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How actor John Boyega prepared for his role in 'Breaking'

DON GONYEA, HOST:

In July of 2017, Brian Brown-Easley walked into a bank and handed a note to one of its employees. The note read, I have a bomb. But Brown-Easley, a 33-year-old Marine veteran, did not plan to rob the bank. He didn't want the bank's money. What he did want was for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to give him his monthly disability check of $892.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREAKING")

JOHN BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) OK. Who's in charge here? Who?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, she is, but we're both - I'm an...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm the manager.

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) OK. Anyone in the back?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I will.

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) Once they leave, you lock the front and back doors. You understand me? You lock them all.

GONYEA: Brown-Easley never made it out of the bank alive. He was shot and killed by police. The film "Breaking" follows the events of that day and examines the circumstances that led the former lance corporal to feel like he had no other option but to take a bank and a few of its employees hostage. Easley is played in the film by award-winning actor John Boyega, and he joins us now. John, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BOYEGA: Yeah, good to be here, mate.

GONYEA: This movie is based on a true story. The film was adapted from an article written by Aaron Gell for the publication Task & Purpose. The headline on that article was "They Didn't Have To Kill Him." What made you want to play Brian in this movie?

BOYEGA: I think it was just a shocking story that I hadn't heard about. The story was presented to me not through the article, but through the script for the first time. Then I was told to go and read the article because that's where the IP had been drawn from. So it was just a combination of the story just being so different to something that I had done before and the shock effect of the story to know that those issues still exist. And then I read a really great script that brought all those elements all together.

GONYEA: How did you prepare for this role? Did you talk to people who knew him or people who were maybe even involved on the day that the film depicts?

BOYEGA: It was researched first, so we had all the statements and all the documentation from everybody's recollection of that day. And these are all from the three main people that were involved. On top of that, I got the moment to actually speak with Brian's ex-wife, Jessica, and we had conversations just about who he was as a person, what kind of, you know, what kind of character he was, what kind of personality he had. And it was then, you know, just talking to Abi.

GONYEA: And tell our audience who Abi is.

BOYEGA: Oh, Abi Corbin. That's our amazing director.

GONYEA: What kind of responsibility do you feel to a character like Brian Brown-Easley? He's obviously someone who's just caught up in the bureaucracy, but he's also a person who's had some troubles and perhaps has some mental illness.

BOYEGA: Yeah. It's the accuracy for me of the struggles, and it's taking in all the complications that makes Brian Brian. I mean, in this moment, especially, as you said, the PTSD on one side, the financial issues, you know, the job issues, finding work. So for me, just - it was all about the accuracy of what he was suffering and then the accuracy of his human side too, making sure that he's not just defined by his actions, that this is a man that was, you know, soft-spoken, into movies and is bringing all of that into the character.

GONYEA: You show us his life. He lives in a rundown hotel. But he clearly has a daughter who he engages with and tries to have a normal relationship with her, even though he's struggling. We meet his ex-wife. We meet people he deals with over the course of every day. All of those characters give us, as viewers of the film, a sense of a man trying to get through it all and at least maintain some semblance of a normal life.

BOYEGA: Yeah, you get that. But the balance is hard to keep, especially when he's going through so much. And it's just all a bit too intense because there are negative outcomes on so many sides, which is a story we're hearing that's quite regular within the community of vets.

GONYEA: The film highlights the struggles veterans face with the VA. And it seems like the turning point for Brian - and the last straw for him, really - was that last visit to the DA's office. That visit ended in him being placed in handcuffs and not getting the disability check he was looking for.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREAKING")

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) I've been over this with the VA help line twice. I called the VA crisis line. I called Lincoln Tech. I've been down to the office. But you know what the problem is, ma'am? You don't write nothing down. If you put that pen to that paper, you would of had the information.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Please don't raise your voice, Mr. Easley.

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) Oh, it's just a suggestion.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That's who's got your money.

