John Boyega is intentional about the roles he plays and always has been.
The actor’s latest film, Breaking, is yet another important story that sheds light on the injustices a particular group of people struggles with. In this case, Boyega was tasked with the responsibility of telling the true story of a Marine Veteran named Brian Brown-Easley that took place in 2017. After Brian was denied support from Veterans Affairs who he said stole his money, he finds himself financially desperate, at risk of homelessness, with a daughter to take care of, and feels as if he has run out of options. His despair reaches new heights, to the point of robbing a Wells Fargo Bank with a bomb threat, taking the bank and several of its employees hostage, setting the stage for a tense negotiation and confrontation with the police.
The film version of the tragic events was directed by Abi Damaris Corbin and stars Boyega as the lead, Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth), Selenis Leyva (Orange Is the New Black), Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), and the late and great Michael K. Williams. We caught up with the actor and he shared that he specifically wanted The Wire star to play the role of Eli Bernard, a police officer, in the film. While Boyega didn’t think it would happen, the late actor happily obliged—making Breaking his last feature film before his untimely death in 2021.
Check out Breaking’s trailer above and our conversation with John Boyega about the film, his role, working with Michael K. Williams, choosing movies that highlight important causes and more.
How are you feeling about being able to tell this story, your performance in it and just the movie overall?
John Boyega: I’m quite enthusiastic about telling this story. I have a really deep interest in stories that are from an interesting perspective. I had never heard of this story specifically, especially being that it happened not so long ago in one of our major cities in the world, Atlanta. I hadn’t heard of it, but for this to surface in this way, to tell this story that connects to mental health struggles that our veterans have also. And then the complications also of just dealing with family issues, financial issues, it’s very special to be able to touch on those several points in an entertaining in this movie.
How did you get into the mindset to try to capture what we imagine Brian felt that day when he went to that Wells Fargo?
JB: It goes with the job. My process is obviously to read a script many times, at least three to four times when I get it. And then to engage with the research and the actual facts that we have coming in from Abi’s side, our director, and then obviously production. And then the notes and the specific kind of notes that were just given about how Brian was from his family. Because we’ve also been working closely with his family, his surviving family. And they have helped us in just detail, extra detail that helps me as an actor incorporate that into the role.
So a combination of those various things and then some boring acting stuff [laughs] and making sure there’s a written character arc that I can follow, that I don’t forget. Abi had a process where we had heated Brian and chilled Brian. So it was kind of like the difference between him being more aggressive, more assertive, and then him being vulnerable and sweet, which also kind of reflected on his mental health. So there were loads of things that we put into this and two week turnaround time since I first heard about the role, there wasn’t a lot of time to do it too. So we re we really got it done.
You said you worked with the family. Were there any pointers that they said that they wanted to be very specific about including?
JB: Brian’s ex-wife mentioned his voice, the softness of his voice. About how he used it in a normal sense when he was talking naturally in a normal setting, his voice would always be quite low and quite quiet. Sometimes even hard to hear, it was quite soft-natured and would look down a lot of the time through his glasses and would peer up, crack a joke, his smiles weren’t always too extroverted. So there was that side to him, but then when he would sometimes get into a vulnerable state mentally, those symptoms would be more extroverted, way more aggressive with his movement, with his comprehension too, which was another thing that she told us about. So we were guided in a very dope way.
You mentioned the mental health aspect. Was that difficult for you to portray and is it rewarding to bring that to a movie theater so that we can get used to being open about the mental health conversation?
JB: I think as a whole, that’s what art is there, especially movies, sometimes are there to do. Obviously each film has its own kind of agenda as you say. But I think this story, one of the major reasons why Abi and Kwame Kwei-Armah came together to collaborate on this is because it happened under our nose. And it’s a story that reflects heavily on our society and I think the majority can relate to at least how financial issues and the lack of systematic help and opportunities can stifle your mental health.
Everybody knows that’s one of the major factors, especially if you come out of college or your first starting out your career, there’s that major element of stress because sometimes the system doesn’t have it right for your position. So I’m proud that I get to bring out a film that helps us relate in one way, in our way. And at the same time, to be able to relate to Brian’s specific issue and learn something new because I know I did in the process.
A major part of the film also shows how veterans are treated in America. What do you hope that people can learn from this story specifically from Brian’s story?
JB: I think specifically Brian’s story, it is to learn about a situation outside of your understanding and your comprehension and your experiences. We’re in a day and age where sometimes situations and different opinions can be made to be turned against each other. It’s like one versus the other where I think this movie gives you the opportunity to actually learn how to lean towards coexisting with differences. Especially if you look at Brian as someone that society has is even shut out and left on the side. The country that you fight for doesn’t have a space for your difference.
On that in itself, I think that’s something that I learned. I’m continuously learning from engaging with the movie and with Brian’s specific story and I hope obviously the audience has that perspective too. And just to be entertained as well. We are creatives, we’re not a news casting service, we’re kind of making a movie also. And as creators, we get to share our own creative perspectives on the piece. So I hope people also appreciate what Michael K. Williams does and what Nicole Beharie does and really what Abi has done, the director, in that piece.
Speaking of your co-stars, Nicole is amazing and Selenis is also incredibly emotional. You mainly work with them two, what was it like to work with them and how did you guys bounce off of each other to handle such high-stress, tense scenes that you did together?
JB: Selenis and Nicole were basically my guardian angels during the process because we didn’t have time, we didn’t have any rehearsal time at all. We didn’t have a read-through, we never got to sit down and do the meet and greets and get to know each other, work up chemistry. None of that, which actually helped because in real life, Brian went through this situation with strangers, essentially. And that’s how it was and we got to know each other through the process.
I’ve obviously been aware of their work but I’ve never met them face-to-face so the element of that was actually quite profound because with the nature of the project and it being such a quick turnaround time, by the time it got on set, we had no time to even meet each other. So there was something beautiful about that, reality collaborated with creativity in an interesting way to just help the story we’re trying to tell.
Because I kept a constant energy of Brian. So on set I would never break out, just because I hadn’t had the time to prepare to be at ease with the role and break out of it and come back in, go for lunch and be chilled, and come back into it. So I kind of stayed constantly in a state and they were really supportive of that and respectful of that.
Throughout the movie, there was a kind of an organic familiarity between you all.
JB: Yeah and they had my back, too. Selenis was always constantly checking up on me. There were a lot of intense scenes, a lot of crying, lots of emotion. So she was always really just checking up on me, making sure I was good. And she was one of my major motivating factors throughout the film because she always would take it upon herself to come and give me words of motivation as we were just going through the process.
Because having a film where you are leading too is kind of scary because it’s all just you. Ain’t no visual effects in this movie, no monsters, and aliens to distract the audience, it’s straight up performance. So has a different level of nerves to it.
It’s also a real story also so I’m sure that the emotional aspect of it is really daunting as an actor for you.
JB: Yeah. You don’t want to mess that up.