Stephan James – A Biography
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher
(February 5, 2019 – Toronto, ON) When I sat down to write a biography about early silent film actress May Irwin more than a decade ago, I started with “For a stage performer, it is a long way from anywhere to Broadway even today, but it must have seemed an impossible distance in rural Canada five years before confederation.”
It’s also a very long way from Degrassi Street in Toronto’s east end, to Beale Street, the setting for the 2018 award-winning feature If Beale Street Could Talk. But in roughly that same period of time, Stephan James has gone from a kid growing up in Scarborough who landed a recurring role as Julian on the series Degrassi: The Next Generation to co-starring in two hit projects in the same year, Beale Street (pictured above), which was nominated for three Academy Awards, as well as starring opposite Julia Roberts in Amazon Prime’s limited series Homecoming.
His career path has been straight to the top. He first came to international attention when he starred as Olympic hero Jesse Owens in Race, for which he received an NAACP Image Award nomination and won a Canadian Screen Award (pictured). It was the first of a number of films where he has portrayed real people, important people.
He starred as T.K. Kelly, the #1 U.S. high school running back in the inspirational fact-based sports tale When the Game Stands Tall. Directed by Thomas Carter, the film told the story of the De La Salle High School Spartans football team and their unmatched winning streak. In Ava DuVernay’s drama Selma, one of the most acclaimed films in recent years, James portrayed John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers and a student activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; Mr. Lewis later became a U.S. Congressman. The drama illuminated the progress of protest marches in Selma, Alabama. Stephan James and his fellow Selma actors were given the Black Film Critics Circle Award for Best Ensemble.
Other films include Stanley Brooks’ Perfect Sisters, alongside Georgie Henley and Abigail Breslin; David Sutherland’s Home Again, with Tatyana Ali and Lyriq Bent, and in Director X’s first feature Across The Line where he gave a mesmerizing performance as a Nova Scotian hockey prospect whose future is jeopardized by racist violence.
In the series Homecoming, James played 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 Heidi Bergman (played by Julia Roberts). 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.
Talking about their work together James said (in a media release made available by Prime Video) “Their relationship is really interesting. It begins like most therapist-to-client relationships. They’re both a little bit ambivalent about getting personal at the beginning, but as time goes on, Heidi gets Walter to loosen up and, and vice versa. And their relationship becomes more of a friendship; they grow to have a real endearment towards each other at the end.”
Collaborating with Roberts, James says, has been decidedly unique compared to most inaugural on-screen partnerships. “We have a lot of long scenes together— like six or seven-pages long— just locked up together in a room!” says James. “You have to be really good at what you do to survive those. Julia is really an actor’s actor. She’s such a great scene partner that sometimes I’m taken aback by her performance. It’s been incredible working with her so far.”
The profile and stature he has attained in a relatively short time has provided a platform for him to advocate on behalf of fellow Canadians and fellow Black actors. In an interview with Norman Wilner, published in the December 5, 2018 issue of Now Magazine, James said, “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.”
Stephan James has come a long way and gone a long way since making the decision to become an actor. Far from his beginnings in the former city of Scarborough, Ontario, he now makes his home in Los Angeles. Look for Stephan James in the thriller 17 Bridges, due for release in 2019.
Also see: Stephan James’ filmography.
UPDATE: (February 2, 2021) – Stephan James and his brother Shamier Anderson have co-founded The Black Academy to combat systemic racism in Canada. The Black Academy is dedicated to celebrating Black talent from across the country and inspiring generations to come through education, mentorship, and recognition. Click here to learn more about The Black Academy.
Ralph Lucas is the founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began writing about film and reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in the mid-1970s.