Stephan James is not yet a household name. Despite prominent supporting roles in the acclaimed civil-rights drama “Selma,” the BET historical miniseries “The Book of Negroes” and the inspirational, fact-based sports drama “When the Game Stands Tall,” the 22-year-old Toronto native is still probably best known for his recurring role as high-schooler Julian on two seasons of the Canadian cult TV series “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”
With “Race,” a new biopic about Jesse Owens (1913-1980) in which James stars as the celebrated Olympic runner and long-jumper, that may be about to change. James was recently named one of four rising stars at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, along with fellow Canadian up-and-comers Deragh Campbell, Aliocha Schneider and Karelle Tremblay.
In Washington last month to promote “Race,” James, who describes himself as shy by nature, seems to be keeping the modest uptick in attention in perspective. Despite playing a sprinter — a role for which James began training at Georgia Tech during his days off from “Selma” and where he perfected Owens’s idiosyncratic upright gait — the actor acknowledges that the career he’d like to have is closer to a marathon than a dash.
James says that he draws inspiration from many performers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Idris Elba, to name two) but that he doesn’t necessarily want to emulate them, or to become pigeonholed as someone who plays only historical figures. “I want to be a chameleon,” he says. “I don’t want be seen as a specific type, but as a blank canvas.”
The story of “Race” centers on Owens’ gold-medal performances in four track-and-field events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the attendant controversy surrounding the novelty of a black athlete outshining Hitler’s Aryan heroes. James says he knew “very little” about the story before filming.
“I knew (Owens) had won some races,” he says, “but I didn’t know how many he won or when he won them. I didn’t even know what he won them in.” (For the record: Owens took the gold in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the 400-meter relay, and the long jump, in which he set a world record. In the buildup to the Games, there was an international debate about boycotting the Olympics in response to Hitler’s record of discrimination and his efforts to use the athletic competition as a propaganda tool.)
Although James calls the publicity circuit surrounding the film’s opening slightly awkward — “I don’t talk a lot in my real life” — he recognizes that the parade of back-to-back interviews is part of the job. “The nerves don’t go away,” he says. “They’re still there. But I’m the face of this film. I have to spread the message of ‘Race.’ ”
That message, James believes, is a celebration of colorblindness. “Jesse Owens didn’t see anything — or anyone — in color,” he says. With the encouragement of legendary Ohio State track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (played by Jason Sudeikis), Owens concentrated on the craft of running, leaving the politics — and the hero worship that grew up around him — to others, according to James.
“I actually see a lot of similarities between us,” says James, who met Owens’ three daughters to get a personal sense of their father. “They really just saw him as Daddy, not some superhero. I also never intended to become a celebrity. For me, acting has always been about playing cool characters and telling great stories.”
For James, there’s evidence that Owens’ breaking of racial barriers in 1936 was not the end of one of those great stories but the beginning. Recent controversy over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar race, for example, is a reminder “of why these stories are still important to tell,” James says.
The fact that certain films with black actors or directors — “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton,” Concussion” and “Beasts of No Nation” — seem to have been overlooked in this year’s Academy Awards is less troubling to James than the fact that there are so few of them to begin with.
“We have to have those opportunities to be considered, right? We have to have the opportunity to tell those stories, so that people can even put us in the conversation,” he says.
“This is what a film like ‘Race’ helps to do. We’ve told a story about a man who did incredible things, at a time when a lot of people didn’t think this was possible. A lot of people thought it was inconceivable for a black man to go over to Nazi Germany and to win like he did, especially in the face of Hitler and his vision of Aryan supremacy. No black person, no Jew would win anything while his Germans were out there. ‘Race’ shows how far we have come as a society, but also why we can’t afford to go backwards.”
Not bad for someone who isn’t a talker.
Diversity in Hollywood may still be a problem, but James sees signs of change, particularly on the small screen. “We are seeing an improvement,” he says, “especially when I look at television. A show like ‘Empire’ had the biggest first season in years, in terms of numbers. People want to see diversity on their screens, and the numbers don’t lie.”
As for his own future, James demurs when asked to describe his next project. There are hurdles to overcome, but he believes he is living in a world where anything is possible.
“I can’t talk about the thing I’m about to work on when this is all done,” he says, “but it will be different from what people are used to.
“Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll play a Marvel superhero.”