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5 Questions with Stephan James of Selma

“I just want to do everything”.

So says Stephan James, Scarborough, Ontario’s by birth, “Birchmount and Sheppard”, but now spending a lot of time in L.A. This young actor, who played John Lewis in Selma, Cummings Shakspear in The Book of Negroes, and will become Jesse Owens in the upcoming film Race. But the actor is adamant that he is willing to play a cop a superhero, to be in more than black themed films, historical films. He happens to be a standout, and the future for this actor seems limitless. We sat down with James at a midtown Toronto hotel, where he shared stories from Selma, which is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

What attracted you to Selma in the first place?

A beautifully written script for one thing. And then, to be able to tell that sort of a story, such a powerful story, that has affected so many including myself. And then to play the role of John Lewis, an honour to be in the film.

Is it true that he surprised you on the set?

We were in the middle of doing a scene and our director Ava DuVernay calls cut, and in from a back room walks in John Lewis, with his big bodyguard. And I looked at him like he was a ghost. This man did so much. SO MUCH for so many people, it was almost like I was seeing an older version of myself.

What do you think of the civil unrest in Selma continuing?

I always encourage peaceful protesting. I not only think can it be done positively and effectively, but it’s necessary.

Stephan-James-of-Selma
Photography by: Michael Heilbronn.

Did you feel like on the set of Selma that you were living history?

We rode down to Selma as a cast on the bus, it gave me chills seeing the words “Edmund Pettus Bridge”. I thought that we were time-traveling to fifty years before. Literally walking in John Lewis’s footsteps, it was a very eerie sort of feeling.

You’re next film, (Race), you’re reliving history again?

April 8th, right before the Olympics, it is set to come out. I actually trained for Race while shooting Selma to play Jesse Owens. It’s a little bit of a different time, proceeding Selma by about thirty years. Being one of the few African-Americans there at twenty-two years old and walking into Nazi Germany, in a time when Hitler said no black person is ever going to win, no Jew is ever going to win, and to win four gold medals for his country to me is just fascinating. And we actually filmed at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin where Jesse ran in, that was another moment where I had chills walking into it.