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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.

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