Opening today, Race tells the incredible story of Olympian Jesse Owens, who went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and won 4 gold medals away from the supposed "superior" athletes of the Nazi Party. As an athlete, it was remarkable. But as a black athlete, to do that in the heart of Nazi Germany, it was historic.
I had the chance to interview actor Stephan James, who played Owens in the biopic to perfection. We spoke about what it was like to step into Owens' shoes, the history of Berlin, and how much pressure there was to get it right.
Jesse Owens had such an incredible story, heading into Nazi-occupied Berlin in 1936 and winning 4 gold medals in front of Hitler. Did you know much about him prior to being cast?
No not that much, honestly. I knew his name, I’d heard of him, but I only knew of him as that guy who won a bunch of medals back in the day. I didn’t know why or where, and I didn’t know the circumstances behind it. So for me, there was a lot of catching up I had to do.
The film also told the story of Leni Riefenstahl trying to get her film of the Olympics made. Did you have any of her film to study?
Of course, it’s a film called Olympiad. It definitely got made despite how hard it was for her to make that. She was very impartial to Jesse, she really saw something in Jesse that a lot of other people didn’t see, so he’s a big part of her film. It was a research tool for me as well.
How vital was it to have Jesse Owens’ family on set?
It was everything. This film really couldn’t have been made without them, without their support and endorsement. Of course, just having them to tell me about their father when he was still alive, to tell me about him and about that time, was vital. There’s so much of Jesse Owens, the athlete, I could find, there are so many clips of him running and leaving people in the dust. But as a man and as a husband and as a father, there’s not much. So to hear about that aspect from his daughters was key.
How did you prepare physically for the role?
Interestingly enough, I’d never done track before. So I definitely had my work cut out for me if I was going to be the fastest man on the planet. I started conditioning at Georgia Tech right after I got the role, I started training with the track and field coaches there, learning not only how to run fast, convincingly as a sprinter, but also how to run like Jesse. His running style was really unconventional. He had a very unique style of running, so I had to make sure that I had to pay attention to the details to be accurate.
How was his style different?
He had an unorthodox start out of the gate - he popped straight up and never moved into it. He didn’t have that gradual glide to his stride; he just popped straight up and got very upright as soon as the gun went off. So that’s something that Jesse had to learn over time, and that’s something I learned, as well. I learned how to do it the right way and then how to do it the wrong way.
What was the most challenging aspect of filming? Was it the physical component or something else?
It was everything. It’s one thing to lead a film and to be number one on a call sheet and to have all this responsibility riding on you. But it’s entirely another to do it and play Jesse Owens. Just as much as I had to run, I had to learn how to walk like Jesse and to talk like Jesse. I had to memorize all my marks and make sure that I was carrying the film as well.
Was there ever a moment where his family turned to you and said, "Yes, you can play our father?”
You know, they were very supportive of me. After they screened the film, they told me they were in tears. So I’m just glad that to them, I was their father. If I can trick them then hopefully I won’t have a problem tricking the rest of the world. [laughing]
You filmed on location in Berlin, right in the Olympic Stadium. What was it like walking into that stadium for the first time?
Incredible. Just incredible. You know the whole city of Berlin really is. It has a lot of history, they really preserve their history and don’t shy away from talking about that time or about Jesse. So for me, going up to the stadium for the first time, I was almost beside myself and just thinking, wow, Jesse walked in these exact footsteps. I’m walking in his footsteps, only 80 years later! But he walked in there with 150,000 people in there. For me it was just a fraction of what he must have felt at that moment. It gave me chills. But on the other hand, they just loved and supported him at that stadium. There’s a Jesse Owens lounge, and his picture is up everywhere. It’s amazing to see how much they still remember and honor him.
How important was it to tell that larger story?
It was very important. I mean obviously there’s a whole lot that took place, a lot of people involved in this story and really, there could have been a lot of stories there. You know, the whole Leni Riefenstahl story is a movie in and of itself. It was very important that we capture as much of the story in that timeframe as much as possible.
Why is it so important for people to see this film now, in 2016, given the current cultural climate and social issues?
I think it’s important for people to see this film at any point in time. You know, five years ago, ten years ago. I don’t think it’s any more important to see it now than at any other time. But obviously, it’s great for people to have a reminder of how far we’ve come and why we can’t afford to take any steps back.