How John Boyega built a physique fit for Hollywood

By | November 14, 2018

You may remember John Boyega from such films as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. In fact, you’d have to be a resident of Ahch-To to have missed them. But today, in LA, MH is talking to the Camberwell-born, Peckham-raised actor about his other sci-fi juggernaut, Pacific Rim Uprising. Clearly the south Londoner is not one to do things by halves.

I loved going to the gym to build muscle. But when I saw a treadmill, I’d just run away

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Released this month, Uprising is a sequel to the enjoyable 2013 original, set in a near future in which humanity faces an epidemic of building-sized, city-levelling monsters called Kaiju (from the Japanese “strange beast”). Mankind responds in the only logical way: by constructing building-sized, humanoid machines called Jaegers (German for “hunters”) to duke it out with them. Think Godzilla meets Transformers.

“I was looking for another franchise to be a part of,” says Boyega of what attracted him to the project. “The big things for me were the story, characters and themes of the film.” Uprising was evidently a “big” enough thing for the precocious 25-year-old to decide to produce it, too, through his own company Upper Room. Crucially, his diary was free. “It felt like the stars were aligning, innit?”

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Assuming leading man duties from MH cover alumnus Charlie Hunnam, Boyega plays Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, who marshalled the humanoid troops in the first outing of the franchise. It is clearly his most physically demanding movie to date. “It was fun – and then it got excruciatingly painful,” says Boyega, of suiting up and inhabiting the mechanical armoury of a giant Jaeger. “While watching the first instalment, it never occurred to me how the actors must have felt in those suits, moving around and doing all that action simultaneously. I never considered how hard it must have been. That is, until I got in one myself.”

For the uninitiated, the cockpits – or Conn-Pods – of the Jaegers are occupied by pilots, who act out their machine’s every move while wearing miniature versions of the enormous armour they’re operating. For Boyega and co-star Scott Eastwood (another MH cover alumnus), this translated into combat training and a whole lot of cardio. “During a number of scenes we had to talk at the same time as running,” Boyega explains. For the purposes of filming, the hydraulic system that linked up to the pilots’ boots was actually a treadmill, on which Boyega was forced to jog while wearing his suit, for take after exhausting take. “It was horrible,” he admits. “The amount of calories you burn from day to day is crazy. I wouldn’t notice that I’d done a workout at first, but after 13 hours I would strip the suit off and be absolutely dripping.”

Jedi Training

Given the stamina required to perform such a role, Boyega had to sweat it out considerably before filming, as well as during it. “The goal was to decrease fat and build muscle mass,” he says. “I didn’t want Jake to look as though he actually goes to the gym every day and works on his pecs. But I did want him to look like he’d been climbing and running in order to obtain these Jaeger parts.” The desired aesthetic was “active” and yet “still relatively normal”.

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Even so, Boyega had to work out daily – often more than twice. In the morning, he’d do boxing-style conditioning, which included what he very transatlantically calls “jumping rope”. Then, during the day, he’d have hand-to-hand combat and stunt training, plus running drills (with his suit on) inside a makeshift Conn-Pod. Finally, he would lift weights in the evening, “just to finish off the day”. And, by the sounds of it, himself.

To facilitate this lifestyle sea change, Boyega called upon trainer Corey Calliet, who knocked Michael B. Jordan into shape for the 2015 film Creed. Suitably fitspired, Boyega first asked Calliet to help him lean up for the press tour of The Force Awakens – a film in which he was, in his own harsh words, “kinda chubby”. The two have worked together on and off ever since. “It’s always tough working with Corey,” laughs Boyega. “He calls himself an artist rather than a trainer, because he sculpts the body out of you. It sounds strange at first, but after one session with him, it feels like he does just that.” Calliet would often take Boyega to a stadium to run sprints, climb the bleachers and perform plyometrics on the field.

The physical process was “an education” for the actor. “Even with something as simple as a standard bench press,” he says, “I realised I’d been getting it wrong for a long time.” Calliet’s focus on muscle activation and correct form – paramount in order to elicit change and avoid injury – was crucial, given that the trainer wasn’t always able to be on the set of Uprising and had to send Boyega programmes to follow on his own.

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Not that Boyega was a complete stranger to lifting weights. As a teen, he bought himself a set of coloured dumbbells and did “the standard biceps routine”. But once he boarded the Hollywood machine, he initially struggled with the cranked-up intensity, scheduled workouts and sheer quantity of cardio that followed. “I loved going to the gym to build muscle. But when I saw a treadmill, I’d just run away,” he says, seemingly unaware of the irony. However, he has since seen the myriad benefits of consistent exercise – and not just to his physique. “If you have time to work out before going on set,” he says, “it gives you renewed energy and a clearer head.”

Another valuable lesson learnt by Boyega was the importance of nutrition. “When a trainer or nutritionist advises you on what you can or can’t eat, the first thing you learn is precisely what you’re addicted to,” he says. “And I found that I would just lose my mind when sugar wasn’t in my system.” Eating well was key for Boyega, who describes himself as “thick” of body (the not-so-technical term for an endomorph). “It’s pretty easy for me to put on muscle, but it’s just as easy for me to put on fat,” he says, honestly. However, one reward of having his food dialled in was that skipping a workout owing to filming or tiredness was less of an issue. “And on Sunday you get to cheat.”

