When Lucasfilm released the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, the hugely anticipated seventh Star Wars movie fans have been waiting a decade for, in its first week the trailer generated a record-breaking 58.2 million views. It opens with a shot of a desert with John Williams’ score playing, then the words: “There has been an awakening … have you felt it?” And up pops the first face, the first character, that viewers saw: a young black man, dressed in a Stormtrooper uniform, sweating profusely and looking hunted.
That trailer instantly launched John Boyega, a 23-year-old, largely unknown actor from south London, to a dizzyingly high level of intergalactic fame and scrutiny. After the trailer, he issued a cheerful response over Instagram, posting a selfie in a Stormtrooper uniform and a short, celebratory message ending with “To whom it may concern… Get used to it :)”
Boyega may be recognizable to fans of the TV series 24 as First Lieutenant Chris Tanner, the falsely accused drone pilot seen in four episodes of last year’s 24: Live Another Day, set in England. Before that, he played the lead in the 2011 cult favorite Attack the Block, a sci-fi comedy in which he was Moses, a south London teenager battling an alien invasion on a housing estate.
Director J.J. Abrams saw the movie and he loved it, especially John’s performance. Abrams and Boyega met shortly afterwards and the director told him, “We’re going to get you in something.” Four years later, Abrams did indeed cast him in “something” and that something was Star Wars.
Star Wars has been a pop culture phenomenon since the first 1977 movie, Star Wars: A New Hope, came out in 1977.
Born 15 years after that, on March 17, 1992 in Peckham, south London, to Nigerian parents, Boyega trained at east London’s Identity School of Acting. Boyega’s father was a minister and his mother worked with disabled children, and both parents immigrated from Nigeria to England before John was born.
Boyega describes his childhood as “fantastic” and has said that he loved performing at Westminster City School and South Thames College. He is also happy to let the world know that he is “the galaxy’s biggest fanboy” and that he grew up watching the movies and collecting its merchandise.
The New York Times asked how he felt when some people threatened to boycott the movie simply because it featured a black man as a Stormtrooper. His reply was: “I’m grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man. I wasn’t raised to fear people with a difference of opinion. They are merely victims of a disease in their mind…I’m not going to lose sleep.”
And J.J. Abrams says, “All I know is John Boyega does an extraordinary job in the movie. The people who are complaining about that probably have bigger problems than, ‘there’s a black Stormtrooper’.”