Like most of the kids in writer-director Joe Cornish's ATTACK THE BLOCK, the leader known as Moses can approximate the behaviors of an adult thug, but there are all-too-frequent reminders that he is nothing more than a 15-year-old kid, living under terrible circumstances in a system designed to either ignore him as a developing human being or pay him special attention as a potential criminal because he's poor and black.
The actor who plays Moses is the now-19-year-old John Boyega, and he has an intensity to him that I think will serve him well as a growing actor. If you've seen the film, you'll not likely forget his portrayal of Moses; if you haven't, you don't know what you're missing. But the film opens this Friday, so you have a chance to find out.
The night before our interview, I moderated a Q&A with Boyega and Cornish, and a woman in the audience compared Boyega to a young Denzel Washington, both in terms of his looks and abilities. Boyega confessed it wasn't the first time the comparison had been made and rightfully so. I found John to be extremely forthcoming and clear about his love of acting and intent on sticking with it. That's good news for all of us. I can also tell you that this interview took place just days before Cornish, Boyega, and ATTACK THE BLOCK executive producer Edgar Wright took the Hall H stage at Comic-Con, and John was extremely excited about hitting San Diego. Please enjoy John Boyega…
Capone: Good to see you again. Forgive me if we cover some of the same ground we covered last night.
John Boyega: Yeah, no problem.
Capone: But yeah, there are some bare essential things I want to make sure we get on the record, because I don’t like to bring the recorder to the Q&A. I want you guys to feel like you can say whatever you want.
JB: Cool, cool.
Capone: First of all, can I ask how old you are?
JB: I’m 19.
Capone: Okay, so when you made the film you were fairly close in age to Moses.
JB: Yeah, I was 17 and I turned 18 on set.
Capone: So what got you interested in acting? How long have you been doing it?
JB: It’s been a God-given thing since birth, something that has always been in me. So, when I went to primary school, I just started acting and I just thought I really enjoyed it. So from there, one thing led to another, and I find myself here talking to you in America. [Laughs] That’s a shorter version of what happened, but you get the gist.
Capone: So what sort of act were you doing before you were spotted in that play by the casting director?
JB: I was in youth drama groups. I trained at Identity Drama School, which is a drama school back home and primarily they have an agency that's part of IAG [Identity Agency Group]. So, I was training there twice a week and I was just doing like local youth events and performing for people at charities and performing little plays in church on Sunday and all of those kinds of things.
Capone: Was the play that you were spotted in something a little more professional, or was that more along the lines of what you were doing?
JB: That was my first job at the Tricycle Theatre. That was my first job as an actor, and I got it through my agent. I did two auditions for the part, but I was only on stage for 10 minutes. So Joe came in with Nina Gold, the producer, and watched me in that and wanted me to audition for this sci-fi film.
Capone: Did they give you a script or just give you some pages? How did that go?
JB: Do you know what? The first time I heard about it was on one of those free casting websites, you know like Star Now?
Capone: I don’t know about that one, but I know what you are talking about.
JB: If you go online as an actor, you search for open auditions, and they explained that it’s an alien invasion set in South London. I thought it was going to be incredibly crap, but, “You know what? For the education, let me go up for it.” I didn’t get a professional audition, but then my agent called me and said, “Hey, we got an audition for ATTACK THE BLOCK.” I was like “Oh? Okay. I had thought about that, yeah let’s do it.” But then after my first audition, I got the script and I absolutely fell in love with it. I think it was absolutely amazing. I read it like three times in a row that night just to see what kind of stuff the character I could possibly play, what kind of stuff he did. That was really fun for me.
Capone: When you read the script did you know you were trying out for Moses or did you think you were coming in for one of the kids.
JB: At first it was Youth #1, Youth #2, and then it changed from Youth #1 to “Moses,” and then at the end me and Franz Drameh, who plays Dennis, we were both going up for Moses. So, we knew that we were going up for Moses or whatever, but we slowly kind of dispersed into our own individual characters based on our auditions.
Capone: So what were some of the things that you added to Moses for your audition?
JB: I created Moses from scratch. I created him from scratch. I thought him up and I brought him to life. I didn’t get much in terms of the material of the in-depth feeling The dialogue was straightforward that he was strong, he was silent, but that’s not enough. There’s a whole story going on there, so it was something I had to create and I had to do it from scratch. It was a long, long process during the audition process then straight to rehearsal process and still finding new things while we were filming, you know? I did quite a lot on that one.
Capone: You mentioned last night and I still find it incredibly great that you chose to do this, that you pulled elements from some of the characters from "The Wire." At what point did that happen in the process, and what things did you pull specifically?
