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Rachel Cusk's 'Second Place' Offers Sharp Perceptions About Love And Creativity

A writer offers up her guest house to a famous painter in hope that something transcendent will happen. But he's selfish, amoral and flagrantly misogynistic — and monstrously at ease with all this.

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Other segments from the episode on May 19, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Wednesday, May 19, 2021: Interview with John Boyega; Review of Sophia Kennedy; Review of 'Second Place.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest is actor John Boyega. This year, he won a Golden Globe for his performance in the anthology series "Small Axe," as a Black British police officer who joined the force in the 1980s to try to change the system. Boyega got his first international break when he was cast as Finn in the "Star Wars" film "The Force Awakens." Boyega spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, the host of NPR's It's Been A Minute. Here's Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: A lot of you have probably seen John Boyega in a "Star Wars" movie - or two or three.


JOHN BOYEGA: (As Finn) You don't know a thing about me - where I'm from, what I've seen. You don't know the First Order like I do. They'll slaughter us. We all need to run.

SANDERS: Boyega played Finn in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy films - "The Force Awakens," "The Last Jedi" and "The Rise Of Skywalker." And a recurring role in the "Star Wars" franchise - this is the stuff a lot of actors' dreams are made of. But after playing Finn, John Boyega said his time with Disney and "Star Wars" wasn't great and that, in some ways, he was treated differently, if not worse, than some of his co-stars because he's Black.

Since then, Boyega has made speaking out about race a big part of his public persona. And he recently starred in a movie all about race and policing. It is called "Red, White And Blue," and it's just one part of an anthology series created and directed by Steve McQueen. That series is called "Small Axe" - A-X-E. In his film, Boyega plays a Black West Indian police officer in London trying to change policing from inside the force. We talk about that. But, first, we talk about how John grew up in a Pentecostal church and how that shaped the person he is today.

So, John, I really want to begin, if you will allow it, by discussing something we both have in common - we were both raised Pentecostal church kids, which is for me a big deal.

BOYEGA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, man, I was in the system.

SANDERS: How Pentecostal were you? Your dad was, like, a minister?

BOYEGA: Yeah, he had his own church. Our church was actually quite small through the years. It was a Pentecostal church - so a lot of charisma and music. But we - I mean, we were never, you know, like, you know, a T.D. Jakes kind of setup. It was just a relatively small church. So my experience was quite localized, you know, in terms of - you know, in comparison to everybody else who kind of, like, grew up in, like, a bigger church, where it was medium-sized or a megachurch.

SANDERS: How long was y'all's church services? Ours would go for hours.

BOYEGA: Oh, man, same thing.

SANDERS: There was never a program - just kind of, like, wait for the spirit. He's just, as long as the spirit's moving...

BOYEGA: Exactly, you know? And for some reason, man, the spirit takes a longer time for some reason. The spirit doesn't respect time. So we'd go in three, four hours sometimes, you know? And that's particularly hard on a Sunday because, you know, on Sunday, most times you're fasting on a Sunday. And so, yeah, you know, food is the only thing you're thinking about by the time you get to certain prayers (laughter).

SANDERS: So my mother was actually the church organist at our Pentecostal church growing up, so I had to be at every church service, which means that, in the summer, when school wasn't in session, I was at Tuesday night testimonial, Wednesday night midweek, Thursday night prayer service, Friday night church and Sunday service. And then on the fifth Sundays - if the month had a fifth Sunday - there'd be a second service on Sunday evening.

BOYEGA: That's the only thing that I was happy about - with the smaller Pentecostal church, you're not getting the second service. Do you know what I mean?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BOYEGA: So it's like, with that, you get to just have your Bible study on Tuesday. Wednesday, I think, the cleaners will go in. Friday, prayer service. Saturday, you know, choir practice and, you know, the ushers come in and that kind of stuff. Then Sunday, you know, it's go-time. So I actually made a lot of friends there, and, you know, it is still a great source of spiritual motivation as well.

But I had a nuance of moments there. I think as I was getting older, sometimes I got a bit bored. But that wasn't necessarily to do with spirituality, but that was 'cause, you know, culturally, it was a Nigerian Pentecostal church, and sometimes, you know, whenever they go into their native language or, you know, whether it's kind of, like, the subject matter doesn't really fall in line with a teenage - you know, a U.K. teenage guy, you know, you're not necessarily thinking in the same kind of line as everyone else. So sometimes I'll just be, like, more detached, you know? I'll just think of movie trailers and stuff in my head while everybody else is praying.

SANDERS: Really?

BOYEGA: Yeah, man.


