Americans are abuzz over the impending visit from the royal newlyweds, but another UK cultural phenomenon, one far more interesting than a pair of toothy aristocrats, has already arrived stateside: Attack the Block, the directorial debut of British comedian Joe Cornish. The film, a gritty sci-fi action-comedy about a crew of hoodie-clad street kids who defend their South London council estate against furry, feral alien invaders, is already the stuff of legend among indie-film cognoscenti, many of whom were on hand when it made its world premiere in March at the South by Southwest festival. Screened as part of the fest’s “Midnighters” program – a category reserved for more provocative genre fare – it met with rapturous acclaim, sending hordes of exultant festivalgoers into the Austin, Texas, night, proclaiming the film’s many virtues on Twitter and Facebook. Days later, Attack the Block exited SXSW with an audience award and a distribution deal – with Sony Screen Gems.
Since then, Screen Gems has been steadily stoking the buzz for the film ahead of its July 29 release, showing it off at special screenings in select cities and building upon its pile of glowing reviews. Much of that praise has been directed toward the film’s young star, John Boyega, making his feature-film debut in Attack the Block as Moses, a nihilistic petty larcenist moved to acts of courage and self-sacrifice when bloodthirsty extra-terrestrials threaten his beloved block. I caught up with the actor recently for a brisk chat, in which we discussed aliens, hoodies, and his co-star, Nick “Santa Claus” Frost.
It’s hard to believe this is really your first feature film role. Had you done much acting before?
I come from a theatre background. I’ve been a professional actor for about a year and a half now. But this is my first movie role, yeah.
When you first got the script for Attack the Block, what did you make of it? It’s such a wild film; I can’t imagine what it looked like on the page.
The first time I heard about Attack the Block, I thought it was incredibly stupid. I wasn’t really feeling it. When I got the script, I loved it. I lived in south London, so it’s kind of weird, a film being shot in south London, giving that kind of cinematic element to it. We’ve never had that. We’ve never had orchestral music playing at the back of scenes. We’ve never had that kind of action-adventure coming to where we live. So I fell in love with it. I fell in love with how inventive it was. Well done, Joe.
This was a pretty physical role, with all of the fights and stunts and fleeing from aliens. Had you ever done anything like that before in your theatre experience?
No, but I’m that guy that always copied the Power Rangers. You know that message before [episodes] where they tell you not to copy? I’m the guy that copied. It was kind of like doing that, just on a movie set, and a lot of people were there, telling me how to keep safe. But it was really fun.
The alien monsters in the film are pretty nasty creatures. How were they represented on set?
It was a guy in a suit. His name is Terry Notary. He’s been a monkey in Planet of the Apes; he was in Avatar, Silver Surfer, Hulk. He was on the set, in that suit, adding life and bringing that energy to the aliens. He was fabulous to work with.
That would be a fun suit to borrow, to play pranks on your friends.
Well, you know what? Me and Franz, who plays Dennis, we snuck into their room and kind of used their stuff. But there was a little bit of an accident with that, as they were very fragile. Sorry guys; it was us!
Before you signed on for the project, were you familiar at all with Joe Cornish or his work? Had you seen his Adam and Joe Show on the BBC?
No. I wasn’t familiar with Joe at all. I thought someone else was directing this film when I read the script. And then they told me it was a guy called Joe Cornish, and I was like, “Wow.” But it was amazing working with Joe.
Did Joe have you watch certain films to prepare for the role? There a lot of different influences evident in Attack the Block.
Yeah, he gave us a DVD package. There was Warriors, Goonies, Assault on Precinct 13, the first Predator, Alien. It was kinda to get us to understand what this film was tryin’ to do. Ideally, what Attack the Block is, is a kind of love letter to all of those films, kind of saying, “Thank you for giving us such a great escape when we were kids,” you know what I mean? That’s what Attack the Block is, and those films helped us with our performance.
What was the atmosphere like on-set?
It was fun on-set. There was a great energy. It was cold, so there was loads of hot chocolate, loads of Red Bull. When we sat in a meeting to start filming, Joe was like, “Basically, we’re a bunch of friends, and we’ve been given a loads of money to make a movie that we’ve always wanted to make.” And that’s exactly what it felt like, a student film, but with eight million [pounds].
What did you guys think of Nick Frost? He seems like a lively fellow.
Nick Frost is like Santa Claus, but a Santa Claus that comes every day. He’s such a nice, bubbly, funny guy. He would do some crazy stuff before we’d start shooting a scene, like a serious scene. I’m out there putting my thing in, and all the gang are there, trying to get the scene done, and Nick would walk in with these little puppy dog eyes, with his hair tied back, and be like, “Are you all right, lads?” And just seeing him cracked you up. But he really cared about us, cared about our careers, gave us advice and stuff. He was Uncle Frost.
Have you seen Super 8? I have a feeling that a lot of people are going to be comparing it to Attack the Block.
Yes I have. I actually saw it here, near Long Beach. There were loads of guys applauding and clapping, which is not what we get back home. We don’t really get that kind of “Woooo!!!!”, that kind of energy. I actually love that. I’m a big fan of that. Makes me feel like we’re watching something, you know? I loved Super 8. I really enjoyed that film.
It’s hard to avoid the comparison, but . Both have a kids-and-aliens bit, and yet, aside from that, they couldn’t be more different.
It’s just different circumstances. I believe that if the kids from Super 8 were put in the same circumstances as the kids from Attack the Block, they would be exactly the same.
If they moved to England and started a gang?
… and started wearing hoodies, yeah.
I wanted to ask you about that, because heard people talk before about London’s so-called “hoodie culture.” What is it, exactly?
Well, I don’t really know what they mean by a “hoodie culture.” It’s just clothes. Some people use it to hide their identity; some people use it to shield them from the rain. It’s just a piece of clothing.
So it doesn’t mean anything?
Nah. My mum wears hoodies all the time. She ain’t stepped to no one.
Attack the Block opens in select theaters on July 29, 2011.