JB: When I had the first audition and I had the callback, I got notes on my first audition, and the notes were that I played it a bit too over the top. And the reason why I did it, I did it so angry and in your face kind of raw acting. I didn’t like that, because we’ve never had an urban film--and you can quote me on this--we've never had an urban film which has ideally stripped the characters of their shielded arrogant mentality. We have never had “humans,” do you know what I mean? Which doesn’t always work in every single movie. Sometimes you need that kind of guard up. Sometimes it helps a narrative, but we’ve never had a hard, urban black and white youth in south London and then stripping them of their guard. We have never had that.
So for me ideally it was about creating a character that I could relate to, creating a character that the audience, once they watched him were like, “Wow, we know someone like that,” especially people who live in south London. So at the Tricycle, because I was only on stage for like 10 minutes or so, I would go backstage and just watch "The Wire." When I got my callback, I was like “Those characters in a way kind of remind me of what they try to do with this Moses character.” So when I watched season four…I watched from season one to season four really psyched up, and I was like “Okay, well I’m going to stay on season four for a bit. I want to look at Omar. I want to look at Marlo." Marlo especially, his performance was incredible, he just tells the stories through his eyes. He doesn’t have much lines. That to me was what Moses needed, so I got to watch that and kind of educate myself about that one.
Capone: Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are where we see the kids in the beginning and they're masked; they could be 10 years older and we wouldn’t know. But when we start to see them act like kids, especially when they are on the phone with their families, that is something I have never seen before and that really reminds you “These are just kids.” For American audiences can you just sort of talk about that living situation? What did you learn from making this movie about living in that situation that maybe Americans might not quite get a grasp on?
JB: You know what? I think it’s very much the same [as America]. I think it’s a human story. It's easy to forget that when you see little young boys in the area you don’t know as an American, I think we could all relate to it, and the fact that sometimes as humans we are faced with circumstances that we don’t quite like, and we react based on those circumstances which is what these characters are doing. All they have ever been given is broken families, free time to do nothing, no money, and no motivation. So they kind of live with that circumstance and that’s what that kind of circumstances produces; it produces rogue criminals. You have free time on your hands to do anything, you have no motivation whatsoever, a broken family, those things are a couple of the elements that lead towards that kind vague personality that doesn’t really quite get life and wants to be away from other people.
That’s all it is and I believe that as human beings if we are face with certain circumstances it’s easy to say, “They're bad kids.” But you face it yourself, you have no family, you have free time, you have no education, you’re going to do some bad stuff. It’s just a part of understanding. That’s what I learned, because I’ve watched the news before and I’ve heard things about people doing certain bad things and I’m just like, “Man, why the hell did they do that? They are bad people…” Even though what they did do is bad, I don’t know the story, all I’m hearing is from news reporters. I don’t know the real story, so it’s not to me to judge, its not to me to put out a statement like “They are this” or “They are that.”
Capone: It’s rare that Moses utters more than one sentence at a time, but he does have this monologue toward the end that really speaks volumes about his though process. Was that a tough one to get a grasp on for you, just to get the tone right on that speech?
JB: The first thing to do about that speech was to understand it, and I think morally I don’t agree with how Moses thinks. I don’t agree with that or what he does in the film. Some of the things he does are totally wrong, but as an actor when you are approaching a role, and the character might do something that you don’t agree with, you are there to portray him, so you have to understand the reasons why he is doing it. It made me understand him with “Why is he saying this?”
And ideally, why he's saying it is because of the lack of trust between young people of his caliber, his energy, to the police and people like his parents and not having that kind of adult representation in his life with someone to keep him in check. That’s where that speech came from, that speech of someone not being educated as to how it really works, but just trusting in some sort of dream, some little fairy tale thinking that “the government has done this,” and that’s all he can hold on to. That’s it, that’s confirmed and that means filling that in your head and then your mouth just runs with it. Do you know what I mean?
Capone: Yeah, and you said you had to do a lot of takes on that speech too.
JB: Yeah we needed a lot of takes on that one, because we had to get everyone silent. It was a big speech to perform, but it was really still; I didn’t do much with it in terms of facial expressions or whatever, I just thought, “I’ve got my head down, just say it.” Moses is not someone to go all Shakespeare on your ass, you know? He would just say it and release it, and I think that would affect the audience more. This guy is just saying it softly.
Capone: It’s interesting, because it reveals that in his mind he is not just fighting aliens, he is fighting the government, he’s fighting the police, like he is fighting everything that has ever fought against him up to that point.