BOYEGA: To think about - you know, because I was still involved in acting while I was going to church. So I had to actually - 'cause I played the drums for the choir.

SANDERS: That's a serious responsibility. You were driving the music.

BOYEGA: Yeah. So yeah, I played drums. My sister played the keys. And then my other sister would sing. And then we had, like, two other people in the choir, and that's how it'd be. So, you know, I would have to do - go through praise and worship and then go to Theatre Peckham to go and, like, train and stuff. So I finally figured out a balance between the two, but sometimes I was not interested. I can't lie.


SANDERS: I used to - when I was really young, my mother would let me just take books to read during church.

BOYEGA: That's what you want, man. But, you know, no, man, sometimes Nigerian parents will kick you in the trenches, man. They'll kick into the deep waters and be like - all of a sudden, everybody's speaking in tongues. It's like, wait, wait, wait - I just got here. Like, how does this even work?

SANDERS: (Laughter) How does this work? I also read that when you told your father that you wanted to act, he wanted you to become a minister, but he was OK with you acting. That's a cool dad, especially to be a pastor.

BOYEGA: Yeah, no, I mean, my dad never wanted me to be a minister. I don't know how that got about. But...

SANDERS: Oh, sorry about that (laughter).

BOYEGA: That was something that came, I think, from one of - maybe a theater director that misspoke or whatever. But my dad, it was more about stability for him, you know? What's the stability? And I guess acting was a mystery, so they didn't understand it. So they would kind of like - it's kind of like when you have to take your kid to a game or some kind of hobby that you know absolutely nothing about, but it's kind of like, OK, well, if it makes you happy and you seem like you're good at it, you know, let's just kind of go along with it.

So my dad took me to my first-ever audition. My dad came to watch my shows, even when - right up to when I was at college, he came to my shows at Theatre Peckham. And I guess they had to learn to understand what it even was - like, you know, what does acting mean as a career, as a livelihood, you know?

SANDERS: It's so interesting to hear you talk about how your relationship with your father and your parents is pretty good and they were pretty supportive because you're here to talk about your recent Steve McQueen film, which is about a very conflicted father-son relationship, a really tense one.

BOYEGA: Yeah. I mean, that in itself is - also comes with the nuance of life. You've got to remember that when Leroy in "Red, White And Blue," when he's a scientist, his father is fully behind it because there's a sense of stability, and then there's a sense of a future. But when he changes his career or goes about certain things in a certain way, you know, sometimes your parents, you know, they trip, you know? And I had those fair share of those kind of moments.

So despite my parents supporting me most of the time, you know, there are still those moments where they are truly fearful for your stability. You know, how are you going to navigate the world if you're not, you know, on your own two feet? Because, you know, a parent's dream - right? - is to raise a child so that they can be strong enough to go about life themselves, you know? And in that comes a bit of fear when you go into a job that can be quite hard and is hard to level up and rise in the ranks. I guess that's something that we had to play on in "Red, White And Blue," and that's something that I could still pick on certain moments that related to that.

SANDERS: So "Red, White And Blue" is the film that you're in. You play Leroy, this police officer. But the film is part of a several-part series called "Small Axe." How much of the plot of your film, "Red, White And Blue," can you give to our listeners now?

BOYEGA: Well, you know, "Red, White And Blue" is about Leroy Logan, who starts off as a young scientist, has a deep-rooted connection with the community and decides that he wants to join the police force, the Metropolitan Police in the U.K., which at the time unfortunately wasn't the best time to join in the face of low numbers of especially Black police officers. But in a time where there's tensions between the general public and the police, Leroy feels like he could be a Black man who can go into the police force and change the institution from the inside-out.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. And he is this Black man in London, son of immigrants, who goes into the police force to try and fix it. I'm guessing that you accepted this role before last summer's summer of protest and George Floyd's death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think you would have thought differently about taking on this kind of role - a Black man trying to fix the police force from within - had it been offered to you after George Floyd's death?

BOYEGA: No, definitely not. I think with me and acting, I have quite an organic relationship with acting and art that I don't allow the world to dictate. We're here to tell the stories of the untold sometimes. We're here to tell stories from a different perspective. You don't always need to fall in line with the opinions and direct decisions of the characters that you play, you know, hence why, you know, it's called acting. There's traveling to do because you're not playing you. And I'm really a big fan of that stretch and of getting into the minds of people that, you know, doesn't necessarily 100% align with me. So I would have been 100% behind that, you know, to play a police officer who's conflicted because, you know, when you say, you know, Black Lives Matter, it means, you know, the Black individuals who are also officers.

