John Boyega spent a portion of the Covid-19 pandemic just as many of us did: cooped up in a confined space, pacing back-and-forth, to-and-fro. Every so often, the sound of a yelling family member filled the room. From the outside looking in, it might’ve seemed like a case of quarantine cabin fever. But this was something different. Back in the nascent days of Verzuz and Clubhouse, the 31-year-old actor was studying up on a spicy sci-fi screenplay that would task Boyega with depicting multiple roles—characters who’d occasionally interact with each other. Intent on differentiating these subjects, he focused on movement.
“[I would] walk from one end of my room to the other,” Boyega says of those at-home acting drills, “and [my sister] would shout different character names. I’d switch up the walk each time, until it was like second nature.”
That assignment the London native was so keen on acing was They Cloned Tyrone, an absurdist comedy mystery that imagines a nefarious scheme to target Black folks via human experimentation, brainwashing, and, yes, cloning. Boyega’s primary character is Fontaine, a listless and solemn drug dealer trapped in the mundanity of his repetitive routine. His co-stars, Jamie Foxx and Teyonah Parris, play a pimp and a sex worker, respectively. Together, these unlikely sleuths uncover the myriad of ways they are conditioned to be the easily disposable and replaceable Black tropes they venture to reject and defy.
In many of Boyega’s projects, there is a common theme of interrogating expectations and challenging confinements, whether they be rules to which a character is told to adhere or societal constraints placed upon Blackness or masculinity. In the latest Star Wars trilogy, he portrayed Finn, a stormtrooper who broke free from his future as a soldier for a dictatorial military order. Last summer’s The Woman King found him as King Ghezo, an African ruler reckoning with the implications of his reign in a delicate dance of statecraft rooted in the triangular slave trade. They Cloned Tyrone (now playing in limited theaters before hitting Netflix on Friday) is the latest addition to a robust portfolio of incisive and entertaining adventures. But there was one worry this time around.
“Do you feel they’re going to figure out what you’re trying to do: feeding them the stereotype and flipping it on its head?” he remembers asking Juel Taylor, the film’s director and co-writer, of how these motifs rooted in the American South might be received. As a Black entertainer with vocal opinions on racial dynamics both on-screen and off (never forget his rousing protest speech in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder), Boyega has been careful to take on a mix of roles that speak to a range of creative experiences and expressions. He’s happy to have found a kindred spirit in the first-time director, who assured him viewers would understand the intent and nuance. Early reviews suggest Taylor was right, as the movie currently boasts a 97% score among critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Last week’s SAG-AFTRA strike has cut short Boyega’s promotional tour for this film—and presumably any new gigs that might soon have him strutting around his home, slipping in-and-out of character. He notes that Joe Cornish is drafting a sequel to the long-awaited Attack the Block, Boyega’s beloved 2011 breakout film. Ultimately, the thespian is eager to continue doing the work he’s loved since he was nine years old.
“Versatility is an actor’s spending money,” he says. “How much do you want to push your imagination and yourself? I'm very keen on doing that, and collaborating with people who also have that to offer… Once we support [screenwriters] who are in need and they get a deal that they deserve, for sure I’d be open to work.” On a Saturday afternoon in June, Boyega video conferenced from Netflix’s Hollywood headquarters to talk Illuminati, artificial intelligence, and going the extra mile to impress Jamie Foxx.
[Editor's note: This interview took place in June 2023, prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.]
LEVEL: The premiere of They Cloned Tyrone is happening in a couple of weeks. How are you feeling about it?
John Boyega: I'm really excited. The nerves for me happens when Netflix sends the movie and you go through the judgment stage, which is natural for all performers. You don't really watch the film the first time; you're just kind of like, “Am I cool? Am I okay? Am I not gonna distract this audience? Have I done everything that my director expects of me? Is my chemistry with my co-stars correct?” The second time—which was at [American Black Film Festival] with an audience—there’s this selfless experience now where the film is not yours anymore. They were cracking up. They were in tune to the serious points in there as well. That gave me confidence.
This was a really well-regarded script on The Blacklist before it went into production. What did you think when you started reading through the script?
