Jesse Owens "Race"
Focus Films

Stephan James discusses playing Jesse Owens in ‘Race’

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NEW YORK — Stephan James feels like a member of the Owens family after submerging himself in research, training and learning from the daughters and granddaughters of legendary Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens for the film “Race,” which hits theaters Feb. 19.

James, a 22-year-old Canadian, said he spent two months doing track workouts at Georgia Tech ahead of film shooting, partially at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, site of the 1936 Games where Owens won four gold medals in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

James also worked with Hank Palmer, a Canadian Olympic 4x100m relay sprinter at Beijing 2008.

James sat down with OlympicTalk at the NYRR Millrose Games Trials at The Armory in Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon.

OlympicTalk: What was your initial reaction when you found out you would be playing Jesse Owens?

JAMES: I was speechless, just like I am every time I’m reminded that I’ve done it. When you get a call to audition to play one of the greatest athletes ever, somebody who’s a hero the world over, it’s an incredible opportunity. Obviously, I was extremely elated.

OlympicTalk: How did you research for the role?

JAMES: You look at 1936 and that whole time, there’s not a whole lot documented from Jesse, or from that time. Luckily enough, a filmmaker named Leni Riefenstahl made a film about the 1936 Games called “Olympia”. So I was able to use that, sort of, in my research and some other clips I had seen of Jesse speaking in interviews after his races, so I could get a feel of the type of person he was, how he spoke, how he carried himself. Like I said, 1936, there’s only so many YouTube clips you can find on his running. But I took all that I could, along with my training regimen.

Leni Riefenstahl was fascinated with Jesse, so he was prominently featured over the course of the film.

Editor’s Note: Angelina Jolie also made use of “Olympia” in researching for “Unbroken,” the 2014 film on 1936 U.S. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. More from OlympicTalk’s interview with Jolie here.

OlympicTalk: What interaction did you have with Owens’ family?

JAMES: [Owens’ daughters] have been instrumental in the whole film-making process, pretty much from the beginning. They were helpful in telling me about the type of man their father was, what type of father he was, so I could get a feel for him. We spent a lot of time together. They hung out on set when we were out in Berlin shooting. Even now, we still hang out. We’re like a family. I’m like a part of the Owens family, honorary member.

OlympicTalk: What was the most interesting part of filming in Berlin?

JAMES: Just to go there, honestly, and see how many people still remembered and loved Jesse. You go into the Olympic Stadium, which is still there, and you go onto the floor, and they’ve got a lounge called the Jesse Owens Lounge on the third floor, and his photos are just all over the place. The street that the stadium is on is called Jesse Owens Allee.

OlympicTalk: Did you have any background in track and field?

JAMES: Not really, no. I’ve been an athlete, basketball and volleyball. I’m familiar with athletics, but track and field is something I had to really dig my feet into and then learn how to do things like how Jesse did it specifically, a whole ‘nother ball game.

OlympicTalk: What were Owens’ daughters reactions after they saw the film?

JAMES: They were lovely and gracious, and they told me that they really admired the way that I portrayed their father. To me, that means the most. Jesse’s obviously not here to see the film, but to have his daughters there and have them react and accept the film the way they have, it’s been wonderful.

OlympicTalk: You’re obviously an Owens expert now. Tell me something track fans might not know about him.

JAMES: Jesse’s so much bigger than an athlete. I tell people that all the time. When I first took on this role, I approached it from a really human perspective, because I wanted to show people the type of humanitarian he was. Very, very loving human being and a person who always treated people as he wanted to be treated. Other than that, he loved to dress. He was very fashionable. He loved to get dressed up and to smell good. That’s something I learned from his daughters.

MORE: Watch full ‘Race’ trailer

2018 French Open women’s draw

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Unseeded Serena Williams will play Czech Kristyna Pliskova in the French Open first round, with Maria Sharapova as a possible fourth-round opponent.

Serena Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles titlist and three-time winner at Roland Garros, plays her first Grand Slam since giving birth to daughter Alexis Ohanian on Sept. 1. Williams was not given a seen by French Open organizers as she comes back from maternity leave, ranked No. 453 due to her absence.

Williams has played four WTA Tour matches, all in March, since winning the 2017 Australian Open. She is one Grand Slam singles title shy of Margaret Court‘s career record of 24.

Pliskova, whose identical twin is former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, is ranked No. 70 and has never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam in singles.

Williams is on the opposite half of the draw as older sister Venus Williams, U.S. Open winner Sloane Stephens, Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniacki and defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Other noteworthy first-round matchups: No. 1 Simona Halep against American Alison Riske and 2016 French Open winner Garbine Muguruza against 2009 French Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova.

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MORE: French Open TV, streaming schedule

Brazil beach volleyball shakeup breaks up world champions

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Olympic champions Alison and Bruno‘s breakup was quickly felt throughout the top level of Brazilian beach volleyball. The 2017 World champions are no longer a pair as a result.

Alison, the 6-foot-8 blocker nicknamed “Woolly Mammoth” with a matching rib tattoo, will now partner with Andre, a 2017 World champion with Evandro.

Bruno, a 6-foot-1 defensive standout known as the “Magician,” will play with former partner Pedro. Pedro and Evandro made up the other Brazilian team at the Rio Olympics, getting eliminated in the quarterfinals and then breaking up at the end of 2016 as Evandro began playing with Andre.

Andre and Evandro’s announced breakup came days after they won the most recent FIVB World Tour event in Itapema, Brazil, without dropping a set in six matches.

“I’m very frustrated with [Andre’s] decision,” Evandro said, according to an FIVB translation of a Globo story, “but it happened, and I need to move forward.”

Evandro will be reunited with Vitor Felipe, according to the FIVB. Abrupt changes in Brazilian partnerships, sometimes with federation involvement, are common.

The biggest rival to the top Brazilian pairs the last two seasons has been the U.S. team of 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and his 2016 Olympic partner, Nick Lucena.

Dalhausser and Lucena won the first of three majors this season in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in March. They also won the last major of the 2017 season as well as the World Tour Finals, beating Andre and Evandro in the latter final.

The next major tournament this season is in Gstaad, Switzerland, in July. There are no world championships in even-numbered years.

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