Stephan James, Canadian star of Race, takes the lead in Jesse Owens biopic

Toronto's Stephan James, who admits he was speechless when he landed the starring role as legendary Olympian Jesse Owens in Race, has a knack for choosing great projects. The Selma and Book of Negroes alum talks about being picky and who he would love to play next.

Toronto actor adds Olympian Jesse Owens to short but impressive credits

Toronto's Stephan James talks about portraying Jesse Owens

6 years ago
Duration 4:29
The young Canadian actor talks about preparing for his starring role as the legendary Olympian and his career in film

When Canadian actor Stephan James learned he'd landed the starring role in Race, the new Jesse Owens biopic, he couldn't believe it.

"I was speechless. I'm still speechless. You know it's still weird for me to see the trailers and commercials and the posters. I'm still pinching myself, " he said.

The 22-year-old from Scarborough, On. was cast as the Olympian, starring alongside Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis (who plays his coach) and Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons. But first he had to do some homework.

​"For me it was a learning process from the beginning: just reading the script and researching him and his life and what he had done," James told CBC News.

Owens' rise came almost 60 years before the young actor was even born. The track-and-field star represented the U.S. at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, which Adolph Hitler tried to use as a tool to spread his message of racial superiority. The African-American athlete ultimately took home four gold medals and set world records that would take decades to break.

Canadian actor Stephan James appears in a scene in the movie Race, which stars the 22-year-old Torontonian as Olympic legend Jesse Owens. (Thibault Grabherr/Focus Features/Associated Press)

Becoming Owens

Making Race has "been an opportunity for me to be the best and share that [story] with a new generation," said James, who spent two months training at Georgia ​Tech ​University in Atlanta to recreate the unique running style of the American legend and met with his daughters to learn about the man behind the athlete. 

"I was able to get a personal feel for him and who he was as a father, as a man, as a husband and as a humanitarian."

Despite his young career, James says he's been careful about the roles he chooses.

His credits so far include the acclaimed civil rights drama Selma, in which he shared the screen with Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, and the miniseries The Book of Negroes, a top Canadian Screen Awards contender.

"They are such important stories in the fabric of our history: black history. Not just American history, but world history," he said of his meaningful earlier roles.

"For me, it's always been about choosing great projects. There's no pressure for me to rush into anything. I'm just excited to tell great stories."

As for taking on different kinds of roles, the actor named a rising star by the Toronto International Film Festival says he's game.

"I've been telling people all week that I want to play Spiderman," he laughed.


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