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Actor Stephan James, who stars as John Lewis in Selma, is playing Jesse Owens in Race, which comes out next year.

With significant supporting roles in the Oscar-nominated civil rights drama Selma and the CBC mini-series The Book of Negroes, and a starring role in the Jesse Owens biopic Race (set for a 2016 release), you'd think the rising-star Toronto actor Stephan James would be looking for a break from the heavy historical roles, in favour of something fluffy or zany. You'd be wrong, he tells us.

In accepting the award for best song at the Golden Globes with John Legend, the hip hop artist Common talked about how Selma had awakened his humanity, and that Selma was now. When you hear that kind of strong reaction to a film you're in, does it really matter what awards it wins?
After the Golden Globes, I got a lot of texts and e-mails. Some were congratulations for winning best original song, with Glory, but a lot of people are confused, thinking that Selma was snubbed in certain categories. To me, I've always seen this film as a victory really, even before I saw the finished version. No award can amount to the way I feel about what we've done with this film. We've done something so relevant to our youth.

You portray John Lewis, a young activist in 1965, and now a congressman representing an area of Georgia that includes Atlanta, where Selma was partly filmed. Did you meet him?
Congressman John Lewis surprised us one day on the set. We were in the middle of the take, the director calls "cut," and in comes John Lewis. Honestly, I froze. He's such an important, important individual. This person I was playing, literally walking in his footsteps every day. To see him walk in there was almost like seeing a ghost.

And you really mean it when you say you were walking in his footsteps. The scene on the bridge, in Selma, Ala., it all happened there, right?Absolutely. Even on the ride down there, passing that bridge on the way to the hotel, I got chills. I got chills looking at that bridge, just thinking about what happened there, and the amount of courage it took to walk across the bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965. The amount of people who were hurt while fighting for justice, while fighting for equality. Those were real people. They were not made up. To reenact those moments, while filming the scenes, it was an out of body experience. I'll never forget it.

Let's talk about your starring role in Race, the Jesse Owens biopic that has finished its filming. How demanding was it, physically, to portray a world class athlete?
I've had some experience in track and field in school, but I did have to train to be able to play Jesse Owens – to be a runner, to be an Olympian. While shooting Selma, I would train on my off time, with the assistant men's track and field coach at Georgia Tech. We spent hours on the track trying to get Jesse Owens's posture right, and trying to get in shape in order to go through three months of the running I was going to be doing.

So, Selma and Book of Negroes, and next with Race, which clearly has a double meaning. These are heavy films, involving heavy issues and heavy historical figures. Is it time to lighten up with a fluffy rom-com?
[Laughs.] You know what? These roles have fallen in my lap, but they've been an experience for me to learn about myself and my history. I've only been in the business for five years, and these moments, where I play real-life heroes to so many people, this is going to be invaluable to the rest of my career. Definitely, I want to explore other types of roles. But this, to me, is not a bad way to start it all off.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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