It's something of a surprise that 'If Beale Street Could Talk' hasn't stormed awards season.
The follow-up to Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning 'Moonlight' has been only picked up a win for Regina King in Best Supporting Actress (Drama) at this year's Golden Globes, and is expected to win at the Oscars.
Yet, its lead, Stephan James has been largely overlooked. When we spoke to him the day after the Oscar nominations were announced, he didn't sound remotely pushed about the lack of nominations for his performance in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'.
If anything, James sounded quiet, calm and most likely tired. He admitted, by his own reckoning, that he'd been on press tours for the past six months - going from Amazon's 'Homecoming' into 'If Beale Street Could Talk' - all while filming '17 Bridges', a gritty police thriller starring 'Black Panther' star Chadwick Boseman, in between.
Yet, for his excessive workload, he was insightful and more than happy to talk about a movie that was clearly dear to him.
'If Beale Street Could Talk' is in cinemas on February 8th.
e: How's the press tour been so far?
Stephan James: Not too bad, man. You know, it's... it's been long. It's helpful when you actually like what you talk about all the time.
e: Between this and 'Homecoming', you must have been on a press tour for the past six months.
SJ: Yeah we've been doing press for literally, I think, I've been doing press September.
e: Jesus Christ.
SJ: Yeah. (laughs)
e: I know you're doing '17 Bridges' with Chadwick Boseman, have you been filming that as well as press?
SJ: Yeah, we just finished that, it's not too long ago. It's been great.
e: Just in relation to that, you've said before in a few of your interviews for 'If Beale Street Could Talk' that the roles you choose aren't so much based on being socially conscious, but they certainly have that flavour to them. For somebody like you who's ambitious and driven in your career, is choosing those kinds of roles restrictive?
SJ: I don't think so. I think that, you know, maybe earlier on in my career. Luckily enough, I've gotten to do a lot of sort of things that have sort of opened up the gateways as far as that's concerned.
e: When Barry Jenkins puts that camera right in front of you, where it's just your face in focus, it must be kind of distressing to have the lens literally inches from your face.
SJ: Yes! (laughs) It's just... it's just one of those strange things we've gotta do as actors. But yeah, you know, you don't really understand those moments until you've gotta watch them. That's when I really started to appreciate those close-ups. And, y'know, obviously we've seen 'Moonlight', 'Medicine For Melancholy', so you know that this is how Barry shoots - but it's nothing like filming it for the first time.
And, for me, I think I just really understood and appreciated him more I saw it. I saw that this was Barry Jenkins' way of telling the audience that they can't look away and it allows the audience to be a part of film, and in a way that they wouldn't have been able to before.
e: What was the biggest misconception you had about working with Barry Jenkins?
SJ: I didn't have any misconceptions about him. To be honest, I never have misconceptions about anybody I work with regardless of what the tone is or anything. He was somebody I had respect for, just y'know, from a craft perspective. And obviously I'd heard from people that he was a great guy and seemed like a really genuine person.
So I didn't come in with any preconceived notions. I was excited for the to work with somebody who I respected as an artist - and now I've gotten to know as a man, I respect and love him in that way now too.
e: I'm sorry, when I said misconception, that made it sound like there was negative connotations. I meant in the sense of like, I don't know, was he funnier than you expected or something.
SJ: Oh, yeah, I got you. I mean, I don't really know him so I didn't have an opinion on who he was as a person. I just had an opinion about his art. But knowing him has been incredible. Is he funny? He's completely funny, but he's also just a genius. And like the biggest cinephile. Yeah. And, y'know, just a man who I'm incredibly happy is working in this business and is one of the special directors that this business has at this point.
e: One thing that really struck me about your character was just how vulnerable he was. I don't mean in the sense of he's in jail, I mean that he was so emotionally vulnerable. When you're getting into that headspace, do you allow yourself to become vulnerable? Or is it a separate thing, as in, the character is vulnerable in this moment, I'm not vulnerable.
SJ: I think it's just the way I interpreted Fonnie (his character) through the language of (James) Baldwin, through the vision of Barry Jenkins. I think Baldwin made it pretty clear that Fonnie was an artist, and somebody who loved very deeply and felt everything very deeply - and that was part of channeling that. And I think Baldwin was, and I don't know if this was intentional or not, speaking to the limited perspective of how we often see black men in art, especially in cinema.
I think that there's a sort of a limited scope of what black masculinity looks like. With Baldwin, we get to challenge that. We get to show young men that black men look like artists, black men love, black men have families who love them back. And I think that's such a powerful thing that we can't underestimate.
e: Have you any idea of how the movie's been received out of America and Canada? Has there been any interesting reactions to it in Europe, say, or there in London?
SJ: It's definitely had some interesting reactions. It's not all too different. The story is so universal, and love is a universal language. It wasn't made for black people, it was made for Americans, it was made for the whole world. Baldwin was one of the most cultured authors to ever live.
To me, he just presented this experience in a way that everyone can understand it, and now Barry Jenkins has put it in a way that everyone can see it. I think the reactions have all been sort of individual and everyone reacts to it uniquely in a different sort of a way, but it's all been it's all been extremely positive.
e: Was there any one moment in 'If Beale Street Could Talk' that proved difficult to get to grips with?
SJ: With the story?
e: With the scene itself, understanding the emotions in that scene, or just anything in general, I guess.
SJ: I would say my toughest moments probably came with the prison scenes. Just balancing the idea and understanding what these other men have to go through within the system. How it's meant to break you physically, emotionally, mentally, and balancing that with this idea of strength - and then trying to portray the strength for my wife to be and my unborn child.
Knowing that they needed to see me be strong for them to be strong. It's a big sort of a balancing act, balancing the anger and the rage and... the sadness that comes with that, but also knowing that you have so much love on the outside that was literally fighting for you every single day.
e: Trying to get into that headspace has got to be really taxing on you, personally.
SJ: Yeah. It's... it's a lot. But, it's my part of my duty as an artist to bring truth to these characters. And if it doesn't consume you in some way, then you probably shouldn't be playing that role.
e: You mentioned '17 Bridges' and you talked in the past about how you were previously just offered roles, period roles, and specifically black roles. Going forward off the back of this and '17 Bridges', and I don't want to make it seem like you're a careerist, but do you know have an idea in your mind for what trajectory you wanna be on in say, three or five years' time?
SJ: Man, I'm an actor. I want to continue to show incredible stories. 'Homecoming' was a colourless role. '17 Bridges' was a colourless role. I don't fear being typecast or pigeonholed. I've already broken that, y'know, that stereotype as far as my career goes so I want to do everything.
As you can see, 'Homecoming' is completely different from 'Beale Street' and '17 Bridges' is completely different from both of these. Maybe I'll do a superhero movie. Maybe I'll do a comedy. I'm open to it all.
e: What's the one thing you want people to get out of 'If Beale Street Could Talk'?
SJ: Honestly, it's about humanity. That's my job as an actor. To give these characters who are fictional characters, but so representative of real life people, humanity.
I mean, there's a million Fonnies in the world who will never get a film made about them, will never get a documentary made about them. When you have something like 'Beale Street' that comes along, there's just a tremendous responsibility to make sure that you're bringing truth to the lives of these young men who've been falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned, have been failed by a system that's supposed to protect them but is constantly failing a particular group of people. So, to me, my job was to was to give these guys a level of humanity that honours them in a way that they often don't really get the chance to be honoured.