SANDERS: Leroy is a real person, a real Black man in the U.K. who joined the force. You talked with him in putting this movie together. In the movie, you play in Leroy. He experiences a lot of negativity once he joins the police force. Some of his white officers ostracize him. At one point, they write the N-word on his locker. Black people in the community call him a coconut and think that he's a sellout. Even at one point, Leroy's father questions why he became a police officer because his dad had a bad run-in with police officers. Was it actually that bad for Leroy when you talked with him?

BOYEGA: Yeah, he spoke about that. And in some respects, it actually got a bit worse because, you know, there's only so much you can show about somebody's journey that lasts well over a decade. And there's so much that goes down that you can't fit into this kind of format. But what we showed was that, in fact, the essence of what he went through but in its nuance on a day-to-day, it was quite stressful. You know, maybe you can handle the off kind of comment, you know, once every six months. You know, you can handle the off kind of, like, obstacle once every six months. But for someone like Leroy, it was handed down on a day-to-day basis as he patrols the streets, you know, as he goes into, you know, the Black communities. And then when he, you know, was going into the white communities, you know, building that bridge, as he said, is a really hard position. And I think he went through it, man, he really, really did.

SANDERS: Well, because he stayed in the force for decades, right?

BOYEGA: Yeah, he did. Yeah.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders, recorded with John Boyega. Boyega stars in the TV anthology series "Small Axe." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders, recorded with actor John Boyega. He played Finn in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy. He won a Golden Globe for his role in the anthology series "Small Axe." Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A minute.

SANDERS: You know, this film is also about assimilation and whether it can ever really happen. You know, your character, Leroy, is the son of immigrants in the U.K. He joins a police force, excels and still ends up being ostracized. As we said, his own father has a problem with his son being a police officer. And there's this scene where the two of them kind of get into it where Leroy says, I'm doing what y'all told me to do. This is what you taught me to do. And then you, as Leroy, you yell to your dad, you wanted us to be more British than the British.


BOYEGA: (As Leroy Logan) Isn't that what you taught us? Isn't that what you drilled into us? Study every hour, God said. Don't leave the house or mix with the Black kids. Educate ourselves at the expense of our lives. You made us feel like we could be a part of everything. You wanted us more British than the British. At least this way, Dad, I can change things seriously. Dad, seriously, what do you think I am?

SANDERS: That stung because I think, for so many Black people across the world, we are told that if we in some way perform the right version of us, it will be OK.

BOYEGA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Like, you're going to get the - more opportunities. You're going to rise faster. And, you know, it's a stressful existence for people to keep, especially after a long amount of time.

SANDERS: Has playing this role made you think differently or reflect on assimilation and you and how assimilated you think you are, John Boyega?

BOYEGA: I don't know. I don't know. It made - I think for the most part, this role made me think about my relationship with my dad. I think that was like, for me, the most fundamental thing that was kind of like the beating heart of Leroy's journey and of his change.

SANDERS: Tell me more.

BOYEGA: Well, it's because - you know, when we - when myself and Steve - Steve McQueen - would speak on set, we would speak about our relationship with our fathers. What happens to those, you know, dynamics? You know, what happens when you decide to make that life-changing choice and then you want your father's blessing right before you go and conquer the world? You know, every guy has that kind of feeling of wanting their dad to give them that kind of support as they move forward. You know, what happens when you don't get that and, in a sense, have to earn that as you kind of, like, grow and go along?

SANDERS: What did Steve say about all this stuff? What stuck with you the most from what he told you?

BOYEGA: Steve's fixation to me was on what art is. Like, he always made a statement of saying, remember, you're an artist. You're an artist. You're an artist. And that always spoke to me because he was kind of giving me that balance in which, you know, sometimes your talent and, yes, what makes you financially stable, what makes you known by people, but sometimes, you know, that art can be used for some form of good. And him kind of putting such an emphasis on being an artist gives me a different definition than wanting to be a movie star or, you know, being an artist really makes me feel like I can still tell stories, but then at the same time, I can help people. I can - and not be seen as, you know, trying to do it for any other reason than to take a leaf out of my own book in the sense that I went through some stuff and someone helped me. I just would really appreciate that if I could be like that in someone else's story.

SANDERS: It's interesting to hear you talk about Steve McQueen telling you to, you know, be an artist, because for a lot of people over the last few months, you became an activist. You've been rather outspoken on issues of race in Hollywood recently. You know, first last summer, you gave a speech at a Justice for Black Lives rally.


