“It was like Jackie Robinson chasing Jesse Owens.” 21 Bridges star Stephan James couldn’t help but imagine this image as he sprinted through the streets of New York City with Chadwick Boseman right behind him until the sun came up. After all, both actors were most known for playing historical figures Jesse Owens (James in Race) and Jackie Robinson (Boseman in 42) until their breakout years in 2018.
With star-making turns in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and Sam Esmail’s conspiracy thriller series Homecoming now behind him, James couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play a multidimensional character in Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges — a thrilling crime drama that reminded James of films he grew up watching, such as Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral. James’ character, Michael Trujillo, could have immediately been written off as an ex-soldier-turned-thief, but James’ performance continually peels back the layers of the character with each passing scene of his.
“I don’t know if I ever really even saw him as the bad guy,” James tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I knew he was doing a bad thing, but the script always showed a level of humanity to Michael that was always interesting to me — even before I understood the full scope of his arc. He was layered, and I figured there was so much potential to do so much in a high-action thriller and still have it be rooted in character.”
James is currently shooting season two of Amazon’s Homecoming with a new director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, and a mostly new cast led by Janelle Monáe. However, James shares that the influence of season one star, Julia Roberts, and season one director, Sam Esmail, is not out of sight or out of mind.
“I would say that there’s probably elements of season one, but I think, aesthetically, [Alvarez] is doing his own thing,” James says. “Again, I don’t think it’s going to feel like a totally different show; I think we try and live in the same sort of family. But, yeah, he’s certainly had his own ambitious ideas. [Julia] is not in season two, but she came by just to visit and it was so electric.”
In a recent conversation with THR, James discusses his 21 Bridges stunt work, his first time hearing Nicholas Britell’s If Beale Street Could Talk score and working with Julia Roberts.
Did you grow up on crime drama?
I definitely did. When you talk about Heat, Reservoir Dogs or Collateral, I was definitely watching these films when I was way too young to be watching them. I always loved those types of films, for sure.
So, I asked Kitsch the same question, but my favorite part of movie robberies are the mask choices. If you had to do your own make-believe robbery, what would be your go-to mask choice?
(Laughs.) I don’t know. I’d probably dress up like Spider-Man to throw everybody off completely.
In the opening car scene, Michael and Ray exchange a bit of banter. Did you and Kitsch eventually get to that point, too?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. We had to spend a lot of time with each other. When you’re filming all night, you have to find ways to keep the energy or spirit on set, sometimes. We had days where we were just cracking jokes back and forth at 3 or 4 a.m. — partially delirious — to keep things going.
I’m not sure how the role was presented to you, but did you have a moment where you read the script and assumed, “Oh, Michael is the bad guy,” only to then realize that this role was far more than that?
I don’t know if I had a moment, per se. I don’t know if I ever really even saw him as the bad guy. I knew he was doing a bad thing, but the script always showed a level of humanity to Michael that was always interesting to me — even before I understood the full scope of his arc. It was just interesting to me because he was layered, and I figured there was so much potential to do so much in a high-action thriller and still have it be rooted in character. Those were the exciting things for me.
Can you take me through the process of shooting the foot chase between you and Chadwick? Did you do most of it?
I definitely did most of that. I feel like I did all of it, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath from it. Those sequences last days and days. We literally had days where Chad and I were running until the sun came up. With the first and second unit, we were running for dear life on our Saturdays. I think we both thought it would be cool to just have it be as much of us as possible. We’ve both done films that required a certain level of physical fitness, and I think we leaned into that. It was fun. It was like Jackie Robinson chasing Jesse Owens. It was fun for us.
The kitchen part of the chase was pretty spectacular since the characters were moving through some rather tight spaces. Was that even more complicated given the close quarters?
Oh, yeah. We had great stunt people who walked us through things, but it gets tighter and tighter. All the clutter that’s in those spaces, we had to be really mindful of… You had to realize what’s a prop from what’s not a prop. Some things are the real deal, and some things you could afford to crash into because it’s like plastic. The things that were real, you wanted to stay away from. So, you had all those things to think about, too.
There was a great shot of you sliding over a table, and since the shot was continuous, it appeared to be you.
For sure. That was definitely me.
And you shot the foot chase toward the end of production since your character had to shave?
Yes, exactly. That was mostly during the end.
My favorite moment in the film is when you and Chadwick are about to get on the subway, and you exchange this look that I read as so much more than, “More cops are coming; you’d better get on the train.” To me, Chadwick’s character was communicating, “I get what’s going on here. I understand.” Perhaps I’m projecting, but what did you read that look as?
