Stephan James discusses playing Jesse Owens in ‘Race’

Jesse Owens "Race"
Focus Films
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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