Stephan James’ portrayal of the Olympic gold medalist proves American heroes can come from the most unlikely of places.
Unassuming, yet eye-catching, 22-year-old Stephan James walks into Midtown’s 1 Hotel Central Park wearing a black leather coat and gray hoodie to shield himself from winter’s bitter cold. He stops to scope out the lobby’s earthy décor and wood finishes before getting on the elevator and heading back to his room. For other hotel patrons, his six-foot-tall presence doesn’t cause a hiccup in the ebb and flow of those hailing a cab to leave and exiting a cab to check in, which is a true testament to the actor’s ability to melt into his surroundings.
A short while later, James emerges as quietly as he did when he entered the hotel. Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, he slips into the second floor lounge and sits tall at a round oak table as a groomer applies last minute powder before the interview. He checks his phone, sends one last text message and right as I walk in, Stephan James turns on. “I’m excited for people to see the film more than anything,” he says after the exchange of hugs, handshakes and pleasantries.
The film in question is the Stephen Hopkins-directed Race, starring James as Jesse Owens. The almost two-hour long movie chronicles Owens as he trains with his unrelenting and something-to-prove Ohio State University coach Larry Snyder, (Jason Sudeikis) for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at the height of the Hitler regime. The physical task of bringing the four-time Olympic gold medalist to life took place during his off days when he wasn’t playing Civil Rights icon John Lewis in Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
“I hadn’t transitioned my brain to full on Jesse mode, but there were certainly things I could’ve taken from Selma and that whole time and used it in Race,“ James explains. “For me, it was invaluable to do one after the other. I wrapped Selma and then two weeks later I was on set about to start Race.”
For Selma, James said he heavily researched the Georgia Congressman prior to the film, and froze when Lewis surprisingly appeared on set. The luxury of meeting Owens—the man known as the Buckeye Bullet—wasn’t afforded to James, as Owens died 13 years before he was born.
“I got to spend time with his daughters. They’re in their 70s and 80s, but they remember a lot about the man their father was, and I was able to tap into that. Who he was as a man, who he was as a father and who he was as a husband, talking to them about the relationship between him and their mom, “ James says. “I really took a lot from them.”
Yet before working with DuVernay and Hopkins on their million dollar film sets, James, like most Canadian born actors, paid his dues with a recurring role on the hit show, Degrassi. For eight episodes, James played Julian Williams who acts as the leader among his friends. James shies away from questions about his earliest acting days, and promises he didn’t work with the other famous Degrassi alum. As the middle child of three boys, James credits his older brother Shamier Anderson, who plays his adversary Eulace Peacock in Race, with giving him the momentum to start his career.
“I feel like I’ve been acting my whole life,” James says. “I tell people that all the time. When I saw what he was making happen for himself, it really made it possible in my mind I could do some things as well in the business. I sort of followed his footsteps.”
Up close, James evokes a quiet, I’m-ready-for-whatever kind of confidence. His skin is mocha brown and his eyes smoky—almost mischievous—yet warm. He maintains a healthy, welcoming professional demeanor but allows for a laugh or two, giving way to a smile reminiscent of a boy who got into trouble more times than he’s willing to admit.
All of James’ charisma is tucked away during his portrayal of the Olympic champion. James proves Owens was a man whose confidence came alive on the track. Having trained at Georgia Tech with the Assistant Track and Field Coach Nat Page, before the director yelled action, James in essence, was trying to capture Owens’ essence.
“I was into sports growing up, basketball, volleyball and stuff like that, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with athletics, but I had to now train to be a track runner. And not any track runner, but Jesse Owens, who was once the fastest man on the planet and who had a very particular way of doing things,” James says. “For me, I had to really pay attention to the details to make sure I was being accurate. From his start, to his stride, to how his face looked when he ran, everything. And on top of that remember my lines.”
Page, a 20-year-coach with Georgia Tech, was in the midst of running drills with his high jumpers when I called. In between shouting commands such as “slow to fast, not fast to slow,” Page said his goal was to get James to run like Owens for at least 80 meters. To get him to that point cumulated in about two weeks of stretching the major muscles and then working on basic technique running. Once the fundamentals were solidified, Page said the real work began.
