Stephan James on how If Beale Street Could Talk will leave you “broken yet so full”

Photo: Bruce Glikas/Getty Images, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Note: This interview contains plot details of If Beale Street Could Talk.

For Stephan James, 2018 was all about getting home, whether he was playing a star-crossed lover in Barry Jenkins’ singular romance, If Beale Street Could Talk, or a starry-eyed soldier trying to reintegrate himself into society in Sam Esmail’s latest slow-burn offering, Homecoming. He was the Odysseus of the big and small screens, navigating structural inequalities and malicious bureaucracies in search of love, family, and purpose.

With quiet confidence and aching vulnerability—and, it should be noted, movie-star good looks—James made radiant newcomer KiKi Layne and Oscar winner Julia Roberts swoon. But it’s with his If Beale Street Could Talk co-star that James establishes an enviable intimacy, the kind that slows down time and drowns out the cacophony of big-city life. That he’s able to build this connection with a series of wordless looks proves that no one was ever more ready for that signature Barry Jenkins close-up. Ahead of If Beale Street Could Talk’s wide release, The A.V. Club spoke to James about Jenkins and Esmail, the meaning he’s found in James Baldwin’s work, and nailing the look of love.

The A.V. Club: You’re starring in these two prominent adaptations this year—If Beale Street Could Talk and Homecoming—after having been in a couple of biographical pictures and historical dramas. How does it feel to have that depth of source material to draw from? Is it at all daunting or just kind of comforting knowing that there is so much to pull from?

Stephan James: Yeah, I would agree with the latter. I think that any actor would love to have this kind of source material to work with. Homecoming was already a successful podcast, and that podcast already had its own fan base. And I don’t think it’s any secret that a lot of people already have some relationship with James Baldwin and his work. Then there was my own relationship with it, and how I connected with the If Beale Street Could Talk novel.

Of course, there are some things from that novel that didn’t make it into the movie. But, it was actually helpful that [Beale Street and Homecoming] had already taken on this life beforehand and that there was so much I could feed off of and get from them. As an actor, that’s a dream. After doing Beale Street, I must’ve reread the novel two or three times. Like I said, there are certain things in the novel that are more difficult to translate into the film as well. But knowing that—knowing the backstory and having had a feeling of length helps you color in the rest of the performance. In a single script in Homecoming you go from hearing all these voices in this sort of dystopian universe, and now you’re able to color that universe and make it real. For me, I loved it.

AVC: What was it like working with Barry Jenkins and Sam Esmail, especially in such a relatively short time span? Did the productions complement each other in any way?

SJ: I mean, it was just an incredible gift for me, to work with filmmakers whom I respect and admire. I was a huge fan of Barry Jenkins before we started filming. After watching Mr. Robot, I became a fan of Sam Esmail’s unique form of storytelling. It’s always meant a lot to me to work with great filmmakers, and Sam and Barry certainly continue that sort of trajectory for me. I am so blessed and so lucky and I only hope to continue to work with filmmakers like that. I can be proud of it.

The way they compare—they’re both geniuses in their own right. For me, it’s a gift to work with directors who are more than directors—they’re visionaries and auteurs and they have put their stamp on their medium. You can see their fingerprints, see their DNA on every frame of film. I think it’s that distinctness that makes Beale Street and Homecoming feel like they each exist in their own sort of world. It’s like being a collaborator and a fan at the same time; you celebrate them both and to have the world get to see them both around the same time.

AVC: You and KiKi Layne, who stars as Tish, do such a great job of communicating the switch from friendship to love for Fonny and Tish, especially in all of these gorgeous close-ups. What was it like working with an Interrotron, which is more often used in documentaries than in romantic dramas?

SJ: It’s an interesting concept. I’ve never used Interrotron before this, but certainly watching Barry’s work you knew that these moments were coming. He really helped KiKi and I in building a sense of familiarity with each other before having to go into those moments. I thought it was a cool technique! It’s certainly something that took a little getting used to but it was interesting to explore.

AVC: Did you ever feel like looking into a monitor and not directly at your co-star affected the developing intimacy between your characters, and was there anything you did to make up for that?

