Olympians Onscreen: How Taron Egerton and Stephan James Played History-Making Athletes
Courtesy of Focus Features; FOX

Olympians Onscreen: How Taron Egerton and Stephan James Played History-Making Athletes

THR chats with the stars of the distinct sports films 'Eddie the Eagle' and 'Race' about navigating bicycle kicks and crash landings, and bonding with onscreen coaches Hugh Jackman and Jason Sudeikis.

Though Stephan James and Taron Egerton both play Olympians onscreen, their February releases are diametrically opposed.

Focus Features' drama Race, released last weekend, follows Jesse Owens, the expert African-American track and field athlete who overcame bigotry to win the gold at the Hitler-hosted 1936 Summer Games.

And out this weekend, the Fox comedy Eddie the Eagle zooms in on Eddie Edwards, the novice ski jumper who simply wants the chance to represent Great Britain in the 1988 Winter Games.

Still, both titles are individually inspiring — after all, they still take place at the Olympics. "You're talking about the great sporting event in the world! It's the highest level of competition, the biggest stage," James tells The Hollywood Reporter. Egerton echoes of the setting's inherent appeal, "They celebrate admirable qualities like commitment and good work ethic. … And it's fun to see people do things like high-diving — just falling from a great height!"

The following are edited excerpts from THR's chats with James and Egerton on navigating bicycle kicks and crash landings, bonding with their onscreen coaches and picking up acting tricks after portraying these real-life athletes.

What experience did you have in your sport beforehand?

JAMES: I grew up playing basketball and volleyball, but this was a new world for me. I was working on another film in Atlanta two months before [Race], and everyday I had off, I'd go to Georgia Tech. I had to train like how track and field athletes trained in the 1930s, not only learning how to run fast but also how to run like Jesse, because his style is unique. Coach Nat Page would record me while I ran, and I'd play a tape of myself running side-by-side by Jesse. And he helped me try to make the jumping believable, getting that bicycle kick in the air right. Obviously, angles and stuff help!

EGERTON: The ski jumping, I have to confess, was done by some very, very, very talented ski jumpers. But I had to learn to ski for this movie, in a very beautiful part of Germany with some incredible views. That training montage is genuine training. It's fantastic to learn a skill; it's one of the great joys of being an actor. You get to learn these new things and someone else pays for it, which is great.

JAMES: With this job, we don't just get to act; we get to live. We get to be whomever we're playing.

What's the trick to shooting your sports' scenes?

EGERTON: I didn't do the jumps, but I shot everything at the top of the slopes. It's certainly nerve-wracking, it's very cold and high but it looks amazing up there. I'd ski the first ten meters of each jump; they'd shoot me just leaving frame and then some big burly stunt men would catch me with a net. Some of the crashes were quite rough. You do as much as you can, but when it's deemed to be unsafe, that's when stunt men step in.

JAMES: It was definitely exhausting. The director would make us go hard three or four times, 150 percent, and then we'd move on.There were days when I was very, very sore [laughs], when massage therapists on set came in handy. Jesse's shoes were like ballet shoes with three-inch spikes at the bottom, and those were the shoes I had to train in, and they can be very uncomfortable. It blows my mind when I think about Jesse not only running in those shoes, but breaking all those records.

Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis in Race. Photo credit: Focus Features

Did you learn anything from your onscreen coach?

JAMES: Jason [Sudeikis] is a successful actor and comedian, I don't think that he takes comedic roles any less seriously than he does dramatic roles. He brings it all the time, every time, and that's the perfect type of scene partner. We became very close. We're both big sports guys — the first time we met, we barely spoke about the film; we just talked about sports and music all day.

EGERTON: Hugh [Jackman] is someone with incredible discipline who works really, really hard and doesn't take anything for granted. I hope that's a quality I share with him when, um, I'm as old as he is.[laughs] We spent the whole time making each other laugh — he doesn't work for those abs, he's just got them from all the laughing we've done! I think that spirit of the great time we had translates onscreen.

Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton in Eddie the Eagle. Photo credit: Fox

What acting lesson did you learn from this role?

JAMES: You only have ten seconds, so you have to be so focused when you're on that line, about to start that race. There are messages in the film about blocking out all the external noise, and that's something I can apply to my acting life. When a bunch of stuff is happening on set, you have to remember the grander purpose: you're telling a story, so you have to get to that moment, and that takes supreme focus.

EGERTON: Eddie is someone who's got a great sense of humor. I think regardless of the nature of the scene, if you're having fun and you're happy, then it's always gonna be better. I believe that even when doing sad or upsetting scenes; it still has to be playful and fun because you're creating.

What do you admire most about your real-life athlete?

EGERTON: It's not about being number one, but the spirit and the journey, and throwing yourself into something — literally, in Eddie's case — to try and achieve something that's important to you. I think the movie does justice to the spirit of who he is. You really get a sense of how single-minded and determined he was, the level of perseverance he had. It's quite inspiring, and you really are behind him and you want him to succeed.

JAMES: Despite being the fastest man on the planet, this superhuman athlete, Jesse was also an incredible individual: a great father, someone who was completely colorblind, a huge humanitarian. These are things people know nothing or very little about when it comes to Jesse. I was charged with the task of trying to put a face behind this larger-than-life character so the rest of the world could get to know him as well.