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.

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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.

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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?

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SJ: Jesse, he had to be a very strong person. There were a lot of protests, but I think that he knew, despite the pressure on both sides, the pressure to go and the pressure not to go, he had to do it for himself. Unknowingly, he changed the world and broke so many barriers by doing so, by being a leader.

I think people will be surprised. They don’t really know the story behind why he ran or what it took for him to get there or the obstacles it took for him to get through.

TR: You also played John Lewis in Selma. What was that experience like?

SJ: He’s such a remarkable human being. Literally, such a beautiful human being. I remember the first time I met him. We were in the middle of a scene and [Selma director] Ava DuVernay calls, “Cut,” and then he literally just came in. He just came walking in.

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I just froze. I can’t explain the feeling. Seeing somebody who was literally a living hero. He was a hero. That, to me, was such an eerie moment. [I’d] been studying him for so long. I hadn’t gotten to meet him before then, and to see him walk in and it’s like, wow. All the things this man has done in his life and is still doing as we speak. Just incredible, incredible. After he saw the film for the first time, he was in tears, and that means so much to me knowing he’s still alive and he got to see me portray him.

TR: That sounds nerve-racking.

SJ: Of course it was. You have such a big responsibility. This person is still alive. You would think that they think highly of themselves and their accomplishments and what they’ve done. You can only hope to bring justice to that. Outside of him, there are so many other people who have this deep, deep love for him that they are going to judge you as well. Because they hold John Lewis on a high pedestal. So you have to make sure that you’re doing him justice. That’s all I tried to do. I just went into it the most honest way I could, and I couldn’t be happier with how he received it.

TR: So did playing Jesse Owens, who is no longer with us, take the pressure off?

SJ: No, it doesn’t take the pressure off, because like I said, Jesse’s daughters are still around and very vocal and supportive. They loved their father and they were instrumental in making this film. So it doesn’t take the pressure off at all. To know that it’s so very real that John Lewis is going to see you right after he watches you playing him—that’s a little bit nerve-racking, but the same sort of responsibility and the same sort of approach [goes into a] Jesse Owens as well. 

TR: Why is it important to retell these stories?

SJ: I’ve been involved with a few period pieces now, and I realize the importance of retelling those stories is so that, one, we don’t forget what our ancestors had to do so we can be where we are, and two, to just educate the newer generation. I’m being educated by all these films and the things I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of, and kids even younger than me are being educated, too. It’s important to make sure those stories never die.

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Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.