This fall, Stephan James is gracing screens both big and small, thanks to lead roles in the TV series Homecoming and the film If Beale Street Could Talk.
Both projects are adaptations from popular source material—Barry Jenkins adapted If Beale Street Could Talk from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, and Sam Esmail spun the Amazon series off from a Gimlet Media podcast—that buzz with a contemporary resonance. If Beale Street Could Talk is the heartbreaking story of the relationship between two young black New Yorkers living in the early 1970s. In the film, James plays Fonny, a 22-year-old man who is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to jail before a trial, and the newcomer KiKi Layne plays the scene-stealing Tish, his 19-year-old fiancée who discovers she is pregnant shortly after Fonny is placed in jail. In Homecoming, James portrays Walter Cruz, a soldier who enters the mysterious Homecoming facility that prepares military personnel to re-enter civilian life. The series is a conspiratorial thriller that bends genre and form on television as we know it, with 30-minute long episodes that take the viewer on a Hitchcock-inspired visual journey that arrests the audience with each frame.
After beginning his career with a stint on Degrassi: The Next Generation, James has moved into more highbrow territory, working with auteurs like Barry Jenkins, Sam Esmail, and Ava DuVernay (he portrayed a young John Lewis in Selma, acting alongside David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey), and taking on roles that make strong political statements about race and ethnicity in the United States. Playing characters that viewers cannot help but fall in love with, the actor has also become such a heartthrob that he’s amassed nearly 60,000 followers on Instagram, and grown to be one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading young men.
If Beale Street Could Talk and Homecoming tell two different stories, and there are decades between Fonny and Walter, but some might see parallels between the narratives. Both characters are imprisoned in a way—Fonny is sentenced to jail, and there is a possibility that Walter is being held at the Homecoming facility against his will. James finds himself grappling with that symmetry now that both projects are completed. Calling from Philadelphia, where he is working on 17 Bridges, an upcoming film about a detective on the hunt for a man who killed an NYPD officer, James spoke to W about his penchant for sociopolitically relevant roles, being thirsted over by fans on Twitter, and what he’s learned from the directors he’s worked with.
How do you see both of these characters and stories connecting to the issue of mass incarceration in the United States?
In hindsight, I see the parallels. It’s not something that I realized while going through the process of developing these characters. You see that aspect of being institutionalized, in a way. I think just basically the way they both sort of enter into these situations, having one’s innocence or naivete sort of get the best of them in a situation. I think that they’re two very different characters, in all honesty, I think they’re two very different people. Walter has a much more optimistic, idealistic vision for himself in this facility that he’s been brought into. He’s excited for the future, and I think he wants to get better, and he believes that this is a place where he’s supposed to do that. Obviously, that’s not the case with Fonny in Beale Street. It’s a much more tragic situation. It’s the last place he wants to be, and having his innocence taken away from him in that way, having to display the strength and hope amid all of the tragedy that’s taken place in his life. I see some similarities, but they’re very different.
Beale Street is such a visually stunning and flourishing expression of love and intimacy that, as a viewer, I did not feel as if the story should be completely defined as a tragedy, despite knowing that Fonny would likely remain in prison. And Homecoming has its elements of tragedy, but this season’s ending does not necessarily signify that Walter’s life will end in tragedy. Do you view either Fonny or Walter as tragic heroes?
What really drove me to want to be a part of Beale Street was Fonny’s story and realizing how relevant and prominent these issues that Baldwin had written about in 1974 are today. For me, Fonny represented so many young African-American men in this country today who are being wrongly imprisoned, institutionalized, and often for really petty crimes. I was inspired by Kalief Browder, who was wrongfully charged with theft of a backpack, and in order to maintain his innocence he pleaded not guilty. If he had pleaded guilty he would have been in jail for probably less than nine months, but because he maintained his innocence, he ended up spending three years in jail, two and a half in solitary confinement, and this was only in 2010.
As I was researching guys like Kalief Browder and so many other young men who have had their innocence taken away from them in this way, Fonny basically represented a sort of a sacrifice in a way. A sacrifice that so many other young men across this country have to make because of a broken system. It meant a lot to step into those shoes, and it takes guys like Fonny, and telling his story, and seeing the effect on him but also on his family and what all that means, you look at it as heroic nonetheless, because as you said—and this is a big credit to James Baldwin and, quite frankly, Barry Jenkins—there’s always that streamline of hope through this film, despite the tragedy. A lot of that comes from the strength that Fonny is able to display in this tumultuous time for his wife through that glass, for his family. And also the love and the hope. There’s always that hope.
It speaks to the resiliency that black Americans must maintain in the face of oppressive systems that resurface throughout history, and that current relevance of the material that you mentioned leads me to my next question—is it a conscious choice that you are making for the trajectory of your career to be a part of films like Selma, Race, and now Beale Street, that make clear political statements about race and ethnicity, or are placed in some sort of historical or civil rights context?
