Race tells the story of Jesse Owens, the black man who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the face of the most heinous regime that the world has ever known. The Wheel had a chance, along with a group of other college students around the country, to join the cast and crew of this film, including Stephan James (Jesse Owens), SNL’s Jason Sudeikis (Larry Snyder), director Stephen Hopkins, and the real life daughters of Jesse Owens, and talk to them during a junket in Los Angeles about the process that brought this story to life.
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[wc_accordion_section title=”Stephan James”]
Alex Pena, Boston University: Did you feel pressure to do justice by portraying real people and do you aim for accuracy in your portrayals or what serves the film best?
Stephan James: For me, [with] Selma and Race, I look at them as just great stories. As a storyteller and an artist, that’s what really compelled [me] to be a part of and to tell those stories. There’s a little bit of added pressure when you’re dealing with real life people. You know you can’t fake things; there are people alive who either knew those people or are related to those people or those people are alive themselves, like John Lewis in Selma. So you want to make sure that when they see the film, you’re being accurate and that all the people who love and adore those people, whether they be Jesse Owens or John Lewis, feel proud of what you’ve done as well.
Brandon Wagner, Emory University: What do you do to discover these real world people in a way that feels artistically and emotionally true?
SJ: You gotta go back in time. You literally gotta go back in time. For me, I gotta immerse myself in these worlds whether it be the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement or the 1930s in Nazi Germany. I tell people all the time [that] I try to take an approach where it’s more than just research, it’s about living like these guys, living exactly how they lived in those times. I cut my hair like Jesse — my hairline’s a little different than Jesse’s — I cut my hair like Jesse about a month before we started filming. I wanted to wake up every single day and look at him in the mirror and see only him. Talk like only he did and run like only he did, so everything I did was what he was doing. I hung out with his family and I felt like I was a part of them and they embraced me and they’ve been lovely. It was just about immersing myself in it. The costumes, the set designing, the hair and makeup and all that sort of stuff helps add to it.
Madison Harwell, Pepperdine University: What was the process to train for the running in the film? How much was fake and how much was real?
SJ: I did about 99 percent of the running that you see in the film. I wanted to [give] the director the freedom to shoot whatever angle that he wanted to. I didn’t want him to have to be like “Oh, I have to shoot the feet, because it isn’t Stephan.” But for me, I wanted to be available, and be able to give myself in that way to the film.
Process-wise, I can’t play Jesse Owens and not train. It didn’t add up to me to have a double doing everything. I definitely started my training pretty early. I was working on Selma, and every off day I had on Selma, I would go down to [Georgia Institute of Technology] and start training with the coaches there, the track and field coaches there. It started with conditioning because I was going to be shooting for three months and I had to make sure that I could run for three months. Then I had to move from conditioning to making sure that I could run fast to making sure that I could run like Jesse. That’s a whole different thing; I had to pay attention to the way he starts his race, the way his stride looks, the way his face looks. It’s a physical thing, but it’s also a mental thing to remember all that stuff.
Erin Yarnall, DePaul University: What did it mean for you to play a prominent person of color who broke the mold?
SJ: It meant a lot. For me, it wasn’t a black thing or a white thing. This guy’s a hero. There are old German people who look up to him; it’s not a color thing. It was so much bigger than the race issue. It was more about the way that he transcended the world through his love of sport. To see that, [and] to see the type of man he was — so often, when you hear Jesse’s name, people think about this athlete, this guy who won all these gold medals. But I got to talk to his daughters, these people who only knew him as Daddy, not this big guy. I had this whole different perspective on him as a human being. And that’s where I tried to take it. Everyone knows him as an athlete, [but] I wanted to show him as a human being now. I want to bring a level of humanity to this great hero we keep hearing about. It was just about being able to teach people and inspire people with what he did.
Nick Joyner, University of Pennsylvania: How important were your meetings with Owens’ family and friends to be able to get into his character?
