John Boyega on true-life thriller Breaking: "It’s very rare to have full footage of the character you’re playing"

John Boyega in Breaking
(Image credit: Universal)

John Boyega has starred in some of the biggest science-fiction films of all time in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, but as an actor (and a producer) his film choices have become increasingly urgent in their social commentary.

He mightily impressed for revered filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Steve McQueen in, respectively, Detroit (2017) and the third Small Axe film, Red, White and Blue (2020), and just last year appeared with Viola Davis in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic The Woman King. All three films are powerful dramas set in the past but relevant to our troubled times.

Boyega’s new film, Breaking, is the true story of how Brian Brown-Easley, an ex-Marine working two jobs and living out of a hotel room, walked into a Wells Fargo banks in Marietta, Georgia clutching a note that read: "I have a bomb". All he wanted was the $892.34 owed to him by the Department of Veterans Affairs – without it, he’d be out on the street – and to draw America’s attention to how veterans were being shafted by the system they’d served.

"The coverage was big – there was a lot of media outside the bank – but I did not have any idea about it, so it was definitely a shock," the actor says of reading writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin’s script.

Inside the new issue of Total Film magazine, Boyega talks in depth about Breaking and his wider career. Here’s an extract on what he had to say about about Breaking (which played at the Sundance Film Festival under the title 892), which is available on digital in the UK now:

John Boyega in Breaking

(Image credit: Universal)

Total Film: How did you find the character of Brian Brown-Easley in Breaking? You seem to inhabit him from the inside out…

John Boyega: The first thing I started off with was talking to Abi [Damaris Corbin, writer and director] about what story she wanted to make, and reading the script like it was a bible. And then we were lucky enough to have CCTV footage. It’s very rare to have full footage of the character you’re playing. Not in highlight moments, like if you’re doing a biopic and you watch a concert or the most monumental, historic moments of their life. With this, I got to see [it all].

What struck you immediately?

The first thing that I noticed was that this was a bank robber who didn’t have the same violent approach that most felt like they needed to have. He wasn’t frantic, he wasn’t shouting. There was a nuance there that I had to capture. I shaved my head, and put on these glasses and made sure that the walk was suited to what I know of Brian. I also was lucky because I got the phone conversations that went on between the negotiator and Brian. I got to learn the tone of his voice, the specifics of his accent.

Did you just go at it as a real-life story, or did you look at any bank-robbery films, like Dog Day Afternoon or Inside Man?

I never go back and watch movies for any performance that I do. It always comes from the internal and then through a collaboration between myself and the director and the rest of the crew and the team. And this being such a unique situation, I couldn’t refer to any other movie to guide me; this was a real person to have respect for, what they lived and what they experienced.

John Boyega in Breaking

(Image credit: Universal)

This, sadly, was Michael Kenneth Williams’ final performance. All of your scenes are negotiating over the phone. Did you actually get to meet him?

Yeah. One of the creative processes that Abi introduced was that when we were doing scenes on the phone, we’d have the other actor there, reading the lines. It was very, very helpful. We had to write to Michael to get him in on the project, so we’d been in communication earlier. I met him when he first came on set and we had a lot of time to bond, speak, talk about all the things we were trying to achieve in the scenes.

Were you a fan of The Wire?

Oh yes! Absolutely. Abi came up to me and said, "We don’t know who we’re going to cast yet, and we don’t know who is going to say 'yes' – it’s not like we have loads of money to offer them – but what do you think of Michael K. Williams?" I was like, "Wait, what? Omar fucking Little? Boardwalk Empire? Like, fuck, yeah! Tell him to come and join us, if he has the time." And he with open arms was like, "I’ve read the script and I was very much moved by it."

Breaking is available now on digital. For much more from Boyega on Star Wars, Steve McQueen and becoming a producer, pick up a copy of the new issue of Total Film magazine (fronted by Fast X) when it lands on shelves this Thursday, March 30.

Total Film's Fast X issue

(Image credit: Total Film/Universal)
Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror. 

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