John Boyega was born in London to parents who grew up in Nigeria and raised their children in a house that felt like a piece of their home country inside the United Kingdom.
“When we got into our house, that was Lagos to us, that was Nigeria,” Boyega said in a recent interview. “The way we were disciplined and the lessons that we learned were all in direct link to Nigeria.”
That meant he was always told he was going to work hard, education was a priority, bible study was on Tuesday and church was on Sunday. At services, he played the drums, his sister played keyboard, and his father was the minister.
“Other ministers would say the story of Noah’s Ark in a way that was kind of simple,” he said. “But my dad would give the animals characters and break the story down so you could relate and he would act out things.”
Boyega inherited his father’s flair for storytelling and was drawn to acting. Hollywood, however, seemed remote. “Growing up in inner-city London, American movies felt worlds away,” he said. “We didn’t even have the same accents.”
American films don’t get any bigger than the Star Wars franchise, which carried Boyega to international stardom when he was cast as Finn — the stormtrooper turned resistance fighter — in the most recent trilogy, culminating with 2019’s “The Rise of Skywalker.” 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 chicken he takes extra-spicy. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Burna Boy He’s one of the most prolific leaders in bringing Afro beats to the forefront. The lyrics, melody, soul and spirit of his music includes what we know as African and what we know as Nigerian. His song, “Time Flies,” is almost like an emotional letter for me. I just 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 standout.
3. “Coming to America” This movie is a lifelong classic in my family. The first time we watched it, my dad walked in during the scene where the woman tells him: “The royal penis is clean, your highness.” That was real awkward. I watch it at least once a year just to get a little giggle on. There’s always something new I find.
4. Young Vic Theater Especially for me growing up in 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 some really great plays. The last time I went there, I was actually working at the Old Vic, just a few yards away.
5. New Afrika Shrine: I first visited Fela Kuti’s venue in 2017 to see a concert by his son, Seun Kuti. It was my first time being with my boys in Nigeria. We had a great night. Now I go back every time I go to Nigeria. For me, it’s one of the most prolific cultural hubs, especially if you are into Afro beats and if you want to hear music from the same lineage from the king of Afro beats, which is the great Fela Kuti.
6. “Half of a Yellow Sun” I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, which takes place against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, after I was offered to play a role in the movie. Knowing that I was going to star in the feature film while I was reading it brought me closer to a history that I didn’t know about my own culture.
7. Hans Zimmer I’ll listen to any of Hans Zimmer’s movie scores. I don’t always listen to music that tells me what to think. I find that with movie scores, especially if you’re an avid listener, the songs can change up on you and mean something completely different. Also, I like to work out to a song of his called “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” off the “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” score. It’s more than 10 minutes long and it gets me through a lot of my workouts.
8. “Kidulthood” I never considered that I would exist in American movies. But when I watched “Kidulthood,” which had Black Brits in it, I thought: wow, you can be an actor. The accents that are in it, I’m sure that 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. Cha Cha Chicken This is one of my favorite places to go in Santa Monica. It’s a really grounded, Jamaican/Caribbean-inspired restaurant. I literally just took my mom and nephews down there. The food is delicious. I get the half Cha Cha chicken — extra spicy — plantains, rice and beans, and the salad on the side.
10. “Star Wars: Battlefront” This is the video game that I play the most. I started playing it before Finn was an idea, long before I was cast in the films. Now, sometimes I play as Finn against people I don’t know. So, being a fan of it and now being on it, that’s something that I’ve always kept private.