WATCH: Actor Stephan James on “Race” and Jesse Owens’ Legacy

Stephan James
Stephan James

The way Jesse Owens ran gave Canadian actor Stephan James a window into the legendary athlete’s heart and soul.

“He loved it more than anything,” says James, who stars as the iconic Olympian and American hero in the new film Race (in theaters Friday). “He really didn’t have much — just his love for running, that transcended. And that’s the thing that helped change the world.”

Directed by Stephen Hopkins, Race centers on Owens’ greatest days running in the 1930s and how he overcame racism and bigotry to win four medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were becoming a world power.

James, who played civil-rights leader John Lewis in 2014’s Selma, acknowledges that playing someone like Owens on screen is a daunting task. While not a running superstar before, the Toronto native mastered Owens’ awkward signature gait on the track as well as his approach to the long jump.

That helped him physically embody the character, but he looked to Owens’ daughters to find out what kind of man he really was.

“He was a big humanitarian, the type of person who would give his all, especially to children, and the type of person who exuded love,” James, 22, says of Owens, who died in 1980 at 66. “He was a consummate gentleman, and those are the things I tried to bring to him: put a face behind this hero.”

And to James’ credit, he brought “this quiet grace” to Owens, Hopkins adds. “He’s got a lot going on inside.”

James also was impressed with Owens’ humility but also his restraint. One scene in the movie shows him fresh from Berlin, four medals in his hands as he goes to a dinner in his honor. But because he’s black, he can’t walk in the front door and instead has to take the service elevator. He calmly accepts his fate and meets  a white kid who’s a really big fan.

“It boggles my brain,” the actor says, “but it’s a testament to him that he understood those were the times he was living in.”

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SOURCE: Brian Truitt