SJ: It was important to me to give him a level of humanity from the beginning. I started referring to his family a lot. He had a daughter at a very young age and a wife and a family that he was supporting. But he wasn’t just supporting the family that he made; he was also supporting the family that he came from. Being the youngest of eight siblings, he was supporting them, too. I got to learn a lot of things about him as a person[and] humanitarian just by talking with them. Being 1936, there’s only so many YouTube clips of him running and speaking and that sort of thing, but I tried to take what I could get from that sort of thing. Leni Riefenstahl, she’s in the film, made the film Olympia about those games, and it’s five hours. I definitely watched it, and tried to gain a sense of what that time was like. And she was infatuated with Jesse and he’s pretty prominent in the film. And so, those little things, his cadences while he spoke, even though there wasn’t that much, I tried to take it. He was born in the South, [and] that was something I was familiar with, that sort of accent. I was filming Selma at the same time, so it was a seamless sort of going right into it, and then I just sort of used his family to fill in all the gaps, whether it was his books online or whatever it may be. I wanted to look at myself and only see him. It was a process I started very early on, it was weeks before I felt like I was him.
[wc_accordion_section title=”Jason Sudeikis”]
Alex Pena: What was it like transitioning into dramatic work?
Jason Sudeikis: It didn’t feel odd to me. When I read the script, I just connected with this guy. I played basketball in grade school and high school and in college for a little bit. So, I knew the coach-athlete relationship. That resonated with me. But I also thought Larry walked the walk. He was bucking the system, [and] I liked that he spoke to power on his own campus. More importantly, in an unintentionally corny way, I knew my dad would like it. Growing up I remember loving Gene Hackman in Hoosiers or Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, that mentor he was to Tim Robbins. I always liked that kind of character. So then, it became, “I know what I feel is going on here, what about the person who’s gonna be telling me where the camera is and giving me direction and all that?” So, [Stephen Hopkins and I] have a meeting. He’s witty and intelligent and authentic and he talked about the overall arching story and all that. But there’s also the story within the story, between the two men. It’s a very human story. And as soon as he articulated all that, I was like:
“OK, that’s great. Now who’s playing Jesse?”
“I don’t know who that is. Can I see his audition?”
Which might be a tacky thing for someone to ask, but I was genuinely concerned. I saw his audition and he was great. With that intention moving forward, the preparation at that point was not much, because there was so much of me already in there. Much of my human exposition was handled with my feelings about race. So very little [preparation], because it’s just about stringing together moments. Moments in comedy end in laughing, you hope. Here you just want to make it feel real. And for me, believe it or not, I want every scene in Hall Pass to feel real, real to that tone obviously, because it was an unreal situation. But it was something we tried to do in Horrible Bosses. At least one, 2 we went a little more Marx Brothers with that one, intentionally. It was always about trying to make things feel real.
Brandon Wagner: What comedy training did you bring into this role?
JS: Listening. 100 percent it’s all about listening. The more we listen, the better dates will go. The more we listen, even visual listening, the less traffic jams there’ll be. Any bit of wit that people may endow me with comes 100 percent from listening to the person prior to me. Male, female, child, robot, that is the ultimate thing. Coming from an improv background and not having the benefit of studying acting, [training] was just repetition of playing myself in crazy scenarios based on suggestions from an audience member who paid to watch us goof around. [I was] just making sure I knew what was going on. As an old teacher of mine, Del Close, used to say, he heard it from the jazz world that you just have to have big ears.
Jaritza Mendoza: Compared to comedy, what was the difference in between takes with the atmosphere of the set and actors?
JS: It varied. There [are] definitely moments of levity. It was great and so much fun. When we were in Montreal, which was [everywhere] but Berlin, it was great to be hanging out with my athletes. All these young fellas who, similar to yourself, grew up watching me on SNL, which is still weird. I sometimes forget I was even on that.
We’d screw around, they’d have jumping contests and try to get me to join in. I’d have to be like “No man, I’m like 40. If you guys broke a leg, you would heal quicker than it would take for me to get to the hospital.”
