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John Boyega interview: The Star Wars star talks Small Axe and more

John Boyega Small Axe
John Boyega plays Leroy Logan in the "Small Axe" film "Red, White and Blue." (Image credit: BBC)

John Boyega shot to fame when he played Finn in The Force Awakens back in 2015 and since then he’s appeared in big budget films such as Detroit and Pacific Rim: Uprising, while also reprising his role in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

But now he's starring in Red, White and Blue, the third film of BBC1 and Amazon Prime's Small Axe anthology series, which is directed by Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave).

Boyega plays real-life London policeman Leroy Logan, who gave up a promising career as a scientist to join the force after his father was beaten up in the street by two officers.

Leroy hoped to reform the institution from the inside, but received racist intimidation from his new colleagues, antipathy from his community and fury from his father, played by Steve Toussaint.

But he never gave up hope of making a difference and eventually became the first chair of the National Black Police Association, before being awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2000.

John Boyega on Small Axe film 'Red, White and Blue'

"It’s a film about a man who’s come to a point where he’s decided he no longer wants to be a scientist and he wants to affect his community in a much more important way," he says. "He decides he’s going to do that by joining the police force in the 1980s, which is a very tough time for race relations between black civilians and the force.

"Basically we follow him through this story of self-discovery in this environment that isn’t used to him or his kind or his culture. You see the way in which Leroy decides to navigate that and how it affects his family. His dad doesn't understand his decision, so it’s a story with a father and son relationship at the centre of it."

John Boyega on meeting the real Leroy Logan

"I wanted to ask him why he made the decision he did!" says John. "Your community doesn’t like the police and you see your father beaten up for parking his lorry in the wrong place - and you still decide to join! I wanted to understand the man behind that decision, the man that’s strong enough to swallow the conflicts and give black people the representation the police force needed."

Leroy Logan Small Axe

Leroy Logan went on to become the first chair of the National Black Police Association. (Image credit: Leroy Logan)

"I had to be honest and say: 'Bro, if it was me I probably wouldn’t have handled it like this! But why did you make the decision you made?' But understanding his intentions really informed my performance."

John Boyega on working with director Steve McQueen

"I’m a big fan of Michael Fassbender, and Steve has worked with Michael a lot so I found out about him that way. Shame was one of my favorite movies," he says. "Visually I was taken aback by the way Steve shoots particular scenes. In Red, White and Blue there’s a scene where a couple are moving into this new flat and they’re taking in this space and Steve leaves the camera on top of the staircase with the audio on and just allowed us to move through the space and you can’t always see us. I remember thinking it was so dramatic!"

Steve McQueen Small Axe

Director Steve McQueen won an Oscar for "12 Years A Slave." (Image credit: Getty)

"He’s a charming man and he also said he’d wanted to work with me for a while as well, which was wild! I’ve been talking to him and we’re going to work with each other again and we’re going to do something here in Britain."

John Boyega on the Black Lives Matter movement

"I felt it was important to speak out because black people need to take a moment and look at our mental health," he explains. "We often have to morph to adapt and navigate white spaces and that can affect you over time. I refuse to bend to a tune and fit in because that’s how they do things."

John Boyega Black Lives Matter

John Boyega helped lead London's Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. (Image credit: Getty)

"Not everyone gets to be like that, so I understand my privilege. But it’s also my privilege to make sure that I can be an example for those who are coming up as well and you can live in your culture and your blackness."