Stephan James on His Breakout Role as Jesse Owens in Race

The actor, who gained attention as John Lewis in Selma, talked to The Root about what it was like to play another iconic figure and how he wanted to reveal the humanity of the legendary track star.

Stephan James as Jesse Owens in Race.
Stephan James as Jesse Owens in Race. Focus Features

Perhaps Toronto native Stephan James looks vaguely familiar because of his role as John Lewis in Selma. As the star of Race, the first feature film about Jesse Owens, James is sure to become a lot more recognizable. The Root caught up with James—whose young career also includes credits for The Book of Negroes; The Gabby Douglas Story; the CW series L.A. Complex; and Degrassi: The Next Generation—to talk about his breakthrough leading role.

James portrays Owens in a film that deals with the track-and-field star’s grand moment at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he won four gold medals. James spoke about Race’s original star John Boyega, what drew him to the role of Owens, what it was like playing John Lewis and what moviegoers should get from Race.

The Root: John Boyega was originally slated to play Jesse Owens.

Stephan James: So, John was attached and he ended up doing this little movie called Star Wars. And I love John. I’m like a big fan of John’s. Would love to work with John one day. But yeah, he passed on Race, and I guess it was open to anyone at that point.

Like anyone, I got the script. I knew [Jesse Owens’] name, but I really didn’t remember what it is he had done, so I felt like I had to get refreshed. So I read the script and I realized like, wow, this is an incredible human being. I told my manager, however I had to do it, let me see the director; I got to play him.

TR: So what attracted you to Jesse Owens?

SJ: Just the type of man he was. Even more so than the athlete he was. He was somebody who exuded love, somebody who was a caring, humble person, somebody who was an honest man. He raised his daughter and married his wife at a very young age. He just decided to live his life and pursue great things despite any obstacles or fears or anything you can think of that would hold somebody back.

Seeing who he was as a human being, that excited me even more than what he was to the sport as a four-time gold medalist. So, for me, it was about bringing that level of humanity to him. I wanted people to know who he was because we have so little knowledge of who he was.

I hung out with his daughters [Gloria, Marlene and Beverly] a lot and became a part of their family so I could understand even a little bit of who he was. That’s the way I approached it. He was a man first and foremost. How do I project that? The athlete is secondary to that. So that was my goal in portraying him: bringing that level of humanity so people could understand who he was as a person.

TR: Not everyone supported Jesse Owens going to the Olympics. How did he deal with that?