Stephan James was named a Rising Star at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival on the strength of his impressive performance in the TV mini-series The Book of Negroes as well as his portrayal of John Lewis in the civil rights saga, Selma. Mr. Lewis, the son of sharecroppers and an activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), later became a U.S. Congressman.
Here, Stephan talks about his latest outing in Race as another African-American icon, namely, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics staged in Berlin.
Kam Williams: Hi Stephan, thanks for the interview.
Stephan James: Of course, Kam. Thank you.
KW: I really enjoyed the film. I learned so much that I hadn’t known about Jesse Owens, and I even cried at the end.
SJ: Really? Wow! I’m glad that you learned so much and that it touched you. That’s what we’d hope to accomplish with this.
KW: How did you prepare to play Jesse? Did you have to adopt an exercise regimen and do a lot of research to play a real-life character?
SJ: Of course. It’s a big story about an iconic figure, so I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me. There were only but so many Youtube videos I could find of Jesse running and being interviewed, but I got a sense of how he carried himself and of some of his mannerisms. Besides that, having his daughters around really helped me understand the kind of man he was. They were able to teach me the father he was, the husband he was, and the humanitarian he was. There were so many things I learned about him which intrigued me that I really wanted to bring to the role so I could impart what type of person he is, even more so than the type of athlete he is.
KW: You’ve played a number of real-life characters like John Lewis in Selma, T.K. Kelly in When the Game Stands Tall, and Gabby Douglas’ brother, John. Do you feel more pressure to get the role down correctly in those situations than when you’re playing a fictional character, like in The Book of Negroes or Lost after Dark.
SJ: Of course, not that you pay less attention to detail with a fictional character. But there is certainly a different degree of responsibility when you realize this is a real person, a person who was looked up to and was so highly regarded in the world. Jesse was a legend who had been adored. So, I knew I really had to do my homework to make certain I was being accurate in my depiction to ensure that people would believe my portrayal of such a beloved figure.
KW: What was it like being surrounded by such an accomplished cast which included Oscar-winners Jeremy Irons [for Reversal of Fortune] and William Hurt [for Kiss of the Spider Woman], Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis and Carice van Houten who was terrific in Black Book.
SJ: It was great, Kam. Great!There’s nothing like working with performers of that caliber. I feel almost spoiled to go from Selma, where I was working with David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson and Oprah, into Race with Academy Award-winners and Jason, who’s accomplished so much in his own right. So, I’ve been blessed to be able to work with so many A-list performers with a high level of dedication to their craft. And I’ve been able to take something from each one of this performers and bring it to the next project.
KW: How do you feel about the call to boycott the Oscars?
SJ: I think the conversation being had is so important. Looking at it in the light of the picture Race, Jesse Owens was colorblind. He didn’t see color. He saw his love of running. He went over to Berlin and became best friends with a German longjumper [Luz Long], someone whom he remained friends with for the rest of his life. That shows me why we should focus more on what brings us together than on what separates us. That’s the message we’re trying to send with this film and, hopefully, people will watch Race and take that away from it.
KW: I missed your recent horror flick, Lost after Dark. Does the black guy die first in it, like in so many scary movies?
SJ: [Chuckles] No, I didn’t die first. That’s something the writer/director [Ian Kessner] did intentionally. It’s a cool, little homage to Eighties slasher films that’s worth checking out. But, to answer your question, I actually survive quite a long time.
KW: AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
SJ: Probably something by Justin Bieber. He’s pretty high up in my musical selections right now.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
SJ: Curried chicken and rice. I grew up on Caribbean cuisine, since my parents are from Jamaica . So, I’m big on West Indian food.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
SJ: Playing basketball on the court right in front of my building. I used to play there all the time and I can remember my mom embarrassing me and my brother in front of our friends by yelling at us from the balcony when it was time to come home. [Laughs]
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years?
SJ: My immediate family. It’s always been like that.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
SJ: We certainly went to church growing up.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
SJ: To never forget the core foundation of what makes you who you are. I try to continue to be myself every day and not let anything around me change that.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person we see on the red carpet?
SJ: I’m pretty much the same kind, to be honest. I don’t try to be different for the cameras.
KW: What was your very first job?
SJ: A commercial I did for Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. Yeah, that was my first gig.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
SJ: I see me. I see Stephan James.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
SJ: To have lunch in front of me right now.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would? And please answer the question.
SJ: That one right there. [LOL]
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
SJ: Nothing too crazy. A bunch of cards and a little bit of cash.
KW: Thanks again, Stephan, and best of luck with the film.