Getting the story of famed Olympic runner Jesse Owens to the screen has been a long time coming. And for 22-year-old Canadian actor Stephan James, who played activist John Lewis in “Selma” and now portrays Owens during his road from Ohio State University to the 1936 Berlin Olympics in "Race," the last stretch of waiting was extra agonizing: the film was shelved for a year. But now it's finally here.
How do you wrap your head around playing such a big figure in history — who for some reason hasn’t been explored on screen before?
It’s crazy to think about it. It’s crazy that this film has landed in my lap 80 years later. But I can’t say that I’m mad that it has. Obviously it's a big, big story to tell, [about] a guy who is essentially larger than life, somebody who changed not only the sport but the world. I’m still pinching myself every day that I actually did it.
What was the process like for you?
It started mentally and doing my research — reading some of his books, and there are only so many YouTube clips you can find from 1936. I tried to take what I could see in terms of his interviews to see his cadences and the way he carried himself. I started physical training at Georgia Tech about two months beforehand. I was working on "Selma" at the time in Atlanta, and every off day I had, I was training to be Jesse for “Race.” For me, it was not just about running fast but running like him.
How fast did you end up getting?
I got pretty quick. I think was doing the 100 in just over 12 seconds or something like that. So, yes I got pretty fast.
Comparing yourself to Jesse Owens in that regard must be kind of pointless.
I think so. [Laughs]
I found it fascinating how much restraint he had to show in all of these situations, which is understandable given the time period but frustrating for a modern viewer.
It’s part of what makes him so great — the fact that he was able to show restraint and be reserved in certain situations and let all those feelings and emotions be expressed through his running. It’s tough as an outsider to look at it and see the way it went, but you try to be accurate in telling the story.
Was that tough to look into that period historically, given how things were for African-Americans?
Obviously when you’re in these situations you have to immerse yourself in that time. So for me, it was about feeling like we were actually in Ohio in 1935, or in Berlin in 1936. And, yeah, some of that stuff is difficult to digest, but again they’re very real things and we didn’t try and shy away from that.