John Boyega Is a Hero. Just Not the Marvel Kind.

Days later, when Boyega talks about the feel-good vibes he emanated on set, the 30-year-old grows philosophical. “You have two options as an artist,” he says. “Fixate on your fatigue or acknowledge that you’ve arrived and express your extreme gratitude. When I was broke and no casting director wanted to see me, if someone said, ‘We’re going to fly you out tomorrow, take care of your hotel, shoot a Men’s Health cover, then fly you back,’ I would’ve cried with joy. Yeah, I just got off a flight, but that’s what the rappers sing about. I’m living it.”

BOYEGA HASN'T always felt so great about his own body, he admits while on a road trip the day after the shoot. We’re driving from New York City to test-drive the 1965 Chevrolet Corvette he’s just purchased from Motorcar Classics in Farmingdale, on Long Island. He already owns a Lamborghini Urus that he keeps in London and a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon at his home in the Caribbean. His newest whip will stay in America.

Boyega is upbeat on this overcast day, as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. He’s in a sharing mood and riffs about his childhood. His family, whom he’s always been extremely close to, grew up “without money.” Peckham was filled with fast-food chains and liquor stores, and Boyega was “chunky as hell,” he says. “Not fat fat, but I hated being topless because I had a little bit of a hanging belly. I gained weight in the most awkward of places while everybody was looking athletic, ripped, and lean.”

Proud of his Nigerian heritage, the actor has an autobiographical sleeve tattoo on his left arm, beginning at his shoulder with an image of Africa (highlighting his homeland) and winding down to two beautifully rendered depictions of his parents just above his wrist. They immigrated to England in the 1980s. “My mom and dad will always be my heroes, because at the end of the day, man, they made the fundamental choice moving from Nigeria, coming over to London,” he says. “If they didn’t make that choice, I don’t think any of us would be here.”

Amid the elaborate ink tableau is an image of a lion that Boyega says represents his dueling spirits. “I like to fight and I like to cuddle,” he says, before bursting into laughter. His father, Samson, a Pentecostal minister, and his mother, Abigail, a caregiver, have been married for 35 years, and he has two sisters, Grace and Blessing. They’ve championed his work ever since he first appeared onstage in an update of the African folktale Anansi the Spider in primary school. “I used that as an opportunity to crack jokes and flirt with the girls—it was cool.” He enjoyed the attention and the crowd’s positive reception.

Femi Oguns, Boyega’s drama teacher turned agent, first observed his talent at Identity School of Acting, an academy Oguns founded for talent from marginalized communities in 2003. Having worked with Boyega for more than a decade, he says, “It was very evident that he was somebody that had a maturity at a very young age but also had a wonderful openness to the craft. There’s a truth that he brings to everything he does.” Boyega is drawn to scripts that inspire a visceral reaction. He knows he’s found the right one when his chest begins thumping and “I can visualize the film. The concept is clear; the intentions are clear. I’m going through each page and wishing I could read it in five seconds.”

The actress Moses Ingram, who stars on Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries, recently endured a similar backlash, but she’s been publicly supported by her castmates, and Lucasfilm execs were forthcoming about the online abuse she could face. Was Boyega similarly forewarned? “Hell no,” he states. “I’m the one that brought this to the freaking forefront.” He says he was blindsided by the racist vitriol hurled at him, and at times it made him question if he even wanted to be part of the sci-fi juggernaut. Boyega has consistently voiced his frustrations about how his character was underdeveloped and ultimately marginalized. He remains vocal about feeling unsupported in those days, which he hopes has compelled execs to become more accountable to actors of color. “At least the people going into it now, after my time, [they’re] cool,” he says. Lucasfilm is “going to make sure you’re well supported and at least you [now] go through this franchise knowing that everybody is going to have [your] back. I’m glad I talked out everything at that time.”

His sister Grace says he’s been outspoken since childhood. “Whatever John believes in, he’s going to stand by it.” His speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in London in 2020 wasn’t planned. That day, he and Grace had intended to quietly protest about the death of George Floyd. However, one of the march organizers handed the actor a megaphone and invited him to speak from his heart. He did. In his nearly five-minute monologue, he was angry, raw, and breathtakingly honest about the trials of being Black in a world that rates him as a second-class citizen. “I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing,” Boyega declared in his speech, which immediately went viral and cemented him in the annals of activist artists.

“Any of us keeping our mouth shut at this point, it doesn’t really feel too comfortable,” he later tells me. “Because even if you’re British, [you’re] working in the States; the gun’s going to go off before your accent does.” His message for people still bothered by his bluntness and unapologetic embrace of the BLM movement? “Our empowerment is not your demise,” he says. Did he experience any backlash? “Of course there’s backlash. Seen and unseen,” he says cryptically. “It’s just how it goes. You’ll see who’s for you and who’s really not. . . . [But] this is who I am. I’m going to speak about what I believe in and make sure that whatever I do is aimed at supporting the people.”

