The actor takes his character, Moses, from being unsympathetic early in the movie to someone the audience roots for.
John Boyega, the star of the new kids-versus-aliens movie “Attack the Block,” didn’t have to look far for inspiration for his character — a hoodlum, thief and recently recruited drug dealer.
The big-screen newcomer grew up in South London, not far from where his character, 15-year-old Moses, leads a gang of hard-luck youths flirting with delinquency as they defend their public housing complex against vicious beasties from space.
“London is very multicultural; everything’s together,” said the soft-spoken Boyega, whose focus makes him seem older off-screen than his 19 years. “I don’t need to walk five miles or stay with thugs to understand what’s going on. And ideally, I don’t like to name them as thugs, because I don’t know who they are personally. Like Moses. He’s just a good person in bad circumstances.”
First-time director Joe Cornish, who co-wrote the upcoming Steven Spielberg film “The Adventures of Tintin,” shares Boyega’s view of the South London youngsters. He said he wanted to make a Spielberg-type creature feature, like “Gremlins” and “E.T.,” with urban, instead of suburban, kids.
“I’d never seen a story like that told in the U.K., but especially in this area where I lived,” Cornish said. “It started me thinking about the kids who live there, and the way they’re portrayed in the press, and how it would be a cool reversal if we started out with this kind of gang of bad, anonymous kids, threw in a fantasy element, and used it to reveal their humanity and turn around some preconceptions about them.”
Edgar Wright, the director behind “Shaun of the Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” served as executive producer on “Attack the Block,” and it’s similarly fast-paced and funny. With the exception of Nick Frost (who starred in “Hot Fuzz”), the cast is composed of newcomers and little-knowns — a slate of young actors whose characters arm themselves with fireworks, a gasoline-filled water gun and even a samurai sword to fight off the furry space monsters with deadly, glowing teeth.
Boyega, who had acted in theater productions before but never in a movie, was tasked with winning over the audience without the luxury of being likable from the get-go. Moses starts the film with a series of reprehensible actions, including mugging a young woman at knifepoint, but ends the movie as its hero.
“I knew that people wouldn’t necessarily like him at the beginning of the film,” he said. “I had to choose a particular scene in which I would show a different side of Moses, whether that is tears, whether that is happiness, whether that is a little grin or a little sigh. Whether that’s anger. So as it goes along, you start off with this kind of nameless, no-identity thug, and then he changes into a boy, a kid, a human being.”
With the added challenge of having very little dialogue — most of which is British street slang — Boyega looked to more subtle actors when researching his role. He found inspiration in the powerful performances of Sidney Poitier as well as actors from the fourth season of “The Wire” — Jamie Hector, Idris Elba and Michael Kenneth Williams.
“I knew that Moses needed presence, that every time he was on screen, you needed to know that he was on screen,” Boyega said. “He had to tell the story through his eyes, and it was a mental journey.”
That’s not to say the role wasn’t physically demanding as well; Boyega did most of his own stunts, which included bicycle chase scenes, alien battle sequences, and at one point, being blown off a balcony by an explosion.
“It was absolutely amazing to shoot,” he said. “But I was always that guy. You know in ‘Power Rangers’ when they give out that message, ‘Please, do not copy the stunts’? I was the guy who copied.”
The stunts in the modestly budgeted “Attack the Block” are not crisply choreographed as those in so many action films today, but rather rough and ragged, like the aliens, which were created using costumes, animatronics and a rotoscoping technique rather than computer effects.
“It’s like everything is clumsy. You can’t really keep track of what’s going on,” Boyega said. “It isn’t Hollywood perfect, as in you’d probably have a spaceship come and say, ‘We’re on your side, boys!’ It’s not like that.”
That isolation helps set “Attack” apart from “Super 8″ and other monster movies, Cornish said. There’s no military or police presence, and the kids are on their own, and some of them die. But though the movie’s edgy, it’s not dark, and the prevailing mood is a sense of fun.
“Going on your bikes and running away from things — it’s just amazing, the kiddish and the boyish energy,” Boyega said. “You can so relate, you know what I mean? Being young, you always want to find that film or find that TV show that makes you escape. Who does not want an alien invasion to land? Who doesn’t?”
Boyega, who attended the L.A. Film Festival in June and Comic-Con in July, said that he is set to star in “Law & Order: UK” and that he’s been welcomed by Hollywood “with a big, warm hug.” He would love to do an “Attack the Block” sequel, with Moses leading a “hood army” against “bigger, badder aliens, landing in the whole of London.”
“I think if we were going to make a sequel, we would have to do it now,” he said. “We don’t have that ‘Benjamin Button’ aging CGI to make me look young. I’m getting facial hair and stuff.”
– Noelene Clark
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