Meet 'Homecoming' Breakout Stephan James, the Heart of Amazon's Paranoid Thriller

The 'Race' star takes on the role originated in the podcast by 'Star Wars' actor Oscar Isaac.
Jessica Brooks
Stephan James

It all began with a podcast.

At least, that's the case for a significant swath of people walking into Homecoming, the new Amazon drama based on the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name. The series centers on the titular initiative meant to help military veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, by way of a Florida-based facility staffed with friendly therapists such as Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts). The patients include Walter Cruz, soft-spoken and kind-hearted, whose playful demeanor makes strangers feel like lifelong friends — and can even challenge the professional relationship between therapist and client.

Just as Homecoming sees high-profile names like Roberts and Bobby Cannavale taking on the roles of Bergman and smooth-talking operator Colin Belfast, the podcast on which the Sam Esmail-directed thriller is based featured marquee names as well: Catherine Keener and David Schwimmer voiced Heidi and Colin, and Oscar Isaac played Walter Cruz. For the streaming service adaptation, podcast creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg went with a lesser-known name to play Cruz: Stephan James, best known for his turn as Olympic athlete Jesse Owens in 2016's Race.

"We saw a couple of different people," Bloomberg tells The Hollywood Reporter about the search for Walter Cruz, noting that James was "at the top of the list from the casting people, but I wasn't particularly aware of his work."

James, meanwhile, was very much aware of Bloomberg and Horowitz's work on Homecoming before beginning the audition process. Indeed, it was the very first podcast he ever listened to.

"I was working on a film in New York and in the middle of it, my manager sent me this podcast," says James, who admits he was initially skeptical: "I'd never heard a podcast before, so I sort of ignored it for a little bit. But when I listened to the podcast, I just thought it was incredible. It blew my mind. I would listen to it on my drives and just in my random free time. I was so fascinated by these voices, and I started imagining what it could look like, visually — which was challenging, because it's so dialogue heavy. How do you make two characters sitting in a room interesting enough?"

The question continued to echo in James' mind before he finally resolved to film an audition for the role of Walter. A week later, he received the call to fly out to Los Angeles for a chemistry test with Roberts, who was already cast. One can only imagine the nerves coursing through James' veins, heading into an audition opposite one of the most famous faces on the planet — and yet those imagined thoughts would be nothing more than that.

"It's weird, because with the amount of dialogue work I had, Julia was the last person I thought about," says James. "It wasn't until after I left the room that I thought: 'Dang, that was just Julia Roberts!'"

As James recalls it, the chemistry read occurred in a relatively small room filled with executives, Esmail and Roberts: "Everybody's there waiting for you to start your audition. Meanwhile, me and Julia are talking about dinner plans, what's happening tomorrow — random stuff. They're waiting for us to start an audition, and we're having our own moment."

James already had one person in his corner: "Stephan actually sent in a tape, and usually I find it hard to read how actors are playing on tape, but he had me with the tape," Esmail tells THR. "I just couldn't look away. Stephan brings this warmth and vulnerability, but at the same time you can see in his eyes that there's a pain underneath. We flew him out for his chemistry read with Julia, and before they even started the scene, you could just tell there was instant chemistry between them. They had a connection. They were comfortable with each other."

There's a similar level of ease between Roberts and James' characters, therapist and patient, who break past the professional barrier to become even closer. From James' point of view, the natural dynamic with Roberts certainly fed into the comfortable chemistry — but there's also the actor's own understanding of Walter Cruz, a man containing multitudes.

"Everything I do has been important," James says of how he approaches the characters in his career. "This struck me as an opportunity to be a vessel, or a voice for a lot of the soldiers who are coming back from their lives overseas and having to get adjusted to now what is a new life for them. It's coming back home and normalizing themselves. And I just felt like I could be a voice for those guys. I found something interesting about his naïveté and his innocence."

Given that he first encountered Homecoming through the podcast, James readily cites Isaac as an inspiration for his own performance, despite never having met the man: "I'll tell him this when I see him, but there are certain nuances just in his voice and the way things were playing out that I felt could be helpful in translating it to the screen."

Homecoming is now streaming on Amazon Prime.