“Race” takes us back to when an ordinary man from Cleveland went on to represent his country in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and won four gold medals. The man who made this feat in Jesse Owens. During the DC premiere at the Newseum, I had the chance to talk to lead actor Stephan James and director Stephen Hopkins about this must-see movie.
How did you know that Stephan was the one to play Jesse Owens?
SH: It’s a good question, we made half the film in Montreal, so I started casting in Montreal. Flying people from all over the place. Stephan was one of the first people I ever saw because he was going to do this little movie called “Selma” paying Congressman Lewis. I have met early on and thought that he is so great and I thought I can’t meet someone that quickly and he is the wrong guy. We hung out and realized that I kept thinking about him. There’s something about him that’s like Jesse. On the outside, if you met Stephan, he seems like a very quiet adult sorta slightly conserved a sweet guy but there’s so much going on the inside like Jesse too.
You know a lot of people thought of him as a saint. This is someone I think Jesse Owens, the original character was someone who was brought up as an African-American in depression America and was fueled by rage, he was made of steel on the inside. This is someone who was a very powerful guy. All he wanted to do was to run and be free. He got caught up in all these politics. I felt that Stephan had all these quiet grace on the outside plus he was willing to train like crazy for months and months. While, he was doing “Selma”, he trained down in Georgia for the movie and became quite the athlete.
You mentioned moments ago that you got the chance to film in Berlin. What was it like to recreate the 1936 Berlin Olympics where Owens won 4 Gold Medals?
Interesting to know that you have the bit of luxury to go where things are actually shot nowadays. It stills stands in all its intimidating grandeur. It was built to make you feel scared, that’s what the Nazis did with their architecture. The Nazis branded their Olympics as their own sporting event. It was the first time they corporately branded something even though it was an amateur sport. They were trying to put themselves on the world map as a real political organization as opposed to the gang and thugs they really were. So, they set a trap for the world to come into this stadium. One of the first ideas I ever had for the film was what would it be like to be a young African-American man to walk into a stadium of 120,000 saluting Nazis in front of Hitler and do what he did. Keep his head cool. There’s this shot of the film where we spent five minutes walking with him, we recreated the whole thing. The epic nature of that was really fascinating but there was a scene we shot in the film where Jesse goes to meet Hitler to shake his hand after he won the gold medal and Hitler pretends to have left because of bad traffic. We shot that in the room where it really took place in.
If you read Jesse’s Book, he explains how it happened. The way it was done. It gives me goosebumps even now. It sounds corny to say but when you get the actors and when you go and see how it really feels, it gives you a boost and a real sense of what its was like there.
One last question: What do you feel its important for people to watch “Race”?
You know, there’s a lot of issues in there. You have morality and honesty and truth. In the end, I wanted to make a film that I thought my kids and grandkids who are running around all over the place, to see a real hero. I am not sure if there are people leaving real legacies behind nowadays. Growing up, I had Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali & David Bowie. I was lucky enough to meet all of them and spend time with them but they all left legacies, you know. I am not sure now who these people are. Jesse avoided the spotlight at all costs. This is something he did not like. He just wanted to be himself. I wanted to try, if all possible, to tell an inspiring story of a hero. As corny as it sounds, I felt it was important.
Next, we interview STEPHAN JAMES, he played Jesse Owens in the film.
After playing Jesse Owens, what is the one thing that you took away from the experience?
I just learned so much about him not only as a runner and an athlete like so many other people know but as a man, a father, a husband and a human being. I learned that he was a big humanitarian and that’s sort of the level of humanity that I bring to the role.
Check out “Race” as it crosses the finish line at the movie theaters THIS FRIDAY!