‘Pacific Rim Uprising': John Boyega on Playing Idris Elba’s Son and His New Jaeger, Gypsy Avenger

This January, a group of fellow journalists and I traveled to Australia to visit the set of Pacific Rim Uprising, the upcoming follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s bombastic tribute to classic monster movies that pit massive fighting robots against even more imposing monsters in showdowns just as awesome as you’d expect. The sequel, which will be piloted by Daredevil’s Steven DeKnight, is switching up the original cast for a handful of younger faces, with Scott Eastwood, newcomer Cailee SpaenyTian Jing and perhaps most exciting, John Boyega leading the new revolution.

On set, Boyega has been through the ringer. Since he stepped on set hours ago, he’s been running through a grueling action sequence unfolding in a Jaeger Conn-Pod. Just watching him is tiring, but as he saunters over to us in between takes, he couldn’t be more energized as he excitedly fields questions about the upcoming sequel. During the chat, he gave us inside into his character Jake Pentecost and his relationship to Rinko Kikuchi’s fan-favorite Mako, how the Jaegers of the sequel compare to those in the original, how different Jake is from his uber-charming Star Wars character, and his plans for a brand new superhero franchise: starring himself.

Check out the full interview below.

Can you start off by telling us about Jake?

JOHN BOYEGA: Yeah. Jake is Stacker Pentecost’s son, who grew up in the dark period of the first movie. He kind of chose a different path from being a Jaeger pilot, and decided to go into criminal activity, the exchange of Jaegers and other illegal stuff. He became like a stealer and a rogue, and he’s finally been given the chance to come back. To him it doesn’t feel like a chance at first. But it is a chance to come back and redeem himself after leaving a legacy, and trying to forget about his father and his heroes. He’s always lived in the shadow of his father’s achievements. And it’s his chance lead the young cadets and face off against this new threat that is the Kaijus. That’s Jake in a nutshell.

Image via Universal Pictures

Where you able to take some reference from Idris Elba’s performance in the first movie?

BOYEGA: Yeah, definitely. I think naturally, when I watched Pacific Rim, he was for me the standout character. You just felt a sense of history from him, a leadership. How did this guy get to this position? How did this guy get to this position in this whole organization? Why is he so stern? Why is he so protective over Mako? He has a heart as well. He’s a grown leader. For me, it’s about embodying that. But just get a kid who has been raised by a father like that and take some of those traits, but doesn’t get it. And then you get Jake.

Can you talk about Jake’s relationship to Mako?

BOYEGA: Mako’s like Jake’s sister, someone who was brought into the family. They would have played together, trained together, and they were good friends. But it seems Jake has struggled with acceptance. That she was dad’s favorite, and dad’s Golden Girl, and she achieved what Jake unfortunately couldn’t. You meet them at a point where there’s a blatant difference. It’s kind of like when you leave college and you meet up with one of your friends again. And let’s say, you’ve got the great job, being the bloody journalist, and they’re working at In-N-Out Burger. And you’re going, “Oh, what are you doing at the moment?…Oh great great great great.” Because that kind of relationship – talking about the emotional darkness about her – just always achieving. Stacker loved her. “She’s my girl. I don’t want her to get into war. I don’t want my daughter to get into war with anybody.” So that is something they have to face off on. He doesn’t really like her at first. It’s a bit of a harsh thing. But they love each other at the end of the day, and you see that in this film.

Have you spoken to Idris about playing this role, or his experience with the first one?

BOYEGA: He sent a nice message of congratulations. I’m going to give him an update in a few days, and even see if he could come to set and visit. I think his performance set the pace for a character like this to ever exist. So I’ll talk to him some more later, but so far it’s just been congratulations.

So, in terms of Jake’s character, the mustache? Is that like him reclaiming his family heritage? Or does he just rock the mustache?

BOYEGA: I’m a sci-fi guy. And I feel like in sci-fi, I feel there just needs to be this kind of blatant reference. But at the same time it does just show an uncanny characteristic, that Jake still thinks his dad is cool. You still want to embody that to a certain extent. It’s just embodying that in a criminal lot! [Laughs] It’s that topped with the character, and then just the heart that forms slowly over the pace of the film.

Can  you tell us about Jake’s relationship with Amara?

BOYEGA: Amara and Jake’s relationship starts off so simple, and then becomes complex because they’re both thrown into this extraordinary circumstance at the same time. And they both come from a similar background, where they’ve both been heavily affected by the war. They scavenge, and try to get by as best they can in the streets. And then all of a sudden, Jake starts to see a young him in her. He helps her as she journeys through being a cadet. He sees the journey that he did in the past, within her. Through that, they form a bond and a relationship. It’s pretty cool. They’re like brother and sister. She has her moments of having her way; Jake has his moments of having his way. They bicker at times. When they work together, it’s magical.

Image via Universal Pictures

What can you tell us about Gypsy Avenger, this new Jaeger?

