John Boyega on doing Brian Brown-Easley justice in ‘Breaking’

The actor reveals what went into bringing the heartbreaking true story to life and discusses working with Michael K. Williams in his final role.

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“Breaking” is hitting theaters today and it’s not to be missed. The film that stars John Boyega as troubled veteran Brian Brown-Easley premiered at Sundance in January and was previously titled “892.” Featuring standout performances from Nicole Beharie, Connie Britton, and a final bow from the late Michael K. Williams, it’s written and directed by Abi Damaris Corbin and co-written by Kwame Kwei-Armah. 

The film is based on the true story of the military vet who took matters into his own hands when he was wronged by the country he spent his life serving. It’s a poignant reminder of the way we continue to mistreat our heroes. It’s also a staunch reminder that mental illness and its repercussions remain a devastating problem for so many, particularly people of color. 

Before the film even starts, we already know how it will end thanks to the countless headlines that chronicle the day Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo bank in Marietta, Georgia, in 2017 and said he had a bomb. It wasn’t money he was demanding, but instead, a platform to voice his grievances. The withholding of $892 from his disability check from the VA was threatening to make him homeless, an unacceptable circumstance for the husband and father who endeavored to do the right thing despite his PTSD.

He punctuated his demands with niceties like “please” and “thank you,” doing his best not to frighten the two women locked inside of the bank with him. 

Beharie is superb in her portrayal of Estel Valerie, a bank employee who recognized his compromised mental state sooner than most. Williams plays Eli Bernard, a hostage negotiator who is hell-bent on getting this man out alive, but his mission proved futile. 

TheGrio sat down with Boyega to discuss what went into his transformation for the role of this tortured veteran.

“Fundamentally, how I felt when I first read it is it felt like just a very profound moment of purpose for me. I was actually so moved, frustrated, and angry about a situation that kind of proceed in the script and that in itself just creates a passion,” he explains. “I was able to get to a point where we were able to create Brian and to create a version of him that does the real Brian justice.”

Boyega’s portrayal of a man battling post-traumatic stress disorder is so spot-on and goes far beyond delivering the lines on the page. His physical performance of someone in the throes of mental illness is nothing short of a triumph. 

“How do we bring the narrative of the pages to the screen and tell this story for Brian? He sees his body movement tell the story through the stress of his voice, the constant head-tapping that Brian used to do in real life. Sometimes it’s the distant kind of off-topic conversations he would have spontaneously and topics that would come out of nowhere,” Boyega explains. “These are details that we discussed that we knew would be incorporated into the film they started with. We used that research about Brian, specifically about the man, and it’s important to do that because sometimes you approach things like this and you’re just researching the mind as it relates to the situation or the circumstance of the bank robbery. Whereas I just kind of separate from that and just took in the man as an individual. And thankfully we had we had enough research to help aid and guide my performance decisions.”

(From left) “Breaking” co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah poses with the film’s star, John Boyega, director/co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin, and co-stars Nicole Behari and Selenis Leyva. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau)

Part of the research came from conversations Boyega had with Brown-Easley’s real-life ex-wife, and even she gave her heartfelt approval of how the actor portrayed her late love.

“That access was there but there was definitely a limitation when we started filming, considering the pandemic,” Boyega said. “But we also did get to have continuous talks after her seeing the movie. Thank God that his ex-wife, who she was, she was actually ecstatic about the movie, is in full support of me and told me that I was Brian. And that for me was like…that really, really hit me. ‘Wow.’”

Boyega also discussed his experience on set with Williams, an actor and colleague he had a particular affinity for. The pair worked together on Boyega’s very first film project, “Attack the Block,” and he was instrumental in getting Williams to do this film. 

“Michael was someone that— I remember going and buying “The Wire” from season one to four and having to binge watch it in my small little flat in South London. I’m being inspired by all these actors who came out from various different areas of Baltimore, who were not given an opportunity to play such nuanced roles, and he always intrigued me as a standout in the show,” he says. 

“So for me, it was like it was a moment of, ‘Yeah, you know what, we’re colleagues. I requested you be in this movie and you pulled through, but I’m also learning.’ I’m also taking notes on this brother because this guy is generous and genuine and that’s something that I want to embody as well. So it was definitely a blessing having him on this, but most importantly, having moments with him that were real.”

“Breaking” is in theaters now. 

Stay tuned for more on “Breaking” when Nicole Beharie joins Cortney Wills on next week’s episode of “Acting Up.” 

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