Actors feel the pressure to performance no matter the role. That pressure gets kicked up when the role is based on a real person. That’s why Canadian actor Stephan James was so concerned about taking on the role of sports legend Jesse Owens in “Race.”
“It’s one thing to be the lead in a film. But in this case, Jesse Owens is such an iconic person, who is such a big part of the fabric of the United States and world history,” James says. “I had to remember that this role wasn’t about me.”
Owens is remembered for his accomplishments in sports and for where he did it. He picked up four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics that were held in Germany during the time of Adolf Hitler. The fact Owens participated in the Games despite Hitler’s persecution of Jews is a history-making act of courage.
James had books and news material to use in putting together his performance. He also spoke to as many people as possible who could tell him about the era.
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“Having his daughters there helped give me a personal perspective,” James says. “They helped me put a face behind the story.”
What he discovered was that the story of Jesse Owens is not just about black and white, it’s about inspiration. The actor was inspired by how Owens went into Nazi Germany and accomplished such incredible things.
Understanding Owens as a person was just the start. James also had to be able to make the athletic part of his performance look as close to Owens as possible. He began his training with an assistant track-and-field coach at Georgia Tech while filming “Selma,” where he played civil rights activist John Lewis.
James played a variety of sports in high school, including basketball, but he never participated in track and field. That’s why he had to work so hard to capture details, such as the way Owens started a race. James knew there was so much material on Owens that if he tried to cut corners, it would be noticed.
James sees it all as part of doing the job.
“I can’t say that having to do the physical part meant more responsibility. It is just something I had to do because it is just one of the different aspects and levels of the part,” he says.
“Race” and “Selma” are just two of the rapidly growing resume for the actor, who got his start working on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” for two seasons. He’s also had roles in the TV productions “The Listener,” “The LA Complex,” “My Babysitter’s a Vampire” and “12 Dates of Christmas.”
“Race” was the first time James, the middle child of three boys, has had the chance to work with his older brother Shamier Anderson, who plays his adversary Eulace Peacock. James says that his brother was a big influence on his getting into acting.
“There was also a lot of family and friends who I look to for advice,” James says. “But, getting to work with my brother was cool.”