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 Oscar-winning 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 civil-rights 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.”