SJ: Most of the time, honestly, I was thinking about the experiences I was already having with KiKi, you know, the scenes we’d already filmed. I also thought of the backstory of this man, Fonny, who’d already been through so much. I thought about all of the things Baldwin wrote about in the book—all the subtext that I was able to take from the novel. I used all of that, the history and the characters’ feelings and my own emotions, which I then had to apply to these moments of just... silence. You’re able to communicate in the words of Baldwin without saying anything at all.

AVC: Sometimes, it can feel like period pieces that are centered on black leads end up focusing on their anguish, on obstacles that are to be overcome. Like the novel, the film doesn’t deny those realities but it’s more of a love story than anything, isn’t it?

SJ: Definitely, I agree with that. I think that James Baldwin has a unique way of describing love. The same thing goes for Barry Jenkins. These men also have unique ways of describing tumultuous times and tragedy, but also doing it in an extremely poetic sort of way. So, for me even though the story is about a struggle that this family is going through after finding themselves in this ordeal, it’s deeply rooted in love. The through-line of this whole film is love, and this whole story is full of love and hope. It’s a special type of love, it’s a black love that we rarely get to see on the screen. It’s a unique thing that James Baldwin was able to do and that Barry Jenkins was able to pull off in terms of having you feel broken yet so full at the same time by the end of the film.

AVC: That’s such a beautiful way of putting it because, as you mentioned, this is a story about black love, which extends to familial love. Tish’s family is so supportive of her and Fonny, even if most of his family isn’t. It feels all the more significant because a lot of the storytelling about marginalized groups tends to kind of focus on the broken elements and not where people come together.

SJ: Yeah. Yeah, I believe that as well. You’re definitely right in saying that. You talk about just the family love and that dynamic and what different families look like, what black love looks like in a family, and just sort of seeing the way the Rivers adopted Fonny into their family. There are so many examples of that here. Just look at how Regina King’s character, Sharon, takes it upon herself to go to Puerto Rico and to find Fonny’s accuser and try to fight for him and fight for his innocence. I think that all those decisions are motivated by love. Sharon wouldn’t hop on a plane to Puerto Rico if she didn’t love her daughter or this young man.

AVC: A lot of young people who fall in love feel like the world is conspiring to keep them apart. There’s some conflict between the families, but the film also explores the documented systems that have kept black couples and black families apart. How do you as an actor acknowledge the gravity of that reality while developing this romance?

SJ: The story is definitely deeply rooted in reality; it has an all-too-familiar sort of feeling. So for me, I already understood the journey that Fonny was going to have to go through. I mean, everybody in the film has to deal with so much, but for Fonny, I had to pair these joyous, incredible, triumphant times—like when he and Tish finally find a landlord who agrees to rent to them—with all of these really dark moments I knew were coming.

[As Fonny], I knew I was going to experience the horror of being falsely accused and sent to prison, to look at my wife and my unborn child through this glass. It was all so painful, which is why I went back to Baldwin. He really had this unique gift of sort of just being brutally honest while showing you both the light and the darkness, if you will. Baldwin and Barry showed me that there’s always hope, there’s always strength. I channeled that into strength for my character’s wife and unborn child sitting across from me; and KiKi, as Tish, gave that strength right back. At the same time, we don’t know if Fonny is getting out of this or what will happen to him in the foreseeable future—he might be in prison for the rest of his life. It doesn’t ignore reality, but the movie is deeply, deeply rooted in love and has a powerful through-line of hope, which was certainly helpful when you’re playing someone who’s up against so much.

AVC: So after working with the likes of Barry Jenkins and Sam Esmail, what would you like to do next?

SJ: I don’t know, I was gonna apply for a job at Walgreens. Just trying to switch it up, do something different. [Laughs.] No, I mean there is a long list of stuff I want to do. I am going to be 25 in two weeks so I just feel like I am not even scratching the surface of the characters and the stories I want to tell. I want to play a superhero; I want to do comedies; I want to be like James Bond. My imagination continues to run wild, and I am excited for the future.

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