The 21-year-old, who portrayed civil rights activist John Lewis in Selma, says he was actually offered the role while still filming Selma, after fellow actor Joe Boyega dropped out to take a role in Star Wars: Episode VII. James says he had to do a bit of cramming when he first got word he had landed the part.
When I first got the call from my manager asking if I’d ever heard of Jesse Owens, I recognized the name, looked him up and was blown away by his story,” he said.
James soon began using his downtime while shooting Selma to train with an assistant men’s track-and-field coach at Georgia Tech. He also got some insight from some of Owens’ relatives on his mannerisms.
“Growing up, I was always into sports — basketball and volleyball — but I wasn’t really a runner,” James said. “So I had to learn how to run and how to run fast, but also how to run like Jesse Owens, because he had a very particular style. The documentation of Owens is very limited; there aren’t a lot of videos or recordings available to know how he spoke or moved, so it really helped that one of his daughters and his granddaughters were around during the filming.”
Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and directed by Stephan Hopkins, Race will tell the story of Owens’ life from his time shattering records at Ohio State University to his historic four gold medal performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics that put Adolf Hitler’s Aryan racial superiority claims to shame. Other stars of the movie include Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt and Carice van Houten.
Race is scheduled to hit theaters on Feb. 19, 2016