By Shelby Livingston | February 22, 2016 | People
Race star Stephan James tells us what it was like to play record-breaking track and field star Jesse Owens, why historical roles are tough, and how he would have reacted if he were in Owens' shoes.
Stephan James as Jesse Owens.
Hollywood newcomer Stephan James is just getting started in his career on the silver screen, but the Toronto native is fast making his mark with a spate of hard-hitting roles. Take, for instance, his turn as civil rights activist and U.S. congressman John Lewis in 2014’s Selma. Next up, James, who was named a rising star at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, will portray legendary track and field star Jesse Owens in Race, in theaters on February 19.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Reaping), the biopic follows Owens on his journey from breaking records as a student athlete at Ohio State University to making history as a four-time gold medalist at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. We recently chatted with James about playing real-life characters on the big screen and whether or not a mixtape is in his future. (Yes, he raps, too.)
Looking through your background, you play a lot of historical characters. There's John Lewis in Selma, T.K. Kelly in When the Game Stands Tall, and now Jesse Owens in Race. Is that a coincidence or do you seek out historical roles?
STEPHAN JAMES: No, it's totally a coincidence. I wish I could say it's part of this big plan that I've plotted up, but it's really not. They've just been incredible, really incredible stories to tell, and as a storyteller that's what I love.
Is it more challenging to play historical character than a fictional one?
SJ: Of course. There's a huge responsibility when you're portraying people who have actually walked the earth, who have actually breathed life, and in some cases, are still alive. But for me it's very, very important because you have to tell the truth. You can't have your own agenda. You have to be accurate to that person's life and to their story. There are too many people who idolize John Lewis, too many people who idolize Jesse Owens. These people are heroes. So you have a big, big responsibility to not only do them justice, but do their family justice and hopefully teach people in the process.
Were you able to talk with Jesse Owens’ daughters before filming and draw on what they could tell you about Jesse?
SJ: They were vital to me shaping this character, me sort of bringing a face behind the hero—this larger-than-life figure. There was so much I could find online of him running and things like that but very little about the human being he was, the man he was, the father he was. So having his daughters there to be able to refer to has been so vital in me recreating this for this film.
Stephan James as Jesse Owens in Race.
You shot some of Race in Berlin, including the Olympic scenes at the actual Olympiastadion where Jesse competes. What was that like?
SJ: Incredible for me! It was really an eerie sort of moment for me, walking up to that stadium by myself, feeling like Jesse walked in my same footsteps, or rather, I was walking in his footsteps only 80 years later. So it was incredible to feel what I felt, and no one was in that stadium. When Jesse walked in there were 150,000 [people] in there. So for me to feel a fraction of what it is that he felt was a full circle moment for me in the filming process. Overall, I think it was important because I got to Germany and I got to see just how much history they preserve. They don't shy away from speaking about that time at all. They love Jesse there. Jesse's a hero to them—his face is all over the stadium blown up. To me it was one of those moments where I was assured that this guy was so much bigger than a black hero, so much bigger than an American hero. He really was a world hero.
Jesse was under a lot of pressure to choose between competing and boycotting the Olympics in a statement against racism in Nazi Germany, as the NAACP urged him to do. Since you spent so much time delving into the character, what would you have done if in Jesse’s shoes?
SJ: Oh, I definitely would have raced. You look at what it is that he did and he did it just purely off the strength of love. He didn't have any motives. He didn't intend to make a big statement by going over there. He just went there because he loved running. He loved running more than anything in the world. And that's so telling about the type of person he is, and if he hadn't of gone, we probably wouldn't be on the phone right now. This film probably wouldn't have been made. So I think it's important to follow your dreams in that regard because you see what it's done.
What was your favorite scene to shoot?
SJ: Every day was great, really. I say that honestly, but for me I thought it was really incredible the scene where Jesse walks into the stadium for the first time. It's sort of this five- or six-minute long shot. It never stops—no cut. And he walks in the stadium, he's taking in his environment for the first time, seeing 150,000 people in a massive stadium, and feeling what it is that he's feeling. For me that was so interesting because I didn't have all those things around. We didn't have the benefit of 150,000 extras, so it was about pretending and making people believe the moment that Jesse was in, so it was a very, very important scene.
You also like to rap. Should we expect an album any time soon?
SJ: I may drop a mixtape at the end of the year, who knows? We'll see how this film does. We'll see what's happening in my life. But seriously, music really has always been a passion of mine and sort of something that's taken a backseat to my acting as of late, but I'm always very musically involved and inclined and stuff like that is always a passion.
Cool, we’ll look out for that mixtape. So what's next for you?
SJ: Hopefully playing Spiderman. That'd be cool.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THIBAULT GRABHERR/FOCUS FEATURES; FOCUS FEATURES (JUMPING)