Of course, everything I do is conscious. Every choice I make is deliberate, calculated. All of these projects, all of these roles mean something to me. This art form is my biggest form of expression, and me being able to tell stories about things that matter to me, I really believe that art reflects life and vice versa. Every choice is absolutely deliberate.
Would you say that you take an activist approach to acting?
I’m not an activist, I’m an artist. It is [an important distinction to make]. I like to tell stories that mean something to me. It’s what I like to do.
Are you worried at all about being typecast or pigeonholed into roles that are part of historical dramas?
No, not really. I mean, you saw Homecoming. [Laughs] I’m an actor first. I think that I’m able to do a lot of different things. When you watch 17 Bridges a year from now, I think it’s going to be totally different from Homecoming and from Beale Street. So, you know, maybe at a point in time, but now I’m really fortunate enough to be at a place in my career where I feel like the horizons are broadening and I’m able to show more of what I can do, and broaden my range of storytelling. I’m not worried about that at all.
You have great onscreen chemistry with the women who act opposite you—with Kiki Layne in Beale Street, and Julia Roberts in Homecoming, both are romantic relationships to some extent—and a quick search for your name on Twitter would reveal that everyone with eyeballs seems to have developed a huge crush on you. Are you familiar with the term “Internet Boyfriend” at all?
Internet Boyfriend? No, what is that?
For example, when Rami Malek was cast in Mr. Robot, or Noah Centineo in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, their popularity on the Internet catapulted them to a point where they became “Internet Boyfriends” in some niche yet rapidly expanding circles online. How are you handling the attention that comes with being a popular romantic lead?
[Laughs] It doesn’t mean too much. To me, it all comes with exposure. I’ve looked the same my whole life. People see more of you, and then see you in different sorts of lights, and in different characters. Whatever love I do get, I appreciate! I’ve been doing this for a long time, so, you know, it’s really all good. I’m not crazy about the social world. I have a very, very real life outside of it all, so it’s all good.
Moving back to Homecoming and that cliffhanger of an ending—what’s your interpretation of Walter’s decision to move the fork on Heidi’s table after both of their memories have been wiped? Do you think he recognized her?
That’s a great question. I think he may have recognized—I think that there was something familiar about her spirit. If anything, that’s what drew Walter to want to approach her in the café that morning. I don’t know that he recognized her specifically, but more her spirit. I think that’s Walter’s nature. If he had that connection with this woman in a very brief moment, he sort of did what Walter does. I don’t know that he really remembered her, though.
You have worked with some heavy-hitting directors—Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Sam Esmail—and mentioned in your Hollywood Reporter interview that you have aspirations to be a director. What did you learn from working with them? What kind of films would you like to make?
Like you said, I’ve been so lucky to work with so many incredible storytellers, incredible filmmakers. When you talk about directors, auteurs, real filmmakers, people who have their stamp on every aspect of the film, I think that it’s important. That’s the way I want to make films, that’s the way I want to tell stories. Luckily enough, I’ve been able to work with Ava DuVernay, who was able to rally this large ensemble and get us all on the same page for Selma. The best filmmakers have a very familial attitude in sort of embracing the set, beyond the cast, with the wardrobe, and the hair and makeup, and the props, just making everybody feel very familial. I think it’s an important job that the director has as the helmer of these projects, to get everybody on the same page. That quality rings true for Ava, Barry, and Sam. It’s one of those qualities that brings people together on the same wavelength of the story you’re trying to make, and that’s just as important as anything you do on set or on the screen. I’ve been very blessed to be able to sit back and watch and learn from all of these guys. I just watch. I just observe.
All three of those directors have distinct visual styles, and Sam Esmail especially plays with form in Homecoming by creating a unique 30-minute Hitchcock-inspired drama. Were there any technical tips that you picked up from him when it comes to filmmaking and directing?
Yeah, he’s probably one of the most technically ambitious directors I’ve had the opportunity to work with. A lot of days, I was really excited to go to set to see what he was going to do. Just as excited as I am to see what Julia’s gonna do, I’m excited to see what Sam’s gonna do, where he’s gonna put the camera, what sort of camera trick is going to happen today. Maybe just the risk-taking. Again, he’s so ambitious. You would think, Oh, there’s no way he’s going to pull this off. He always does. It’s very cool and unique to see the way he goes about it.
Are you going to be involved in season two?
Season two is happening. I can’t speak on it further than that, though.
You’re only 24 years old, but aside from your directorial aspirations, what else do you aim to accomplish as a storyteller in the coming years?
I want to continue to grow and evolve, and I want to help other people grow and evolve. I think I have an incredible group of people that I work with, and people I’m inspired by, and community I’m inspired by, and I just want to see us all win and continue to grow and flourish and do incredible things, and tell stories in the way they’ve never been told. Take risks, be bold, and be smart. I feel like I’m just beginning. There’s a whole lot. I’m just scratching the surface.