Photo: Benjo Arwas/Contour by Getty Images
Stephan James knows what it’s like to be inside a Barry Jenkins close-up, but he’s struggling to find the words to describe it. “Just think about having to emote all these things in front of a glass wall,” he says over Sunday brunch at a bright hotel restaurant in Santa Monica, the light bouncing off his iridescent nose ring. Much of his performance as Fonny, a young man falsely accused of rape in If Beale Street Could Talk, plays out in the director’s signature tight zooms as he sits across from his fiancée, Tish (KiKi Layne), in prison, the two separated by a glass partition. “I’m basically staring into a lens instead of looking at her,” he says, leaning in, framing my face with his hands to demonstrate. “The camera is in your face.”
This sounds very hard? “Yes,” he continues, “but it’s this weird thing where it allows emotions to unravel and allows you to not premeditate performance. Whatever is going to happen, we’re going to see every inch of it right now.”
As the male lead in both Beale Street and Sam Esmail’s Amazon series, Homecoming, the camera is drawn to James’s face with near-religious devotion, and it’s not hard to see why: He’s endlessly charismatic, with broad, open features and expressive, wide-set eyes; handsome, yet not so perfect as to be boring. While he spends the majority of his screen-time sitting down in both projects — in prison in Beale Street and a counselor’s office opposite Julia Roberts in Homecoming — he never feels stationary. You can track James’s movement in his eyes, as they dim over the course of Beale Street. In Homecoming, they flicker with the sort of hopefulness only youth can bring; at their most playful, they can make Julia Roberts seem like an awkward schoolgirl.
The number of inches James’s face takes up on screens this fall is a good measure of his rising profile in Hollywood. He’s riding with two of the most sought-after directors in TV and film, the kind who have the power to launch a career, as Esmail did with Rami Malek when he cast him on Mr. Robot. Beale Street has arguably already done this for James by mounting an Oscar campaign around him — a long shot, but still, the sort of buzz that puts you in “the conversation.” The 24-year-old Jamaican-Canadian actor got his start about eight years ago, doing guest spots on TV shows and indie movies in Toronto, along with an arc on Degrassi (practically a rite of passage for a Canadian teen actor). But the moment when things turned for him can be traced back to the trailer of an otherwise forgettable sports drama, 2014’s When the Game Stands Tall. James is only in it for a few seconds, but it was enough to catch the eye of David Oyelowo, star of Selma, who sent the clip to the film’s director Ava Duvernay. “I asked my casting director, Aisha Coley, ‘Who is this?’” recalls DuVernay, who was looking for someone to play John Lewis at the time. “I don’t know,” she replied, “but I’ll find him.”
James’s role in Selma is small, but it stuck out to another director coming off a career-defining film. “I was chilling in L.A., auditioning, taking meetings, and I get a call from my agent, like, ‘Barry Jenkins is making his newest film,’” James says. “It was so crazy, because ever since I heard of Barry Jenkins, I told myself I was going to work with him.” He put a couple scenes on tape and sent them to Jenkins, who reached out a week later. When they met for lunch in Hollywood, James, eager to make an impression, offered to put every scene in the film on tape. “He did [offer],” Jenkins chuckles, “which was ridiculous and unnecessary.”
James as Fonny in Beale Street. Photo: Annapurna Pictures
Esmail came calling shortly after Jenkins. “I wish I could take credit [for discovering him],” Esmail tells me, laughing. The director looked at hundreds of actors for the role of Walter Cruz, the wide-eyed, boyish veteran who arrives at the Homecoming facility after his tour of duty to reacclimate to civilian life, naïve to the sinister workings of the organization. James was shooting Beale Street at the time, so he sent in his audition on tape. “It’s the same way I felt when I auditioned Rami for the first time,” Esmail recalls. “There’s just something about the person that makes you stay glued to them. You can’t look away.” He was so struck by the expressiveness of James’s face that at one point he muted his computer. “I stopped listening to what he was saying and just watched him,” he says. “He had such a skill of storytelling with his looks and his little mannerisms. That’s what is very filmable about him — he’s constantly keeping the scene alive in silent moments and not necessarily the dialogue.”
Esmail also needed someone who could hold his own opposite Roberts — the heart of the show is the long, intimate conversations between Walter and the woman who counsels him, Heidi Bergman — so he had James fly in to do a chemistry read with the actress. “Stephan was 23 at the time he auditioned,” Esmail explains. “So there was a little bit of, How is he going to be with Julia Roberts in the room?”
