In If Beale Street Could Talk, Stephan James does most of his emoting through his face. He’s the perfect subject for Barry Jenkin’s signature close-ups in a film that continues the director’s streak of showcasing the complicated beauty of the Black American experience. It’s an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel and follows the love story of Fonny, who’s jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, and his fiancée Tish, who's pregnant with his baby. The film is a strong awards contender, and has been praised for the subtlety of its Oscar-caliber performances; ones that rely less on physicality and more on a devastating stare or a piercing look.
Throughout the film, Fonny sits behind a slab of glass talking to Tish, who's working tirelessly to get him out of prison. James’s face, with a mere lip tremble or a raised brow, tells most of Fonny’s story — his anguish, his frustration, his pain, and his joy.
In person, James is just as expressive. The 25-year-old from Scarborough, Ontario, is sitting across from me in a boardroom at the eOne headquarters in Toronto with his Valentino-clad arms folded over his chest. His arms will stay this way for our entire conversation. Despite the body language, James is open, thoughtful, kind, and warm. He’s doing a Tyra Banks–worthy smile-with-his-eyes thing and his (distractingly handsome) face is telling his story — the excitement, trepidation, introspection, and thrill that comes with being the year’s proverbial breakout star.
In the past year, James went from being a Canadian kid with a pretty impressive acting resume — he’s worked on shows like The LA Complex and Degrassi, and films like Selma and Race — to a Golden Globe award nominee for his role as a Walter Cruz in the Amazon series Homecoming. Since the TIFF premiere of If Beale Street Could Talk, a movie I’ve thought about every day since seeing it at the festival, James has been on a never-ending press tour, which is why he may seem nonchalant about the whole life-changing-year stuff. His casual demeanour fades when he’s rattling off his favourite Black designers, recounting his reaction to landing the role in Beale Street, or expressing his love for his hometown.
Here, I talk to James about his northern roots and his south-of-the-border success.
Let’s start with Scarborough. How do you think growing up there prepared you for all of this success?
That’s a great question. I think that I’ve always appreciated the perspective that I have just being Canadian, being from Toronto, and particularly being from Scarborough. I never really had anything easy in life. I’m incredibly proud of what it means to be from Scarborough. Scarborough is my Beale Street. It’s a story of overcoming when all odds are stacked against you, when they say that you grew up in an at-risk community. They say you are at risk, but I think that just means you are at risk of being phenomenal, of being great. You never know what you’re going to get from Scarborough boys who have goals. And by the way, I’m not the only one. We’ve got Mena Massoud, who is doing Aladdin with Will Smith. We’ve got my brother Shamier Anderson, who is doing incredible work [his latest role in opposite Nicole Kidman in Destroyer]. Lamar Johnson, who’s also from Scarborough, [was in] TheHate U Give. It’s really starting to become infectious.
A lot of people are saying this is your “breakthrough year,” which implies a bit of overnight success. Does right now feel like a breakout moment to you?
Maybe to other people it does, but I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been acting professionally for 10 years. I think that if someone is just hearing about you, they will call you a breakout actor, which is cool — it’s all good if you didn’t know about me before — but I’ve gotten to work with a lot of incredible people before Homecoming and before Beale Street. Homecoming and Beale Street just continue that thread for me.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that tackles big issues, just like Race and Selma. These are all characters that have a lot of weight to them. Are you making a conscious decision to tackle roles like these?
Of course. Everything I do is intentional, it’s purposeful. Really, I’m just an actor but what drives me is telling important stories about art that reflects life or art that reflects society. That’s not to say that I don’t want to, like, be Batman one day, but yes, those things are definitely important to me. When you have the opportunity to do something that is bigger than yourself or to fulfil a purpose that is greater than yourself then you jump at those opportunities.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to take on roles like this that maybe your white peers don’t?
Sure, because of the limited perspective that we’re given in cinema. Of course, I want to change the conversation, add to the narrative, [and] broaden the perspective of our experience to the world because people often get to see one version of what a Black man looks like or what the Black experience is and to be able to open up that palette — there’s a responsibility to do so because there’s not enough of it.
You talked about the narrow viewpoint we get pertaining to the Black experience. One of my favourite things about If Beale Street Could Talk is that as much as it is about anything else, it’s about Black love — real, true, authentic, beautiful Black love. Talk about that and if it’s what drew you to James Baldwin’s story.
That was certainly a big part of what drew me to the story. Black love is kind of this idea that — you know the love that Tish and Fonny have — there’s this idea that that doesn’t exist because we never get to see it. This film is revolutionary because it’s the first time you are seeing love like this. Period. Ever. Black love is so potent because of the fact that’s the only thing we’ve had to get us through. When you look at the struggle that the Black community has faced for hundreds of years, it’s this unfortunate thing where we have to make peace with an unfair world. We’re born into unjust circumstances and there’s a certain love and a certain hope that we have that’s the only reason we’re here today. It’s about showing the power of Black love.
These conversations about showing the Black experience in a different light seem to be at the forefront of U.S. film and television culture right now.
We’re the midst of a little bit of a Black renaissance in America. You look at BlackPanther. You look at BlackKklansman. You look at Beale Street and the fact that all of these films can exist at the same time giving all these varied perspectives of the African-American experience. I think it’s so cool to be a part of that.
Do you think the same thing is happening in Canada? If not, why?
Have we gotten to where [America is] yet? No, we haven’t. We really haven’t. There’s a lot of work to done over here. I can’t say why but I am happy to be a part of solving the issue. [My brother Shamir and I] created this thing called The B.L.A.C.K Ball. We just recently had our third year. We wanted to celebrate the legacy of Black cinema in Canada. To me, that was about putting a level of appreciation and respect on the artists that are making films here and encouraging and uplifting that. So, for me, I’m not really sure why Canada seems to be catching up but I’m happy to be a part of helping them to do so.
You’re going to make sure there’s a next Stephan James.
Oh, 100 per cent. There’s going to be 10 of me.
Let’s talk about your style because it’s dope. How mindful are you of what you wear to red carpets and press days?
I’m so mindful. I love fashion. Fashion is one of my biggest joys in life. Getting to wear incredible designers. Fashion is just another form of expression. There’s nothing wrong with looking swaggy. [Laughs.]
Are we still saying “swaggy”?
Yeah, why not? [Laughs.]
You seem very calm and chill about the incredible things that are happening for you right now. Are you as calm and chill about it as you seem?
I’ve always been very reserved and quiet. You’re never going to catch me going super big [he waves his hands around for emphasis] about anything. But obviously I’m excited. I realize the time that’s in front of me and I’m just trying to be present. I’m working really, really hard these days and I just try to take a breather and look around and appreciate it. It’s time like this when I come back to Toronto when I feel it the most.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in UK cinemas in January.
This interview has been edited and condensed.