Making the most of a mentor

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This photo provided by Disney shows John Boyega as Finn, in a scene from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote the screenplay with Abrams.

'Force Awakens' star John Boyega benefits from time spent with Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.


LOS ANGELES - John Boyega needed help.

The 23-year-old star of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was starting to question a lot of things about what life would hold now that he was part of what's expected to be one of the biggest films of all time.

The British-born actor wasn't a complete unknown when he was cast, like his co-star Daisy Ridley, but it was a stratospheric jump to go from the 2011 cult favourite "Attack the Block" to suddenly being one of the key players in launching this new iteration of a multi-billion dollar franchise.

It wasn't regret. Boyega had gone through a grueling seven months of auditions to get here and was a massive fan going in. But now he was being tested in ways that no acting school could offer. For one, he wasn't even allowed to take his script home to memorize dialogue. The hyper-secrecy of the project required that the scripts stay on the London set.

To get around this, he'd occasionally record the response dialogue on his phone so that he could rehearse elsewhere. One night as his driver was pulling off the lot, he started practicing and realized he couldn't remember a thing. So they turned around, went back to Pinewood Studios and Boyega stayed late into the night studying his lines.

"I really do think that God sent Jesus personally to help me with that," Boyega said. "Lord have mercy, that was quite the experience."

But he still felt unsure about the future. He didn't want to burden his fellow veteran cast mates like Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill with questions about their experiences and how they handled their light speed ascendancy to otherworldly stardom.

"They're my co-stars and we were in a working environment," said Boyega. "It's not a place for teaching and all that."

At the time, Boyega's talent agency, CAA, also represented "Iron Man" star Robert Downey Jr., who is no stranger to this sort of fame. So he sent an email to Downey's agent saying, essentially, "Hi, I'm John. I'm going to be in 'Star Wars.' If he has time, can Robert Downey Jr. mentor me?"

He wasn't exactly sure that it would result in anything, but figured it was worth a shot. Later, Boyega remembers he was driving in London when he got a call from an unknown number.

"Who's this?" Boyega demanded.

"It's Robert," the voice said.

"Robert who, man?"

"Uh, Robert, Downey Jr."

"I'm like, oh crap! Iron Man!" Boyega recalled. "I had better park up."

They talked for two hours that day. It was the start of a true friendship that's since resulted in more hours-long chats, hang-outs, and even a chicken and waffles date.

"Good lord we get deep," Boyega said of their conversations. "For the most part it's definitely private, but in general, his thing has always been inner peace and how to deal with this on a mental level. Taking care of your mental health is something that he talks to me about."

"He's really changed my life with his advice."

Whether it's Downey's influence or not, Boyega has been weathering the attention with expert grace - even the ugly stuff. Some dark corners of the Internet have made Boyega's race somewhat of a thing.

When the first teaser debuted last year and Boyega's face was the first thing to appear on screen, #blackstormtrooper started trending on Twitter. And it wouldn't be the last time racism would seep through the generally positive enthusiasm for the film, either.

"I'm a strong individual. That's what I've learned in this process," Boyega said.

He takes it all with a grain of salt, noting the massive ticket pre-sales and the fact that he's still in the movie. Co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan said that Boyega's character Finn wasn't written for a particular ethnicity, either. Finn could have been anyone.

"The 'Star Wars' fans, their reputation can't be ruined by a few individuals," Boyega said. "Let's just leave them on their island and go and enjoy a 'Star Wars' movie."


Organizations: CAA

Geographic location: ASSOCIATED PRESSLOS ANGELES, London

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