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‘Hear Me on This’: Stephan James on the Importance of Playing a Character Not Described as Black

Actor Stephan James didn’t fit the character description for
Amazon Prime’s “Homecoming.” That’s because there was no outline for what Walter Cruz should look like. And James believes his stepping into the role makes it that much more impactful for the Black community.

“Oftentimes when you get the breakdowns for these characters, it’s a tough pill to swallow when you see an African-American is just explained in one sort of a way,” he explains on The Hollywood Reporter’s Drama Actor Roundtable. “Historically, African-Americans have been written very one-dimensional, perhaps they live one certain type of life, maybe they’re not educated, maybe they’re some sort of criminal.”

“So for me, it meant a lot that I had this character in ‘Homecoming’ who didn’t say ‘African-American’ on the breakdown,” he continues after “Pose” star Billy Porter cuts in to say Black characters are typically described as being “thugs.” “It could’ve very well said ‘Caucasian’ … Anybody could’ve had this role and here it is, mine. It makes you feel invincible — that people are seeing you in a different sort of light. And while I don’t think it mattered so much that [the character] was black for the story, it matters in life that he is, you know? It matters for the kids watching it.”

Upon hearing James’ explanation, many fans burst into virtual applause.

“The tide is changing homie and you’re a big part of that. Respect ✊🏾”

“Congrats on landing such a great role. I love this discussion & have hopes we get more of this in the future. One of my fav #Supernatural characters is Gordon, played by the amazing @SterlingKBrown. Same circumstance, they picked the best actor cuz role had no qualifiers. 👏👏👏”

“and you did amazing. looking forward to everything else you do as well.”

James began starring opposite Julia Roberts last year in the psychological thriller that follows a caseworker employed at a facility that helps veterans transition back to civilian life. James plays a young vet at the facility, called Homecoming, who is looking to go back to being a civilian. The caseworker later leaves the facility to become a small-town waitress.

It’s a markedly different gig than the one James broke out in. The Canadian actor rose to fame in 2016 when he starred as sports icon Jesse Owens in “Race,” a role that could not be divorced from blackness.

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