Much has been written about the blatant racism embedded deep within the Star Wars extended universe. In 2018, actor Kelly Marie Tran detailed the harassment she faced after starring in The Last Jedi in an essay for the New York Times. Her experiences echoed the extreme harassment John Boyega faced when his role in The Force Awakens was first announced. The series has since ended, and in its absence, John Boyega has risen to prominence this summer as an outspoken figurehead at protests in London. He isn’t pulling his punches about Star Wars anymore.
In a new interview with British GQ, Boyega recounts what it felt like to give a rousing, passionate speech at a protest in June, now seen and shared by millions. “I feel like, especially as celebrities, we have to talk through this filter of professionalism and emotional intelligence. Sometimes you just need to be mad.” He continues: “Sometimes you don’t have enough time to play the game.”
It’s a level of candor not expected from someone emerging from the Disney-Star Wars Hollywood super-conglomerate, but then again, Boyega is not the average star. He never has been.
Talking about the time in his career following The Last Jedi, in which he starred in Detroit, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and German play Woyzeck, Boyega recounts:
“That was a weird time, man. I took on too much work, basically. There was a lot going on; a lot of noise and a negative vibe. I just overshot it and really took the mickey out of myself by not having enough of a break [between projects].”
He felt, really, that the harried reality of being an in-demand actor wasn’t all that much fun. “At the time I just wanted someone to punish,” he says. “But there was no one but me.”
The interviewer also takes note of the “Lucasfilm-branded elephant in the room,” remarking it’s Boyega’s first real interview since The Rise of Skywalker last year. Boyega is far less coy about his feelings concerning said elephant:
“You get yourself involved in projects and you’re not necessarily going to like everything. [But] what I would say to Disney is do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up.”
He goes on to acknowledge that he isn’t the only one to bear this treatment by the franchise behemoth, naming Naomi Acki, Kelly Marie Tran, and Oscar Isaac. As for his other cast members, he reverses this sentiment, claiming that while Lucasfilm hedged in the parts of the only actors of color, the opposite was true for white stars like Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver:
“Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver. You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know fuck all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, ‘I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience...’ Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience. They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.”
Boyega also recounts the other experiences that go along with getting sucked into the Star Wars corporate conglomerate. Like a stylist who would “cringe” at colors that he would choose for red carpets or hairdressers without any experience working with his hair type. He says he “went along with it” for the first go-around, during The Force Awakens, but soon remembered a lesson his dad taught him: “‘Don’t overpay with respect.’ You can pay respect, but sometimes you’ll be overpaying and selling yourself short.”
What stands out most, though, throughout Boyega’s interview, is how the process of starring in a franchise film radicalized him, and his politics. It’s something I have seen very, very, very few celebrities openly admit to, especially those in as vulnerable positions as Boyega, who says:
“It makes you angry with a process like that. It makes you much more militant; it changes you. Because you realise, ‘I got given this opportunity but I’m in an industry that wasn’t even ready for me.’ Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I’m this way. That’s my frustration.”
While it’s a disheartening interview, it’s also a hopeful one. I don’t think the Star Wars franchise and its extended universe change anytime soon. But I do believe this industry will change around John Boyega.
You can watch more of the interview between British GQ and Boyega below.