It takes approximately 35 seconds in a room with Stephan James to get it.
Barry Jenkins got it, politely rebuffing the 24-year-old Jamaican-Canadian actor’s eager offer to perform every one of his character’s scenes on tape to audition for the director’s new award-season drama If Beale Street Could Talk. He was sold from the first impression.
For Ava DuVernay, it took, somehow, even less time. She got it after Selma star David Oyelowo sent her the trailer for the 2014 sports drama When the Game Stands Tall while she was casting John Lewis. After just a glimpse of James in the trailer, she put him up to play John Lewis in her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic.
I introduce myself to him in a small room at the JW Marriott Essex House, a posh hotel overlooking Central Park that bafflingly reeks of cat litter doused in beef stock.
He’s there to do press for his leading role in Beale Street, which premieres in limited release this week before expanding wide over the holidays. It’s another swell in a tide of press commitments encompassing his work on Homecoming, the Hitchcockian thriller that premiered last month and just earned James his first Golden Globe nomination: a Best Actor in a Drama Series nod to match none other than co-star Roberts’ Best Actress mention. Beale Street, of which he’s the lead, also scored three Globe mentions and is expected to go all the way to the Oscars.
That’s to say that this is an indisputable moment for James.
Moments such as these tend to be orbited by much fuss. At this literal moment, that fuss is in a chaotic, mortified tizzy that this Breakout Star of 2018 is setting up residence for a day of press amidst whiffs of something mysterious that could only be described as ammonia umami.
James, however, is remarkably chill. He’s anti-fuss. Scattered teams are running around shouting—Candles! Air freshener! Febreze! Entirely new upholstery!—but James is calm, almost coolly apologetic, urging everyone not to trouble themselves but, yeah, the smell is pretty bad, he guesses, if we can do something about it.
“We’re working to fix it,” he assures me, fussing with the sleeves on his (gorgeous) navy-and-maroon corduroy Calvin Klein blazer. “It’s not me, I swear!” It’s not a hammy joke, but delivered with a quiet, sheepish chuckle. He strokes his stubble, and nervously grins, leaning in and making direct eye contact.
Oh damn, I think to myself, mid-swoon. I get it. Thirty-five seconds.
Based on the dual showcases of Homecoming, in which he plays a military veteran being treated by a therapist (Roberts), and If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel in which he plays Alfonzo “Fonny” Hunt, a young man who is imprisoned on a false rape allegation just after he gets engaged and learns he’s going to be a father, New York magazine called James a “face you won’t soon forget.”
As we talk, his silhouette is backlit by a halo of light coming from the window, a framing that creates an unintentional natural zoom-in on that face. It’s a face that draws you in immediately, both contemplative and expressive, but never big. Emotions don’t explode, they flicker. Smiles subtly crack. And when they do… well, forget it.
In person, it’s like being party to those famous, gorgeous Barry Jenkins close-ups in real life.
“I remember literally speaking the words, ‘I want Barry Jenkins to shoot me. I want to be in his lens,’” James tells me about working with the Moonlight director. “It happened a lot sooner than I thought it would. But I guess that’s what happens when you speak things into existence.”
James’s journey from Toronto, where he grew up in community housing with his two brothers (one, Shamier Anderson, has a role on Dear White People), passed through the toll most young Canadian actors pay on their way to Hollywood: a stint on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
A childhood fascination with movies was fostered by boxes of VHS tapes his mother bought him and his brothers to watch—“hundreds of them,” he says. That gave way to impersonations—of famous people, his family—then drama programs at school, and a role on the teen soap opera when he was a teenager.
The proverbial big break came when Ava DuVernay, as mentioned before, cast him as civil rights leader John Lewis in 2014’s Selma, a showcase that landed him the role of Olympian Jesse Owens in the 2016 drama Race, replacing John Boyega after scheduling conflicts with Star Wars: The Force Awakens led to him dropping out. Last year, he starred in the Fox limited series Shots Fired, about the aftermath of a racially charged shooting in a small southern town.
