Pulling off an on screen portrayal of someone who was once considered to be the “fastest man alive” is no easy feat. Just ask Stephan James. To prep for the role of Jesse Owens in the upcoming film Race, he had to spend two grueling months training at Georgia Tech with the track and field coach, cutting down his body fat to next to nothing, and learning how to emulate the running style of a four-time Olympic athlete.
“I made sure everything I did was like Jesse,” James tells us at the Los Angeles junket for the film. “I wanted to make sure that I ran like him so many times that I couldn’t run any other way.” A few pulled muscles, lots of massage therapy, and many running scenes later, James pulled it off, so well in fact that he did 99% of his own sprint and long jump stunts. His proudest on set accomplishment? Nailing the 100 in just over 12 seconds. “I got pretty fast,” he coyly admits.
Check out our interview with James as he discusses what went into his Jesse Owens transformation, his intense film preparations, and why he has to thank Star Wars’ John Boyega, for gifting him his latest role.
So what was the biggest challenge that you faced with bringing Jesse Owens to life?
Stephan James: Wow. The biggest challenge for me, I mean it’s 1936, so there’s only so many YouTube clips that I could find of Jesse. I think that that was probably the most challenging thing, was not having too much tape or footage of him as a person. But I tried to use what I could, definitely, and sort of expand on that.
Was there like two photos and maybe one little radio clip that you found?
Stephan James: Yeah, yeah. A couple interviews. But what I was able to see was definitely his running style. That was great. There are a number of his different races online. And there’s a great film called Olympia the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made about the 1936 Olympics. And she was sort of infatuated with Jesse a little bit. So he’s a big part of that whole story. So I was definately able to get something from that.
How many of these amazing race and long jump scenes did you actually film? Do you have a stunt double or are you just an Olympic athlete yourself now?
Stephan James: [laughs] I wish. I think I did probably 99% of my own stuff in this film. I wanted to make sure that the director had the freedom to shoot from different angles, that he wasn’t scared of another face being in the frame. So not only that, but I wanted to make sure that if I was going to play the fastest man alive, I was going to be Jesse Owens, that I was going through the process myself to make that look believable.
What was that process like? What was your running background before this?
Stephan James: It was small. I grew up on basketball, volleyball, that sort of thing. For me, track and field was a whole ‘nother beast. I not only had to learn how to run fast, but to run like Jesse because of how specific his running style was.
So when you get the call that you get the part, you probably are excited. But then is there a moment where you realize, “Oh, shoot. I have to run now…”
Stephan James: Of course! Yeah. You are obviously excited. But then you realize just the work that is in front of you. I started about two months before shooting. I was filming another movie at the time and every off day I had on that movie I would just be training at Georgia Tech with the track and field coaches there to make sure that everything I did was like Jesse. I wanted to make sure that I had ran like him so many times that I couldn’t run any other way.
You are basically the most ripped human being I’ve ever seen in this film.
Stephan James: Thank you for that.
What was your training process like? Were you in the gym? Were you on a special diet?
Stephan James: Yeah. Definitely had to cut down my body fat extremely. It was a little bit of weight training, though Jesse wasn’t a huge guy, but very, very cut, very little body fat. When you are playing someone who is a world class athlete, a four time gold medalist, I knew that I had to put the work in. so I was probably in the best shape of my life for this film.
John Boyega was originally cast to play Jesse and then got the call for Star Wars. So how did you get on board and were you super excited and secretly a little happy that it didn’t work out for him?
Stephan James: Yeah! I think it’s great that he went on to do Star Wars and left this open for me. Obviously two amazing films and stories to tell. But I’m happy for John and what he was able to do, but I’m happier that he gave the job to me.
When you did these races, did they actually clock you? Did you get anywhere near the real Jesse’s record on anything?
Stephan James: No. Nowhere near Jesse’s record, though it may look like that in the film. I think for me, I was running the 100 in just over 12 seconds. So I got pretty quick while I was making it.
Why should people see this film? What makes this version of Jesse Owens’ story different than other renditions that we’ve seen?
Stephan James: I think this is such an inspirational film and an inspirational take on the whole story. We are able to see Jesse’s story 80 years later in front of us on the big screen. To me, what I got the most from just reading the script and being a part of the whole shooting process was every day I just felt inspired by what this man was able to overcome to accomplish greatness. And if you can look at it, Jesse had nothing handed to him. He had to work hard for every single thing that he got. So it was very, very well deserved.
And if people can look at a guy like Jesse Owens and think if he can do what he did at a time in which he did it, then there’s no excuse for me to not be able to accomplish great things. If anything, I just want people to be inspired.
Lastly, were there any bloopers with running, doing those jumps? There have to be some crazy stories!
Stephan James: There was some crazy moments. Maybe a couple days where I pulled a muscle or something. It was helpful to have the benefit of massage therapist. I’ll tell you that.
Great job in the film. You do look like the fastest man in the world.
Stephan James: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Race is in theaters February 19, 2016.