BOYEGA: She’s a beauty! They’re slicker. They’re faster. [They have] new moves. And what’s great about Jaegers, they all have like a “Why” button, a special move that makes them significant and cool. What’s great about her is that you get to embody the characters also who are inside the Jaegers. You get to really see the pilots mesh with the robot. It’s kind of like an emotional connection with a being. It’s nice. She’s really, really cool. We’ve got a little bit of color co-ordination just to make it a bit more significant, make them a bit more different. New weapons. New moves. Greater flexibility is another thing. We’ve got some really new and interesting (elements). I feel like Pacific Rim fans will be like, “That’s the changes we would have made.” And then also, new fans will be like, “That’s dope.”

We’ve seen you doing very physical stuff all morning. I’m assuming that’s kind of been the entire shoot. How has it been doing all this super, physically requiring kind of things? 

BOYEGA: It’s fantastic. That’s one of the things I just loved about the first film, and I wanted more of, just seeing how the pilots were acting when we’re seeing these robots do these incredible moves. The fact that we got to do that inside [the Jaeger] is better, because you’re inside the action. It’s a great opportunity for the audience to not forget: these robots are being controlled by these pilots. So then there’s always a connection to character and the story. But also I just think it’s cool. It’s cool to be able to cut inside. And Steve [DeKnight] now has loads of options to cut in, cut out, with us flying back, with us throwing punches.

Image via Universal Pictures

We’ve been told you were really the guy who really wanted to play this role. Do you feel it was written specifically for you? And does that put a certain level of pressure on your performance?

BOYEGA: In 2013, I was on the bus in London, coming back from an audition. I opened up the Evening Standard, and I saw Idris in full suit with his helmet, with the squint. At the time, I had no clue who Del Toro was, no clue who Idris was significantly. I’d seen him on The Wire. And seeing that for me, was just, “Oh, this is so dope! I hope they have other roles.” But then Star Wars happened, and that distracted me. And I never imagined that Pacific Rim 2 would come. And when I went to meet, to talk to [Producers] Cale [Boyter], and Mary [Parent], they came prepared. It was like a general meeting, like I was there on behalf of my production company.  But they were like [in an American accent], “Oh, great. Good to see you. What do you think of Pacific Rim? Oh you enjoyed the first film? Well, we’re making a second. Come and see to this other room.” They were fully prepared.

Image via Universal Pictures

That’s an intense sales pitch. So you walked in pitching your production company, and then they walked you into a room like, “Here’s you as the star of Pacific Rim 2″. 

BOYEGA: At the time I wasn’t even in LA as an actor. I was there as a producer, CEO of my company, letting Hollywood know: here’s the script we have. Here’s the people we’re working with. And Mary goes, “Great, great great.” She played it so well. “We have something. Cale do we have something? Yeah I think we do.”

And then we both went into the room, and I saw myself in the suit. I saw the different Jaeger designs. They walked me through the whole story, pre-vis, all in the same day…Then I met Steve in the Chateau in LA. We just got talking. I was obviously fearful. You was asking about the pressure of the role. I think for me, you’re going to talk about this in contrast to another franchise. Is it necessary for me to do another? But you know, I like this whole King of Sci-Fi thing. I like that whole thing. It’s a great chance of me to be a part of another franchise that I really love.

And it seems like this character is completely different.

BOYEGA: Oh, yeah. That was the big thing. That’s what I really, really appreciated Legendary for. Because there’s a difference between when someone feels you’re right for a role based on what they’ve seen before. And then when they say, “You’re right for a role,” based on something completely different? Jake is like – we discuss it all the time – he is just not Finn, at all! So it’s a great opportunity, especially getting to keep my own accent. It’s bringing the character to life.

We know on the set of Star Wars you had the big toy that you took around and had everybody sign. Do you have a big Gypsy Danger to have signed?

BOYEGA: Oh yeah! You should see the merchandising! I want that to amp up, because it’d be great to find some stuff. I want to do that again. I want to keep the Conn-Pod helmets. Just to keep that. Put that right next to my Stormtrooper one, in a little god-like ark at home. Right next to it. It’s a great franchise to have in contrast, and a really really good story. And obviously, to be a part of the producing team as well, it’s great for me to be able to add different creative things, and just make it more juicy. Including this.

Image via Universal Pictures

BOYEGA: I don’t know its name. But it’s the one with the fans, because it had the most mechanical flexibility. (Crosstalk) She flipped and around and spun. I thought that was absolutely great. The other ones were quite stationary and straight-on, where she just flipped the script! She was a good Jaeger.

So was your production company [UpperRoom Productions], from the very first meeting, involved with moving this movie forward?

BOYEGA: Yeah. We were heavily involved. And my producing partner Femi Oguns, he was actually downstairs in the lobby, just kind of like, “Okay, you can take this one.” Then, he was brought into the meeting. It was pretty cool.

Why is it important to you to also be producing films, and not just starring in them?

