TIFF Rising Star Stephan James Talks Jesse Owens Biopic ‘Race’

Stephan James (“Selma”) will be the first actor out of the starting blocks to star as legendary track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens when Focus Features’ “Race” hits screens on Feb. 19, 2016.

James, one of four young Canadian actors selected for the Toronto Film Festival’s 2015 TIFF Rising Stars program, told Variety at a cocktail event held Sunday that he was offered the Owens role while he was filming “Selma.” (Joe Boyega was set to play Owens, but pulled out when he was cast in “Star Wars: Episode VII.”)

“When I first got the call from my manager asking if I’d ever heard of Jesse Owens, I recognized the name, looked him up and was blown away by his story,” James said.

Race” is directed by Stephan Hopkins and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It also stars Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt and Carice van Houten. A French-German-UK-Canadian coproduction, the film was shot in 2014 in Montreal and Berlin.

James said “Race” tracks Owens’ story from his record-breaking victories while attending Ohio State University to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, where the athlete won four gold medals, countering the Nazi party’s vision of “Aryan racial superiority.”

“Owens’ struggle and triumph against adversity is so inspiring. The experience of playing this role has been such an honor,” James said.

While “Selma” was shooting in Georgia, James started training during off-time with an assistant men’s track-and-field coach at Georgia Tech.

“Growing up, I was always into sports — basketball and volleyball — but I wasn’t really a runner,” James said. “So I had to learn how to run and how to run fast, but also how to run like Jesse Owens, because he had a very particular style.

“The documentation of Owens is very limited; there aren’t a lot of videos or recordings available to know how he spoke or moved, so it really helped that one of his daughters and his granddaughters were around during the filming.”

James recently completed the pilot for NBC the drama “Unveiled.” In additional to playing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis in “Selma” and a supporting role in the CBC miniseries adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel “The Book of Negroes,” he played the role of Justin for three seasons on “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”

The actor is repped by Innovative Artists and manager Norbert Abrams.

More Film

  • Jennifer Lopez Owen Wilson

    Jennifer Lopez-Owen Wilson Film 'Marry Me' Moves Back to Universal From STX

    The Jennifer Lopez-Owen Wilson romantic comedy “Marry Me” has moved from STX back to its original home, Universal Pictures. STX previously took over the project in April. Kat Coiro is directing from a script written by John Rogers and Tami Sagher, with a rewrite by Harper Dill. Colombian singer/rapper Maluma has joined the cast and [...]

  • Austin Butler to Star as Elvis

    Austin Butler to Star as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann's Biopic

    Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic has found its king of rock ‘n’ roll. After numerous screen tests, Austin Butler has been tapped to play Elvis Presley in Luhrmann’s next feature film for Warner Bros. The studio tested with a handful of actors in full hair and make-up at the end of June to see who [...]

  • 'The King's Man' Trailer Debuts With

    'The King's Man' Trailer Showcases Secret Service's Origins

    Disney is promising plenty of sword-fighting, gunplay and devastation in its first teaser trailer for the Fox spy comedy prequel “The King’s Man.” The studio unveiled a first look Monday that sets the stage for an origin story of the private British  intelligence service, portrayed in the two previous films in the franchise: 2014’s “Kingsman: The [...]

  • Emma Stone Damien Chazelle Babylon

    Emma Stone Eyes Damien Chazelle's Next Film 'Babylon'

    “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle is heading back to Hollywood for his next feature film “Babylon,” and Emma Stone is in early talks to star. Sources say Chazelle has met with a handful of suitors over the past couple weeks, and Paramount and Lionsgate are both vying to land the project. While Chazelle previously [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez

    2019 Imagen Awards Nominations: Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas and More

    Jennifer Lopez and Antonion Banderas are among this year’s Imagen Awards nominees, which span a range of categories including informational programming, on-air advertising, outstanding individual performances and prime time programming in film and television. The Imagen awards were first established in 1985 upon recommendation from TV veteran Normal Lear in an effort to recognize more [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content