Home­town star Stephan James breaks out big time in Home­com­ing

NOW Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Nor­man Wil­ner

In less than a decade, Stephan James has gone from a Scar­bor­ough kid who landed a re­cur­ring role on De­grassi: The Next Gen­er­a­tion to co-star­ring with Ju­lia Roberts in one of the year’s best new se­ries, Home­com­ing (on Ama­zon Prime Video). Oh, and he’s also the male lead in one of the best movies of the year, If Beale Street Could Talk – writer/di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins’s much-an­tic­i­pated fol­low-up to his Os­car­win­ning Moon­light.

“Yeah, it’s not bad,” James laughs over a noisy phone con­nec­tion from Philadel­phia, where he’s shoot­ing his next fea­ture, the thriller 17 Bridges.

In Home­com­ing, James plays Wal­ter Cruz, a young sol­dier who’s one of the first vet­er­ans to ar­rive for PTSD treat­ment at a fa­cil­ity in Flor­ida, where he’s coun­selled by Roberts’s com­pas­sion­ate ad­min­is­tra­tor, Heidi Bergman. They get along. Some­thing sparks. But in the other half of the se­ries, set four years later, Wal­ter is ab­sent. Worse, Heidi doesn’t even re­mem­ber him. But James makes the char­ac­ter linger.

James does a sim­i­lar job of fill­ing nega­tive space in Beale Street, which opens in Toronto on Christ­mas Day. He plays Fonny, a young man rail­roaded into prison in 1974 New York City while his preg­nant girl­friend Tish (KiKi Layne)

fights for his re­lease. We see them to­gether in flash­backs, and in a cou­ple of present-day scenes when Tish vis­its Fonny in prison. And again, James makes it pos­si­ble to feel Fonny’s ab­sence. He’s shown us what Fonny means to Tish, and to his fam­ily, so we know what’s miss­ing when he’s gone.

It’s a co­in­ci­dence both pro­jects pre­miered just days apart at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. But watch them to­gether and there’s no doubt­ing James’s ver­sa­til­ity, and his ap­peal to ma­jor film­mak­ers like Home­com­ing di­rec­tor Sam Es­mail and Jenk­ins.

Jenk­ins was even will­ing to let James briefly duck out of Beale Street to au­di­tion for Home­com­ing.

“In the mid­dle of film­ing I flew out to L.A. to do a chem­istry read with Ju­lia Roberts,” he says. “It meant a lot to me to not only meet Ju­lia but to feel out the scene. It’s sort of a two-way street – you want to be a part of things, but peo­ple should also want you as well.” Peo­ple def­i­nitely want James. Ever since Ava DuVer­nay cast him as the young civil­rights le­gend John Lewis in Selma, he’s been work­ing con­stantly in in­creas­ingly sub­stan­tial roles.

He gave a mes­mer­iz­ing per­for­mance as a Nova Sco­tian hockey prospect whose fu­ture is jeop­ar­dized by racist vi­o­lence in Di­rec­tor X’s first fea­ture Across The Line (along­side his older brother, ac­tor Shamier An­der­son), played Jesse Owens in the his­tor­i­cal drama Race and co-starred with Sanaa Lathan in Reg­gie Rock Bythe­wood and Gina Prince-Bythe­wood’s event se­ries Shots Fired.

But Home­com­ing shifts him into a higher tier of vis­i­bil­ity and star­dom.

While he lis­tened to the Gim­let Me­dia pod­cast Home­com­ing is based on – where the role of Wal­ter was orig­i­nated by Os­car Isaac – James de­vel­oped a new ver­sion of the char­ac­ter.

“My job was to un­ravel who Wal­ter was specif­i­cally in this story,” he says. “There’s his in­no­cence, his naïveté, his ea­ger­ness to want to be bet­ter – and, quite frankly, his ex­cite­ment. He’s ex­cited to be able to think about get­ting back to who he re­ally was.”

The role, like the se­ries, is a com­plex one; we see dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Wal­ter over the course of his treat­ment, as the young sol­dier’s mask slips to show us hints of the PTSD that brought him into the pro­gram in the first place. Which doesn’t sound like a ter­ri­bly dif­fi­cult thing to play, un­til you re­al­ize the cam­era is just hold­ing on Wal­ter in close-up, and James is pulling off sub­tle shifts in one long take.