(Related: How to get shredded like Michael B. Jordan in Creed 2)

Boyega’s go-to blowout is Nigerian jollof rice (his parents emigrated to the UK from Nigeria in the 1980s), followed by chicken drumsticks, plantain, spicy stew and salad. “After that, I’d probably inhale four doughnuts,” he says emphatically. “I don’t play. I’m back to back. Those ice-ring doughnuts, mate. I just chuck them back.” Krispy Kreme? “Oh yeah. Krispy Kreme, whatever. I feel bad about it for a second, then I get back on the wagon.”

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Force Of Nurture

Boyega is a thoughtful man with a considered approach to his craft. Nevertheless – as evinced by his taste in food, intact south London accent and liberal use of the word ‘mate’ – it’s gratifying to know Boyega hasn’t quite transformed into the earnest, green- juice-sipping Angeleno just yet. “I can’t stand the stuff,” he says. “Can’t do it. I’m allergic to apples: my lips start to itch and swell up. I’d rather steam my greens and then drink some water.”

If anything, the trend is going in the other direction for Boyega. After landing the role of rebel stormtrooper Finn in The Force Awakens, he took Harrison Ford to 805, a Nigerian restaurant in south-east London. Eating dinner with Han Solo (not to mention Indiana Jones) next door to a Ladbrokes must have been a real trip, right? “I think it’s a trip for everyone who’s outside looking in,” says Boyega, matter-of-factly. “But after working together for a good amount of time, you get to know the man behind the shenanigans. And you understand that he’s a human being. So I told him: ‘You need to eat some proper food, mate. You can’t just be out in London having dry food. You need to get some spice in your life.’”

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The Force Awakens may have brought Boyega to intergalactic attention, but it was aged eight that he first caught the eye of community drama group Theatre Peckham’s artistic director while acting in his primary school play. After secondary school, he studied for a performing arts diploma at South Thames College, before enrolling at the Identity School of Acting in Hackney. He was later spotted in a play called Category B at north-west London’s Tricycle Theatre by Joe Cornish of comedy duo Adam and Joe, who was then casting for unknowns to star in his first film as a director, 2011’s Attack the Block.

An A-grade B movie that combines scares, LOLs and smart social commentary, Attack the Block depicts an alien invasion on a south London council estate. Boyega plays Moses, a stoic gang leader who challenges stereotypes by going from knife-toting nurse-mugger to sword-wielding day-saver in the course of 88 minutes. You don’t have to be Darth Vader to feel his presence: the wife of The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams woke him up to tell him about this young actor in a film that she’d just seen. Cut to 2014, and the first face shown in the first teaser trailer for the first Star Wars film in a decade was Boyega’s. It was viewed a record 112 million times in 24 hours.

Perhaps because of that role, and his upbringing on a south London council estate, it’s easy to characterise Boyega as a rags-to-riches figure, gravitating towards the Hollywood Hills from the mean streets. It’s a narrative that is lent added verisimilitude by the fact that, as children, he and his elder sister Grace were walking with 10-year-old Damilola Taylor just before he was stabbed to death. (They were captured on the CCTV that the police used to appeal for information.) But there was nothing romantic about Boyega landing the part in The Force Awakens. It wasn’t fate, so much as force of will. “For me, that was the goal,” he says plainly. “Star Wars wasn’t the only movie that I’d gone on tape for. I aimed to be a part of some form of franchise because of the opportunities those projects give you, as well as being a fan of many of them. It was something that I was working towards, but it took a while. Still, I stayed persistent and it ended up working out for me.”

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That’s not to say that Boyega is in any way blasé. Quite the opposite: he wasn’t above dancing on the red carpet at the premiere of The Force Awakens with his Peckham mates, or posting to Instagram a video of his excited reaction to seeing himself in that trailer. (Google it – the short clip racked up more than 30,000 likes.) Part of what makes him so likeable is that he’s the kind of unabashed fanboy who will surprise audiences by turning up unannounced at cinemas on the opening weekend. And he has. His enthusiasm for geek culture is as boundless as his appetite for doughnuts.

Down To Earth

Boyega’s life has been transformed in many respects, though he insists it’s a matter of perspective. “You change in this process, but what changes the most is the way in which people react to you,” he says. “Treating yourself like a human being is something you must constantly remember to implement, not for yourself but for the people who are closest to you – as they say back in my ends – ‘so you don’t get lost in the sauce’.” He still has the same friends, plays computer games (he wants to build his own PC but hasn’t had time) and does the other “normal stuff” that he did before: “I go to the movies, I go shopping, I go to parties and, y’know, I go to church.”

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Phrases such as “crazy”, “day to day” and “back to back” are constant Boyega refrains, which speak to his commitment to work, training and Krispy Kremes. But his dad likes to preach the value of downtime, too. “He always says: ‘Make sure you’re meditating, resting well and eating well,’” says Boyega. “A lot of people know how to work hard and for a long amount of time. But working smart means that you put your brain in the healthiest position so that when you do work, it means much more.” Every morning, the “very spiritual” Boyega meditates with prayer after listening to classical music.

The brain and the spirit, just like the body, need rest. You can’t simply camp out in the gym until you hit your goal: you have to recover, then attack again with renewed vigour. It’s a lesson Boyega has learnt well. “What was crazy for me was that, no matter how hard I worked, I had this troubling fat that just wouldn’t bloody go away,” he recalls. “So I was surprised to learn that when I caught more sleep, I lost more weight.” He also discovered the simple hack of playing rain sounds on his phone at bedtime. “For some reason, that would help me nod off,” he says. Perhaps it was another reminder of where he’s come from.

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