As Toronto-born screen star Stephan James crafts his career, he says the glossy new streaming show Surface presents a chance to go deeper with a layered character.
The Vancouver-shot Apple TV+ series, which premieres Friday, sees secrets unravel as Sophie, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, investigates an apparent suicide attempt that robbed her of her memories.
James plays Thomas Baden, an undercover police officer who’s not entirely forthcoming about his role in Sophie’s life.
“I loved the fact that you couldn’t figure out Thomas Baden in the pilot episode, that it was going to take a while before you fully got into this guy’s head, into his world, into his mind,” James said.
“I liked the fact that he was an undercover cop. He had an air of mystery to him. That’s always really exciting for an actor.”
James is at the point in his acting career where he’s able to choose his roles, and even sometimes help shape them as part of the production team.
After acting in Degrassi: The Next Generation and Selma, his breakout was a starring turn as track star Jesse Owens in 2016′s Race, which nabbed him a Canadian Screen Award for best actor.
Two years later, he would star in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, and the mystery series Homecoming, opposite Julia Roberts, which debuted on Amazon’s Prime Video.
James said he’s made a conscious effort to vary the roles he accepts between film and TV, though TV roles take a little extra faith.
“You don’t always have all your scripts beforehand,” he said. “When you’re doing film, there’s a beginning, middle, end. When you’re doing television, if you’re lucky, you get the first few episodes of a show. And then you sort of have to trust the creatives around you to deliver and execute the vision that they had promised to you.”
In the case of Surface, he said, the creators came through.
But as he moves through his career, James said he hopes to eliminate some of the guesswork from his projects.
He’s in the process of filming Beacon 23, a Spectrum/AMC show based on Hugh Howey’s science fiction novel of the same name, for which he’s serving as executive producer.
“I’ve always been fascinated with being able to control my own narrative,” he said of playing a role in shaping his characters. “I think producing gives you that opportunity to control the stories that you’re getting out into the world.”
It’s a position he hopes to find himself in more often through the production company, Bay Mills Studios, which he co-founded with his brother, fellow actor Shamier Anderson.
He and Anderson are also working to support those creatives through their not-for-profit, B.L.A.C.K. Canada (Building A Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge), which aims to bolster emerging Black talent in the entertainment industry.
The duo also co-founded the Black Academy and will serve as executive producers for the first-ever Legacy Awards to celebrate Black Canadian talent. The soiree is scheduled for Sept. 25 and will air on CBC Gem.
James said that as he moves through his career, he hopes to take on more producing roles, including for projects where he doesn’t appear on screen.
“It’s just an incredible opportunity to be able to tell the stories I want to tell and to support the creatives that I’m excited about,” James said.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.