Actor Stephan James calls himself fortunate with his career thus far.
Indeed, the Toronto native has worked steadily for five years, but two of the more recent roles – John Lewis in Selma and Jesse Owens in the upcoming Race – have added gravitas to that resume.
Race, which opens Friday (Feb. 19), tells Owens’ story as he enjoys a meteoric rise in track-and-field at The Ohio State University through the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
Both men made inroads through entirely different means, Lewis as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and Owens as four-time gold medal winner. Each offered particular challenges, but James, being Canadian, wouldn’t exactly possess the perspective that an American actor might. He disputes that.
“First of all, these characters are so much bigger than African-American icons. They are world icons, heroes and people who are beloved the world over,” he said during a conversation at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cleveland. “So, I didn’t look at this as an American story. I saw this as a world story and I saw Selma also as a world story, the Civil Rights movement changed the world. Jesse Owens changed the world, so those have a direct effect on all of us, really.”
The fact of the matter: nationality doesn’t matter, pragmatically speaking.
“I can’t say that my experience has been perfect in Canada,” said James whose career began with a small role in a TV movie. “Obviously we’ve grown up in different times, but racism is a problem the world over. It was just something I had to learn about. I had to do my research. I saw David Oyelowo, a British-Nigerian, play Dr. King. I knew it was very possible. I just had to do my research.”
That research included the personal, professional and athletic.
One of the key relationships for Owens: OSU track coach Larry Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. It’s probably the most fleshed out in the film primarily because it shows genuine warmth between the two men.
“We just sort of hung out. We talked sports. He’s a big basketball guy, baseball guy,” James said. “We both understood what it was like to be an athlete, to be coached, so that whole coach, athlete dynamic, we understood quite well. And I think as Jesse and Larry got closer in the film, me and Jason got closer in real life and I think that people will be pleasantly surprised what he did.”
The film’s research also included viewing and analyzing German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s two films derived from the 1936 games. Many consider the films propaganda because of the glorification of the Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in them. They also contain some of the best footage of Owens available and, therefore, were part of James’ education.
“It painted a picture of what that time was like in Nazi Germany and in that stadium and in that moment for Jesse,” he said. “Luckily, she was a little fascinated with Jesse, so he appears in the film a lot.”
In one of Race’s good moments, that warmth trickles into a scene in the film where Riefenstahl, portrayed by Game of Thrones Carice van Houten, and Owens work together on a shot for her film.
“We knew that she was sort of infatuated with Jesse and really just loved him whether it was a filmmaking perspective or fan perspective,” James said. “I’m not really sure what her attraction was to him, but it was good that she liked him and that she knew something about him, that she’d want to document that.”
James said remaining family members helped him to complete his portrayal of Owens. For his portrayal of Lewis, he met the current U.S. representative from Georgia. He said that he was in awe of meeting Lewis after the civil rights icon visited the set as they were filming a scene. He also understood Selma’s importance to the movement.
“As a cast, I remember just being in awe seeing the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the first time and just being there in that moment with them was just…I can’t begin [to describe]. I was speechless and just blown away to think about the history of some of the things that happened on that bridge.”
Little doubt exists that Race will open more doors for James, but he doesn’t know what’s next. He admitted that he’s very selective in his roles. There is one, however, he’d jump at the opportunity to portray.
“I want to play Spider-Man,” he said.