John Boyega on 'The Woman King,' trying to 'break through' glass ceilings in Hollywood

John Boyega's latest role as a king is solidifying his royal status on Hollywood's throne.

Boyega, 30, is commanding attention for his small but mighty part as King Ghezo in "The Woman King" (in theaters now), alongside Viola Davis' fierce warrior general Nanisca. The film is based on the real-life, all-female army unit of the Agojie from the Dahomey kingdom in 19th-century western Africa.

Boyega, who cut his teeth in "Pacific Rim: Uprising" and "Detroit," skyrocketed to fame as Finn in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy – but faced pushback and racist fans of the franchise attempting to block his path.

"You're witnessing the slight glass ceiling I've been able to break through, that I've been trying to break through from probably when you first heard of me," Boyega says on a video call from the Toronto Film Festival this month.

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Viola Davis and John Boyega star in "The Woman King."
Viola Davis and John Boyega star in "The Woman King."

He's continuing to diversify his acting portfolio with turns in "The Woman King," thriller "Breaking" (released last month) and the coming Netflix mystery movie "They Cloned Tyrone." He discusses moments of joy during the filming of "Woman King," the advice Davis gave him and how he views earning respect in the industry. (Edited and condensed for clarity.)

Question: When did you first hear about "The Woman King"? What drew you to this role?

John Boyega: My agent told me that there was a small but fantastic and meaningful role in something that I would personally find meaningful. Then (director) Gina (Prince-Bythewood) wrote me a nice letter. Viola reached out as well, and to obviously get any type of message from Viola Davis is going to send you to wherever she's asking you to go.

The combination of actually getting to read the script, and then seeing that this story was very nuanced, very delicate, and at the same time (told) from different perspectives, and wasn't trying to highlight just the stereotypical soundbite, clickbait type of narratives that normally films try to go for.

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What did that note from Gina say?

Boyega: It was beautiful. It felt like it was a call to action. … She kind of does what only a Black woman can do, which is to just shine your crown and say "Well done" to give you that motivation. And then she went into speaking about the project, speaking about how important she feels this project is. And then she said, "I want you to be our king." And for me, I'm just kind of like, "What?! Yeah, I'm gonna be there."

John Boyega and Viola Davis attend "The Woman King" premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Ontario.
John Boyega and Viola Davis attend "The Woman King" premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Ontario.

Did your background shape how you viewed the role, and how you viewed yourself becoming King Ghezo?

Boyega: Definitely. This is the second film I filmed out in the continent, in Africa. Even when I was younger, and I filmed "Half of a Yellow Sun" out in Nigeria, I told my agent that it's very important to me that I go home and have the experience of shooting a movie, the experience of identifying the professionals there who have the skill sets to actually get this done, and collaborate in that way to make great art.

The influence for this role, that connection to Africa (and) going back home to film, this is like your soul is alive. Doing what you love in the place you love most. … I grew up in London, but inside the house, it was Lagos. The U.K. rules don't apply when that door closes. So drawing from those experiences and that energy I used for this as well.

Viola Davis and John Boyega star in "The Woman King."
Viola Davis and John Boyega star in "The Woman King."

How important was showing joy throughout the film to you?

Boyega: I think it was healing for everybody. It's a movie about war: There's pain, there's death, there's dark days, but there is a lot of joy. … It's that joy that I grew up with and I continue to experience, but that's now embedded into this movie. It's lovely to just see Viola Davis smile, and even on set, I can notice that smile was genuine just because of the love she was experiencing.

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What core moments stick out from your time on set?

Boyega: I remember when we were filming in the palace … it was like a one of those exciting full cast days, everybody's in costume (and) is looking beautiful. And the rain came down. And when the rain came down in that situation, it wet up the red sand and it kind of just destroyed the aesthetics of the scene. It was supposed to be a dry day.

And the South Africans were like, "This is our country; we're going to sing a song to the rain. And we're going to have the rain stop so we can restart filming." Now you know we're all Black, but some of us are different, and the ones from the diaspora, we're like, "Nah, nah, we hear what you're saying, but you know, I don't know if that's what we need right now." Because we had drummers on set, they start going. All the South Africans came out, and they started singing this amazing song.

Did you know the rain stopped? … It was beautiful to hear them sing the song and dance and just celebrate and just sing to the rain and laugh about it and chant. …Everybody took a moment to take all of this in. And it was just a really, really special moment.

One line of yours that resonated with me from the movie was "I'm a king with or without your respect." What has earning respect looked like in your career?

Boyega:  The respect is kind of intertwined with a level of trust. Obviously, you want your directors and producers to trust that you can do a role, you can commit. And that, sometimes, is an uphill battle.

You have this talent and you want to show the world, but then you're dealing with the fact that the color of your skin and all these different obstacles are sometimes a hindrance to what you're trying to get done. But there's learning in that you get to connect with people who are also going through the same things you're going through. You get to locate people, some of whom are in powerful places, and they can relate to that narrative also. It takes a journey to connect the dots.

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Any advice you've received from Viola that you took to heart?

Boyega:  With Viola, every day there was a moment where she shared a story. It wasn't necessarily her sitting you down and trying to give you advice; it was her sharing her truth.

She shared about how things changed for her as she matured going through this industry. When she first started out, acting was all she could think about. She used to talk about acting being this focus and this fixation, and sometimes she wouldn't have the balance of other aspects of her life. She just spoke about how, in maturing and achieving so much, how her attitude towards it has matured and changed as well.

What's sparking your interest in your career moving forward?

Boyega:  It's always been a part of the dream and a part of the intention to go for roles that give me the ability to show versatility and to show that acting for me is a skill set. I trained for this, I went to school for this.

I want to show what acting is and how selfless it can be at times in terms of embodying other people and the magic of transforming into somebody else that's not you. … And I'm passionate about that. We're witnessing me kind of expressing that freedom to choose people who are for me, so … it's just me just doing my little ting.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Boyega on 'The Woman King,' next roles, advice from Viola Davis