“Race” is the story of Jessie Owens (Stephan James) as he works with his college coach (Jason Sudeikis) to become the fastest man on the planet, preparing to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As the Olympic games get nearer, many people want Jessie to boycott the games due to Hitler’s treatment of minorities in Germany.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Stephan James about his portrayal of such an important man and how much training did he have to do to get into “Jessie Owens” shape for the role.
Mike: So did you know much about Jessie Owens before you took the role?
Stephan James: I didn’t. It’s so funny when I got the call from my manager; he asked: “Do you know who Jessie Owens is?” “Uh, I think so.” His name wrung a bell, but I had to not only look him up and read about him, but I also had to read the script to see what he had really done. So for me, it was a learning experience.
Why did you want to take the role, that it something that would be good for you to do?
Stephan: I mean he’s Jessie Owens, once the fastest man on the planet. He was one of the greatest athletes ever to live. He was somebody that broke so many barriers. He was the world’s hero. So for me, it was a no-brainer for me to want to take it on.
Had you ever run track before?
Stephan: I didn’t ever really run track. I was always pretty athletic. I did basketball, volleyball and some football growing up, but never track. So for me, I had to learn very specific things to learn what it’s like to be a runner, especially in that time period. Then I had to teach myself how to run like Jessie, be truthful and accurate to him on how he ran.
How long did you train?
Stephan: For about two months. I trained here in Atlanta at Georgia Tech with Coach Nat Page. I was working on “Selma” at the time and every off day I had, I was training for “Race.”
And Jessie had a unique running style, didn’t he?
Stephan: Yeah, I had to learn his style of running. He would pop almost straight up when started a race. It’s supposed to be more of a gradual rise, and that’s something that he had to learn and get over that style. Yeah, I had to learn how his face looked and what his stride looked like.
Was that difficult to learn? I mean, as an actor you have to learn lines, but for this role you also had to learn how to run in a certain way?
Stephan: Exactly. It was a big task. Yeah, it was difficult. It was a matter of repetition. Weeks before shooting, I was training to run like Jessie. So I trained to run like him, and even now I run like Jessie.
If you could only run as fast as he did!
Stephan: Yeah, if I could only run as fast. But yeah, it became so heavily ingrained in the way I did things. You commit yourself and your mind to it and becomes a part of you. And I did a bit of weight training, though not too much because Jessie was a smaller guy.
You have great chemistry on screen with Jason Sudeikis, who plays your college coach. Talk a bit about working with Jason.
Stephan: Jason is incredible. I flew out to New York to meet him, just to get to know each other. We found out pretty quickly that we both love sports, basketball, and baseball. We clicked pretty much off the jump on that sort of stuff. Jason played sports his whole life, so he knew what the coach/athlete relationship is like. As I did it, so I think that knowledge helped us portray that on screen. He’s a great guy to work with. He, of course, has a great sense of humor. It was good to have that around the set to liven things up, especially when you are doing something as heavy as this story is.
It seemed to me that the two men, Jessie, and his coach, had very similar senses of humor. I thought that played well on the
screen between you two guys.
Stephan: Yeah, we had some jokes that are talked about early in the movie that we come back to later on in the film and make for some splendid scenes.
This movie was made with the cooperation of the Owens family. Did you get to interact with any of the family?
Stephan: Yeah, Jessie Owens daughter had a huge part in making this film from the very beginning. The family saw the first drafts of the script and gave us their input, giving us insight on what Jessie would or wouldn’t say. They helped us build something that was real. I spent a lot of time with them before shooting, and then they came out to Berlin while we were shooting the Olympic scenes. I also hung out with his daughter and granddaughter in Beijing, so we spent quite a bit of time together. They were not only instrumental in helping make the film; they helped me understand their father as a man, as a real person. So that was extremely helpful in filling the gaps because there are only so many interviews with him from 1936. By being around them, I felt part of their family and was able to get a lot of knowledge about who he was from them.
Did you watch the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the 1936 Olympics?
Stephan: “Olympia.” Yeah, I did. That was a big part of my research. She was infatuated with Jessie, so a lot of the documentary centered on him. So that was important to see not only what the environment was like, but also to see how Jessie ran. What those moments were like for him at that time. Seeing that movie helped me channel him in the film.
There were a lot of people, especially in the Black community that felt that Jessie should have refused to go. Do you agree with his decision to go to the Berlin Olympics?
Stephan: I can only imagine how tough that was for him. I love the decision he made. He made a decision based on love and didn’t let one side over influence him. The fact that he went and then, unknowingly broke so many barriers; he probably didn’t realize the effect he would have by going. For me, having a story like that which inspires generations to come and breaks down barriers, he influenced so many athletes that came after him. To see what he did in Germany and see what effect it had on the world was a great thing and a great decision on his part.
The big thing that shocked me about the film was when he was at Ohio State, he wasn’t on scholarship. He had to work while also doing track and school work. I can’t imagine how hard that was.
Stephan: Yeah, not only did he have to pay for books and boarding, he was supporting a daughter. It tells you about what type of man he was, that he could do all those things. He was willing to put his family over his track career to support them. He had to work a lot of long hours while he was doing track and going to school. It’s incredible to think about how much he was responsible for and still be able to accomplish as much as he did.
I was thinking about how many more records he could have broken if he had been able to train full time.
Stephan: Or what if he was alive now with all the technology that runners have today. Just the track shoes alone, where he ran with three-inch spikes and had to start off not with a runner’s block but dug a little hole in the ground to push off from. I would be interesting to see if he was in the equipment that people like Usain Bolt or Justin Gatlin get to use, how would he fare against them.
What do you want people to come away with after seeing this movie?
Stephan: I just want people to be inspired. I want people to know that Jessie was a man who did incredible things. If you look at what Jessie did in those times in Nazi Germany in 1936, it has to inspire hope for any of us to do great things. “Race” is the story of inspiration and hope, to do great things just as Jessie Owens did.
Thank you very much and good luck with the film.
Stephan: Thank you.
“Race” opens on Friday nationwide.
See Mike’s preview of “Race.”
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