Actor Stephan James Goes From Degrassi To Selma To Race, Growing With Each Role
Actor, Stephan James has been constructing the perfect path for himself for the last few years, beginning with a role on Degrassi: The Next Generation up to his latest role as Jesse Owens in the film, Race. Just 22 years old, James is finding success in Hollywood with a new generation of African Americans and by the looks of it, he may be one of the leading males in film for years to come. Parlé magazine caught up with Stephan James recently to talk about the latest movie role, and much more.
Race is a film about the life of Jesse Owens, the year leading up to him making history at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and what it was like participating in those games in Nazi Germany. Because of documentary film maker, Leni Riedfenstahl, there is video footage of those games and the incredibly display Owens put on. That film and her creative process is one small subject of Race, but overall Owens is the main topic. Stephan James does a phenomenal job embodying the historical athlete, much like he did an amazing job portraying civil rights activist, John Lewis in the film Selma.
James has come a long way from his days on Degrassi. At just seventeen years old, he made the most of his television role as Julian Williams and has put himself in a position to be a household name, appearing in s number of television series and television movies. With each role he’s taken his acting acumen has increased, his star power grows and interest in him among fans and Hollywood gate keepers expands.
James discovered his interest in acting during high school. At first he was just doing it as a hobby amongst friends, but over time he began to take on acting in his daily life, performing for anyone who would watch, including family, classmates and friends. Inspired by actors like Leonardo Dicaprio, Denzel Washington and Christian Bale, James became determined to seek opportunities to pursue his craft.
Fast forward to the opportunity to work on Race. The role became available after actor, John Boyega was selected for the lead role in Star Wars. This was back in 2014, but after Stephen got the script he decided this role was meant for him. After he auditioned, he met with the director Stephen Hopkins. They pair had a “casual conversation” for a couple hours where Hopkins explained his expectations for the role and James got an opportunity to read lines as Owens. That sealed the deal.
James is the first to admit the role was a bit of a challenge. Playing an athlete required getting in the gym and training. James describes the role as “exhausting,” and “challenging.” Nonetheless he said that playing James ended up being, “very rewarding to fill the shoes of such a great athlete and human being.”
To prepare for the role James was lucky enough to talk to Jesse Owens’ daughters. Not much information is available on Owens and the supporting characters in the film, but having the Owens family around proved to be quite insightful in making the film as true to life as possible. While his oldest daughter was very young when Owens competed in the games, the daughters were able to fill in other details for James as well as provide anecdotes that otherwise wouldn’t be available. James explained how important Owens’ daughters were in helping build his character. “Telling me about the type of man he was, the type of father he was, and things that people don’t know about Jesse, that he was a humanitarian and things of that nature. They definitely helped me fill in the missing gaps.”
This was essential for James because prior to landing the role he admits that he knew very little about Owens. In fact, besides knowing that he had won these medals, he knew nothing else, not even where the games where help. Makes sense since James is actually Canadian born and raised. His family however is originally from Jamaica.
After a somewhat underwhelming opening weekend for Race at the box office, coming in third with $7.28 million, James can only expect great things. The film is sure to make its way into classrooms and college campuses over the coming years.
In terms of what’s next for his career, he says, ” I’ve always been very very careful with the roles I choose to do, but I love to do it all, action, thrillers, sci-fi…” Still he has his eyes set on something in particular for his next project. “I’m hoping I get to play Spider-Man next. Fingers crossed.” We’re here for it!!!
One final piece that interested me from the Stephan James interview. He was sure to separate himself from any movements or causes just because he has played this proud African-American roles recently. He wouldn’t get into any #blacklivesmatter or #oscarssowhite rants, choosing to remain an actor first and foremost. However, he was keen on his understanding of the character and the exact position Owens was in, almost exactly 80 years ago. “Even though these things are shocking to us in 2016, this was Jesse’s every day life,” James offered thoughtfully. While he couldn’t even begin to fathom being in that same spot today, he was able to sum up his understanding of what it was all like for Jesse Owens in 1936, with all the drama and all the racism, both in America and abroad in Germany, it’s clear to Stephan James that Jesse Owens was focused. “You talking about a guy who didn’t have a lot. He didn’t have a lot of money, obviously race wasn’t on his side, but all he wanted to do was run!”
All these years later, James can relate. One thing that’s abundantly clear, no matter the climate in Hollywood, no matter the political climate, Stephan James just wants to act!
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