Stephan James is a name not immediately familiar to the broader movie-going, Netflix binging public – but that’s on us. If potential and sheer talent were the sole factor in determining an actors ubiquity, Stephan’s name would no doubt be on everyone’s lips, but for those in the know, it already is.
A Toronto native, Stephan has made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors and his CV reflects this. He has brought a number of challenging and meaningful projects to life often alongside industry veterans. One of the more challenging feats for any actor is portraying actual people. The stakes of the performance being higher when facts, family and legacy come into the picture. Stephan – having played Olympic legend, Jese Ownes and Civil Rights activist, John Lewis in quick succession – has risen to the challenge twice.
His stand out work in both roles no doubt helped to land him what promises to be two of his biggest projects: The lead in the Barry Jenkins directed adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk and a starring role opposite Julia Roberts in the thriller, Homecoming.
With so much to look forward to for the young star, we caught up with Stephan to get the first-hand account of what its like to be a star on an indefinite rise.
Words: Tshiamo Seape
Hi Stephan, what is keeping you busy these days?
These days when I’m not busy working on set, I’m busy being a dog dad to my Frenchie or painting with jazz music.
Tell us a little bit about why you decided to pursue acting and how you got your big break.
It’s interesting because I almost feel like I’ve been acting my whole life. I was really big on doing impersonations when I was younger, mostly of people I knew. I didn’t know how far I could take it until I started taking drama classes in middle school. Eventually, I was having so much fun with it that I pursued film and television. It’s been quite the journey since then.
You have two major roles coming up with Homecoming and If Beale Street Could Talk. What has the experience of being surrounded by Oscar winners been like?
It’s a really special thing to be a part of two projects of this magnitude. I’ve been really fortunate to work with amazing artists throughout my young career and being able to be on those sets sharing scenes and creating moments with people whom I’ve looked up to for a long time. It’s an invaluable experience as I’ve been able to learn so much.
Not too long ago you stepped into yet another big role: That of Jesse Owens in the film, Race. Through your research for the role, I’m curious to find out what you unearthed about Jesse that you were surprised by.
Playing Jesse Owens in Race is one of the projects I’m most proud of. We all sort of know who Jesse Owens the athlete was and what he did, but what was more impressive than that was Jesse Owens the man. The father. The humanitarian. He was so much bigger than an athlete. Something that resonates heavily today.
With such continued success, your life must have changed quite a bit. When was the turning point as an actor and what’s the biggest difference in the way you love your life?
Other than being significantly busier than I was maybe 3 or 4 years ago my life hasn’t changed too much. I still try and find time for the things and people I love. Not that there’s been a turning point per se, somewhere I feel I’m always turning. I like it that way.
You are one of the founders of B.L.A.C.K initiative alongside your brother, Shamier. Tell us about the initiative, the B.L.A.C.K Ball and the impetus behind starting the initiative?
Black Ball is an initiative my brother and I founded 3 years ago. It is literally an acronym for Building a Legacy In Acting Cinema + Knowledge. We wanted to create a moment during the film festival where we could honour a legacy of black filmmakers and celebrate a whole new generation of filmmakers right in our hometown. It’s a special way to continue to help foster and contribute to a community in which we came from.
Your dream co-star – who would you love to work with in the future?
Dream co-stars: Don Cheadle and Meryl Streep. Super Legends.
In a t-shirt and jeans, just relaxing, where would we find you hanging out during your downtime?
Likely Painting in my apartment…or watching some sort of sporting activity somewhere. S.o the raptors! praying for my jays??
Looking beyond 2018, what ventures are you looking to pursue, acting or otherwise?
Eventually, there are a lot of things I’d like to try out in this business. Particularly behind the camera as a director or producing my own content. Until then, I’m just enjoying the moments as they come.
For more on Stephan, you can follow him on Instagram
And find out more about The B.LA.C.K Ball here