Stephan James discusses 'Race' and what it takes to become Jesse Owens

Stephan James discusses 'Race' and what it takes to become Jesse Owens

Stephan James had a breakthrough performance as civil rights activist John Lewis in 2014's Selma and once again he's stepping into the shoes of an important person from history. This time, however, he's exchanging those shoes for a pair of track spikes as he takes on the role of celebrated athete Jesse Owens in Race. We sat down with James to discuss what it means playing someone as highly held as Owens and what kind of training it took to become an Olympic gold medalist. Be sure to also read our exclusive interview with Shanice Banton about playing Jesse's other half, Ruth Solomon.


Shakefire (SF): How exciting is it to play some like Jesse Owens?

Stephan James (SJ): Incredible. It’s incredibly exciting. Obviously this story is such a big, big, powerful story and you look at a guy like Jesse Owens, he’s almost larger than life. The fact that the story landed in my lap almost 80 years after it happened, it’s incredible to me.


SF: Going back, it is 80 years old. A lot of it comes from just the stories we’ve heard over the years and some of the information certainly has been lost in translation over the years. How did you go about making sure your portrayal of Owens was correct?

SJ: Well a lot of research, just researching that time. For me, obviously the running aspect was a big part of the film. There’s a lot of things I had to do to make sure I was looking not only accurate as a runner but as Jesse Owens because he had a very particular running style. Watching old clips - you can only imagine how much I can get from 1936 - but just pulling old clips from the internet as well as having Jesse Owens’ daughters around was incredible for me to bridge the gaps in certain things I didn’t know about him and certain things I didn’t know about the time.


SF: In the film there’s Leni Riefenstahl, who is filming the German propaganda film, which would later become the real documentary Olympia. Did you watch that film at all?

SJ: Yeah, I absolutely watched Olympia. It gave me a lot of insight about what that was like. She documented those games pretty closely, and she was a big fan of Jesse too so a lot of her film highlighted Jesse and what he was doing. That was a big piece of research.


SF: Talk about your training. You do a lot of running and jumping. How was that for you?

SJ: I trained actually here in Atlanta. I was at Georgia Tech and training with the track and field coaches there. I was filming another film at the time, Selma, and every day I had off on Selma I would just go down to Georgia Tech and train with the coaches there. Conditioning, training in the springs, the 100m and such, and then I had to do the long jump. Jesse’s approach was slightly different in the long jump so it’s learning how to be accurate in terms of he does things, how his stride looks, how he starts the race, how his face looks. The devil’s in the details in just figuring out those little things. So that’s what the training looked for me, physically.


SF: And how extensive were the shoots? It looks like you’re going all out in the film.

SJ: Yeah, I’m definitely going all out. I made sure that even though I had a double I wanted to do the running myself, just to make sure that the director could use any type of angles, etc. And that I was being true to the story and being true to Jesse. That also helps me in the process. For any given scene or any given shot we’d go three or four times full out and me giving 100%. So obviously it’s strenuous. Thank god for massage therapists, haha.


SF: So how fast is your 100m time?

SJ: I got pretty quick. I don’t want to say an exact time, but yeah, I certainly got much faster while training to play Jesse.


SF: So no Olympic records then?

SJ: No Olympic records, no. Not quite there yet.



SF: You and Jason Sudeikis share some great scenes together. How was it working with him?
SJ: It was great. Jason and I pretty much clicked right off the bat. He’s a big sports guy. I’m a big sports guy. So we talked about sports a lot. We knew what it was like to be coached playing sports so the coach and athlete relationship we understood. And then he’s a funny guy so that helped. It helps to have someone like him around. I was also very impressed with the work he did. It was very interesting to see him in sort of a different light and take on a more serious subject matter. I think the rest of the world will be happy with his work as well.


SF: Between Selma and now Race, this is the second time you’ve portrayed a real life person on film. Is there any difference in your thought process when approaching a character based in reality?

SJ: I think so. The biggest thing is honesty, the truth. You have to tell the truth. When something actually happened you can’t lie about it. When the person actually existed you can’t make them up. It’s a different challenge all in itself. A different responsibility that an actor has to take on to be able to do any sort of real pieces. Like I said, it’s making sure you’re being accurate to how a person sounded, how a person looked, or what their demeanor was like. In Jesse’s case, what Jesse ran like. So those little things, those things were very important to me. You got to make sure you’re accurate because not only are these people maybe still alive, like in the case of John Lewis, but if they’re not alive their family is alive and people who respect them highly in the world. These guys are world heroes. You have to make sure you’re doing them justice in the eyes of a lot of people.


SF: Do you feel there’s an added pressure?

SJ: Absolutely an added pressure. Of course! There’s a certain standard to live up to. When you’re creating a character from scratch there’s no real standard to look up to. But when people know who the people are who you’re portraying there’s a whole different element it adds.


SF: The title of the film itself, Race, has somewhat of a double meaning. You have the physical act of running a race, and then it all addresses race and society.

SJ: Well, what I think the main thing that I want focus on is what I focused on, which is what Jesse was about. Yes, the film is called Race, and there’s a clear double entendre there, but I feel like the main important aspect of the film is what Jesse really did; what he’s done. He’s broken so many barriers not only in sport but just throughout the world, period. You look at German in that time and what he was able to do. And he did all that through the love and passion for the sport. He didn’t go there thinking, “Oh this is black and this is white.” He didn’t see color. He made many German friends when he went down to Berlin. So I think that race, meaning racial issues, though it’s a big part of our film it’s not the whole film. I think Jesse’s life and what he stood for and what he was able to accomplish is the main focus.


SF: And being able to introduce his story to a whole new generation of kids who might not know who Jesse Owens is.

SJ: Yeah, that’s an amazing aspect for me. Getting to be that person and retell these types of stories. Not only am I able to learn about these historical things, but I’m also able to teach the younger generation, people even younger than me, about what happened and the things that people did so that we can do what we do today and things like that. It’s good to retell history to make sure that we aren’t taking any steps back to realize how far we’ve come.


Race opens in theaters nationwide on February 19, 2016.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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