Playing the greatest: Stephan James on being Jesse Owens
In 2016 Stephan James starred as the legendary Jesse Owens in the Hollywood movie Race. From replicating his running style to understanding the person behind the athlete, the actor recounts the joyful challenge of representing the man he calls a “superhero” on screen.
Convincing audiences everywhere that you are the fastest man in the world and about to be crowned a four-time Olympic champion is a tough gig for an actor.
“I trained twice a day for three months with track coaches at Georgia Tech, working on my conditioning, working on running faster, working on my form. All these things to try to be convincing as Jesse Owens,” said Stephan James, the rising Hollywood star who played Owens in the hit 2016 biopic, Race.
“I would take Jesse and try to mimic his whole running style. Eventually I was running like him so much I didn’t know if there was any other way to run.”
Remarkably, James estimates that it is him in about 90% of the shots of Owens in the movie, with the former Olympians hired as stunt doubles barely featuring. This did pose an additional challenge for James. Not only was he trying to copy Owens’ unique, free-flowing style, but he also had to take into account that this style was tinkered with just prior to the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games.
“It is really interesting, he went through a learning curve as an athlete from Ohio State (University, at which he enrolled in 1933) to being in the Olympics and that is something we explore in the film, how his running technique gets better so my technique had to get better through the film as well,” James said.
The 23-year-old first generation Canadian took the decision that to get it right, he had to fully immerse himself in Owens’ world.
“I had to train exactly like he did in 1933. Jesse Owens did not have the luxury of all the technology of today… And he wore shoes with two inch nails in the bottom and he was running in dirt,” said James, who by the end of shooting had a best 100m time on the cinder track in 1936 spikes of just over 12 seconds.
For the actor, who first won global acclaim for his role in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film Selma, the conditions in which Owens achieved his success only serve to underline the extent of the man’s talent.
“If he were to run today he would beat a lot of top athletes,” James said.
This assertion was given some weight in 2016, when Canadian broadcasters CBC challenged sprinter Andre de Grasse, who finished second to Usain Bolt in the 200m and third in the 100m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, to match Owens’ Berlin 1936 Games winning 100m time of 10.3 seconds while wearing the same kit and running on a similar track. De Grasse, the man many people see as the future of sprinting after Bolt departs, clocked 11 seconds flat.
Add on the chilling circumstances in which Owens was forced to compete, both at home in racially segregated America and in Berlin in front of Hitler at the height of Nazism, and you can understand James’ next statement.
“I have never played a superhero but he is probably the closest thing to it,” he said.
“He literally broke barriers for track and field. What he has meant to America, what he has meant to folk over there in Germany, it is really unparalleled.”
Rather poetically, making the movie led James to meeting the man who has dominated athletics in his lifetime.
“You know I am Jamaican (both of James’ parents emigrated to Canada from Jamaica) so I was pretty excited about the prospect of meeting him. I mean Usain Bolt is the Jesse Owens of our time,” said James, who met the eight-time Olympic champion at the Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championships.
Perhaps naturally, James is now a huge athletics fan and avidly watched the action in Rio de Janeiro.
“I have a different level of respect for the training they have to go through, the mind-set they are in. There is little room for error. It is 10 seconds between winning or losing,” he said.
It is interesting to note that despite being a fanatical sports fan growing up, the young James knew Jesse Owens by name but little of his deeds or the details surrounding them until the movie came his way.
“When I first got the script I had to think who Jesse Owens was,” James said. “What was really cool was having his daughters around. His daughters were so vital in helping us make this film, helping me develop the character that was Jesse Owens, about him as a man, as a humanitarian. This was more appealing even than him as a track star.”
Passing this knowledge on was, for James, the pinnacle of the whole experience.“To have the opportunity to learn so much about him and then to be the person to teach a whole new generation about him has really been the greatest honour of my professional career,” the actor said.