Q&A WITH STEPHAN JAMES

The up-and-comer talks 'Race,' Jesse Owens, and learning to run 1930s-style.

Stephan James is about to have a breakout moment. The actor, probably best known for his portrayal of John Lewis in the critically acclaimed film Selma, takes center stage in the new movie Race. James plays Jesse Owens, the Ohio State track star and 1936 Olympic gold medalist. The inspiring biopic not only looks at the trials and tribulations of becoming an elite runner, but also doing so at a time in history when it was extra difficult for a black athlete. Here, James tells us about his training and research for the role.

What’s it like to play a real person as opposed to a fictional character?

There’s a whole different responsibility. We have to be accurate whenever we’re talking about real stories and real people. For me, I had to do my research, not only about that time in Ohio in 1935 during the Depression, but also in Berlin in 1936. And also to understand who Jesse was, and what he did. I want to be accurate, not only to the type of person he was, but also the type of athlete he was. 

Did your research involve meeting with people who knew him?

Yeah, of course. I definitely met his daughters, who are lovely. They embraced me from the beginning, and I was able to use them in my research. I heard and read so much about his athletic accomplishments, but I knew very little about who he was as a man and as a father. They were able to give me a lot of real life stories that I could use to fill in the blanks for a lot of the stuff I couldn’t find online. 

What kinds of questions did you have?

I just wanted to know what type of person he was, you know? I found out that he was a big humanitarian. He was a guy who very much treated people the way he wanted to be treated. He was a guy who exuded love, really. And we see that in the film. He builds meaningful relationships with people who look nothing like him and come from different places, but they connect on one thing, which is their love for sport. 

You're obviously familiar with running. How else do you stay in shape?

Well, not the kind of running I was doing when I was filming. But I go to the gym at least three times a week. I do some lifting. And I’ll do some cardio and boxing. I’ll also go and just play basketball.
 

Did you have track experience before this role?

I did a little bit of track when I was very young, but I more so grew up on basketball, football, and volleyball. I really had to hone in on what it meant to be a track runner…and a track star, really. I had to not only make sure I was fast, but that I looked like Jesse when I ran. He had a specific style of running. 

Yeah, and even body types today are pretty different than they were in the 1930's.

Yeah, all of that stuff. Another thing is that I couldn’t train completely how runners train today, because Jesse trained differently. He didn’t have the benefit that a lot of these athletes have today. Or the shoes. He ran in these leather shoes with three or four-inch spikes. Nowadays that wouldn’t fly at all. It would be interesting to see how he would fare today against a runner like Usain Bolt or Justin Gatlin. 

At the end of the movie, there was a note that it took about 20 years for someone to beat his record, right?

Yeah, and that’s really incredible when you think about it.

So when you were filming those scenes, were you trying to make those records?

[Laughs] I don’t think I could get anywhere close to those records. But it was fun for me. It’s cool when you’re playing Jesse Owens because you know you’re going to win most of the time.