It started with a conversation with my agent about what I was looking for. It was in the midst of the whole Covid scenario. We didn't know what was going on with our livelihoods—I just wanted to know what people had put out there creatively before we had to get shut down. My agent let me know there's a script everybody's talking about called They Cloned Tyrone. Once I read it, I stood up and already felt myself as the [lead] character.
This is an all-star cast. I can't imagine what it was like on set between takes.
Hilarious. You can see the joy on set, even in the most intense scenes. The reason they work isn't because of intensity; it’s because of joy, freedom, and openness between everybody. When you think about what we were going through at the time—being one of the first sequestered projects out there in regard to Covid—tension could’ve been high. We had an amazing time. It's just testament to the connection we all had.
You're known for really being immersive and transforming yourself for your roles. But here, you take on four different roles. What was it like to transition to the different iterations of characters that you play throughout the film?
That's one of the things that attracted me to the role in the first place—the fact that it would be a real acting challenge for me, especially not being from the States, not being from that environment. I was excited at the idea of multiple roles, the idea of playing someone significantly older. I love the idea of different looks because whereas the normality is to play a heightened version of yourself, this gives you a real opportunity to jump into what acting truly is. When we watch someone in a movie, what we find impressive is when they're so significantly different from who they are in real life. I just saw it as an opportunity. I knew it was going to be fun. I knew it was going to be hard, though. I was like, “Damn, how many guys am I playing?” [Laughs] Bless Juel Taylor; he was like, “If you feel like it's too much, we can get someone else to play OG.” Being around Jamie Foxx—who has that skill set to be able to diversify between roles—I said, “I ain’t lackin’ in front of Jamie!”
The different characters you play show varied portraits of Black masculinity. How were you able to lean into those nuances and animate them in different ways?
It was fun being an artist given a blank canvas. My challenge was, when people watch this scene where they have three of my characters in the same room interacting, will they be able to [see] the difference between these characters—three completely separate people. That haunted me for a while. I had to go back to that drama school stage where you’re doing character arcs, you're changing the way you walk, your body posture, the way each character sits on their chair, the way they stand up. I had to map out on paper how each character was going to fully represent themselves and be unique. I wanted Chester to be full of thought, to communicate through the eyes since he had no dialogue. I wanted Fontaine to have these stereotypical tropes and symptoms, but to pull back as it goes to the end of the movie. It was a bit of a dance, but it was all really fun.
"Blaxploitation is able to shine a mirror on stereotypes that we all know while at the same time having the depth to go deeper into those issues and the way in which we relate to them—especially as Black people."
We see the film through Fontaine's eyes, but you start to feel like something’s off pretty early. As a performer, how do you tease and convey to the viewer that this place is a little off-kilter?
It’s getting rid of the blatant acting choices. The first thing you see is Fontaine fighting for his turf, doing what he does every day. You see Fontaine is unimpressed by his day-to-day life. Juel directed me that way, specifically, because it gives off the notion that this is that Truman Show stuff: He's been through this before. This is just another day where he’s tired, bored, and not mentally stimulated whatsoever. You see that Fontaine gains more and more energy as the story goes along, because now he's out of the routine and lightened to a certain extent. Then he knows who he is. You kind of feed that with body language—the way you walk, the way you talk, the rolling of the eyes, the perspective of stiffness when it comes to a world that you've been given and forced to live in day-by-day-by-day. I wanted to feed those symptoms at the beginning of the story and then get more nuanced as the scenes go along.
You see that as the characters evolve. There’s this gaming term that’s become popular now: NPCs, or non-playable characters—like when you walk up to a character and they just give you whatever four lines they're programmed to say to help you. Instinctive reacting.
Yeah. “The castle is this way.” And then you go back again and they say the same thing.
I play games on God mode. I'm terrible.
Oh really? That’s cool though, that you’re a gamer. That’s dope.
But yeah, I could definitely see the characters in Tyrone start to break free from whatever programming. Jamie’s character sits there and is like, “It’s in the chicken!”
They kind of detach off that automated setting they were on before. Performance wise, you have to, like add that and subtly feed that at the beginning of the story without giving it away. Until of course the reality is revealed.