“I figured he’s got to get down the track at some point. I don’t know much about the movie industry, but I do know they do a lot of takes,” Page said over the phone. “I started working on 10 meter runs, then 20 meter runs, and then 30 meters runs and once I got him to do that consistently, I started him from the block start position and then I gradually accelerated him to look like Jesse Owens.”
Page said James’ natural physique made for a smooth training process, and while no one can be Owens, Page said James came pretty close to mimicking the man who broke five world records, even running up to 150 meters. “To get him to run like that wasn’t hard. He got really, really close. One, because of his physical makeup, and secondly, his diligence in trying, listening and focus and also being a really nice and modest person made things easy.”
James says there was no crazy dieting during training and insists he didn’t employ the stunt doubles on set. He was simply locked in one meter at a time. “I just wanted to make sure I was doing all of this myself. For one, it gives the director freedom to shoot whatever angle he wants, and secondly, it’s just a process thing as an actor to do the running instead of just doing the acting and pretending I’m running.”
The movie’s title—an obvious double entendre about the actual Olympic race Owens ran as well as the racial tensions of a Depression-era America and Nazi Germany—acted as supporting characters in the film. Owens, who had the weight of America on his shoulders and none of the country’s support as a black man behind him, was expected to bring home the gold as the proverbial F-U to Hitler, and to also show the American people what the government could not: all hope wasn’t lost.
Moviegoers will cringe in one of the film’s earliest scenes when Owens first meets Snyder but only looks him in his eye to speak on the amount of cotton he picked as a boy as a way to assert his work ethic. They’ll shake their heads in disappointment once Owens qualifies for the Olympics, proving he’s the obvious meal ticket for an American victory, but is still required to stay in steerage while on the boat to Berlin.
The scene that encapsulates the film’s complexity occurs when Owens receives a visit from a member of the NAACP urging him not to participate in the games to show solidarity with the oppressed people of Germany. As is the case with many African-Americans who achieve success, it became Owens’ job to represent not only himself, but also the entire community and its plight.
Living in a world where being fast or slow matters more than black or white, giving up the chance to show his talents seemed too great a sacrifice to make. But as the youngest of eight siblings and the first to go to college, Owens willingly took on the responsibility of caring for his family and understood the gravity of the request being presented.
James was about the same age as Owens when he went to the Olympics and said while filming in Berlin, he could feel the weight Owens felt as he entered the world’s stage. “When I first got to Berlin, I walked up to the stadium myself and as I was walking up I got chills,” he recalls. “So for me to feel what I was feeling when I was walking up there was so telling of how Jesse must’ve felt being in a place that was so big with so many people and obviously feeling so alone, and so small in that very moment. That was a lot of fuel for me, character-wise. You’re nervous. You’re a black man going over to Nazi Germany in 1936. Obviously, I went there in 2014, things are a little different, but I really channeled that.”
To say Owens dominated the games would be an understatement. His impressive performance was solidified during the long jump when he leaped a never-before seen 8.13 meters, a record that would stand for 25 years.
VIBE: Did you jump? Like, did you really jump?
Stephan James: Yeah I jumped. [LAUGHS]
VIBE: Did you jump that far?
Stephan James: Well, they probably made me look like I jumped farther than I actually did, but I was certainly doing all that stuff. All the jumping and the running, yeah that was me.
Back home, friends and family listened to the radio as Owens defied expectations. Upon his return, thousands filled the streets for a parade in his honor, but his Olympic wins still didn’t ease or erase America’s racial tensions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t meet with Owens, which was customary of champions, and despite his impressive performance in Germany, Owens was still a black man. A black man with four gold medals, but a black man nonetheless. It would be just four years before his death when President Gerald Ford awarded Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As the interview neared its end, we spoke on his love for forensic psychology, and joked about whether or not he could beat Usain Bolt in a race. “I’m scared to race him,” he says with a laugh. “He might ruin my rep.” Growing more serious, James insists Owens’ story is less about a guy who ran really fast way back when, and more so about proving to people what they’re capable of.
“When I look at a story like Jesse Owens and I see what he was able to do, for me, I can’t come up with any excuse as to why I can’t do great things,” he says. “Regardless of where I’m coming from and regardless of what I look like. The biggest message is just inspiration and doing things for the love and when you do it like that, anything is possible.”
Indeed, Mr. James. Indeed.