James was so deep in filming on Beale Street, it didn’t register that he would be talking to Roberts. “It was almost the last thing that occurred to me,” he says. “I just remember thinking, Okay, let me power through this thing, make sure I get all my words right.” As Esmail and Roberts describe it, James walked in with effortless calm and charmed their pants off. Everyone in the room slowly leaned forward in their chairs as he was talking. “After he left we all went, ‘That’s Walter,’” Roberts says. “We were left in his vapor trails, like, Can you come back?”
There is an ease to James, which comes across in stories like his chemistry read. But there’s a type-A quality, too — of course he’s the kind of guy who would offer to put every scene in Beale Street on tape. He’s ambitious, tending to his career with the focus of a chess player readying to make his next move, and fully aware of his versatility. “I could play ten years older if I wanted to,” he explains, as he did on the Fox series Shots Fired, “but I could also play high school.” That ability to age up or down plays into a quality that roots his characters in both Beale Street and Homecoming. There’s a sense of guilelessness and innocence that radiates through his performances, but it’s undergirded with maturity. “There was a danger that that could be very one-note, and ultimately, not very believable,” Esmail says. “The thing that struck me about Stephan is that it felt unconscious to him. He emanates that optimism. And yet, he still has the depth to understand all the different sides of the world, that there is the darkness lurking underneath. But he never plays it: It’s just inherently there and he feels it. It really comes off in this effortless, delicate performance. It’s almost fragile: It feels like it’s teetering, falling apart, and it just never does.”
James as Walter in Homecoming. Photo: Amazon Prime Video
Esmail says it was important to him that Walter be played by a minority (“It is about people being marginalized, and I felt that informed a lot about the story”), but James was drawn to Homecoming in part because it was the rare opportunity to play a “colorless” character, as he saw it. He’s sensitive about being pigeonholed. “Maybe three years ago, I only got sent black characters,” James says. “I’m black, yeah, but I’m just an actor, so everything I do doesn’t have to be color-specific, or specific to history. But I got to a point where a lot of people wanted to offer me period pieces, like that’s the only thing I could do.”
One of those films — the 2016 Jesse Owens biopic, Race — was James’s first leading vehicle. Almost every article about him up until this point is invariably about that movie. His performance was widely praised, but watching it, you can also tell it wasn’t really going to change the game for him. It has the sheen of the genre of biopics that have historically been defined by white directors and writers: on-the-nose depictions of racism, and a white, patriarchal figure helping the young, black athlete along.
I ask James if it’s felt any different working on projects led by directors of color in recent years, in a way that might change what “color-specific” means to him. “I’ve been able to work with a lot of cool ones who have different approaches,” he answers diplomatically, if vaguely. I suggest that, as a viewer at least, you can kind of tell Race was helmed by white filmmakers. “One hundred percent. One hundred thousand percent,” James agrees, nodding his head. “I’m not going to really touch on that. That happened. It is what it is, but I feel like there is something to be said for who’s telling the story.”
James is less interested in having a one-to-one conversation around who can direct what, and more interested in avoiding work that feels tired, overdone, or out of step with times. “I like doing things that I’ve never seen before,” he says, like the depiction of black love in Beale Street (“to be able to see that on film to me is revolutionary”), or the way Homecoming, a 30-minute TV drama, plays with form. “Every day you’d walk into work, and I’d be so fascinated about where he [Esmail] was going to put the camera,” James explains. “One day the camera is the little fish tank.” The show is unconventional in story, too: A Hitchcockian thriller, it wades into ambiguous territory as a bond forms between Walter and Heidi, a woman twice his age. “The connection that Heidi and Walter grow over time, it’s an … unorthodox kind of a relationship,” he says, grinning.
James is just beginning to feel the post-Homecoming and Beale Street bump. “I’m getting to a point where there are a lot more scripts coming our way, a lot more direct offers, like, If you want this, this is yours,” he says. He’s currently shooting the action movie 17 Bridges opposite Chadwick Boseman, who personally tapped him to star in it. And his career has opened up in a way where, from here, he could practically go anywhere. “He is going to operate on a very high level in terms of craft, but because of his look, he’s in that special place where he can go really mainstream,” Esmail says. “I’m trying to think of an actor — like a Ryan Gosling or a Denzel Washington — where they have such massive, mainstream appeal, but they back it up with the goods in a really special way.” Jenkins is more direct. “Ability wise, and just to be transparent, with the way he looks, he could do whatever he wants,” he says.
So what does James want? In previous interviews, he’s said he hopes to play a superhero, so, big and mainstream. When I ask him today, he names his favorite artist, the neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still a historical figure, yes, but the difference is, this time James would have a choice. “It’s nice,” he says, “to be able to determine your own future.”
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