When Stephan James signed on to play Jesse Owens in “Race,” a biopic documenting the Olympic gold medalist’s famous triumph in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 22-year-old Canadian actor wasn’t just handed one helluva part.
He was effectively mandated a strenuous training regimen, tasked not only with mimicking the icon’s unique sprinting form but getting in solid enough shape to convincingly thrive in the film’s many running scenes.
So how does one prepare to play Jesse Owens, really?
“I started about two months beforehand,” James says. “I was working on another film. But every day I had off on that film I would train, physically train, to play Jesse Owens. I was in Atlanta, I would go down to Georgia Tech, and train with the track and field coaches there to make sure that my conditioning was where it needed to be so I was able to be believable as Jesse Owens and sustain the three months of shooting that I was going to have to go through.”
That’s a lot of running, of course, and it’d have to be given that filming an Olympic competition or a Big 10 meet required an average of four or five takes at full speed.
“But then I had to focus on, hone in on, his personal running technique, which is so particular that I had to really, really watch film over and over again,” James adds. ... “I tried to make sure that I had been so well rehearsed and run so much like him that I couldn’t really run any other type of way.”
On the track and off, it all adds up to a convincing portrayal. Previously best known for playing Rep. John Lewis in his younger days in “Selma,” James captures Owens as a reservoir of almost superhuman strength and resolve in the face of enormous obstacles, in Germany and at home, where Owens could be celebrated for his accomplishments and forced to ride a service elevator to his own party.
“Our biggest thing with this film was telling the truth,” James says. “We were concerned with that more than anything. There was no sugar coating involved. For us, we knew that Jesse didn’t live in a perfect America. We knew that even after he went to Germany and became the fastest man on the planet and the most famous man in the planet at that point in time, he didn’t come back to a perfect America. That’s not something we shied away from.”