BOYEGA: One thing about me that people don’t necessarily know is that I love to write. I’m a visionary as an individual, inspired by the George Lucases, the [James] Camerons, by the [Steven] Spielbergs. And all of these guys started off with their personal creativity. And I feel like, being in this position – especially after something like Star Wars – for me not to give these ideas? Especially, because I’m a fan as well. If you go into my house, it’s like any other Star Wars fans house. You’re going to see figures around. I mean, they’ll be signed by Harrison Ford. [Laughs] But, I’ve always been a fan of these things. All this is not new to me. So moments on set where I’m in the Conn-Pod, and Steve tells me about a scene. I’ll be like, “Steve, is this a good time to do this?” And Steve’s like, “I like that!”

As a fan you do that. Because I know what the guys on Youtube want, the guys on Twitter, the guys waiting for the film. They want those moments that will make them go crazy in the cinema. I have knowledge of that. So it’s great, with my production company to have creative control and implement that. It just amps up the whole story and characters.

Image via Legendary

Does it change your performance to know you’re super involved in the backend of things? Is it two different hats or do they sort of meld?

BOYEGA: It is two different hats, because you find yourself having to switch. When I’m on set  as an actor, I’m on set as an actor. But there are moments where you do have to produce, and come in and give your feedback, in terms of timing and schedule and all that kinds of stuff. But fundamentally, I’ve found a great rhythm of going in between, and that’s only because I’m working with a great team of people. And with Steve and our whole team at Legendary and Universal, they make it easy for me switch between and take on the two roles. Especially, I’m heavily involved in the  pre-vis, the actual fights that they go on. I’m heavily involved in that, because as a fanboy, those fights have got to be legit. It’s the difference between being a teenager, who goes, ‘I wish that movie had that,’ and being in the room with the people who can make it happen. I’m like, “Okay, this? If this that, then this that! If you put this in there, it’d be great.”

Is it weird then to work with Steven DeKnight then? Because obviously as an actor, you’re going to have creative input. But the producer hat is going to come from a completely different direction.

BOYEGA: It’s definitely going to come from a different direction. But, have you met Steve? Steve is one of us. Steve is a nerd too. Steve sometimes just gives notes and then he’s like, “I think the engine combustion,” and it’s like, “No, Steve. English. I get what you’re saying, but they don’t.” He’s a nerd too, so you get that collaboration. And I’m really quite close with Cale as well. We always talk. It’s a really strong family and creative team. We really want this movie to be right.

We were also talking about how because these films are meant to represent the world, you see a more inclusive cast then in most blockbusters, and often in sci-fi. So when you’re selecting roles, is that something you consider when taking on parts?

BOYEGA: Definitely. I was saying to my sister the other day, that’s what I love about being in Star Wars. For me, it’s not just about diversity in terms of melanin. I think it’s diversity in types of character, different types of people. You’ve watched the first few bits of Pacific Rim, completely different worlds joining in. Completely different social classes and the military, and all these different characters that we have, some are very rich. You just see a whole entire world. I think if you want to create the worlds we enjoy today from George Lucas in front of the cameras, you have to be inclusive. And not just in terms of the physical, but in different types of people. Which is, for me, it just makes it more interesting. Which like, a studio like Universal, they’ve done that previously with the Fast and Furious films. I’m not going to a Fast and the Furious film necessarily to cry. But I’m going to have fun! And everyone is going to see themselves in it, which is perfect.

Image via Legendary

I’m not going to lie, I’ve cried in Fast and the Furious films. But I see your point.

BOYEGA: I cried in the last one. Yeah, the last one I cried. I definitely cried. I cried with my pregnant sister. She cried the most, but I cried too.

Now that you have Star Wars and this worldwide recognition, how are you using that to propel you towards different projects?

BOYEGA: That’s where the company comes into play. I have plans. For me, if we look at this year, I see my body of work like as a body of work. Like, there’s an artist I’m talking to, and I want him to create an art piece for me. I want it to be a picture of me as a little boy, and then all my sci-fi characters above him, like something I dreamed up. So now, the next phase is I did Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit riots movie last year, Imperial Dreams about a young poet living on the street with his kids, that’s coming out, Watership Down in which I play a rabbit. I’m literally going into all genres to make my mark. I really want to do something stronger after this. And we have something! But I can’t tell you what it is.

Are you into script writing at all?

BOYEGA: Yeah, script writing. Script writing is my thing. I like creating my own worlds and characters, and layering them on top. Especially with the superhero genre. Personally, we feel there’s another way to do it. So we’re working on stuff like that.

So soon you might be a superhero?

BOYEGA: Well, yeah. But it won’t be the ones that you’re used to, I’ll tell you that! [Laughs] It won’t be the ones that you’re used to. Yeah. We’re leaving he spandex behind, and doing a new version.

Pacific Rim Uprising hits theaters March 23, 2018. For more from our set visit, check out the links below.

Image via Legendary

Image via Legendary

Image via Legendary

Latest Feed

Follow Us