Having followed Jenkins’ career ever since seeing the director’s small 2008 romance Medicine for Melancholy, he put himself on tape immediately after learning that Jenkins was adapting James Baldwin’s seminal novel.
It’s a tough role. Fonny is a kindhearted, loving artist determined to make a dignified life for himself and his fiancée, Tish (Kiki Layne), when he lands behind bars after a woman falsely accuses him of rape. As Tish’s family, led by her mother (Regina King), work to exonerate him, Fonny must grapple with an incarcerated life he never deserved.
Preparing for the shoot, James immersed himself in the story of Kaleif Browder, a black teen from the Bronx who, in 2010, was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island for three years despite the lack of evidence against him. He later committed suicide, a likely result of the mental and physical abuse he withstood in prison.
“Often times when you hear about mass incarceration or false imprisonment, you look at it from a statistical standpoint, like one in three black males are going to get arrested in their lifetime,” James says. “Fonny, I didn’t want him to be written off as one of three. I wanted to show the man that he was, the husband that he was about to be, the father that he was about to be.”
Fonny, in so many ways, exemplifies what many critics point to as especially remarkable about James’s resumé thus far, especially for a black actor this young and this early into his career. He has exclusively played, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say, great black men, eschewing stereotypes about thugs and inmates that are, in an indictment of visibility and diversity in Hollywood, often the only opportunity afforded performers his age. The men he’s played are noble, upstanding, loving, and good, reflecting the characters of the men he knows and identifies with.
That’s on purpose.
“All of these decisions have been conscious,” he says. “It means a lot to me to embody the spirits and the legacies of these men who I feel have literally changed the planet with their work. It’s important to me for the world to see black men in different capacities. Capacities in which they’re probably not used to seeing them.”
When it came to Beale Street, he was especially gratified to be able to “show what black love looks like in a way that we don’t get to see often.”
As he mentions it, I instinctively start gushing about a scene that especially struck me in the film. Fonny and Tish are leaving a date and it starts to rain. Fonny opens a yellow umbrella, cradles Tish close to him under its cover, and the pair slowly walk away down a cobblestone street in New York City, dimly lit by street lamps. It’s an image so beautiful, so encapsulating of real love, that I even start to get choked up just recounting it.
He lights up, recalling on how the scene was actually scripted without the umbrella because it wasn’t supposed to rain that day. But then the skies opened and the prop came out. “It felt like something literally out of a movie,” he says. “Sometimes you have those weird serendipitous things happen. For me, it was about portraying black love. Seeing black soulmates in a way you’ve never seen it told on screen.”
“I enjoy challenging perspective,” he says, “challenging ideas of what it means to be a black man.”
His next project will be a welcome change of pace from the seriousness of Beale Street and Homecoming, an action thriller called 17 Bridges, in which he stars alongside Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, and Taylor Kitsch.
“I know I’m a black actor, but really I’m an actor who happens to be black,” he laughs.
(James has, in this short time, already garnered a reputation for being reserved and contemplative. It’s definitely worth noting how often he laughs and jokes around, if not necessarily as gregariously as other Hollywood stars who are always “on” during press days.)
“It’s exciting to switch it up,” he says about 17 Bridges. “Then you look at Homecoming, which is a completely colorless character. Could have been anybody. It just goes back to being conscious. I want to be able to not have people only see me as a black actor. Now I’m getting opportunities that allow me to showcase more of that, and allow me to play colorless roles.”
We talk briefly about Homecoming and how, when one has 11 pages of dialogue to memorize, there’s no time to be nervous around the world’s biggest movie star you’re sharing those scenes with—Julia Roberts, who, he raves, is so lovely. When I bring up the wild timing of both Homecoming and Beale Street coming out so close together and generating this moment for him, he starts laughing again. There are reporters, he says, who have interviewed him separately for both projects, but didn’t make the connection that he was the same actor in both projects until he brought it up himself.
“That’s exciting to me,” he chuckles. “I get to show people these different facets of who I am with these different characters at the same time. The timing couldn’t have been better, you know?” He nods and focuses his stare at us again. We get it. We know. We agree.