Then when your William Hurts and your Jeremy Irons start to come in, you’re like…“That’s Scar, man! Oh boy!” My favorite moment with that didn’t have any scenes with William Hurt, I just saw him in the makeup chair, but Jeremy and I did have some overlap when his character was in Berlin. So, I took a lot of photos on set, and this is a great [set] to take photos on because people are in forties garb, but they’re also texting a lot, so that’s awesome. And Berlin is very picturesque.
There’s this scene right before Jesse goes out, where it wraps around and you see the Hindenburg in that great tracking shot that Stephen [Hopkins] came up with [where Irons] comes down the stairs with Jesse and I and the two other coaches. And during rehearsal, I took a photo and Jeremy was like,“I can’t do a good Jeremy Irons [Author’s Note: He then proceeded to slip into a perfect Jeremy Irons impression for the rest of this story], he was like “Is that camera in the scene?” And I was like, “you know, I’m a ‘Yes and..’ guy from Improv” and he and I had sat next to each other and BS’ed during dinner. He’s a very funny, very clever guy, so I thought he was messing with me. And I was like “I don’t know, should I have it there?” And he responds “Is that camera in the scene?” “No, sir.” To which he said “Then why is it here now?”
And now let me say, he was not wrong. I was like “Earned, and heard and everything.” So, they slung around the back and we did the scene. About two hours later, he’s sitting in his chair and I go up to him, “Sir, I’m so sorry —” and he responds “No, dear boy, we get so little time to rehearse. We only get these few moments before its captured, that’s all.” That’s him being my mentor for a moment. I respect and appreciate him doing that for me.
Benedict Chiu: What are the similarities and differences between preparing an impersonation for a comedic role and for a dramatic role?
JS: I never went about attacking impressions unless I could do the voice like [that person].*snaps*I actually just met Taylor Hicks, [winner of fifth season of American Idol], at the Vinyl premiere with my wife Olivia [Wilde]. The only reason I bring him up is because that was an impression that I could just do because I watched American Idol at that time. But the majority of the time when I would go about it, it was about finding an essence within myself that is similar to the character that I’m impersonating.
[With] Biden, I’m playing an outgoing version of my own father. [With] Mitt Romney, I’m doing a guy who’s trying to hold a pencil between his buttcheeks. I’m not as gifted as Bill Hader and Darrell [Hammond]. I’m not trying to fool people on the phone, I don’t have that same gift with my voice. I’m trying to connect with [them], making assumptions about them to-exploit is the wrong word, but to accentuate.
This was a similar tactic. Reading and finding similar things from my own life that made sense to me and trying to just turn those up a little bit. If I’m a five on SNL, it would be [turning it up] to an eight or nine and here it’s turning it up to a six.
Hunter Heilman, University of North Carolina – Charlotte: How much freedom were you given to improvise in the film?
JS: I was given the freedom, but I didn’t need it [because] the film didn’t warrant it. Believe it or not, we don’t improvise much in comedy either. I’ve used improvisation as a product, but it’s mostly a process. It’s how I learned to write, [and] that was Tina’s [Fey] advice to me when I had impostor syndrome starting to write at SNL. [She], as one of my initial mentors when I was getting into showbiz, told me that “if you can improvise, you can write.” And for me, improv is about listening, so tons of listening going on. But the script was so great and the story was so fascinating that it didn’t need little things here and there. I’d have to watch the movie sitting next to you and go “I did that, that was improvised.” I’m sure there [were]a few moments in there, but I’m sure Stephen [director] would know that better than me. Because I’m just in it.
Nick Joyner: Do you feel a need to move into dramatic roles, like Steve Carell did?
JS: I just want to work with people [who] tell stories that I believe in, that are consequential to the human experience. I’m fortunate that I haven’t done a gig solely for the dough yet, I’m not living above my means. [I’m]fortunate to be in a dual income house and I’m putting Otis to work as soon as he has the dexterity to do something.
But no, it wasn’t a conscious choice to do a drama when I was doing this. It’s crazy [for]me to see it coming out now and realize the weight and the value that is being given in both its time and place and release that I even went about it la-di-da. It’s such a profound story that was constantly surprising me and I just went with it, both the content and the narrative. I just want to continue to be the dumbest, least talented person in any room that I’m in.
