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Stephan James, star of ‘Race,’ chats with Long Island kids

Actor Stephan James, who stars as Jesse Owens

Actor Stephan James, who stars as Jesse Owens in "Race," with Kidsday reporter Andrew Culbreath at AOL offices in Manhattan. Credit: newsday / Pat Mullooly

A great new movie, “Race,” opens today. “Race” is a heartwarming story about a legendary Olympian named Jesse Owens, played by actor Stephan James, that will touch the hearts of so many. A story of a man who through courage, determination, tolerance and friendship went on to be an African-American Olympic legend. Through boycotts, racism and corruption of the Nazis, Jesse kept standing tall and did the best thing he knew how to do . . . run. I highly recommend that everyone sees this film.

A favorite scene of mine is when Jesse’s coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudekis) told Jesse, “People are either going to admire you and love you or they are going to hate you and treat you like trash, but you have to find a way to block all of that out and focus.” When Snyder saw Jesse run he saw Jesse’s full potential. He said to Jesse, “You can run and man can you jump, but the question is can you win?” I believe what that question meant was, even though Jesse could do amazing things on the track, his coach wanted to know if he had what it takes to go to the next level. Jesse had a whole mountain of pressure put upon him, And even though there were times Jesse had moments, he didn’t know where to turn, he kept pushing himself to become a legend.

I watched the movie and saw the different obstacles Jesse went through. Extremely tough trials to get to where he wanted to be. This movie explains the enormous impact Jesse Owens made on the world. The Jesse Owens story is a great example of how to never give up.

I do not want to give anything away from the movie but it is a touching and inspiring story. It will most likely leave you on the edge of your seat. I certainly was on the edge of mine. I highly recommend everyone especially teens go see this movie. Not only is this black history but it is American history.

Five smiles.

After seeing the movie, I went back to Manhattan to the AOL offices to meet Stephan James and talk to him about his role in the movie. Before meeting him, I also met actor Jason Sudeikis and director Stephen Hopkins.

How did you prepare to play this enormous and special role in “Race?”

I definitely had to do my research. I knew very little about Jesse Owens beforehand. So there’s a lot that I learned while researching to play him not only about him as an athlete, obviously. I had to make sure that I was training to be convincing as a sprinter and Jesse Owens at that. But also him as a man trying to make him a person and make him whole. It was a process for sure.

How did it feel to be in the shoes of Jesse Owens? Was it difficult to play this role?

At times. I had days when I was very exhausted. Very, very tired. You could only imagine the amount of running I had to do. And then he’s obviously such an iconic figure in American history and world history so you want to make sure that you’re doing him justice that you’re doing his family justice and everyone around the world who loves him and supports him. A little daunting but I rose to the challenge.

Did you ever find yourself in any struggles of racism and can you relate to Jesse Owens in any way?

Definitely not in the capacity in which he had to experience racism. We’re in a very different place than we were 80 years ago, that’s for sure.

If you had the chance to meet Jesse Owens, if he were alive today, what exactly would you say or ask him?

I’d probably ask him if he knew the impact he would have on the world by going to those games. If he knew that it would resonate with generations after him and we’d be making a film about him and his life 80 years later.

In the movie “Race,” there was a scene that Coach Synder said, “You can run and boy you can jump, but the question is can you win?” What does that question mean to you?

I think Larry was questioning Jesse’s ability to be a champion. Anyone can be talented, but are you willing to apply yourself? Are you willing to put your mind and your body to the ultimate test to be able to compete and win on a high level? That being said, on the world stage in Berlin. I think that’s what he meant by that.

What are your thoughts on this awesome movie being released in February, which is Black History Month?

I think it’s great. I think obviously Jesse Owens is a very vital figure in black history, but really American history and world history. It’s just a plus to have the film released now, but I think he’s so much bigger than just a black icon for sure.

Was it your goal to become an actor or did you have any other aspirations?

When I was younger, for sure, I dabbled in wanting to play sports and wanting to do music, wanting to be a doctor at a point in time. But I sort of just found this niche for acting as I was growing up and going to high school, getting heavily involved in theater and stuff like that. It gave me the confidence to take it to the next level, being film and television.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by a lot of actors, being an actor myself. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Idris Elba. People like that I would love to work with them one day.

Where were you born and what was your childhood like? Tell me about your family and do you have any siblings?

Yep, I was born in Toronto, Canada. Older brother, younger brother. Raised by a single mother. It wasn’t easy. We went through a lot but it’s cool to see, and my older brother is an actor too, so it’s cool to see us both doing incredible things and having fun doing what we love.

What are some things you like to do or what are some of your hobbies during your free time?

I like to read, play sports when I find the time, play video games. Pretty normal.

What was your favorite of your previous movies or productions?

I don’t know if I could say I have a favorite. They’re like my children, they’re like babies. I can’t really pick a favorite. I love them all for different reasons and they’ve all been great for me.

I’m a student at the Long Island High School for the Arts, I’m a theater student. Is there any advice you can give to me and all the students like me that are aspiring to become an actor?

Focus on your craft. Hone in on your craft. There’s going to be a lot of other things, a lot of distractions in this industry, in this business, but if you keep it about your craft, and what you love the most and be prepared and ready for the opportunities that come your way, be prepared to take advantage of them. I think you’ll be alright.


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