BOYEGA: I want to thank every single one of you for coming out. This is very important. This is very vital. Black lives have always mattered. We have always been important. We have always meant something. We have always succeeded regardless. And now is the time. I ain't waiting. I ain't waiting. I have been born in this country. I'm 28 years old, born and raised in London. (Unintelligible) time, every Black person understands and realize the first time you were reminded that you were Black. You remember - every Black person in here remembered when another person reminded you that you were Black.

SANDERS: And after that, you also gave an interview in GQ and, you know, basically made the point that some of the racism doesn't just exist in policing. You know, you talked about how your character in the "Star Wars" films that you were featured in was marginalized, given less of a plot, less character development, probably because that character was Black. This became a big deal. But, you know, when I read that GQ article where you said what you said, I couldn't tell if you wanted it to become a big deal or not. What did you want to come out of those comments?

BOYEGA: Well, I think I wanted to discuss the elephant in the room that is easily dismissed sometimes, easily seen as a selfish act, a way to put the attention on you. I wanted to discuss an issue that I discussed with actors on set, an issue that I had discussed with, you know, professional individuals, you know, execs, producers who I'd meet, whether at award shows or meetings, who were noticing the same things I'd noticed. You know, I tell the story of walking in a park and someone random - and this is somebody that was not even in industry basis - he just recognized me. And, you know, he even mentioned kind of like seeing the change in trajectory in my character and just all the stuff that I mentioned in that GQ article, you know, at the time.

And I guess I just wanted to say it out loud so that it wouldn't be an awkward conversation to have, because I think, in general, what I realized after all of this is that, in general, I think human beings assume the worst. So as soon as you open up about something like that, people assume that you're doing it for the worst reasons - right? - doing it for yourself. And, you know, you just (unintelligible) you and whatever. But they forget that there's a big process, and especially when it comes to studio films and characters. The characters are only as good as the moments that you give them. When we talk about, you know, Captain America and him kind of facing off Thanos and his army, when you talk about these moments that are given to characters, it's only because these moments are written by somebody. These moments are put in there on purpose to elevate characters.

We've got people now watching "Falcon And The Winter Soldier," and a lot of people have been commenting about the elevation of Falcon's character - right? - in the series and how they've really done well with bringing him up, which I also agree as well. You know, and we can see there is - that's because you give characters these special moments, you know. But then what then happens when, you know, some moments feels like you're being bypassed and it kind of goes for years and years and things pile on? Remember, there were so many different issues with the Chinese poster and, you know, the crescendo of that.

SANDERS: We should say what that was for listeners.

BOYEGA: Yeah. In China, you know, my image was kind of like minimized and in some posters completely taken off for the Chinese version of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

SANDERS: So you were smaller than the white actors on the poster if you were there at all. How did that feel?

BOYEGA: At the time, I would - you know, I've spoken about it before, spoken about it many times. And, you know, I just was kind of like, well, I'm in the movie. Like, you know, much like what I said when I had to respond - And I guess a lot of people forget that, at the time, I was the only Black guy on the cast.

SANDERS: Yeah. And a black stormtrooper at that. It's a big deal.

BOYEGA: Right. Yeah. And like everybody else is getting announced. And there's no people saying that they want to boycott the movie. There's no weird messages. I'm not - you know, people are not, you know, calling you all types of names, you know. So the experience in itself becomes quite unique for you, right? But as you go along and all these issues pile on top, you know, I just thought it was, you know, quite important to say something, so it's not an elephant in the room. And I think that, you know, more conversations have even been bubbling with other actors now in different, you know, projects and franchises. And they just, you know - things that they noticed as well. And, you know, it's a conversation worth having, to be honest.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders, recorded with John Boyega. Boyega plays Finn in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy. He stars in the anthology series "Small Axe," which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. We'll hear more of their interview after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with actor John Boyega. He played Finn in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy. His other films include "Attack The Block," "Detroit," and "Pacific Rim Uprising." He won the Golden Globe for his leading role in the anthology series "Small Axe." He played Leroy Logan, a real-life Black British police officer who joined the force in the 1980s to try to change the system. Boyega has been outspoken about systemic racism in society and in Hollywood. Last year, he was part of a Justice for Black Lives rally in London. And in an interview, he talked about how his character in "Star Wars" was sidelined along with the other characters played by actors of color. Boyega spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. When we left off, they were talking about Boyega's comments about "Star Wars."

SANDERS: You think it's getting better? From the time you made those comments about "Star Wars" to now, do you think there's been progress made? There's so much discussion around visibility and representation in the industry.

BOYEGA: I've seen some amazing shows. I'm seeing some amazing creatives growing. But as I even grow in my own education, I'm starting to look behind the scenes, you know? I'm starting to look about these teams and sometimes the streaming platforms that could sometimes play into the diverse game just through acquiring projects. Like, you know, is the diversity coming from the decision-makers on your team, you know, the execs, the producers? Or is it coming through you acquiring, you know, Black projects and just buying them?