[wc_accordion_section title=”Stephen Hopkins”]
Scott Davis: How did you go about the casting process?
SH: Well, whoever played Jesse had to be an unknown, because he was 19 or 20 years old. There [are] very few famous actors at that age. At one point, it was John Boyega, but he went off to do some weird film, [Star Wars: The Force Awakens]. He was never set, we were talking to him, I thought it was going to be him and then because it wasn’t him, we set off on a big search out in America and Montreal because there was a university campus in Montreal that was the exact same as Ohio State there and we shot the rest of it in Berlin. And I met Stephan in Toronto, and he was one of the first people I ever met and consequently I thought, “Oh, it can’t be that guy, he was the first guy that I met.” He seems like a gentle, laid-back guy but there’s a lot going on inside, go online and look at his rap videos. He’s just — he reminded me of Jesse — on the outside, he’s sweet and gentle and saintly a bit, but inside he was made of steel from his childhood. [Jesse] had a lot of anger as one would expect from an African-American growing up at that time. I think that was what drove him to run, and Stephan just got me on that. We grabbed him before he went off to star somewhere else; he’s quite a character.
And Jason — well, Larry Snyder the character was only 36 at the time, so I didn’t want some elderly father figure, there [were] a lot of great actors around who could have played that role. Jason in his comedy is very edgy and dark and Larry Snyder was very charming and dark and Jesse Owens described him as an “accidental non-racist.” All he cared about was winning. He wasn’t not a racist because of any high moral ground, he just didn’t see it. He wanted to win with whatever athletes he could. And Jason is a sports nut, all he cares about is sports apart from comedy and, when I met him, it was just like, he’s the right age, he’s the right everything, he understands the psychology behind what we were talking about and he wants to do it. I feel like there’s such a strange and old-fashioned quality about him in a way, and it’s not an old-fashioned film. It feels like a modern movie.
And we got William Hurt, who’s the coolest, smartest guy. And we got Jeremy Irons who was wonderful. He came to Berlin with us and shot for ten days and really helped me get the film financed and made. His character is a real villain, and much worse than I was allowed to portray. He [was] a really bad guy. But there’s no point in playing a bad guy like a bad guy, right, so I had him play him as a human being and it was more interesting that way.
Benedict Chiu: What are the challenges of making a period film?
SH: I’ve done lots of science-fiction movies and sort of comic-book movies and it’s the same as doing a period movie. In the end, you want to get people to feel what it was like. The costumes are all authentic, the cars, there [are] a lot of visual effects in the film because a lot of these places don’t exist anymore. What was more important to me [was]how Jesse and the other characters felt about where they were. We shot in the real Olympic Stadium, that was incredibly helpful because it is a daunting place. It’s built to make you feel small and scared, so to go there and shoot is incredible. Ninety percent of pre-World War II Berlin is destroyed, either during the War or by the Russians afterwards. Only tiny sections of it are left that feel real.
There’s a certain thing about the style of the thirties that feels cool, over-the-top. Everything was cute: clothes were cute, cars were cute, so you want to try and get rid of some of that. You don’t want to feel like you’re making a cute film about great hats or something like that. I wanted [to make] the film more than just possible, and try to give younger people a hero to look up to. I’m not sure who my kids or grandkids look up to now. A lot of my great heroes in my life, like Muhammad Ali or Nelson Mandela or mavericks like David Bowie or whatever, they forged their own way through life and used media or whatever to get what they wanted. And nowadays it seems like all they want to do is be famous and Jesse didn’t care about those things, he was sort of a reluctant hero. I wanted to make a story about a hero like that.
Madison Harwell: What were the difficulties of filming in the Berlin Olympic stadium?
