Stephan James recalls that when he first read the screenplay of “Race,” the real life story of U.S. Olympic champion Jesse Owens, he was determined to be part of the film, even if it meant not getting the starring role.
The Canadian actor landed a meeting with director Stephen Hopkins in Montreal, where the two discussed the filmmaker’s vision for the film and the actor offered his ideas on portraying the iconic sports figure. A few weeks later, he received the call that confirmed he had landed the part, a moment that James will never forget.
Dressed nattily in dark clothing and donning a fedora, James, 22, recently spoke about taking on the role of the revered American athlete, who at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany, won a then record of four gold medals, embarrassing Hitler, who had hoped to make the Games all about Aryan superiority.
James is no stranger to playing respected athletes. He previously played T.K. Kelly, the No. 1 high school running back in the U.S., in the inspiration fact-based sports tale “When the Game Stands Tall.” Additionally, he depicted civil rights activist John Lewis in the acclaimed drama “Selma,” and he starred in the miniseries “The Book of Negroes,” based on Lawrence Hill’s bestselling novel, as well as appearing in the Canadian civil rights drama “Undone.”
An athlete in his own right, James played basketball, football, soccer, kickboxing and, yes, track and field in school before turning is sights to acting.
Q: What did you know about Jesse Owens before you read the script?
James: Very little. When I got the call about the Jesse Owens biopic, I kind of scratched my head a little bit, and thought, “Oh yeah, Jesse.” I had to research and remind myself about who he was and what he had done. Then, obviously, I was blown away to have the opportunity to even audition.
Q: You have said that it is important for stories like this to not get lost in history. Was there any element of aspect about his life that really resonated with you?
James: More than the athlete he was—the fastest man on the planet—and this big track, I was attracted to him as a human being. I learned so many things about him as a man (and), as a father, that really blew me away. He was the type of person who treated everyone exactly how he wanted to be treated. He was a person who was color-blind; he didn’t see color, only the love of his sport—running. Through that he was able to not only transcend the sport, but the world. That’s what I brought to him. Everyone thinks of Jesse Owens and they think about this big athlete, superstar and the fastest man alive. To me, he is as a human being and I wanted to bring a level of humanity to this hero.
Q: You talked about him with his surviving family members. What stuck in your mind in your conversations with them?
James: I got to hang out a lot with his daughters. They’ve been instrumental in the whole filmmaking process from the beginning. They were in the writing room, even saying, “Daddy wouldn’t say that.” Not only what he did say, but also they’d say, “Daddy didn’t do that.” Those things are so helpful on the ground, the foundation. For me, it was great just being around them. To them, he was just daddy. He’s not this big track star. I kind of felt like they were talking to me. It’s really cool. I spent a lot of time with them. We went to Beijing this summer and hung out.
Q: Could you talk about the physical aspect of playing Jesse? Did you feel intimated?
James: I would remiss if I didn’t say I was a little intimated by the whole thing. Anytime you are playing someone who is that iconic, that larger than life, obviously there’s pressure to make his fans happy, who still love him all over the world, but also his family, who carry around his legacy. I wanted to do justice to his life.
We shot in Atlanta. Every off day I had off, I went to Georgia Tech and was training with the track and field coach there. I wanted to make sure I was getting my conditioning right. I was learning not only to run fast, but also to run like Jesse did, his running style. I had to pay attention to that. How he started. What was his stride like? What was his face like? Everything. I was running like him so much that I couldn’t run any other way. If you asked me to run right now, I’d run like Jesse.
Q: Did you do all of the running audiences see in the movie? Did you have a running double?
James: Ninety-nine percent of the running was me. I wanted to make sure the director could shoot from wherever he wanted to shoot and not feel limited in any way. Then, as an actor, you want to go through that process if you’re playing the fastest man alive, you want to feel what that whole training regimen is like. You can’t fake that. You can’t fake being that world-class athlete, and that is what he was.
Q: Growing up in Toronto, you were involved in a lot of different sports. Did you want to become an athlete? Were there aspirations to be on a team or make the Olympics?
James: I was always into basketball. I wasn’t unfamiliar with athletics. It wasn’t a difficult thing to transitioning to being a runner. It’s obviously different, but I was used to being physical and things like that. I just had to learn what it was like to be a runner.
Q: What was your fastest time?
James: I ended up doing the 100-meter dash in just under 12 seconds.
Q: What about the long jump? Could you actually do that?
James: Yeah, it was a little scary. There were definitely days where I was very, very sore. At night, I would take an ice bath. We had massage therapists on set.