Oh, man, I never thought of it like that. I just figured it was this unsaid acknowledgement that we were coming to the end of this thing. I think it’s like, “Man, you’ve given me a challenge chasing you around this city the entire time.” And I think I’m looking at him like, “You’re probably really good at your job. The fact that you’ve followed me all the way here, and this is where we are, having this moment.” To me, it was just a feeling of we’re coming to the end, and one way or another, we’re going to get an answer or we’re not going to get an answer. But, this thing gets resolved right here in this train. That’s what it felt like to me.
You had very little time to prepare for this film. Do you think that less preparation can sometimes lead to better work since you don’t have six months to overthink or second-guess yourself?
Hmm. That’s interesting. I don’t know that it leads to better work, but it certainly might allow for a little more spontaneity. You’re finding your characters in real time, essentially. That can lend itself to authenticity, not to say that it wouldn’t have been nice to get an extra two weeks to prep for this film. There’s something about being thrown into the fire and finding yourself in this moment. With a film like this that’s taking place all in one night, we’re getting to see the full scope of these human beings or whatever we allow ourselves to project in this one night. So, it’s a very specific point in time and very direct. It might’ve made the process a little easier. But, I can’t really say whether it’s better or worse; it’s certainly different.
The films shows photos of Michael in military attire. Did you shoot these photos yourself, or did the producers ask Homecoming for some unused photos?
(Laughs.) That is a great question. It could’ve been some Homecoming stuff; I don’t actually remember how that stuff came about. I played a soldier one other time so it could’ve been from that, too. I’m not actually 100 percent sure.
This was your first go-round with weapons training. Was it harder than you thought?
Not hard, but you definitely have to have a supreme level of focus when dealing with those machines. It’s a lot of different things to remember. I wouldn’t say hard, but I just think it takes a certain level of focus and respect for the weapon and responsibility when carrying it. Kitsch and I started training off by shooting live rounds from day one. It was just a certain level of respect you had to have for those things, and you had to be mindful of what you were wielding.
I first saw your work on a great short-lived show called The L.A. Complex. Was that a fond memory?
(Laughs.) That was so awesome for me. Thank you for asking about that. That was really cool for me because I’d been really into music growing up, especially younger. To play this weirdo, eccentric rapper character, it was the best of both worlds because I got to lean into the music and the acting. So, I enjoyed that.
Regarding Homecoming season one, Sam Esmail and Tod Campbell’s camera work is formidable. However, did it take a minute for you to get used to shooting a scene where the camera is moving every which way?
To be honest, that stuff was just so exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a set like that. I just remember Sam being so spontaneous and ambitious. He’s one of the more ambitious directors I’ve ever worked with. I never knew where he was gonna put the camera or what he was gonna do. I was always amazed at the shots, and they always gave you a feeling — even in the moment. I always appreciated what him and Tod did. It was a special set for me.
Did you ever get used to the idea of shooting with Julia Roberts?
(Laughs.) You never get used to that. Even still now, I’ve known her for like a year and a bit now. She came to set the other day, a couple weeks back, just to pop by the set of season two. She’s not in season two, but she came by just to visit and it was so electric. You’re just like, “Wow.” You would think it’s only like that because it’s just one day, but it’s like that every day when Julia is on set. You have to marvel at somebody who’s done what she’s done. She’s just a great person, a great spirit and a great source of life, laughter and love. That makes it easy to be in her presence.
While I won’t pry for story or plot details, is season two director Kyle Patrick Alvarez shooting the show a la Sam and Tod, or is he doing his own thing entirely?
I would say that there’s probably elements of season one, but I think, aesthetically, he’s doing his own thing. Again, I don’t think it’s going to feel like a totally different show; I think we try and live in the same sort of family. But, yeah, he’s certainly had his own ambitious ideas.
I really enjoyed If Beale Street Could Talk. Nick Britell’s score, in particular, is worthy of so many adjectives. Do you remember your reaction to hearing his score for the first time?
I went to do ADR for the film, and I was just in the studio with Barry [Jenkins, director] and our editors. And pretty much the first scene, I heard it, and I was like, “Wait, can we pause? What was that? That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in my life.” (Laughs.) Barry just started laughing, and I remember we had a whole little moment about it. Shout-out to the great Nick Britell. He’s such a special composer, and he’s done a lot of great work. He’s gonna be around for a long, long time. I was blown away by it, truthfully.
21 Bridges is now in theaters.