Reaching this level of self-acceptance came at a cost for Boyega. “Ambition is my battery power,” he tells me. At age 19, he decided he wanted seven figures in his bank account before age 25. “I was a millionaire by probably 22 or 23.” He purchased a new home for his parents with one of his first big checks. But that ambition drove him to feel like he “had to say yes to everything” on his way up. “It’s tiring and it’s stress, and then dealing with the fact that you eventually have to perform,” he says. “There are many different ways careers can exhaust you, but the artistic way is unique.”

Of course, Boyega also reworked his diet. Ditching sugar was a “massive” game changer. “That’s my enemy,” he says. “Doughnuts, chocolate, candy, pie, sodas . . . the stuff that kills you. I had to get rid of that habit.” His diet now consists of Grace’s nutritious, home-cooked meals. Lots of lean chicken and brown jollof rice, a Nigerian dish made with tomato paste, onions, and spices.

Resetting mentally was perhaps the most difficult. Boyega tells me he found guidance from fellow franchise star Robert Downey Jr., who has struggled with his own challenges. “I am very interested in people who go to dark spaces and are able to flip that,” he says. Downey told him, “They’re not going to know what to do with you when you come into the industry; they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, let’s just make him well-spoken and nice.’ That’s kind of the filter. You’re going to go through some turbulence. You’re going to try to find who you are within this. It might be rocky, but you’ll come out the end with a solid identity. That’s literally what happened to me,” Boyega says.

He learned to surround himself with trusted friends and family. “You choose your circle in which you can accept how you express yourself. Once you feel that acceptance, they can help you, help motivate you. That’s your safe place as a celebrity. So you can actually complain. I still want to say that shit. Like, this is petty, but I want to tell my sisters, ‘Oh, this is just how I feel.’ And they’re going to be like, ‘This is petty, but yeah, I hear you.’ Whereas in the world it’s going to be like, ‘You’re a fucking millionaire, you idiot. You know what I had to do this morning, and you’re complaining about that?’ Let me just chill and complain to the people that understand that I’m not trying to be evil. It’s just today, I’m sad. I’m experiencing [this phase of my career] as a more balanced person who is willing to improve. I know it’s a weird, random thing to say, but I’m willing to say sorry.”

There are two main things that Boyega wanted to achieve upon entering the business. “To disrupt the industry and also to make history, and nothing has changed,” says Oguns. “For John, it was never about trying to fit into the box. He wants to be the outline of the box.” That’s why Boyega has sidestepped playing enslaved people or drug dealers and appearing in clichéd sports movies, his agent explains: “For John, it’s all about accountability. He doesn’t want to be defined by any stereotypical roles.” But there are rumors that Boyega has secretly joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “That’s not in the vision for me now,” he says. “I want to do nuanced things. . . . I want to donate my services to original indie films that come with new, fresh ideas, because I know it’s real hard to top Iron Man in that universe.”

Boyega describes one of his upcoming films, They Cloned Tyrone (due later this year), as a “unique and strange story that blew me away.” I admit that I’m confused by the film’s premise and ask him to make it plain. He can’t, really. “Pimp. Prostitute. Try to uncover a mystery in the ’hood. That’s all I’m giving you,” says Boyega, who plays multiple clones ranging in age from 28 to 78 and costars with Jamie Foxx, who, unsurprisingly, went a long way toward making it the most fun he’s ever had on set. “We were filming all over Atlanta, so you can imagine the energy. We in the strip clubs, we in the streets,” Boyega says. “It was a joy.”

During our nearly two-hour journey to the car dealership, Boyega has been amusing me with tales of his newly adopted roller-skating hobby—“I’m bloody freaking good. The way I turn these corners, it don’t make no sense”—as well as his search for the perfect companion. His parents’ long marriage and egalitarian partnership have been hugely inspirational. “My dad would plait my sisters’ hair while my mom was cooking,” he says. “They’re inseparable at this point.” He too wants a ride-or-die woman who’s curious, quick to laugh, and spontaneous. And, he adds, grinning slyly, “I like them thick and brown.”

Boyega and I have finally arrived at Motorcar Classics, where sleek rides lovingly restored to their youthful glory preen like pageant queens. We check out ’70s Stingrays and tricked-out ’80s Ferraris. Plus, of course, Boyega’s Corvette, a silver beauty with sumptuous red-leather interior. But it’s the Aston Martin, with its significant pedigree and the license plate JB 007, that causes the actor to stop in his tracks. Coincidence? Or could it be subtly announcing that he’s appearing in another iconic franchise soon, trading lightsabers for shaken martinis, perhaps? No, Boyega says with a wishful glint in his eyes. “But you know if they give me that call, I’ll be there.”

Lola Ogunnaike has written about culture, art, and design for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Architectural Digest.