GONYEA: So we hear him trying to be calm, but we also hear the frustration rising.

BOYEGA: Yeah. And it's a conflict that is unbearable to live through for a long amount of time.

GONYEA: Brian's emotional and mental states in the film shift a lot. There are times when he's calm and polite, but at other times, he would have these outbursts of anger. Talk about balancing those two sides of a complex character.

BOYEGA: I had to work closely with Abi to actually pinpoint when those moments would be. So we would call it, you know, more softer, peaceful Brian, and then we'd call the other side of him the more extroverted, much more loud Brian. And for us, we had pinpoint moments in which people could see these two sides to him. He would sometimes be pleasant. But then when it would mentally kick in, he'd be much more frantic and much more indecisive in terms of what he was going to do.

GONYEA: Brian in the film seemed to, at least from watching it, conclude early on that he was not going to make it out of the bank alive. He believed the police would shoot and kill him. But his talks with the hostage negotiator were actually going well. And he was ready to let one of the two bank employees go in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. Watching it, there were plenty of opportunities for this to end peacefully, that he didn't have to die. Your thoughts on that?

BOYEGA: That's what they do. We seem to see that they can escort a mass shooter out of the red zone almost peacefully. But as Brian said and as Brian's confirmed, you know, when he asked Nicole character, have you been robbed before? And he asked whether the robber got away. And she said, you know, yes, that everything kind of, you know, kind of fizzled out. And he goes, yeah, he's got to be white. It just kind of reflects Brian's perspective on this and the perspective that he saw when it comes to discrimination in these situations, that it's very rare for a Black body to survive, but a white man might be escorted out in a humane way and then be given a burger, you know, while he's being questioned.

GONYEA: I have to ask you about another actor who plays an important role in the film. I mentioned the negotiator that Brian deals with. It is the late Michael K. Williams. He's most famous from his role as Omar in "The Wire." In this film, he plays a sergeant on the police force outside the bank. Just your thoughts on working with him. He is now - he passed away September of last year.

BOYEGA: Working with him was fantastic and great. He was gracious. He was very, very much giving, and at the same time, a good energy to have. Even though a lot of the scenes were on the phone, we still had to have the actors on set to read off lines, so that the chemistry will still be there. And so that's something that all of us were doing on it. So we even got good time on set to just, you know, get to know each other a tad and do some good creative work.

GONYEA: If I can get you to talk about his character as well - he's African American. He is on the police force. You can see him trying to make sure that this plays out with Brian being safe, but he can't do it. What does his character represent?

BOYEGA: I mean, Michael K. Williams plays Sergeant Bernard, who was tasked with leading the negotiations for Brian. He's somebody - he was actually a war vet himself, had had experience with the VA himself. And so, you know, they thought he would - it would be appropriate for somebody like him to relate to Brian. And actually, what happened that day, he was just there to negotiate, but also had to - was very good at his job in terms of trying to use empathy, trying to use an understanding to kind of get into - on levels with Brian, which you see by act three is starting to work before the, you know, Brian's unfortunate demise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREAKING")

MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: (As Eli Bernard) Hey. What branch of service you in?

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) Marine.

WILLIAMS: (As Eli Bernard) Semper Fi, sir.

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) Where'd you train?

WILLIAMS: (As Eli Bernard) I'm a West Coaster - in CRD, San Diego.

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) OK. OK. So you one of them Hollywood brothers with the veneers in your mouth, huh?

WILLIAMS: (As Eli Bernard, laughing).

BOYEGA: (As Brian Brown-Easley) Shooting bubblegum bullets.

WILLIAMS: (As Eli Bernard, laughing) I'm from Saint Louis, Mo. But yes, sir, a Hollywood Marine I am. So tell me, sir, how can we put this back in the VA's hands versus a bank teller?

GONYEA: That was actor John Boyega alongside the late Michael K. Williams in their new film "Breaking." John Boyega, thank you for speaking with us.

BOYEGA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.