JB: I think in a way Moses also wants redemption anyway. I think if he had the choice he wouldn’t have done what he had done, and so this thing about the whole “no feds” and how he doesn’t want any police involved. Not only is it a code in terms of snitching to the police and stuff, but I think personally for Moses it’s a form of him trying to say, “I can be good. I’m not totally lost in this,” because he does have a sense of self. He doesn’t know what he is doing at a particular time. He’s a decision character, when he makes a decision he knows he’s making that decision and he knows the reason as to why and what he has to do. So I think in his mind he’s kind of like “I know, but no feds. Let me try to handle this the way we handle it.” But all of that “This is the block” kind of thing is just a cover up to a little boy trying to prove himself.
Capone: And they are the first line of defense against anything in this neighborhood, so in a lot of ways this is their role as well.
JB: Yeah, it’s their responsibility.
Capone: And he takes that on, like in some way that’s an adult decision on his part. Obviously, the film is very funny a lot of times and Moses can deliver a line and just depending on the context it can be very funny too. Was it cool jumping back and forth between the humor and the terror?
JB: Yeah it was really good fun. I think what Joe said about the humor and terror is that the terror was so in your face and so there that the comedy of that was kind of a form of release. So it was good that that worked and we caught that when we were on set filming and it was amazing to jump from aliens and, “Those are the aliens, lets go out and go get them” a kind of serious social commentary…
Capone: Did you ever discuss with Joe the idea of even if the aliens had not been a part of this, this still would have been a really interesting story just about these kids and discovering what’s behind the guys that mugged this woman at the beginning? There’s enough meat on the bones of their characters that you could have just made a movie abut them.
JB: I hadn’t actually thought about that, but that’s interesting.
Capone: The aliens could have just been replaced by the police or by another gang or something like that.
JB: That’s the thing: we didn’t want to make a violent kind of cliché, in-your-face, humans-against-humans film. To let the audience go on a journey with the characters after that mugging, you had to put something up against them that you wouldn’t totally agree with. Some people say, “I’m on the side of the aliens.”
Capone: Really? People say that?
JB: Yeah, even my aunt was like, “You robbed a woman at the beginning of the film? I’m the side of the aliens.” But you put something then against something like that and then you end up getting a lot of good out of these kids, and the aliens kind of strip the kids of all of their “I’m hard. I'm down.” It strips them of that and just makes them human beings that care for each other.
Capone: And they get scared too.
JB: Yeah, they get scared. Moses cries. It’s a big journey.
Capone: The moment in the film where the group of kids is once again in the same place with this woman that they have mugged earlier in the film, that’s a really tough scene to watch, because we are all identifying with what it would be like in her situation and “Why would she want to help these guys?” Tell me about the dynamic of that scene, because its sort of played for laughs, because the kids don’t quite get why she’s acting that way, but tell me about that reactive moment where you are on the side of needing help and you're relying on your victim to help you out.
JB: I think they had never seen aliens before, it’s easy to forget the sci-fi element when it comes to this film, but we have to remember there are aliens in it, and they have just seen an alien crash through a door and gash into their friend’s leg. And they see this woman by the door and they're like “You know what? Let’s go into that flat and just put him down,” and obviously they find out that Sam’s a nurse. I think Moses is feeling a lot of guilt and that’s being shown through him trying to be cool and trying to be rude, “This is the block, we handle things our own way…” He is trying to be cool. He’s trying to be rude, but ideally what he is saying is “I shouldn’t have robbed you, how awkward it is looking at you, I’m kind of whack…”
Capone: Somebody says something like “We didn’t know you lived here,” like that makes a difference. It does make a difference to them.
JB: Moses actually said, “We didn’t know you lived in the block,” and then she says “What? So if I didn’t live in the block it would have been okay?” While we were filming that scene, when she said that line, I was like “Shit, that’s true, isn’t it?” “Yeah, sorry about that.” If Moses was really talky, he would have said something like “Sorry about that, but no that’s not what I meant…”
Capone: So do you have any concept of what its going to be like for you next week at Comic-Con? Have you really thought about it?
JB: I haven’t thought about it, but I’ve heard a lot of people saying that…I was like to Joe and to my manager, “Oh yeah I want to buy some stuff, get some action figures, get some comic books or whatever,” and they’re just like, “You’re not going to be able to get from one place to the other, John.” I’m thinking “Why?” “There are loads of people there, so it’s really crowded and there’s a lot of people in costumes.” I’m just going to do a Simon Pegg and put a mask on.
Capone: That’s what a lot of people do.
JB: I’m not famous, though. I’m a normal kid. I’m sure I could walk through there.
Capone: You probably will get recognized though by some people, but you wouldn’t get mobbed like those guys would.
JB: No, I wouldn’t get mobbed, I think I’m cool.