SANDERS: Which is preferred? Is it better when these big studios acquire, you know, content of color from creators of color? Or should they do a better job of just integrating that stuff into their entire structures?

BOYEGA: I think - yeah. I think they absolutely, absolutely need to integrate that into their structure. And we're already seeing that happening - right? - on some fronts. You gain more perspective when you hire the individuals on ground to kind of give birth to these ideas, who also, you know, kind of are thinking parts for what's next, what entertains us, you know? And I feel like you're getting to a point now where a lot more people are interested in entertainment. You know, there is also a responsibility to gain access to these people and try to, you know, change the actual structure so that you don't need to prep, scramble and be like, we need more Black movies.


BOYEGA: You know what I mean? Stop scrambling man. Try and get the structure, you know, organic, in a sense.

SANDERS: Well - and then it raises another question. How do you make it? And, like - I don't know. I think a lot. Instead of saying, like, how do we make Hollywood work better for people of color? It's like, Hollywood was not created for people of color. Hollywood was created for white people by white people with the whims of white people. I'm just saying what it is. And maybe there's a moment to imagine something different and new. And I don't know. Do you think the industry is going that way? Like, just saying, well, how do we make something new?

BOYEGA: Yeah. I've been brainstorming that myself. As you know, I set up my own production company a good few years ago in light of kind of, like - and this is even before the protests or any kind of things like that. I just set it up to gain my independence and to be a part of the creative, you know, process and just to see the way in which the industry is changing, collaborations that are being had. You know, there's a lot of change, you know, here and there. But for me, it does come down to that fundamental question and statement. And it's something that I've been brainstorming, you know, taking apart, putting it back together. I recently listened to a Tyler Perry speech. He spoke about ownership. And that in itself makes you go, oh, damn. Like, you're just like, OK, OK.

What - like, what is being said now about what we're doing? Because I truly believe that when you give us a chance to tell our stories and give us the quality, I feel the industry would change forever. And it's continuously doing that. But I guess, you know, I don't feel like behind the scenes, we're completely at the forefront of those discoveries and kind of projects, you know, all the time. You know, and shouts out to production companies like Macro, you know, by Charles King. Like, you know, what they just did with "Judas And The Black Messiah," man, like, these guys are kind of like - they have that vision. I think, recently, he said that, you know, if you think about Universal and Disney, that's what he's looking to aim toward. And for me, that's what I'm talking about right there. I need the guy on the top to be able to be Black enough to make some decisions (laughter).

SANDERS: OK. I'm rooting for it.

BOYEGA: Yeah. Bump all these filters now, man. And also, like, look what we've done, man. We've got to remember, man, like - come on, guys, man. Look at what we done, man, when we saw our people in Wakanda - look at what we done with those numbers. You know, not to say it was just us, but look at the way we poured into that just in a celebratory sense, in terms of our passion. We are the - we are an amazing fanbase. But it will be great to see that, you know, come to us as well.

SANDERS: And also, what "Black Panther" proved was that all kinds of people will watch Black people on a screen.

BOYEGA: Exactly. Yes. Exactly. I feel like a lot of people sometimes, they're just like, you know what, man? I just want to see something with quality, you know, with great effects, with great scope, something that shows that somebody invested into it, because we have to think about just the basic, you know, the characteristic investment. There's an interest there, right? It's a lot for it. You know that it's going to grow into something that's going to benefit you, you know, and take away all the business and the politics that essentially starts from a feeling from when you hear about the projects, right, for when you pitch the project. And, you know, for some reason, man, the feeling is - it's kind of scarce (laughter). And now we want to double up on that feeling.

SANDERS: Well - and it's just like - it's so common sense. I'm sure you can relate to this. As a Black kid growing up, watching all kinds of TV and movies, I watched a lot of white TV and a lot of white movies because it was around.

BOYEGA: Yeah, because they were - yeah.

SANDERS: And I liked it.

BOYEGA: And some [expletive] was good.

SANDERS: And it was fine.

BOYEGA: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: Yes. And so if I can watch...

BOYEGA: Some dope ass white characters, man - ain't no problem.

SANDERS: Yes. If I can watch white people on the screen...

BOYEGA: Right. Right.

SANDERS: ...I'm willing to venture white people can watch Black people on the screen, too.

BOYEGA: I'm out here watching these shows. I'm rooting for these white people. I'm crying when certain white characters get killed. You can do it, too (laughter).