In a lot of the roles you play, while they might not be direct from your experience, they are direct to issues that you care about. You've been explicit about this. This is a film that really draws on a lot of political, social, and cultural themes—including explorations of Black masculinity—in a satirical way.
Blaxploitation is able to shine a mirror on stereotypes that we all know while at the same time having the depth to go deeper into those issues and the way in which we relate to them—especially as Black people. I love entertainment that can be funny and fun about people that we probably have in our families or friends that we’ve known, because it's a stereotype to a certain extent, but there is also a reality. I love a script that is intelligent enough to flip that on its head. When we think about the way we respond as a culture to conspiracy theories—you know, the lack of trust—I love movies that touch lightly on that in an entertaining way. I like that balance. You don't want a script that gets too political to the point where people are only getting the message and aren’t being entertained at the same time. You don't want people just to be entertained and not get the message, because that's one of the main motivations for the characters.
"When I wasn't a celebrity, I had theories about celebrity. I was like, They probably got to get into some cult to get to a certain level of power.”
This film plays around with barbershop or salon debates and conspiracy theories and examines whether there’s a nugget of truth in them.
Exactly. I remember Teyonah saying everything has an element of truth to it, but maybe the truth in certain scenarios is not as extreme or interesting. Some of it is boring truth. But the funny thing about stimulation as a human being, we still love to discuss it. We still love to go back and forth. It’s a part of the barbershop banter; it’s a discussion that people actually low-key enjoy having.
Have you ever had a conspiracy theory you've held to—even if it was for a day?
My conspiracy theories are more general, like UFOs. I definitely believe those guys have come into our atmosphere and they’ve just gone, “Nah, we’re alright.” Before, when I wasn't a celebrity, I had theories about celebrity. I was like, They probably got to get into some cult to get to a certain level of power. Then I became a celebrity and went, “That didn’t happen.” At least it doesn’t happen to me!
So you missed the Illuminati initiation at the Roc Nation brunch?
They didn't even tell me what to do. My hands were put up there, they didn’t tell me nothing. They were just like, “That boy, uh-uh. He ain’t good enough for us.” [Laughs]
“I just want people to be entertained, laugh, but at the same time get creeped out a little bit, you know?”
The use of AI and CGI to fill in scenes, characters, and fully render people dead or alive is an ongoing conversation with regard to Hollywood. That came to mind while watching the film—you have these clones coming out, and there's a sense of concern about their own image. Do you have any thoughts around the increasing discussion on AI in Hollywood?
That's a new thing for everybody. People are trying to figure out how much sense that will make in terms of the world that we have now and how that relates to us and our business. Like anything, technology is going to be a double-edged sword and we're going to have the responsibility of finding a balance. I'm at the stage now where I'm like, Oh crap, I didn't know you can do that. In filmmaking, it will help us in some way. On the flip side, in terms of individuality, ownership, [and] fairness, that's going to be a discussion that people are going to have to figure out.
They Cloned Tyrone challenges viewers to deprogram from expectations of what a character should and shouldn't be. Teyonah Parris’ character, Yo-Yo, is a sex worker who goes, “Well, I'm all these other things. I'm Nancy Drew out here.” What would you like viewers to take away from this experience?
It’s just that—the nuance in that. Attack the Block was kind of doing the same thing. I'm going to feed you these stereotypes—the first scene is this young dude robbing a woman—but then I'm going to show you the duality of other things that human beings can do. When you're in a modern society where we watch the news and the details of the news are packaged [for] TV, sometimes the nuance is lost. In order for us to comprehend the world, it's easier to generalize. If thousands of snakes are going towards me by the door, I'm not going to make a difference between which of the snakes is safe or not, I'm just going to close the door. That's the easy choice.
In this movie, that’s just the surface. We’re not really looking at the root of people, the nuance of people. You have a sex worker that's intelligent, academic, curious. Accepting that duality and using our brains to scan people more than just going on generalized stereotypes is a commentary that this film makes. I’m proud that this film does that. I just want people to be entertained, laugh, but at the same time get creeped out a little bit, you know?
John Boyega wears a suit by Dsquared2, Pauro top, Hyusto shoes, and jewelry by David Yurman.