“I’m so excited,” says Stephan James, one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and begin discussing the last few months of his life. The 25-year-old Canadian exploded onto the scene last fall as the male lead of one of 2018’s most acclaimed movies, Barry Jenkins‘ If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna), and most acclaimed TV series, Sam Esmail‘s Homecoming (Amazon), for which he received a best actor in a drama series Golden Globe nomination. Speaking in early 2019, he guarantees that the best is yet to come: “I started a new relationship with CAA that I’m so proud of. I’m looking to expand my horizons, looking to delve into directing and producing, which is something I’m really excited about. And then, obviously, I can’t forget about my acting career and continuing to build on that. So, I think people can expect a lot more of a lot more from me.”
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James was born in Toronto and raised there, along with his two brothers, by a single mother who worked as a social worker. A reserved kid — unlike one of his brothers, who became a professional dancer — he began to come out of his shell by doing impersonations at home, horsing around in class and eventually performing school plays. Observing his brother’s navigation of the entertainment industry inspired him, as a young teen, to seek a meeting for representation of his own. He signed with a manager who helped him to secure his first professional acting gigs at 16, an early example of which was a stint on TV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation, a “Canadian rite of passage.” As he neared college-age, he “had full intentions of going to school” to study forensic psychology — but then he started getting offers he couldn’t refuse.
Home Again (2012), in which he played a Jamaican deportee, provided him with his first leading role in a film, and resulted in the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar nomination. When the Game Stands Tall (2014), which featured him as a high school running back with dreams of college stardom, was his first American film. And then came the part of U.S. civil rights icon John Lewis in Ava DuVernay‘s Selma (2014) — thanks to David Oyelowo spotting James in the When the Game Stands Tall trailer and urging DuVernay to consider him for the part — and then, quite literally, it was off to the races. Just two weeks after Selma wrapped, James was on the set of Stephen Hopkins‘ Race (2016) playing another African-American legend, the sprinter Jesse Owens. And a year after that film’s release, he was starring on Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s Fox limited series Shots Fired.
At the same time that James was beginning to make his mark, he saw Jenkins’ 2016 masterpiece Moonlight, which would go on to win the best picture Oscar, and he decided that he had to work with the filmmaker in the future. After learning that Jenkins’ next film was to be an adaptation of Beale Street, James Baldwin‘s celebrated novel about racial injustice, he reached out to Jenkins and asked for a lunch meeting. Jenkins agreed to see him, and James made his case for why he should play the principal character, Fonnie (short for Alfonzo, but just as easily short for Stephan). Jenkins was convinced and shortly thereafter offered the actor the part, which paired him opposite acting novice KiKi Layne, with whom he proved to have remarkable chemistry — even in many scenes in which prison glass separated them.
Beale Street wound up becoming a critics’ darling, winning best picture and director honors at the Spirit Awards, garnering three Oscar nominations (one resulting in a win for supporting actress Regina King) and putting its young stars on the map — but before it was even in the can, James’ next project was already coming together. “I was working on Beale Street in Harlem and my manager sends me this podcast called Homecoming,” James recalls, “and I had never listened to a podcast in my life, so I just sort of shelved it and it sat in my email for a couple of weeks, and then he was, like, ‘Man, you really, really got to listen to this podcast, it’s something special.’ And so I started listening to this podcast — I gave it a try — and, man, I was, like, ‘This is what I’ve been missing!’” James was hooked on the podcast; and then on the script for a TV series adaptation, to which Julia Roberts was already attached; and then on the idea that he could play the male lead — Walter, a military veteran being counseled in a special post-service center by Heidi, a therapist, to be played by Roberts — because it was essentially a colorless part. “There’s a lot to be said for casting minority actors in a role like this,” he asserts. “It’s not contingent on your race, it’s just purely about what you bring to the table as an artist.”
James put himself on tape, and then was invited to read opposite Roberts, which was initially an intimidating prospect. “You can’t help but marvel for a beat” at seeing Roberts acting across a table from you, he acknowledges, “but luckily she’s just the sweetest human being on earth and sort of just broke down all these walls with me really, really quickly, and gave me a level of comfortability that I really couldn’t have asked for.” The two hit it off, James got the part and then they went toe-to-toe throughout a shoot that demanded unusually lengthy and intense conversations between their characters. “There are no tricks around for remembering that much dialogue,” chuckles James, who notes that Esmail personally directed every episode of the show, describing him as “one of the most ambitious directors I’ve ever worked with” and “such a visionary.” Debuting on Amazon on Nov. 2, the show — a rare half-hour drama — attracted rave reviews and widespread discussion, not least because of the cryptic post-end-credits way in which it ends its season. “The biggest thing I get asked all the time is: ‘The fork? Man, the fork!’ Every time somebody sees me, they’re like, ‘What about that fork?!'” Roberts in January announced that she will not be back for the show’s second season, but James has not, and offers an opaque response about the show’s future: “It certainly continues — and I’m excited to see where it goes.”