollywood. What needs to happen to change this?
I don’t think it necessarily needs to be changed. I think it’s okay to go into a different territory and learn a new artform and expand that into something more. The U.S is such a big country geographically and there are a lot of opportunities there. But the funny thing is I went out to L.A to hustle but I didn’t book Star Wars in L.A. I booked it when I came back to London. The hustle and bustle of L.A teaches you the business etiquette and what is required to handle this career in top form.

But you have a background in theatre. Did it help you in the transition to film?
I was working in theatre because I loved it. It was a hobby for me, and then I met a young man called Femi Oguns who is the head teacher of Identity Drama School. At the time it was a black drama school set up to give opportunities to people like me. We hit it off and it set up opportunities to collaborate with each other. And he said, “we want to make history. We want to get into films.” Auditions started coming and I kept on trying until something broke.

Speaking about something breaking, in 2014 you got this call to be part of the Star Wars multi billion dollar franchise and of course you got the part of the first black Storm Trooper. What did it feel like being part of this multi-billion film franchise?
Well the billions are not in my account but it’s nice to be part of a legacy. The strange thing is you see yourself everyday on people’s t-shirts and bags. Star Wars is just such a cultural phenomenon especially back in the U.K and the States. It is strange but I love it. It’s a blessing and I have welcomed it with open arms.

In what ways would you say that it has changed your life. Would you say that it’s changed your life forever?
It’s changed my life because I feel like I’m part of a family that is historical. You know that you basically are immortalised which is strange, but at the same time it provided the opportunity to do other work. Pacific Rim Uprising wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get Star Wars. That opportunity reminds you each day of the first break that you got.

When did you start out on your production journey and why?
As a producer you get to have creative control. You get to control the story, you get the ability to educate the powers that be about other diverse stories that they may not have heard about. Unfortunately not every studio executive in Hollywood is Nigerian or knows about Nigeria or Africa in general and they need to be educated and it takes certain individuals with certain backgrounds like myself, and it was a good opportunity to take. Hollywood comes with its challenges but I never started out with the mentality that there would be no challenges. I’ve realised that the challenges guide you as they teach you how to do better next time. I think that being in an industry where there are obstacles and in which there are particular people who may not agree with your agenda or your vision, there are still ways to locate other people who do, and I will say that’s been a blessing for me.

Some people have referred to you as an overnight success. What do you say when you hear that?
I think that’s a general statement but nothing happens overnight. I have hustled. I have slept on sofas. I have sold my belongings. It took a long time to work this out but I have been blessed. What can I say?

What would you say has been your most challenging role so far?
I think my role in Detroit was definitely challenging. Handling racial issues like that at a time when racial issues are still pretty rife in the United States. I was playing a real person, a person who is still alive, so that comes with a challenging responsibility.

How have you dealt with type casting in Hollywood?
You always have people offering you scripts based on the last thing you’ve done and I don’t understand how they don’t get the memo. No actor likes that. I happily and positively ignore and aim towards those scripts that have more versatility, because that’s what I do. I can be in a war movie based in Nigeria then I can go on to Star Wars and then I can go on to Pacific Rim. I like to explore various sides to my artistry and I’m glad that I’ve been given the opportunity to do that.

Do you feel like you’re a place in your career where you can choose what you do as opposed to taking what’s been offered?
There was a strange balance in the beginning of my career when I was picky but I also chose the roles that I knew would be offered to me but there was a twist, like Attack the Block was a hoodlum role where normally in the UK at the time they were dishing out to loads of black actors but it was a movie with a twist. There was an alien attack in the hood in London which was something at the time no one had seen before. That gives a unique edge to your character and it interests the audience.

How do you see your career progressing 10 -15 years down the line. What’s the plan you hope will play out?
For me, in our industry in terms of how long these movies take, you’ve got to be careful. I’m going to keep developing under my company. I’m reading scripts right now, some really diverse fantastic versatile characters that are coming my way. But next up, I’m going to rest until July because that’s when I start another Star Wars movie.

Let’s talk about the marvel rumours. There are rumours that you could be in a marvel movie in the not too distant future?
I had a meeting a few years ago with Marvel and it was a great meeting. Now, these meetings not uncommon and it was great to go down there about what could potentially happen but for now I won’t be putting on a super hero suit.

But is the opportunity there?
I’d love to collaborate. They tell fantastic stories and I think they’re doing ver very well right now.

Do you think it’ll be too early for you in your career to go into one of those suits?
If you’ve been in Star Wars in space, a suit won’t hurt.

With all of the success obviously has come the money.
Yes. I can’t lie.

How have you managed the money and what was the one big splurge you had?
When you’re broke for so long you don’t want to lose a penny. Even if £1 comes out of £1 million then it isn’t a million anymore. That mentality stays with you. My biggest splurge was getting a house for my parents in London.



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