Capone: If you do that walk through before your panel, then you will be all right, after the panel I can’t make any promises. I’m talking more about just the crowds in Hall H. Edgar can fill a house, and he’s going to be therem and that’s 6,500 people, which I’m guessing is probably the biggest audience you have been in front of so far. Is that a little scary or is it kind of exciting?
JB: It probably will be a bit scary, I don’t want to trip up on any words, but I’m sure it will be fine, because I’ll have Edgar and Joe there, so any questions that I don’t answer I’ll just look to them, “You two handle it.”
Capone: What was Edgar’s role in this? What guidance did he provide the production?
JB: Well Edgar Wright was executive producer on the film, and him and Joe go way back, they are really close friends, and Edgar kind of advised Joe about how it works when you're making his first film. It was from the same makers of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, so what better way to have Edgar Wright kind of guide the movie in terms of where Joe wanted to take it and advising Joe how to do that to the best of his ability. At the same time with Joe not copying Edgar’s flow or copying Edgar’s material, but kind of collaborating and Edgar working for Joe to see where he wanted to take it and to work for him in the best way possible to see that this film is shown in a different light than SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, but still bring in that kind of big-talk energy, still bring in that comedy-horror British film.
Capone: And borrowing in small amounts from other films that they grew up liking.
JB: Yeah, Edgar Wright and Joe are really professionals; they write together when it comes to films, they know it all, so what better collaboration?
Capone: What films did Joe give you to watch to get the idea of the tone that this movie was going to take?
JB: He gave us ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. He gave us THE GOONIES. He gave us THE WARRIORS. We watched the first PREDATOR at a special screening. He actually did a cut of different films to show where he wanted to go.
Capone: Of like individual scenes?
JB: We went to that private cinema in central London and we watched an ATTACK THE BLOCK trailer, but it wasn’t ATTACK THE BLOCK, it was like clips of these other films like OVER THE EDGE and PREDATOR and KIDULTHOOD, which is a British film back in London. He fused them all together to try to show the urban side and then the alien side and he made a little trailer before we watched the first PREDATOR. That to me I was thinking, “Wow, this is going to be amazing! This is not your cliché hoodie gangster film, this is for the nerds, man.” It’s such an interesting concept and that to me, him giving us the film packs and that screening, was amazing.
Capone: Tell me about just working with these creatures, because you indicated yesterday that they were in the room most of the time. I'm guessing the script probably didn’t give you a real good idea of what they were going to look like.
JB: We saw concept art. We saw different artwork and some test shoots with the alien suits in terms of their color and moving in between those bars trying to get them to camouflage. We saw that, and then copy and pasting multiple aliens moving by a lift, which is what they filmed earlier, so seeing them for the time was really weird. I remember Terry Notary was there with his two other guys. You know the water bottles with the cap on, but the straw through the cap? They were just sipping on their water with their claws and then they turn around “Hey, how are you doing? I’m Terry.” I was just like “Wow, hey how are you doing?”
JB: Yeah our first encounter was pretty weird, but once he got on all fours and got into character it was pretty scary. Once the camera started rolling, Terry would be fast; he would be on your heels and he didn’t care. He was just like, “I’m going to bite your ass off, John. You are going to get it.”
Capone: Now those glowing teeth, was that real? Was that practical or something that was added?
JB: The teeth were super lit up on set, but I know there were a lot of things I probably still don’t know about that went into these aliens. I think its amazing sometimes when I’m watching it and I’m like “Wait a minute, I’m in this film, how come I don’t know how they did that?”
Capone: I love that they have like multiple rows of teeth, that its not just one row, there are like three or four in their mouth.
JB: Yeah, which makes it all the more scarier.
Capone: I think I read somewhere that you had shot another film since this one.
JB: Yeah, a film called JUNKHEARTS, back in London alongside Eddie Marsan.
Capone: Oh really? I love that guy.
JB: He’s an amazing guy. I shot like two weeks after ATTACK THE BLOCK. I only had like two weeks then I shot it. I’ve got a small part in that and LAW AND ORDER: UK which is a new "Law & Order: UK".
Capone: They do play those here now. I think they are behind a little. But you're in the most recent season?
JB: Yeah, the season coming out next year, that’s my episode, and I have a big part in that, but I’m based in LA now and I’m looking at a couple of…
Capone: So you have already made that move then to come over here?
JB: I’m just settling in now, but I still fly between the two, but there is where I’m at.
Capone: So have you already started working on your American accent then for the roles here?
JB: [With an American accent] Yeah, I’ve been working on it for a year now, so it’s been a while.
Capone: Alright, thank you so much. It was really great to meet you, maybe I’ll see you next week in San Diego.
JB: Enjoy Comic-Con tomorrow. You're lucky. I wish I was at Comic Con and it was empty.