SANDERS: I watched "Friends."

BOYEGA: Right (laughter).

SANDERS: I watched, like, six seasons of "Friends," John. Come on.

BOYEGA: Right. Oh, facts.

SANDERS: What was John Boyega's experience with the police as a young Black kid?

BOYEGA: Well, as a young Black kid, I mean, I didn't really see them growing up in a sense of, like, they weren't at my door. But I saw them in my environment. You know, my mom and dad had us going to church. And, you know, we were always just really busy with being involved in the church environment. And then, you know, I found acting. But, I guess, when I started going to secondary school, and especially in Peckham at the height of knife crime and, you know, several things going on - I just saw them as kind of, like - they were aliens to me, in a sense. Like, they were so distant to my experience and to my world. In fact, the first time I actually had - I met the police was, unfortunately, one of my friends was murdered. And because me and my sister was one of the last people to see him, they came to our house to check if we saw anything. And obviously, he was Nigerian. And being part of the Nigerian community, that's the first time I saw that uniform in my living room.

SANDERS: What was your reaction as a kid in that moment? What were you feeling?

BOYEGA: Well, I was scared for - you know, for my friend. I was scared for my friend. I was scared for his situation because we just left him. You know what I mean? So it's like, you know, for us, it was just, like, the safety. And they're the police. They was the only ones with the information. I guess as we - as it got along and, you know, things started to get more intense, you know, I did, you know - you go through situations where there's a stop and search.

And for me, that was irritating because sometimes you'll just be with your friends. And then, maybe if you're at the bus stop and something's happened in Wharf Road and you're at Elephant and Castle, you know, they're stopping, like, every young guy that's there. So like, you're going through a situation where you're getting lined up, you know, in front of the streets. And then other buses are packed on the top and the bottom. And there's aunties and uncles. And I don't know who's going to see me from church. (Laughter) You know what I mean? And, you know, they're seeing you getting stopped and searched. And you know how people - they assume that, you know, sometimes that that's all the bad boys and this kind of stuff, you know?

Sometimes, for me, it just wasn't really comfortable. And, you know, living in a flat in a constant (ph) state, you know, you're living closely, you know, with strangers. Some strangers, you get to know. Some strangers, you have conflicts with. And, you know, we went through so much stuff, you know, living there and in our relation to the police. And then sometimes it was good. And sometimes, you know, you had individuals that was just - they was bad and really dismissive and sometimes even rude. And so for me, you know, my relation with the police is - has been mixed based on the officers that I've come across. But in close relations to people I love who are also in my environment, it's not great.

SANDERS: Was there ever a time when you thought about being a police officer yourself?

BOYEGA: Hell [expletive] no (laughter).

SANDERS: OK. All right. I had to ask.

BOYEGA: Me, I want to make money and change my family's life (laughter). Nah. No.

SANDERS: OK. OK. Well, you know, we learn from the film that you look good in uniform.

BOYEGA: I mean, I had to fill the shoes, man. But that's where the acting comes in, doesn't it? (Laughter).

SANDERS: OK. OK. Understood. Understood.

BOYEGA: Yeah. But honestly, I commend anybody that goes into that job, bro, because I couldn't possibly do it.

SANDERS: You know, these are two different conversations - you last summer speaking about racism and policing versus you last fall speaking out about racism in the film industry and the "Star Wars" franchise seems like two different things, but the more that I thought about it, it kind of feels pretty similar. Like, I don't know. I kind of imagine, in some ways, "Star Wars" feels like the police force of the movie industry. It is ubiquitous. It is iconic. It is larger than life. There's a mythology around it. There's a legion of supporters who would do almost anything, it seems, to uphold that brand. It feels as if like both are these behemoths that are hard to tackle.

BOYEGA: I mean, yeah. I mean, "Star Wars" comes with a challenge, but I always took it on the chin. I mean, you have to understand that. Sometimes when people heard what I said, they'd be like, you know, man, just shut the hell up, dude. Like, you're making all this money. And you're in this position. A lot of people don't get that opportunity. But, you know, I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and say that when I started in the industry, I had everything figured out. Like, one day you're in your flat in Peckham, next day, you know, you're making millies (ph), walking on red carpets. Like, that's a transition. You know, I don't want to boo-hoo it, but it's a bloody experience.

But then what then happens when you go into a space and you see that there's further elevation? I mean, you see that there's - you go in there thinking that, you know, the hamburger and fries that you got was the best you're going to ever get, not knowing that there's other people in there getting a little side of bacon and...

SANDERS: Getting a steak down the table.

