Interview: Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis Talk About Making the Jesse Owens Biopic Race
Race, the upcoming Focus Features film directed by Stephen Hopkins, tells the story of Jesse Owens’ relationship with his coach, Larry Snyder, and Owens’ historic participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Stephan James delivers a star turn as Owens and Jason Sudeikis gives a lovely dramatic performance as Snyder. One of the brilliant things about this film is the chemistry these two have with each other as they navigate this relationship that is both intimate and racially complicated.
In exclusive interviews for The Mary Sue, I had the chance to sit down with James and Sudeikis to talk about how they created these historic roles for the screen, what the project meant to them, and why a film like this – particularly in the climate of #OscarsSoWhite – is so relevant.
Stephan James (Jesse Owens)
Teresa Jusino (TMS): One of the best things about the film is the on-screen chemistry between the two of you. I’d love to hear a little about how that evolved and how you created that intimacy for these characters.
Stephan James: It’s all been really easy for Jason and I, I think, from the beginning. We hung out in New York weeks before we started shooting, started getting a feel for each other. We’re both big, big sports guys – I’m really into basketball and so is he. I was playing growing up…so we know what it’s like to have that athlete/coach relationship. So, it was easy for us. We had a lot of fun off set, and as our relationship as Jesse and Larry grew, my relationship with Jason grew much in the same way.
TMS: I know that you didn’t have much knowledge going in about Jesse Owens – and I don’t think many people do. How did you go about preparing for this role?
James: I definitely had to do my research. I’d heard about him, and knew he was an athlete, but there were certainly things I had to research. And after reading the script and being reminded of his story, I was just blown away by how incredible this man was, and the fact that I didn’t know about this. To me, it was exciting, because I now had the opportunity to teach other people about what it is that he did. I took that very personally and started reading a couple of books that he’s written. Obviously, it’s 1936 so there are only so many YouTube clips that I could find of him. [laughs] Whether it be him being interviewed or him running. But I what I could get and used that, as well as hanging out with his daughters. I spent a lot of time with his daughters, and was able to ask them whatever I needed to about their father. They’re literally the sweetest people. They’ve embraced me so much. And to have them around to fill in the spaces of things I didn’t know about him helped me create this man and helped me portray him for the film.
TMS: This film must be personal to you as far as issues of race, but it also depicts a very American experience of that. As you are Canadian, I was curious as to what you related to in the film and what perhaps surprised you?
James: In general, there was just so much that I was able to learn. These sorts of issues that we’re dealing with in this film, they’re not just American issues, they’re really issues all over the world. So, there was a lot that I was able to relate to and understand. But for me, I never really had any qualms or worries going into it being Canadian. I just knew that I had to go in and do my research and be prepared. As much of an acting experience as it was for me, it was also a learning experience. An educational experience. For me to be taught about, not only that time, but about his life and the effect he had on the world and the impact that has on us today, eighty years later.
TMS: One of the things that struck me most about the film was the portrayal of the friendship between Owens and his fellow runner Dave Albritton (played by Eli Goree from The 100). Whenever someone makes a racist comment, Dave looks about ready to take someone’s head off, whereas Owen’s response is always more measured. And that difference in how to handle situations like that obviously still exists today. Which side of that did you relate to the most? Was it difficult playing someone like Jesse whose response is so reserved in those situations?
James: I mean, I’m pretty reserved in my own life, honestly, so I connected with Jesse on that front. He’s a very reserved individual, a very modest person. But he would pick and choose his battles, and I think that the way he led his life is an example to us all of how we should live our lives. He didn’t see color. He was color-blind. And the only thing he really cared about was running, and his love for running overcame all the adversity and obstacles you could possibly think of. For me, I see some of that quietness and those reservations as power. That’s the reason why he’s so important.
TMS: What do you hope people take from this film when they go see it?
James: I just hope that they go to the theater and come out inspired. Inspired by the life he led, inspired by his feats in Germany in 1936. People can look at Jesse and think Jesse Owens could do what he did at the time that he did it. So, there’s no excuse for any one of us to accomplish great things. We can all do that.
Jason Sudeikis (Larry Snyder)
TMS: One of the best things about the film is the on-screen chemistry between the two of you. I’d love to hear a little about how that evolved and how you created that intimacy for these characters.
Jason Sudeikis: I can only speak to myself and what I did, but that’s a real bond. I really care about that young man. I’m excited to say that I got to work with him before everything I hope for him in regards to his talent and the way he carries himself happens for him.
