Hollywood super producers, Joe and Anthony Russo, know a thing or two about assembling a cast. When the duo behind monster hits like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame call, people pick up their phone. The Russo brothers took advantage of their industry clout when casting their latest film, the gritty New York crime thriller 21 Bridges.
21 Bridges features a knockout cast that includes Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman as grizzled NYPD Detective, Andre Davis. The film also stars J.K. Simmons as a no-nonsense Captain, Sienna Miller as a tough as nails Narc, and Keith David, who walks around acting cool because he’s Keith David. Adding to this murderer’s row of talent is Canada’s own Stephan James, who plays Michael, a former marine and the movie’s antagonist.
In 2015, James received TIFF’s Rising Star Award, and now there is no doubt that his star has ascended. At just 26 years old, the Scarborough native has already racked up an enviable list of credits. James has played track and field legend Jesse Owens, starred alongside Julia Roberts in Homecoming, and melted hearts in Barry Jenkins tear-jerker, If Beale Street Could Talk.
21 Bridges follows Detective Davis as he leads a citywide manhunt for a couple of cop killers while uncovering a giant conspiracy that implicates the police force. Boseman may be 21 Bridges’ biggest star, but the film shifts much of its focus towards James’ fugitive, Michael. While his partner Ray (Taylor Kitsch) is a cold-blooded killer, Michael has a conscience, and didn’t sign up to hurt anyone or rob the cartel. But that won’t stop the police from gunning him down without hesitation. This film doesn’t work if the audience can’t connect with the Michael character
That Shelf sat down with James while he was in town promoting 21 Bridges. Our conversation covered playing an antagonist, James’ pick for a 21 Bridges double feature, and where he would shoot an action movie in Toronto.
Victor Stiff: Alright. Tell me a bit about your movie.
Stephan James: 21 bridges is a film starring Chadwick Boseman, Taylor Kitsch, J.K. Simmons, Sienna Miller, and of course, myself. It is about two cop killers, Michael and Ray, who are forced to kill their way out of a drug deal gone bad when ten New York police officers show up to the scene. They kill eight cops, and the mayor of the city calls for all 21 major bridges in and out of the island of Manhattan to be shut down, and for the largest manhunt in the history of the country to take place to find these two guys.
I didn’t have a stopwatch with me or anything, but it felt like you got the majority of the screen time.
[Laughs] –That’s … a good eye man. I didn’t realize that the first time I watched it, but I think it was a lot of me and Chad.
Do you consider your character Michael a villain?
Do I consider my character a villain… Do you consider him a villain?
21 Bridges reminds me of the movies I grew up watching with my dad, those pulpy ‘80s and ‘90s crime thrillers, but it was more thoughtful. It was really more about examining shades of gray; the cops weren’t the good guys, and the bad guys were kind of forced into their situations. So, I’m curious about how you approached your character? Because for someone who’s a cop killer, we really do empathize with him. His arc is kind of tragic.
Yeah. I think that Michael’s intention and purpose is rooted in desperation. These are guys from nothing, from the Bronx. After getting training in the military, [they] come home and this is the way that they are making money. This is their livelihood, stealing drugs for a living.
So, when they find themselves in this pickle, back against the wall, it’s kind of just like, this is what they got to do at this moment in time. And of course, the story unravels, and they have to save themselves as they can. But I never really saw him as a villain. I just saw him doing whatever he needed to do. I saw him doing what was necessary.
What attracted you to the character?
I think a lot of those elements, you spoke about it, it wasn’t black or white. There was a lot of gray area to it. It reminded me of films I loved growing up. I felt like even though it was this high stakes, action/thriller, that it was rooted in character and rooted in humanity. And those are my favourite types of films, character-driven films.
What would make a great double feature with 21 Bridges?
A great double feature with 21 bridges… I would say Heat. Heat and 21 bridges.
There’s just an energy, a pace about it that I think is really, really similar. Again, an ode to those ‘80s and ‘90s thrillers. I think that these films would compliment each other a lot.
As someone with a great breadth of knowledge about Toronto, obviously we’re not like Manhattan, and we can’t close off the city, but if we had to film a gritty race against the clock crime-thriller in a district of Toronto, where would be a good place to set it?
Oh man. What would be crazy? I mean, obviously the King business district. It would be cool to see something happen in the Distillery District too. But we can play with the lake too. Going out to Porter or doing something crazy on the boats. That could be, that could be crazy.
That sounds like a fun time.
And what do you bring to the character now that you couldn’t have brought, say five years ago?
A beard? [Laughs].
I’m always interested in how people grow from job to job. And as an artist and someone who’s always performing, I’m curious about what are the little things you learn and take with you from job to job?
You get better the more you work. Obviously, there’s a physicality in this film that I believe some of my other films have helped prepare me for. When you look at playing Jesse Owens in Race, and we have a big running sequence at the end of this film, Chadwick and I. So you know things like that, there’s carry-over.
But I think once you make the films, they change you, they teach you in ways that you don’t always know off the top, and maybe you figure it out a couple of months later. Maybe you figured it out a couple of years later. But for me, it was just fun to be present and live in the moment.
So what was the best part of going to work every day?
Man, I guess just doing what you’re doing, man. I think that I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love it. I think that the day I stop loving it is the day I stop doing it. I try to have fun and make the most of every day.
What do you think this movie says about 2019?
I think it says a lot, man. Obviously, police relationships, police relationships with society. And I think that this film definitely raises a lot of discussions. I think it forces you to think about a lot. It also reminds you that these problems still exist in 2019. And that’s what I like about it a lot, you have some of the same issues you’ve seen in your ‘80s crime thriller, but they still exist in 2019, and they’re still prevalent and relevant. And it makes things that much more real for people who are watching today.
I love these types of edge of your seat thrillers. It’s not a big $200 million Michael Bay movie, it’s not a superhero movie. It’s just like the kind of gritty stuff I grew up with. Are there any other genres you would like to see come back?
Not really. I will say I’m excited for more abstract pieces. You know, I saw a film the other day, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s different.
I was like, geez. I mean, what a luxury it is to be able to make those choices today in film and that there are people and infrastructure that supports that. Just that level of risk-taking in film. I think film needs more of that stuff. So it’s less about bringing things back from the past and more about trying new things and being innovative.
My outlets is called That Shelf, and we like to ask people about their nerdy passions and obsessions. If you brought a guest over, what would you show off on your shelf?
Probably art. I do a lot of art in my spare time. Neo-expressionists stuff. I’m very inspired by John Michel Basquiat. So, I guess that’s kind of nerdy.
Do you have a favourite piece?
Riding with Death.
Okay. I’ll check that one out.
2019 has been a divisive year, to say the least. So I’m always trying to get people to expand their horizons, see things maybe they wouldn’t normally see. So how would you pitch this movie to a person who maybe doesn’t watch action movies?
I would say this isn’t an action movie. I would say that this is a human movie. It’s a human story, rooted in high stakes and it asks you, “what would you do in a situation like this?” And those are often my favourite, favourite films. It’s when you’re questioning your own ideas of what is right and wrong and what makes sense in a particular circumstance.
Is there anything about making the film that you want to shed light on? Maybe something you don’t usually get to talk about?
I will say it has a lot of life, man. A lot of pace, a lot of energy. It was a beast of a film to have to shoot. Shooting all nights, because obviously, the film takes place in one night. Getting up, I’m starting work at 4:00 PM and leaving work at 8:00 AM every day for 45 days straight. So, [it’s] one of the tougher things I’ve had to do as an actor, but I’m very, very proud of it. And yeah, I just hope people enjoy it.
21 Bridges is now playing in theatres across Canada.