“There’s a ton of mono­logues, and the vivid­ness and clar­ity of the writ­ing was some­thing very spe­cial,” he says. “It was one of the things that at­tracted me to the project.

“We got all 10 scripts be­fore we ever shot the first one,” he adds, “so I al­ready knew the story, I al­ready had the char­ac­ter’s jour­ney – I had it plot­ted in my head. It was just about know­ing who Wal­ter was, the way Wal­ter was, and sort of be­ing able to work back­wards into that.”

In the age of Peak TV – with stream­ing ser­vices com­pet­ing with tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion (and with each other) to of­fer showrun­ners ever more re­sources and po­ten­tially un­lim­ited cre­ative free­dom – the stigma against TV has van­ished, and a ris­ing star can find him­self over­whelmed by the op­tions.

“The qual­ity of tele­vi­sion nowa­days is in­cred­i­ble,” he says. “The plat­form is ir­rel­e­vant – it’s all about the story.”

I ask whether his Cana­dian back­ground gives him any ex­tra per­spec­tive on ma­te­rial as specif­i­cally Amer­i­can as Beale Street – or even Selma and Race.

“I cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ate the per­spec­tive,” he says. “You al­ways have an ad­van­tage in be­ing on the out­side look­ing into some­thing, if you’re will­ing to put your­self through the paces to re­ally ob­serve. Just the per­spec­tive of how I look at the busi­ness and how I look at sto­ry­telling, and act­ing – com­ing from where I come from and grow­ing up the way I did [as the child of Ja­maican im­mi­grants], I can see it through a broader lens.

“I mean, it’s not like this is all that for­eign, you know?” he con­tin­ues. “Racism to­tally ex­ists in Toronto. Pro­fil­ing by the po­lice to­tally ex­ists in Toronto.”

Just be­fore this year’s TIFF film­maker lab, Toronto di­rec­tor Ran­dall Thorne (aka R.T.) told NOW the Cana­dian en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try had yet to catch up with Amer­ica’s wave of new Black cin­ema – an ob­ser­va­tion with which James agrees.

“He’s to­tally right to say Canada hasn’t caught up to where Amer­ica is at this point,” James says. “They just haven’t.”

He’s hop­ing to nudge us along. James wants rep­re­sen­ta­tion to be­come as com­mon in Cana­dian movies and tele­vi­sion as it is in the U.S., and hopes the next gen­er­a­tion of Black ac­tors can be in­spired by see­ing “peo­ple like my­self, and like Shamier An­der­son, and like [The Hate U Give’s] Lamar John­son” on their screens.

“One of my big­gest goals is to try and knock down doors in Toronto, and in Canada, for Black film­mak­ers, Black sto­ry­telling and just Black ac­tors in gen­eral,” he says, ar­gu­ing that im­ped­i­ments are in place even be­fore a project gets into pro­duc­tion.

“Even if it’s not a Black story per se, ev­ery­one knows if there’s two Black leads it’s au­to­mat­i­cally [la­belled] a Black film,” James says. “Why? I’m not re­ally sure. But there’s not a whole lot of Black ac­tors from where I come from who’ve been able to have the suc­cess that I’ve had in the United States.”

To that end, James makes him­self as vis­i­ble as pos­si­ble when­ever he’s at home. Ad­mit­tedly, that isn’t as of­ten as it used to be, given he lives in Los An­ge­les. But he and An­der­son – whose own ca­reer is chug­ging along nicely, with a cou­ple of sea­sons on the cult genre show Wynonna Earp fol­lowed by this week’s ro­man­tic com­edy Love Jacked and next month’s Ni­cole Kid­man thriller De­stroyer – just turned up for a spe­cial screen­ing of Beale Street at the Sco­tia­bank last month. And the broth­ers come to TIFF ev­ery Septem­ber, with or with­out a project, to throw the B.L.A.C.K. Ball party at the fes­ti­val; the acro­nym stands for Build­ing a Legacy in Act­ing Cin­ema and Knowl­edge, to spot­light the city’s emerg­ing Black tal­ent.

“That’s one of my big­gest re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” James says. “To try and change the land­scape in Toronto, to try and pick it up. To look to what Amer­ica’s do­ing in that as­pect. I think that Toronto cer­tainly has some work to do,” he says. “Canada has some work to do.” [email protected] | @normwilner


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