It’s not too dissimilar from the film itself, that journey that’s, first and foremost, coach/athlete. You know, white/black, sure, but coach/athlete is where I started, and I think where Larry started, too. Now, from Jesse’s point of view it’s white coach/black athlete – and that’s understandable, given everything that happened at that time and even to this day that people of color have to deal with – but I love that it went to that mentor place where Larry earns Jesse’s trust and respect.
TMS: In talking to Stephen Hopkins earlier [Ed Note: you can read that interview tomorrow!], he said that you weren’t the obvious choice for this part, but that what you brought to it was exactly what Larry needed. He was thrilled with your performance. People generally know you for your comedic work – were there challenges for you as an actor in taking on a role like this that’s a bit of a departure for you? Or are comedy and drama pretty much the same in how you approach them?
Sudeikis: For me, it feels the same from within. It’s all a challenge in the sense that you’re trying to make it believable. I have to believe it within myself, so when I read a script I have to say to myself Can I help this story? That’s the same with Hall Pass, it’s the same with anything. Only in the case of SNL, just as a member of an ensemble was I put into positions where I would attack something whether I thought I could do it or not, because that’s the job. But here, when I have the opportunity to say yes or no, when I read something it’s not about How much am I getting paid? or How many days is it? It’s Can I do this well enough to help the film?
With [Larry], I just understood this fella the second I read it. That comes from my own human experience of having been coached and stuff in basketball, being an older brother, the various ways I’d been a mentor and teacher – even in improv classes. I knew where he was coming from. I knew how to play that posture, and how to encourage people, because I’ve looked for mentors that have seen something in me that I didn’t know I had. And so I got that element. I understood his pain that he had for missing out on his own opportunity [Ed. Note: in the film, we learn about the successes and failures of Snyder’s own track career]. I really loved his graciousness to share that side of himself (with Jesse) and that vulnerability. And also that side of the pain that is clearly being doused with whiskey throughout the film. My hope of hopes – not knowing how it all ended up – that in the last forty years of his life, this journey with Jesse that we show in the film helped to fill that hole. Then maybe he only drank to get drunk at that point, as opposed to, you know, to not feel.
But no, I didn’t have to do anything differently, because it’s about making those crazy comedies, feel believable within me, and then between me and my scene partner. Those moments that we portray in comedy are usually buttoned by – fingers crossed – laughter. Here, those moments – I don’t know, an inhale. A thought. They’re usually internal, but sometimes it’s external. It could be tears, or cheers, or even laughter. But the execution [of those dramatic moments] is no different.
TMS: One of the best scenes in the film is when Jesse is considering not going to Berlin, because of what the black community might think of him. Larry sort of angrily tells him You have to go! And Jesse’s response is, Well, you’re white, so you don’t have to think about these things. Considering the conversation now surrounding diversity in Hollywood, what was it like for you as a white actor to play that scene opposite a black actor? We talked about Larry “not seeing black athlete, just seeing athlete,” and a lot of times, people say “color blind” as if it’s a good thing – but if you’re not “seeing color” that means you’re also not thinking about it and what it might mean for someone with a different experience.
Sudeikis: Wow. That’s a really good way to put it. Well, when I first joined the film, I thought this story was relevant simply because of what went on prior to the Russian Olympics with homosexuality. So I was like, Whoa. This story is still relevant. There was no way that any of us could have anticipated that upon its release…
Similar to…similar to….I guess…it didn’t enter my mind in the scene. Because for [Larry], not talking about it….yeah. His way of dealing with it was like Show, don’t tell. You can see he clearly has disdain for the football players and the coach [Ed Note: they are the most vocally racist characters in the film] in the scenes we see with them. And you can see that he doesn’t care about that by allowing black kids to run on his team.
But in that scene, it was Jesse mentoring Larry and speaking toward white privilege, which wasn’t a phrase back then.
TMS: No! There wasn’t Tumblr then!
Sudeikis: Yeah, right? Like, how would they learn about these things? The radio? [laughs] But it didn’t cross my mind in that moment. What I was a fan of was that we were showing this icon, warts and all. The complexity of that. It showed the elements of his anger, which you can only imagine was twenty times more than any of our talents or lighting or fancy cameras could ever express. And later, when you have the scene between them where Larry acknowledges I have no idea what you’re going through. And I think that’s the growth he wouldn’t have allowed himself to have without Jesse leading by example, and by being louder.
Race is a wonderful, thought-provoking film about an icon that is too-little taught about, which is a shame considering the huge milestones he achieved in his athletic career that resonated far beyond mere gold medals. I highly recommend it!
Race opens in theaters tomorrow, February 19th.
(images via Focus Features)
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