Known for his steller performances in historical dramas such as Selma and The Book of Negroes, Stephan James continues to inspire audiences in Race hitting theaters February 19. The biographical film tells the story of Olympian James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens who competed in 1936 Nazi Germany and won four gold medals. The story comes to life through the cinematic vision of Director Stephen Hopkins who unearths the spirit of pre-WWII Germany as the dominant back drop against Owen’s determination. At the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta Georgia, James sits in a room and describes the experience of playing the famous track and field athlete who challenged Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy,
“Race is the hardest story I’ve ever filmed. It was mentally and physically demanding. You’re put in the space where you’re only being another person, you’re not yourself. You work 16 hours a day go home and sleep and work 16 hours a day again. You give so much of yourself to that person. I cut my hair like him and every time I looked at myself in the mirror I saw him,” James explains. “There’s the acting component and period component. So I’m in a different time and then there’s the physical aspect. So you have those three things, literally there’s no more of yourself. To me it was the roughest three months.”
James worked out on a daily basis to achieve the look of the long jumper who was also specialized in sprints. He read books about the time period to put the story into perspective. By channeling Owens and speaking with his family, James was able to successfully act out the competitive spirit of the Olympic games and express the vulnerability of man put into the complex position whose host country’s political actions were anything but moral. James says for Owens it was unique because the experience was more positive than what he expected. In fact, Germans have a long tradition of patronizing African-Americans, and many Blacks who live there become partial to the country, also known as the Fatherland.
“I obviously had to read books on that time especially from Jesse’s point of view. Reading Jesse’s books and gaining that knowledge and talking to his family who gave me soundbites of what it was like for him, but also our director a Stephen Hopkins who was very good at painting a picture of that whole era,” James recalls. ” When you have a director like that who was able to fill in the blanks and help you get into a certain space and mindset its beneficial. What I found most surprising is that there were a lot of Germans who loved Jesse. It wasn’t all hateful, there were a lot of people, a lot of friendship and relationships he built with Germans and I think that’s the most beautiful thing about this story.”
But facing the adversity of the story proved most challenging for James, who honed in on his non-verbal skills to communicate the weight of his position as a Black man in Nazi Germany competing in the most important race of his life. There was a lot to take into consideration, especially the aspect of competition and the mental toll the situation took on Owens. There were times when it was overwhelming and required focus to recreate the moments of high intensity.
“You’ll see in the film there’s these great shots of Jesse walking into a stadium with 150,000 people, but obviously we did not have a 150,000 people,” James continues. “For me it was like how do I make it look like I’m in stadium of 150,000 Nazi Germans. It must have been very intimidating. I’m like how do I make it look like that with 20 people.”
But telling the story was important to James, because it makes the tradition of excellence in the Black community accessible to all audiences. For James accepting roles in historical Black films are resume boosters and a responsibility to those fortunate enough to be let in the room. He says he chooses roles carefully and answering those hard questions about race and injustice during interviews is a simple part of the job.
“I think it’s so important to tell the stories of our ancestors so people know why we do what we do today. There were certain sacrifices and barriers that those before us had to go through for us to be here today,” James says. “It also inspires us to continue and know there are people who fought before us,” James says. “I think that obviously when we’re telling stories like this it’s our responsibility to answer those questions. But I don’t see it as bad thing. I’m not a politician or anything like that, but I’m not afraid of those questions.”
The burgeoning actor isn’t afraid to comment on the current climate of Hollywood and the conversation surrounding Blacks in Hollywood or the lack thereof. He admits there are certain truths that need to be confronted, but when facing the facts everyone has a part to play and James, like Owens, does not let obstacles stand in the way of his ultimate goal.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to work on some pretty cool things. We see, that visually, minorities are not equally represented in certain instances. For me it’s always been a journey of working hard and focusing and not using that kind of thing as a crutch or as an excuse for anything,” James says. “I just always work harder and try to do my best in everything I do.”