Over the past year, Scarborough-born actor Stephan James has morphed from obscure Toronto actor into rising Hollywood star. Now, he’s taking on his biggest role yet as the star of If Beale Street Could Talk, scheduled to hit theatres this month. The drama, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, is Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
Here’s everything we know about the Canadian actor:
Yes, he was on Degrassi
Like many actors who have gone on to make their mark in multiplexes around the world, James’ first major screen credits came from television appearances. Following in the footsteps of Degrassi’s celebrity alumni (ahem, Drake), James spent a few semesters at Degrassi High as a cast member of The Next Generation playing Julian Williams.
He went to Toronto’s oldest high school
James, now 24, attended Jarvis Collegiate Institute at Jarvis and Wellesley streets. He kicked off his professional acting career at 16, but still made time to participate in school plays.
His parents are from Jamaica
James’ parents came to Canada from Spanish Town, the capital of St. Catherine in Jamaica. His mom was a single parent to three children and a social worker. James said that growing up, she always emphasized that “school comes first.”
PODCAST: STEPHAN JAMES TALKS ABOUT HIS PROJECTS AND THE ISSUES HE’S TACKLED
Acting is a family affair
There are a handful of sibling duos at work in Hollywood—Afflecks, Hemsworths, Gyllenhaals. Over the past few years, James and his older brother, Shamier Anderson, have also been climbing the ranks.
James has ascended to leading-man status in big-box films, but Anderson is no slouch. He’s likely best known for his leading role in the horror series Wynonna Earp, and he’s also appeared on dozens of television shows and TV movies, including Skins, Rookie Blue, Trailer Park Boys and the Netflix series Dear White People. “He was just someone in front of me, somebody who was tangible, who I could see and say, he was doing incredible work and maybe I can follow in his footsteps in some capacity,” James told the Toronto Star in 2016.
James and Anderson have worked together on a few projects, including the Fox series Shots Fired, the 2015 flick Across the Line, and even Race, where Anderson played Jesse Owens’ rival, Eulace Peacock.
He has a knack for playing historical figures
In filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2015 drama, Selma, James played civil rights activist John Lewis, who works alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “My greatest joy is seeing 12- and 13-year-old kids coming up to me and saying, “I saw Selma and I learned something from it,” James said during a Breakfast Television interview in 2015. “As a 21-year-old kid, there was so much that I got to learn from the film, so I can only imagine what it’s doing for the younger generation.” One year later, James played celebrated athlete Jesse Owens in the big screen release of Race. The film received lukewarm reviews, but James’ performance signalled his arrival as a skillful actor capable of carrying the weight of a major motion picture.
Ava DuVernay is his idol
James has worked with all sorts of Hollywood royalty, but his role model is DuVernay, who directed him in 2015’s Selma. In a November interview with The Hollywood Reporter, James said that he admired DuVernay for taking on projects she feels connected to, from her 2016 documentary about racial inequality in the U.S. to her hit drama series, Queen Sugar, about estranged siblings in Louisiana. In the same THR interview, James said he’d like to take a crack at helming a film. “I have huge directorial aspirations,” he said. “So that’s something I’ll dive into pretty soon.”
Basquiat is his dream role
When asked about his dream role, James said he wants to play his favourite artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born painter who became famous in the 1980s for his playful, visceral embrace of neo-expressionism.
He’s got Julia Roberts’ approval
James is one of the top-billed actors in Homecoming, a new Amazon Prime series starring Julia Roberts, adapted from a scripted podcast of the same name. James told Variety he’d never listened to a podcast before Homecoming. He sent in an audition tape and soon after, was slotted in for a “chemistry read” with Roberts.
And apparently, the chemistry was palpable. “He’s so incredible,” Roberts said during an ET Canada interview. Later, she told the Canadian Press that there should be an Academy Award each year for best performance by Stephan James. “I think he might win,” she joked. And maybe she’s onto something. Earlier this month, James was nominated for a 2019 Golden Globe for his role in the series.
He can ball
He’s no LeBron, but Stephan James can certainly hold his own on the basketball court. During the 2016 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, held in Toronto, James laced up for Team Canada, joined by tennis star Milos Raonic, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Property Brothers Drew and Jonathan Scott. With a hometown crowd cheering him on, James scored 10 points in less than 20 minutes of playing time under the team’s head coach, Drake, and fouled American comedy titan Kevin Hart to seal the victory.
You’ll be seeing a lot more of him
In October, it was announced that James would star alongside Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons and Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman in 17 Bridges, a Manhattan-based cop thriller scheduled to come out in theatres in July 2019.