Toronto native Stephan James has made steadfast progress with his career over the last several years. Following two seasons on Degrassi: The Next Generation he appeared in 2012’s Home Again, garnering him a Best Supporting nomination at the Canadian Screen Awards. More recently he was cast as John Lewis in Ava DuVernay’s celebrated Selma. His latest work is as the lead in Race, a film that tells the remarkable tale of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Olympics in Munich.
Quiet, charming, and quick with a smile, James spoke with Dork Shelf from his hometown about his latest work as well as a particular dream project that may one day come to fruition.
What was your own connection to Jesse Owens was before the project?
I knew very little about Jesse, to be honest. When I heard they were making this film about his life I scratched my head a little bit and was, like, who was he again? I figured he’d won all of these gold medals back in the day but I didn’t know when. I read the script and researched his life, and was obviously blown away by some of the things he did.
After I auditioned and eventually was offered the role, I immediately knew the responsibility that I had and the work that was cut out for me.
Were you a runner when you were a kid?
I grew up playing basketball, volleyball even, but never track, so it was a whole new world for me. I had to learn how to run like a track athlete, like a sprinter, but then I had to learn how to run like Jesse. His running style was so unique and I had to pay attention to the little details. There’s a whole mental aspect of it and where you have to remember certain tendencies and physicalities and then you’ve got a whole bunch of lines to memorize. I realized the weight this was going to be but I rose to the challenge.
One of the main characters of the film is Leni Riefenstahl. What was your response to watching her footage of Jesse?
It’s incredible when you think about it and really her story is so interesting, it could have been a whole film all unto itself. It was certainly a key I used for research. She did a good job documenting those Games and giving us a feel for what it was like in Berlin but in that stadium specifically. Luckily enough she was sort of infatuated with Jesse so he appears numerous times in her film. It’s incredible to think about just her vision – what she was thinking about in 1936 even though she was hired to paint a picture of these Games and Nazi Germany as a superior race and the greatest sporting even of all time. I think that she had her own agenda, she just wanted to tell the story.
Do you feel as a Canadian that you bring a certain sense of not objectivity but a certain sense of distance to allow you to portray this without the specific baggage that otherwise might come to the role?
I’m just an actor, it didn’t matter if I was a Canadian or American or whatever. Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln, David Oyelowo played Dr. King, you know it’s not unfathomable, I’ve seen it before. I just had to do my research and understand those times.
There are certainly people in America who have no clue about Jesse Owens who if they were going to be in this film, they would just have to learn the same way I did. So really, I didn’t really see any difference being Canadian.
There are some who would suggest that Oyelowo or Day-Lewis actually would have an advantage of not being American.
But again, like I said, people in America are just as clueless about him as I am, so I don’t know how much of an advantage the Canadian aspect really made it. Probably just being ignorant of the situation actually helped.
So out of your ignorance came a new found interest in the subject which allowed you to immerse yourself and allowed you to know the life. Is that key to performing? To go in as open as possible?
For sure, absolutely. With Selma, or Race, there’s a lot of things that I’ve read that make me angry, that made me frustrated, made me sad, disappointed, heartbroken. As an actor you then have to separate yourself from all of that because it’s not about you. It’s not about Stephan and what Stephan thinks. You just have to tell the story and tell it as it was, as it happened. Now that I know all of these things, I can’t let my whole emotions get involved, I just literally have to play it out and show other people the story and not be too suggestive.
You’ve worked with some pretty amazing actors over the last couple years
I pinch myself every day at some of the opportunities I’ve had, some of the amazing people I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with. Being on the set of Selma, seeing Ava DuVernay and Oprah and Tom Wilkinson and David Oyewolo work and the level of seriousness and dedication they brought to their craft, that sort of stuff, for any young actor, it’s invaluable. I’m there, I’m sitting right next to David Oyewolo every day. I’m seeing him as Dr. King every single day.
And now you’re the lead. Your face is on the poster. That’s a lot of responsibility to have for the other actors, not responsibility, but did you see in the other up and comers that are now working off of you, what have you done that you’ve learned from passing down that line?
I think it’s more so about example rather than speaking and giving advice and things of that nature. I just watched David and I observed him and for me that was vital into going in to leading my own film. Just seeing the way he operated and just knowing how brilliant of a performer he is helped, knowing that if I wanted to get anywhere close to him or anywhere close to any one of these greats, I was going to have to do what they were doing.
And working with Jason Sudeikis? You obviously had to work very closely with him, you had somebody who is known for his comedy but is doing something with dramatic elements.
Yeah, he’s incredible. You know, Jason and I got along very well pretty early on. I think people don’t give him or comedic actors in general enough credit for what they can do and their range and things of that nature. I don’t think that he approaches his work any less seriously if it’s comedy or whatever the case may be. I think he’s a craftsman regardless of the situation and people will be pleasantly surprised with what he was able to bring to this film.
Have you found that the best work you’ve done has come out of when you get along with everybody or when you don’t get along with everyone?
Obviously this business isn’t perfect and you don’t get along with everyone, but people can’t tell that on screen. You can be husband and wife with somebody on screen, it doesn’t mean that you like them in real life, but if people buy into it, they buy into it. I’ve had situations where things haven’t been so great. Maybe you work with people you love and the project just doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped, so I really think it’s all situational.
How did this project turn out for you?
I’ve seen it a couple of times, and I’m happy with it, I’m happy with the overall story for sure, and nervous to get it out to the world, but it’s been a long time coming. We finished this in 2014, so I’m just ready to get it out to the world.
Is there a reason it took from 2014 until now?
It’s really beyond me, it’s the studio executives that maybe had something to do with it being an Olympic year, maybe they thought they could play off of that. I really don’t know, I could be totally wrong.
So given that, you can look back now with a certain level of objectivity. Do you see the film differently than when you first finished it and do you see yourself differently when you see yourself on screen?
Well, it’s just that you’re in a different space when you’re acting, period. It doesn’t matter if it was a month removed or two years removed, you’re in a totally different space. This film has huge elements of CGI and VFX, things that I couldn’t have imagined, well, I had to imagine, I couldn’t see. Five, six minutes, no cuts, and I’m having to imagine all of these things happening around me, imagining these things flying over my head, imagining all of these things happening. So I feel removed anyway.
Is this your preparation for your next blockbuster?
I think so, maybe, why not? I want to play Spider-Man, so I’ve been telling everyone that. Hopefully, you can get the word out for me.
I’d like to believe I can do it all, I’d like to believe I can play any type of characters. I’d certainly like to do thrillers, sci-fi, action, and comedy. I don’t plan things out and say I’m only going to do biopics or history, I just take it as it is and I look for great stories. I’m a storyteller at the end of the day.
Is there a particular director that you dream of working with?
I’ve got too many – Steve McQueen is one. I’d love to work with obviously the greats, the Spielbergs of the world and stuff like that. I think Tarantino’s one of my favourite directors, I’ve always loved his films.
Is there one movie that you would stand in line for? What do you geek out about?
Spiderman. I’m very serious about wanting to play him. That would be dope.