Two weeks after wrapping Ava DuVernay‘s Selma with David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James began filming Race. He went from the South in 1965 to the Midwest and Germany in the early 1930s, and from playing legendary civil rights lawyer John Lewis to playing legendary Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens. “I didn’t have enough time to train afterwards. I had to work it into what I was doing with Selma,” the 22-year-old Canadian actor recalls. “On my off days, I would go down to Georgia Tech and train with track and field coaches there. They were helping me to not only run fast, but to run like Jesse—how he started his race, how his stride looked, how his face looked. Little things that I had to pay attention to.”
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Jesse Owens, it is a powerful one. Born in Alabama in 1913 and raised in Cleveland, Owens was a track and field star in high school and the first in his family to attend college. From Ohio State University, he went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he won four gold medals for the U.S. According to popular history, he did not, as victors were expected, get to shake Hitler’s hand (though his teammate Louis Zamperini, the subject of Angelina Jolie’s biopic Unbroken, allegedly did). But as inspirational as Owens’ achievements are, he was still a black man in 1930s America. “He didn’t come back to a perfect America,” James says. “He came back to an America that still had a lot of racial tensions.”
Co-starring Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Carice Van Houten, and Jason Sudeikis, Race focuses on the lead-up to Owens’ victories in Berlin—from the racism he faced from other Ohio State athletes to an NAACP representative visiting his family home and asking him not to compete in the Games. It touches very briefly on the hardships of his life after the Olympics; when attending a dinner in his honor, Owens and his wife are made to enter through the backdoor. “Despite all the success he had reached, he still had go back to America and do what he had to to support his daughters and the rest of his family,” James explains.
Selma and Race have put him in the spotlight, but James has been acting since high school, with roles on Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Book of Negroes. “I’ve been acting for six years,” he says. “I’d been taking theater seriously my whole high school years, and I went to film and television around junior year,” he continues. “My older brother has been in the industry as a dancer/actor, so I sort of followed in his footsteps.”
NAME: Stephan James
HOMETOWN: Toronto, Ontario
IN ANOTHER LIFE… I haven’t been able to pursue a college career because of my acting career; I’ve had to keep deferring it. I don’t know if I would go to school for acting, but I would certainly like to go back to school for something. I had gotten into school for forensic psychology, so maybe I’ll go back and learn about that. I was always into CSI and Forensic Files and tapping into people’s brains and figuring out why they do what they do. Maybe [I could be] some sort of an investigator or forensic specialist, something along those lines. I’m very intuitive. It’s still one of my interests and I think if time permits later on I’d love to go back and study it.
BEING CAST IN SELMA: David [Oyelowo] took his kids to a movie and before the movie there was a trailer for a film I did called When the Game Stands Tall. I’m literally in the trailer for three seconds, I don’t know how I stood out to him, but he saw me and immediately messaged Ava Duvernay, the director, and said, “There’s this kid in the trailer for When the Game Stands Tall.” He looked me up and gave her my name, and that’s how I got the script to begin with. It’s weird how sometimes you have these serendipitous things that lead to work. They were in the process of looking for John Lewis and they didn’t really know what they were going to find. I might have said one word in that trailer—I wasn’t that prominent—but it says a lot that he was able to see something in me and that Ava and Oprah and everyone involved were on the same page after I sent in my audition.
With the cast [of Selma], we had spent a lot of time together trying to build camaraderie and partnership going into the shooting. David shared with me his story of how he found me, and I, in turn, shared with him the story of how I met him a couple of years prior at the Toronto Film Festival. I had met Ava that year, too, at the Festival. They did Middle of Nowhere. I had a film called Home Again at the Festival and I saw them both and I recognized them both and went up to them and shook their hands. Ava was so nice; I was with my brother and she offered us both tickets to Middle of Nowhere. She was just very gracious, but I would have never expected two years later to be in her film and be working with David Oyelowo.
WORKING WITH AVA DUVERNAY: She’s a superhero. She’s been doing incredible work—such positive things for women and black women. It’s very important the light she’s shedding on female filmmakers. She has a distribution company and she’s doing incredible work in helping minorities get their films distributed. She’s really changing the game.
LEARNING TO RUN LIKE AN OLYMPIAN: When you’re running, because you start in a crouched position, you’re supposed to have a gradual rise upwards. Jesse just popped up when the gun went off, which in turn made him slower. He learned that if he made it a gradual climb he could be much better.
They offered me a double, but I told the director pretty early on that I wanted to do everything by myself. I wanted him to have freedom to shoot as many different angles as he wanted to for one, and then it was part of the process for me, just playing Jesse. I didn’t want to play one of the fastest men ever to walk the planet and not do what he did. So I really disciplined myself and used that as a process to help me really feel and know what Jesse was going through.
THE POLITICS OF COMPETING IN THE BERLIN OLYMPICS: Looking back on it, I think Jesse made the right choice. When we look at what he did, he essentially changed the world. He broke down so many barriers almost unknowingly. I don’t know if he realized he’d have that effect over there. For him, it was all about the love of a sport. That’s what it boiled down to. It just boiled down to his love for running and he wasn’t going to let anybody tell him what he should and shouldn’t do. He was going to run for himself. He wasn’t going to run for America, he wasn’t going to run to prove any point, he wanted to run because he thought he was the best and he thought he could be successful.
LESSONS LEARNED…I truly believe that it’s not enough to be talented at something—anyone can be talented at something. But when you work on applying yourself and really focusing on your craft, you can take it to a whole new level. Not only physically, but mentally, Jesse was so far ahead of the people he was running against because all he really cared about was running and winning the race, and blocking out all of the extra noise. Especially at that time, people were pulling at him from both sides. For him to be able to block out this whole world…he walks into a stadium with 150,000 people in Nazi Germany, so you can imagine that can be nerve-racking for anyone, much less a black man in 1936. I think his winning and his success there is just a testament to his focus.
IDEAL CAREER: I look at a lot of guys I admire, like Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, Christian Bale. Those are guys that are well rounded and have dabbled in a bunch of different things, including being a superhero. That’s something that I’m really interested in. I look at Christian Bale who’s able to go do that and then go do The Fighter.
RACE COMES OUT TOMORROW, FEBRUARY 19.