BOYEGA: ...The seasonings thrown in there. And, you know, it's not until those kind of things, you know, happen, you're like, I don't want to sound complacent, but shouldn't - you know what I mean? And I think those conversations should be had. And I'm glad at the time I was able to say something about it. And then also, when that conversation is now out there, I've spoken to actors who have said, now we can make a reference, bro. You don't understand. Now we can have a discussion with the director. I see that. Like, bro, like, I would like more of a backbone in this. I feel like my character would make more of a stronger decision. I feel like - you know, what I mean? Now we can have that.

SANDERS: So they're quoting you when they're asking for more. That must feel cool.

BOYEGA: But now it's a reference. You can say, well - but it was also kind of like, you know...

SANDERS: I mean, it must feel nice.

BOYEGA: It feels good, you know, to get that, you know, because there's now a reference, you know. Just go, OK, cool. You know - remember that we read the John Boyega situation. And to know that, I'm kind of like - you know, maybe, you know, it can be used as a nice kind of jump-off for other conversations that are now going on.

GROSS: John Boyega spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Sam Sanders. Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. John Boyega stars in "Red, White, And Blue," which is part of the anthology series "Small Axe." The entire series is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by Sophia Kennedy, who makes pop dance and electronica music. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Sophia Kennedy is a singer-songwriter and producer who was born in Baltimore and has lived for many years in Germany. As a student, her admiration for the independent director John Cassavetes led her to study filmmaking, but she soon became involved in the Hamburg music scene, making pop, dance and electronica music. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Kennedy's new album, called "Monsters," is a remarkably diverse collection of songs.


SOPHIA KENNEDY: (Singing) Buildings are wide on this side of town. You've got the No. 1 room on the floor. The few in the hallway, they're talking 'bout business. She'll might be too late for the show (ph). Curtains are...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I usually try to begin these pieces by playing a bit of a song that gives you an idea of the typical sound and style of the artist I'm prepared to review. I find myself at something of a loss, however, when it comes to Sophia Kennedy. That's because on this new album, "Monsters," she sounds different on nearly every track. The song I played at the start, "Chesnut Avenue," features Kennedy in full-throated crooning mode. But contrast that now with one of the high points on this album, a song called I'm Looking Up. That's looking up as in heavenward. Kennedy uses a much more conversational approach here, singing while talking, chewing over grief, mourning and an intense curiosity about the possibility of an afterlife.


KENNEDY: (Singing) You're gone. That's no hallucination. I can't bear - I can't bare this nightmare. So real, like a deer - like a deer hitting the windshield. And I - I need a sign. Is there still someone with something somewhere? And I - I'm looking up.

TUCKER: Sophia Kennedy was raised in Baltimore, but moved some time ago to Germany, where she operates out of Hamburg. She's performed with other configurations of musicians, including as half of a duo called Shari Vari. She records for a label, Pampa Records, known mostly for house and techno music.

Her closest collaborator is the German producer Mense Reents, who produced her 2017 debut album and this new one.


KENNEDY: (Singing) Bright epileptic tide lights, bright lights, fireflies. Apocalyptic-type lights, panoramic-wide side, highlight. Schizophrenic timeline, red sky, bad guy. Narcoleptic-dark times, manic pressure full time, headline.

TUCKER: That's "Orange Tic Tac," in which Kennedy gives herself over to a big thumping electronica beat, reciting lyrics that cluster one-syllable words containing long I sounds - tight lights, bright lights, for example, and wide side, highlight. But remember how I said she's different all the time? Compare what I just played to the composition that follows it on the album, "I Can See You." This is the song where everything Sophia Kennedy is trying to accomplish on "Monsters" comes together. It features a pulsing keyboard riff. Some loose clapping keeps the beat. Kennedy's voice is warm and confiding. On the rest of the material here, she can seem to be talking to herself. But on this one, she's talking to a lover, delighted to be listing all the ways in which they're alike and all the ways they're different. It also helps, of course, that she's come up with an irresistible chorus.


KENNEDY: (Singing) I can see through the darkness. I can stand where it is steep. Feel a sadness coming along, and it's hanging over me. When the bells on the hill, they've stopped to ring and what once meant the world to us, now don't mean a thing. Are you fact? Are you fiction? You appear in many shapes. We'll both look the same once we lie in our graves. Whatever you have, I can possess, whether it's sweet or poisonous. Come rain or come shine, if I can't have you, I'll always be mine. I can see you.

TUCKER: "Monsters" is Kennedy's second solo album. I went back and listened to some of her pre-solo work, much of it more heavily dance music oriented, some of it sung in German. Her present method is to play various keyboards and flute herself and work with her producer to layer or distort her vocals and the mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. It's the method of a restless experimenter. Kennedy doesn't want to be pinned down, but I'd say the more she showcases her voice, the more people are going to want to hear what she has to say.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Sophia Kennedy's new album called "Monsters."

