Interview With Stephan James, Breakout Star Of “Homecoming”
From his 2016 portrayal of Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in the film, “Race”, Stephan James has been having a meteoric rise in Hollywood. He went on to star in the Academy Award winning film, “Selma” and his forthcoming film, “If Beale Street Could Talk” by Oscar award winning Director, Barry Jenkins is already critically acclaimed. With all this gold around him, including his new co-star, Academy Award winner, Julia Roberts, Amazon Prime Video could have an Emmy contender on their hands with James in “Homecoming”.
In the new series, James plays Walter Cruz a soldier who recently returned from an overseas deployment. He’s sent to the Homecoming rehabilitation facility under the guise of it being a safe space to reacclimate veterans back to civilian life but there are some ulterior motives at play.
James is an absolute joy to watch on screen owning scenes with extensive monologues that demand your full attention. His talent on screen, particularly with storytelling is akin to Viola Davis’ breakout role in “Doubt”. In an exclusive interview with the 25-year-old thespian, we spoke about adapting Walter Cruz from the popular podcast, the importance of Afro-Caribbean characters being depicted on screen and reconnecting with people you may have met in a past life.
(Warning, slight spoiler alert…!)
Zon D’Amour: In portraying a character that was developed from a podcast, how did you make it your own? How did you come to embody such a joyous and optimistic soldier that was in such stark contrast from his friend and fellow veteran, Shrier (Jeremy Allen White)?
Stephan James: Walter is optimistic because he’s eager to get back to his normal, civilian life. Honestly, for me a lot of this work was already on the page. His genuine eagerness to get back to that place and his sort of, naivete…these guys go through so much and to come to a facility where they really don’t know the people who are trying to counsel them or help them back. But these soldiers are putting all of their trust in these counselors hoping that they’ll get them to this better place. That was an interesting dynamic for me to explore.
ZD: I’m Haitian so I loved that your character as well as the phenomenal actress, Marianne Jean Baptiste, who played your mother, “Gloria” was also written to be Haitian. In real life, I know you’re Jamaican & Marianne is from St. Lucia. Some of my favorite scenes in “Homecoming” was the inclusion of the cultural aspects when you two spoke Haitian creole. Oftentimes screenwriters think people of color are just black, the end. How significant was it for you that Walter was a Caribbean man?
SJ: I really appreciated that, it was another layer to the character that you don’t get to see very often. Usually, when you read for, “black American” you just leave it at that, you don’t dig any further. So for us to be able to go into the fact that Walter has a Haitian background, his mom has an accent and maybe I use the accent when I’m speaking to her because that’s the only way she really responds to me. That was really cool for me to explore. It’s so funny, Marianne’s husband and her family are Jamaican so we thought if only we had some time to talk to the writers before [production] the characters could have been Jamaican too. Her patois and her Jamaican accent is on point so it would have been cool to explore. But major credit to Eli [Horowitz] and Micah [Bloomberg, series creators] for delving into that next layer.
ZD: Several of my favorite scenes of the series were Walter’s war stories during the therapy sessions. You’re definitely going to have viewers thinking there’s a sequel to “Titanic”! With so many monologues while sitting across from Julia Roberts, how did you become a better actor through this project?
SJ: It’s a lot of heavy lifting. I know who I’m going to work with every day and who I have to sit across from everyday so I know the homework I have to put in the night before. For me it was about the process and making sure I was doing the work because I know that Julia was at home doing the work so I couldn’t just show up any type of way, I had to be ready. Luckily, she’s so easy to work with. I couldn’t have asked for a better scene partner to share some of those moments with–ten minutes of straight dialogue and memorization, it’s tough, but just knowing who I was going in the trenches with was very helpful.
ZD: I have a question regarding the effectiveness of the medication because we learn that Walter loss his memory yet he still managed to live out a dream that he had planned before he was induced…am I missing something?
JS: No spoilers but I think that at the end of the show, there may be a little hint that Walter remembers Heidi. I don’t know if you caught it but it had something to do with a fork. I’ll leave it at that because I think it’s sort of up for interpretation. There’s this feeling that maybe Walter recognizes Heidi’s spirit but he doesn’t really recognize her–that’s how I interpreted it.
ZD: Oh! Wow, I like that explanation. This is exactly why I love doing cast interviews because I was trying to figure out Heidi’s seemingly selective amnesia as well. At first, I thought she had just gotten fired from her job and didn’t want to talk about it.
ZD: So it took me a while to fully understand that she wasn’t just being private, she intentionally did something to herself to effect her memory. But you just gave me another perspective–sometimes when you meet someone you get a feeling like, ‘have I met you in a past life?’
SJ: Exactly. I think that’s what that moment was.
ZD: Now I wish the series would have started from the point where Heidi took the medicine then worked it’s way backwards because as a viewer it was confusing not to understand why she was so evasive.
SJ: Well In Sam Esmali’s [series creator & director] defense, you should definitely talk to him about it, but I think that may have been part of [the plot as well] to really make the audience think, ‘Does she remember? Or ‘Is she choosing not to remember?’ That might be apart of the whole story.
ZD: Was there a particular scene or moment within the series that was your favorite?
SJ: I actually haven’t watched the whole season yet. I’ve only seen like four or five episodes so far. The scene where Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) and I leave the facility to go joyriding to make sure things are legit. To me that was the most fun because it was literally the first time we left the lot that we had been filming on for the entire six months to go on the road and get into the real world.
And the scene where Shrier has his big explosion in the cafeteria (Episode 2, “Pineapple”) that was one of my favorite scenes to be apart of. I was in the scene but I was also marveling at Jeremy who is an incredible actor.
ZD: Throughout the season, it was clear that Heidi had taken a likening to Walter but initially, I wasn’t sure if it was from a maternal, caregiver standpoint or if she was actually attracted to him? When the audience learns it’s the latter, I thought it was kind of shocking. Did the evolution of their relationship catch you off guard?
SJ: Yes, it did catch me a little off guard but you get a sense of it in the podcast and to me it sort of made sense and it humanizes Heidi in a way where she becomes quite fascinated and interested in this young man. Despite whatever’s happening in the facility and behind the scenes, Heidi has a real, personal connection with Walter which I felt was an important dynamic for the writers to include because it adds another level of conflict.
ZD: Heidi was ready to risk it all for you…
SJ: (Laughs) Exactly!
Binge watch season 1 of “Homecoming” on Amazon Prime Video beginning November 2nd.