I’m a runner: Stephan James

Photograph by George Qua-Enoo

It obviously is an incredible opportunity to play Jesse Owens. He was a hero who managed to change the world with the power of sport and he broke a lot of barriers. Clearly those are big shoes to fill.

Being athletic certainly helped me land the role. You have to be ready for the challenge of playing the fastest man in the world for three months.

Physical fitness is something I’ve always thought was important. I played basketball and volleyball when I was in high school. Even though I wasn’t a ‘runner’ per se, having that athletic background certainly helped in my approach to playing Jesse.

To get ready for the role, I would do a half-hour or 45-minute run daily. I didn’t want to have a stunt double in the movie. I wanted to do as much of the running and long jumping as I could myself.

I did some research for the role. I was able to pick out details about how Jesse started his races, his posture while he was running, his strides, down to the little things, like his facial expressions.

I wanted to be accurate and truthful to his running style. Two months prior to filming I went down to Georgia Tech and trained with Nat Page, the assistant track-and-field coach, on my days off from filming [civil rights drama] Selma. He would make me run 10 laps before we even started the training day.

The running wasn’t easy. There were a lot of sore moments. I had days where I was taking ice baths and had to be with a massage therapist for at least an hour just to make sure I was loosened up. It was hard on my legs but even harder on my feet – when your feet hurt, that affects everything.

Race issues are part of the national conversation in the United States right now. Owens was a prime example of showing that it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from; you’re capable of accomplishing special things.

Stories like Jesse’s help open up people’s minds. By retelling history, we can change the future, in a way.

It’s great that we can use Jesse as an inspiration for people to strive for big goals. That could be in running or any other type of sport.

My favourite…

Fantasy race: Jesse Owens against Usain Bolt. The shoes and equipment Jessie used were different to what Usain is running with today. That would be a fun match-up.

Running tunes: It depends on the mood and the day, but upbeat things give me motivation. I listen to a lot of Kayne West and Drake. Eminem for harder training days.

Reason to run: I’ve come to love running. I’m no longer doing sprint workouts, but I often go out on runs for therapy. It’s very peaceful for me to go on a run and block things out.


In the film Race, James plays Jesse Owens, the American sprinter and long jumper who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s out now on DVD.