SH: Some of the shots were completely digital, some were of the real arena. The arena itself is quite a bit different from how it used to be, it’s got a roof on it, the track you can’t touch, it’s a very expensive track. There [are] a lot of visual effects involved in the film in general. But we used the arena, the exterior where we met Hitler, the dressing room, the underground in the actual arena itself, we put some of the crowd in and moved it around, we didn’t really have 120,000 extras. But it was a very difficult visual effects film to make; we had quite a long post on it. I shot this summer 2014. So it’s been a long time in post to fix all these things. And a lot of this, most of the building, was destroyed, and everything we were shooting no longer existed and a lot of it had to be created, at least partially. We didn’t have a big budget;we shot the movie in about eight weeks. Some days we were shooting seven pages, I’d have one take of a scene, you know, “Bang” and move on. It’s how it had to be, we didn’t have a great deal of money. But I knew we could do it, because I’ve done a lot of movies with visual effects and different styles of movie and I knew it could be done. But it was a daunting, well-planned experience.
[wc_accordion_section title=”Marlene and Beverly Owens”]
Nick Joyner: Do you feel that the film honestly depicted your father?
Marlene Owens: I think they did a phenomenal job of embracing his character and projecting it. And because we had script approval, we know that the facts were right. They were extremely cooperative with us in making the changes to the script. Even after the film was shot, if there were things that we wanted to tweak they were cooperative in that. So, yes, I think it does depict him as he was. There’s some creative license. But for the most part, the facts were right.
Hunter Heilman: Was there any sort of trepidation about making a Hollywood movie about your father?
MO: Well, this began five years ago. Jean-Charles Levy, who was the producer and has a company in Paris, made the initial contact [with] the [Jesse Owens] Foundation. Most things come through the foundation, I’ve been the director for 30 years. Five years ago he contacted, and we thought, “Oh, well, somebody else wants to make a movie or write a book,” [but] it doesn’t happen. But over time he continued to stay in touch. And, finally, there was a script. We read it and we learned about the person whose vision this was, Luke Diane, who’s a French businessman, and he’d always wanted to make this film. He was very invested in making it. From there, the rest is history. The cast was selected. They really wanted to make an important and meaningful and accurate film and I think they did that.
Erin Yarnall: Did you have any involvement in the ‘80s TV film about Jesse?
Both: Not really.
Beverly Owens: That was Paramount, a miniseries.
EY: What was your reaction to that compared to this one?
MO: There is no comparison. There really isn’t. We weren’t as involved and it didn’t capture the essence of our family as this one does.
Scott Davis: What was your relationship like with Stephan James during his process?
Beverly Owens: Stephan, he was a sweetheart. We met Stephan in Berlin when we were invited over to see what they were doing with the film. It’s like an instant kind of click because of his personality and he’s just easy to work with and smart as heck. He portrays our father in the way that we wanted him to.
Benedict Chiu: How did you help Stephan get into character?
MO: We talked about our family and our father and our relationship to the family. Just conversation. It wasn’t, we didn’t sit him down and go—
BO: This is how it was.
MO: This is how it was, exactly. It was just a conversation. And time, we spent time together. And we bonded with all of the people involved with this movie.
Brandon Wagner: What about Race really captures the essence of Jesse Owens for you and what do you think that essence is?
MO: It does such a good job of capturing the history, the time in this country and in Europe and what was happening in both countries that was almost parallel. The strength of character that it took to perform as he did in the Olympics under such pressure. He had pressure from home, pressure from Europe, and he still performed at a high level. I think it shows us his strength of character.
Alex Pena: Did you have anything else you were responsible for on this film? Were you ever on-set?
Both: We were on set in Berlin.
MO: It was fascinating, this was a whole new experience for us. It was exciting but really helps you understand what it takes to make something like this. It’s an incredible undertaking, how many people are involved. It was quite good.
Hunter Heilman: When you first received the script, was there a lot of editing work to do?
MO: Oh, it wasn’t close to begin with. It was written, no offense, by young people who couldn’t translate what happened in those days to what’s happening today. It was written from a perspective of what’s happening today. So there were things that we had to adjust to make it make more sense and show us what was really true. [/wc_accordion_section]