Interview: Stephan James

From the interview archive.

You recently won a Canadian Screen Award for your portrayal of Jesse Owens in Race – congratulations! What was your prep like for that with regards to training and diet?

It was tough. When I found out I had gotten the role and was going to play Jesse, I knew immediately that I had my work cut out for me. I would train 3-4 times a week with Track and Field coaches at Georgia Tech. Working on not only running fast, but running like Jesse since he had such a unique style.

Do you feel like you’ve gained a certain appreciation for what world-class athletes like Jesse Owen go through? 

Without question. Seeing these athletes perform is one thing, but to go through the same training regimen as them is another. I have huge admiration for their mental and physical toughness.

You’ve said that Oprah Winfrey is one of your biggest influences, what is it about her that inspires you?

I feel like Oprah is one of those rare people who inspires you just from being in her presence. I think the impact she has made on the world is truly tremendous. From her philanthropic work to her work as a humanitarian, surely she is positively influenced so many lives in her time as a public figure. 

Was working with her on Selma a dream come true?

Absolutely, she is exactly how one might think she is. One of my biggest honors has been working with her on Selma.

You seem to gravitate towards historical stories, would you call yourself a history buff?

I would not call myself a history buff, though I have certainly learned a whole lot about history doing the work I do.

Is there something about portraying a once real living being versus a fictional character that intrigues you? 

It is definitely more nerve racking playing a real person. However, it’s probably more fulfilling as well. Getting to be the vessel to teach a whole new generation about influential people who have changed the fabric of our society and the way we live today. There is something really cool about that.

There’s almost a certain level of heightened responsibility there, how important is getting the facts right to you? Do you find you do a lot of reading to really get to know the person you’re portraying?

No question. As artists we have a huge responsibility especially while playing real people to bring a level of truth to your performance that is accurate to them as human beings. Research is key. 

How do you unwind between takes? 

You have plenty of time to unwind when you’re done filming, I try to stay in the moment.

If you had your pick of any historical story to tell that you haven’t yet, what event or person would you like to draw attention to? 

I would love to play Jean-Michel Basquiat one day. I’m truly fascinated by him.

When you have spare time, what do you turn your attention to?

Sports. I love basketball, whether it be playing or watching, and it’s the playoffs, so this really is my favorite time of the year.

What’s next for you?

Maybe I will be playing Spiderman. You never know.

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