At 22 years old John Boyega has walked into one of the biggest roles an actor can imagine: the lead in a brand-new Star Wars trilogy. At least we assume he's the lead; details are slim, but Boyega's name led the list of new cast members, something that is almost certainly based on contractual negotiations.
Born in London, Boyega makes history in the Star Wars franchise as the first non-white leading actor in the series. Billy Dee Williams was a beloved supporting player, but he was supporting only. Boyega's casting is a progressive and hopeful sign for a series that has been mired in white male blandness for forty years. But his skin color isn't his most remarkable feature - Boyega has the kind of good looks that can be tough or gentle, and his years of drama training shine through in his performance. Boyega first came to our attention in the lead role in Attack The Block, but he wasn't some kid director Joe Cornish found off the street - he had trained at the all-black Identity Drama School in East London, and had appeared on stage at the prestigious National Theater of Great Britain.
It was his work in Attack the Block that convinced many - or rather the too-few who have seen the film - that Boyega was true leading man material. His character, Moses, begins as a hardened thug, but the layers are slowly peeled away and, by the end, he's one of the most triumphant and selfless heroes of the 21st century. Boyega, quite in real life, plays the role low-key, eschewing cheap theatrics for small moments of emotion that pierce through with much more force than histrionics would.
But Boyega didn't explode after Attack the Block the way we hoped he would. There was a moment when Spike Lee cast him in his HBO pilot Da Brick, based on the early life of Mike Tyson, but the network opted not to pick up the show. He appeared in a couple of small films no one saw, and then his latest, Imperial Dreams, played at Sundance but still doesn't have a release date. He also has The Whale -based on the real life incident that inspired Moby Dick - in the can, and that will show on Animal Planet (!) this summer in the US.
Boyega had been rumored for Star Wars for some time, but in January we all assumed he was out of the running as he took the iconic role of Jesse Owens in The Race, which is filming next month. And then suddenly, just a few weeks ago, Boyega dropped out. He had clearly been faced with a major choice - take the smaller role in a more prestigious picture or take the role in a movie that could forever make his career.
It will forever make his career, however it turns out. Recall that there's only one actor who has ever come out of Star Wars better than he walked in, and that's Harrison Ford (Natalie Portman didn't really gain or lose anything from her time in the Star Wars universe. Ewan MacGregor's career feels cold after Revenge of the Sith and forget poor Hayden Christiansen), so Boyega's taking a real chance. But even if this isn't the springboard to a high-profile leading man career (which can be decided by the work he takes between films), it will at the very least guarantee him an entire life of work in smaller productions and on the convention circuit. Which is sort of sad, and I really hope he's the Harrison Ford of this one.
But is he the Han Solo of this one? A look at the table read photo gives us some clues; actors are sat in groups depending on with whom they share the most and/or most dramatic scenes. He's sitting with Oscar Isaac and next to Adam Driver, who we know is the villain. Added to Boyega's name being first in the cast list I suspect he's a new Jedi character who has to battle the new Sith lord with the help of his older, cocky friend. Which seems sort of familiar.
There's one thing JJ Abrams movies excel in, and that's casting. Boyega is an exciting choice for the lead, not just in terms of progress but in terms of sheer movie star charisma and acting ability. I'm ho-hum about Star Wars Episode VII, but the fact that Boyega is starring makes me much, much more excited.