Actor Stephan James ventured to Cleveland earlier this month to appear in a Cleveland Cavaliers' Black History Month halftime presentation. The Cavs honored Cleveland native Jesse Owens, whom James portrays in the film Race, opening in wide distribution Friday.
James' heartfelt performance in the film was aided, in part, by Jesse Owens' daughters, who were also honored by the Cavs. They told James stories about their father to help him prepare for the role.
"They were incredible, instrumental," James told Scene in an interview at the Westin hotel prior to the Cavs game. "There's not a group of people who knew Jesse better, and I had their support from the beginning, telling me about who their father was on a personal level. A lot of people don't know these things about him."
Things like Owens' overlooked career as a humanitarian, for instance, and the way he treated other people.
"He was a consummate gentleman who exuded love and loved to dress well and smell nice," James summed up. "He was always wearing cologne." (Another detail: Owens' given name was actually James Cleveland. When Owens introduced himself as J.C. in grade school, his teachers heard it as "Jesse.")
Stephan James is an athlete himself, and he brings a level of physical verisimilitude to the role. Race chronicles Owens' rise to stardom at Ohio State, under head coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and, eventually, his triumph over adversity at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
"I could run as fast as I could, but that wasn't enough," James said. "I had to run like Jesse. How did he start his race? How did his stride look? How did his face look? I had to really key in on those things. The devil was in the details for me."
James is a bona fide rising star in Hollywood, with supporting roles in the 2014 films Selma and When the Game Stands Tall. This is his first starring role, and he said that for him, even though it's thrilling to be the top-billed actor — "literally the face on the poster" — it's more important to honor the character he was cast to play.
"Working those 16-hour days was new to me, but I realized how important it was to give all of myself to this project," he said. "You understand that it's not all about you. I had to give it all to the story and to Jesse Owens."
Two additional notes: First, James, a Toronto native, is a huge NBA fan and wants nothing but the best for former Cavaliers' No.1 pick Anthony Bennett, who now rides the Toronto bench. And second, James and Sudeikis became buddies during the making of Race. While on set in Berlin, they orchestrated an ALS ice bucket challenge gag that James encourages everyone to watch on YouTube.