After we take a short break, John Powers will review Rachel Cusk's new novel about art and artists. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The English novelist Rachel Cusk is best known here for her three books known as the Outline Trilogy. Her new novel, "Second Place," tells the story of a writer who invites a famous painter to stay at her guesthouse on the marshy coast of England. Our critic at large John Powers says it's an enjoyably feverish tale about what we expect of art and artists.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Of all the big British novelists of the 20th century, none is now less fashionable than D.H. Lawrence. It's easy to see why. He could be a bullying gasbag. He flirted with fascism. And his gender politics were, to put it generously, retrograde. At the same time, Lawrence was a genuine seeker, a genius obsessed with addressing big questions about the nature of the self, what it means to love and how to be authentic in the world. This quest still makes him a lodestar for many of today's writers, ranging from the sneaky-brilliant Geoff Dyer to fierce Rachel Cusk, who calls him her mentor.

Cusk grapples with his spirit in "Second Place," her first novel since the Outline Trilogy, which is one of the great fictional achievements of the new millennium. Where those crystalline novels were largely plotless and had the chilly burn of dry ice, this fascinating book finds her moving in a messier new direction. Loosely inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan's memoir of hosting Lawrence in Taos, N.M., in the 1920s, "Second Place" tells a layered tale that, in its heightened fervor, feels as humid and murky as its marshy seaside setting.

The narrator, M, is a willful, sharp-eyed, not especially likeable writer whose strapping second husband Tony is a mensch who looks after their property. Although their life seems happy, M keeps stewing over her sense that she's somehow insubstantial, invisible even to herself. In hopes of changing that, she offers up their rustic guesthouse to a famous painter called L, a child of the working class, whose art she found life-changing in Paris many years ago. When he accepts, she expects something transcendent to happen. Instead, L turns up with a gorgeous young woman who makes her feel old and unattractive. And even worse, he treats M dismissively. While L has time for Tony and M's daughter Justine, with whom M has a tricky relationship, and even Justine's boring, entitled boyfriend Kurt, he can't be bothered with the one person who brought him there in hopes that his art might somehow rescue her.

Now, if you've read any Cusk, you'll know two things about her. First, she writes with a knife-thrower's precision and showmanship. "Second Place" is filled with sharp perceptions about love, child-rearing and creativity that are, alas, too long to quote. Second, her books repeatedly explore the same themes - fate, family life, real estate and the tug of war between art and life, especially the attempt to shape our lives into meaningful narratives. Cusk is clearly searching for a life that feels unified and free, a way of being that will do what M says that L's paintings do - tell the world, I am here. Her work is acutely intelligent about how hard this is for women, who are pulled in countless direction by family, by social expectations, and by internalized social expectations that lead one to argue with one's own feelings and desires.

Small wonder that M finds herself pulled between two self-contained men who, in very different ways, symbolize freedom. The quiet, nurturing Tony is a figure of light who believes in nature over art. He doesn't fret, doesn't gossip, doesn't compete. He's complete in who he is. But while M adores Tony, she's also drawn to creative darkness, a quality she finds alluring in L's art and in his thoroughgoing immersion in it. Trouble is, L is the walking embodiment of male privilege. He's selfish, amoral, irresponsible, flagrantly misogynistic and monstrously at ease with all this.

That said, Cusk is too ambitious a novelist to create a privileged male artist simply to flay him. Instead, she confronts her heroine with the painful truth about L and his kind. There's an abyss between what she calls his, quote, "ability to be right about the things that he saw and how, at the plane of living, this rightness could be so discordant and cruel." She might well be talking of Lawrence, Picasso, Philip Roth and countless others of inspiring artistic vision and depressing personal behavior. Yet contrary to what many people seem to fear these days, Cusk doesn't let M get destroyed by her dealings with a reprehensible artist. Life is more complicated than that. Everything I determined to happen happened, M tells us, but not as I wanted it.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new novel "Second Place" by Rachel Cusk.

The CDC has loosened its COVID guidelines for people who are vaccinated, but in India, the pandemic is rampaging across the country. On the next FRESH AIR, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman joins us from New Delhi, where the world's worst coronavirus crisis is advancing around him, and sickness and death are everywhere. This out-of-control surge in India has undermined confidence in Prime Minister Modi, who was a Trump ally. Gettleman has reported from war zones, was kidnapped in Iraq, but finds this frightening in a totally different way. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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