The title for the newest Jesse Owens-based “Race” has one of those multi-layered meanings.
“There’s ‘race,’ in that there’s obviously running,” Stephan James, the soft-spoken actor who portrays Owens, started to explain when asked about it.
“There’s ‘race,’ in the fact Jesse was a black man in a white world. And there’s also ‘human race’ involved here. The story speaks on many levels and it’s much bigger than just a black-and-white issue.”
The race issue – one involving all humans – is front-and-center, and parallels can be drawn with how the 22-year-old James portrays Owens in the same way that Chadwick Bozeman performed the role of Jackie Robinson in the 2013 movie “42.”
Neither James nor Bozeman are marquee actors playing an historically prominent athlete who overcame racism in a white world. Those more notable in Hollywood are Jeremy Irons, who plays USOC chief Avery Brundage, and Jason Sudekis, who has the role of Owens’ coach and mentor Larry Snyder.
In “42,” Harrison Ford had the role of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
With “Race” getting out of the starting blocks with last weekend’s debut and making an estimated $7 million in box office, we wanted to run some questions by James that might give a little more context to viewers about the complex role he played:
Q: Having seen the movie now with a live audience, what has been their reaction to different scenes and how did you absorb that?
A: It was incredible. People have really responded to it quite well. Especially younger people. I’m so excited about that. That was my goal coming in just to be able to teach the newer generation about this man. Because he’s so important. It’s a story we can’t allow to die. So pivotal in the fabric of not just American history but world history. To see how enthralled they were during the film, on the edge of their seats when Jesse is racing and jumping, even though you may know what’s going to happen it’s very exciting to see the audience.
Q: You got to show off your basketball ability playing in the NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game in Toronto as a member of Team Canada — 10 points in 19 minutes. Did you find any basketball skills translating to track and field for you in making this?
A: Jumping, for sure. It’s really a whole different beast. Being athletic and agile is OK, but to be a track star and to be Jesse Owens, the fastest man on the planet, took a lot more.
Q: How did you best learn Owens’ running style and form?
A: I beat his style into myself by watching films. I guess it helped that I hadn’t done a track before because it helps you develop a style that’s more natural. I had a lot of coaching with people who were very familiar with Jesse how he went about things. We broke it down, ran 10 and 20 meters and until I was comfortable and ran so many times like him that I really couldn’t run any other way.
Q: What was most specific to his style?
A: He had a thing where he popped right up after the run went off and he sort went into a stride. His coach tried to teach him to have a gradual glide into his stride. I had to pay attention to that. It was a very erect running style with body and torso straight up. Then I had to pay attention to his facial emotions and expression. It was important to nail that down.
Q: In the film it showed the way the coach tried to get him to start very low, running under neat hurdles and tape.
A: Exactly. I had to learn how to do it the wrong way, then learn how to do it the right way.
Q: Did you make it through without having any kind of injuries?
A: Definitely sore days. Exhausting days for sure. A lot of ice baths. A massage therapist on the set during heavy running days. It gives you a whole new respect for what he did because that was much different technique than running today. In the 1930s, it’s a dirt track with leather shoes that have three-inch spikes on the bottom. It’s terrible. You would be blown away looking at these shoes and considering how he broke records in them. It gives you a whole new respect for athletes in general but in particular for athletes back then.
Q: You wore those shoes?
A: Of course.
Q: And without socks. That would seem like an ankle break waiting to happen.
A: Totally. I just knew I had to do it. There was no other way. We had to be accurate to that story and get comfortable and deal with it. Literally, it was laughable when you consider how he did it with those circumstances.
Q: What was your fastest time in the 100 meters?
A: I think I was doing it in like 12 seconds.
Q: That’s pretty darn good.
A: Totally surprised me. I pushed myself to new heights with this one. You train so much and don’t really realize how fast you’re getting until you clock it. I just wanted to make sure I was winning most of the races – as Jesse did. And I worked on running as fast as I could and eventually, you just become good at it.
Q: This all builds toward the scenes in Berlin, on the same track that Owens ran. It must have felt like you were channeling him at certain points.
A: Of course. Walking to the stadium for the first time, I certainly felt it. It was a full-circle moment for me, thinking he walked this path before. I’m walking in his footsteps 80 years later, but without thousands of Nazis watching. It was one of the true moments when I felt like I was Jesse – even if that was only a fraction of what it was like for him in a place so big where you feel so small.
Q: One of the really visual scenes as you arrive in the stadium seems to last five minutes, a sweeping, one-shot take where you come out of the tunnel, look around at the massive crowd, a Zeppelin flies over head, you sit down and put on your shoes … did that feel as close to you as being part of maybe a documentary instead of a movie?
A: Totally. That’s a very specific work with me and the director and the cameraman. It’s a lot of choreography, a dance we worked on months before hand. Some of the things you see obviously were not there – the blimp, the 150,000 fans doing a Nazi salute (all computer generated). That was all created for the audience to make them feel they were in that moment. It was an important scene to make it work in one take.
Q: One other scene: Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) leads Jesse Owens after his 100-meter win up the stairs and toward Hitler’s box, but he wasn’t there. He left early. The head German official explains: ‘Do you really think he would allow himself to be photographed with that?’ There did not seem to be a reaction from you, as Jesse, to what he said. As an actor, what kind of feelings did you have with that dialogue? Did it knot up in your stomach as that and other instances of blatant racism come up for Owens to deal with.
A: There are a lot of things that I read during research that made me angry and upset. Disappointed. Sometimes it’s about taking yourself out of it and just telling the story. I had a lot of powerful moments, but it’s more recreating what actually happened.
Q: So now you’ve played John Lewis, the civil rights leader in the movie “Selma.” You’ve also played Owens. What if you got a chance to play another athlete in history? Any interest someday in doing the life story of Steph Curry or Kobe Bryant, considering your basketball background?
A: Yeah, that could be cool. I’d actually like to make a movie about Michael Phelps. Pretty good swimmer.
Q: You might have a problem there convincing the audience (laughing).
A: How about we put that out there anyway (laughing).