‘Race’ star Stephan James is honored to play history’s heroes

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Photo: Focus Features

With his starring role as Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in “Race, ” actor Stephan James has once again stepped into some heroic shoes.

“I don’t know if I can put into words what it’s been like to be part of this film, ” James said during a recent interview in downtown Atlanta. “He’s so much bigger than an American hero. He’s a world hero.”

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Photo: Focus Features

Photo: Focus Features

James trained for the role at the Georgia Tech track while he was in town for “Selma,” in which he played civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“When I was here filming ‘Selma’ all the free time I had I spent with (assistant track and field) coach Nat Page at Georgia Tech, ” James said. “He helped me run not only fast, but to run like Jesse, from his start to his stride to all his facial details.”

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A powerfully superb movie in theaters Feb. 19, “Race” portrays the enormous international hurdles Owens surmounted, from institutional racism at home to the evils of Nazi Germany during the 1936 Olympics.

“I’m encouraged for people to see the film, ” James said. “It’s such an inspirational film. You don’t have to be a runner to watch this film. Anyone can be inspired by what he did.”

While working on “Selma, ” James was able to spend time with the real Lewis, who paid an emotional visit to the set.

“I was very moved by the film ‘Selma, ‘ ” said Lewis, who remembers having to sit in the balcony during movies while growing up in Pike County, Ala. “The little white children would sit downstairs. To go from that to having someone play me in a movie, it says something about America and the progress that has been made. It’s almost too much to believe to see yourself in the theater.”

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Stephan James, right, portrayed John Lewis in "Selma." Photo: Paramount Pictures

Stephan James, right, portrayed John Lewis in “Selma.” Photo: Paramount Pictures

Owens, who like Lewis was from Alabama, died in 1980. James was able to spend time with his daughters.

“They were instrumental in the whole filmmaking process, ” he said. “Being around them I learned about who their father was as a man. I have a big challenge on my shoulders in portraying him in the way he deserves to be portrayed.”

Getting to know him through his family made him admire Owens even more. He was particularly struck by the multiple gold medalist’s humility.

“Jesse didn’t really realize he would be the most famous person on the planet, ” he said. “I don’t know that he realized the impact he would have on the world.”

James is hopeful that the movie will encourage people to reflect on the past and to embrace a more hopeful future.

“Sometimes it’s important to remind people how far we’ve really come, ” he said. “You can hopefully inspire people to continue these fights. It’s more important than just going to see a movie.”

Stephan James trained for his starring role in "Race" while filming "Selma." Photo: Jennifer Brett, jbrett@ajc.com

Stephan James trained for his starring role in “Race” while filming “Selma.” Photo: Jennifer Brett, jbrett@ajc.com