By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Behind almost any great athlete is an almost equally great coach. Legendary African-American track runner and U.S. Olympic champion Jesse Owens had Larry Snyder, his color-blind coach from Ohio State University, when he began his incredible road to the 1936 Olympic Games. The international sporting event was supposed to show off Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy, but Owens’ four gold medal wins only served to embarrass and infuriate the German demagogue, and change history.
Owens’ remarkable journey from promising college athlete to international hero, and his friendship with and support of Coach Snyder, is the heartwarming story told in “Race.”
The coach is played by Jason Sudeikis, an Overland Park, Kans.-raised actor mostly known for his offbeat comedic roles in films and his eight-year tenure as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.”
Director Stephen Hopkins (“Predator 2,” “Lost in Space”) said it made sense to have someone younger than the typical movie coach character in the role to play Snyder, who was in his mid-thirties when he coached Owens.
“It was more like a younger brother/older brother dynamic,” he said. “Jason was a great find. Both he and Larry are sports crazy.”
The drama depicts Owens as an athlete who not only had to overcome prejudice at the Berlin Olympics but at the mostly white college in the 1930s. In one scene, for example, Owens and other black track and field athletes have to wait until the white football players finish using the locker room before they can take their showers following a practice.
Owens and Snyder focused on what could be achieved through training and effort, but looming over their work were geopolitical conflicts. The U.S. was considering boycotting the 1936 Games because of the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews and others. The drama also delves into the protracted battle within the U.S. Olympic Committee over whether to send American athletes to the Games. The vote was in favor, but only by a narrow margin, thereby altering history, including Owens’.
Sudeikis said he had the good fortune of playing a character based on an actual person, whom today’s movie audiences are unfamiliar. Therefore, he could interpret his character based on the script and not have to worry about getting a particular look or voice exact.
The 40-year-old actor, who is married to “House” star Olivia Wilde, with whom he has a toddler son named Otis, said he felt privileged to play such a progressive, sensible man onscreen. Working alongside up and coming Canadian actor Stephan James, who plays Owens, also was a rewarding experience, he says.
Q: How do you approach preparing for a character like this? What is put on you as a performer?
Sudeikis: I kind of got off lucky. We have three photographs of Larry. There wasn’t much, like an article here and an article there and an appearance on (the TV tribute show) “This is Your Life,” when Jesse was recognized. So I got to see the way he spoke. But I didn’t attack it the way I would if he were well known or do an impression like I would on “SNL.” I didn’t have to sound like him. I don’t think I would have been as keen to take it on if I had to pretend to portray someone.
When I first read that script, I was like, “I think I know who this guy is.” He just resonated with me. I liked what he had to say and I liked that he walked the walk and that he was on the right side of history.
Stephen Hopkins, the director, gave me a quote from Jesse Owens himself in his autobiography that said Larry was “an accidental non-racist.” And I was like, “Yeah!” It’s funny at first because it feels like a Yogi Berra kind of quote. It could mean whatever it means to you but for me it made perfect sense. He doesn’t care about black, white or anything. He was all about fast or slow and working hard, and I think that’s a beautiful sentiment. All of the societal pressure that he was dealing with on that campus, he just bucked all of that. He didn’t care and so it was that line more than anything that I felt connected to.
Stephen sort of saw the character and the way he had the big overall story of good versus evil but then the very human story and the connection between Larry and Jesse as being almost like Butch and Sundance or even more like (the buddy comedy) “48 Hours,” or (football drama) “Brian’s Song.” It had that kind of connection and that was the kind of bond that naturally came with Stephan and me.
Q: Can you talk about playing a dramatic character in a period piece?
Sudeikis: I have done a lot of period pieces in the sense of sketch form. But I don’t spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror these days. As far as film dramas, you might be right. You know what? My family and I were in (the 1990 Merchant Ivory drama) “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” as extras when it was filmed in Kansas City around the time I was 13 years old. So this might be my second period piece.
Q: Is drama harder than comedy for you?
Sudeikis: Drama, comedy for me, it’s about making whatever ridiculous situation, and there is a way to view what Larry and Jesse go through in this movie as ridiculous. It’s about trying to make it as believable to the person that I am acting with and the true seer of all, the camera. I am not paying attention to that. It’s just about moments. I’m used to playing scenes as believable as possible whether I’m smuggling drugs across the Mexican border (in “We’re the Millers”) or murdering bosses (in the “Horrible Bosses” movies) but trying to make it feel real.
There are a few laughs and a few moments of levity in this very intense movie. There are moments of cheering and moments of pause. You are not aiming for that; you are trying to make it feel real. It’s just about stringing together a series of moments. But my approach to it is no different. My tactic for comedy is to not perform for laughs anyway. You hope that they are there. I’m not an alt comedian and not trying to be the next Andy Kaufman. I just want it to feel honest.
Q: How do you feel this film is important to be told today?
Sudeikis: One, it’s a nice measure against how far we have come in 80 years. I do believe that with technology, with the Internet, with all of these things and with the expediency that we can connect with other human beings these days, I don’t think it will take another 80 years for the seismic shift that occurs between where this film started and when this film is coming out, the origin of the true story. I remain optimistic and hopeful about that. But I do believe that it is very interesting to see this young man put in the same position where people are encouraging to do this based on this point of view and do this based on that point of view.
Q: How did you work with Stephan James, who plays Jesse Owens? This is his first big movie and you’re a veteran.
Sudeikis: Hardly. Jeremy Irons and William Hurt are in this movie. They’re the veterans. It was great. Stephan is a special young man. I’m happy that he choose to use his gifts. He’s given the platform to share that specialness with other people, because I think he’s going to be a good role model for people. He’s as cool as the other side of the pillow. He cools a fan. Whatever old saying you want to say about the guy. He has his act together and he has a tremendous amount of poise and he works really hard. (joking) He’s ugly as hell so that’s a knock on him. (He chuckles.)
When I read the script and met with Stephen (Hopkins) and hear his point of view and how he wanted to tell the story, because it wasn’t an immediate yes. I wanted to but you never know because it’s a collaborative effort. It’s a team effort. Someone could be a ball hog, and then you say, “Oh boy, I guess we could lose by 40 every game.” And then I asked to see who was going to play Jesse and I watched Stephan James’ audition. They were gracious enough to let me be privy to that. So I watched the audition and thought, “Well, he can make me feel this and I can see it in his eyes in a room like this with a casting director,” so I was like this makes sense for me to do.
Choosing to do the job with that intention and that thoughtfulness I put into every selection, even goofy movies like “Hall Pass,” there is still the intention and point of view that I have to see expressed by the people who are creating the movie that, whatever viewers get out of it, is out of my control but when I saw what was going on there it was a “yes,” and then, through that intention It was just a special experience for us to go through, and I verbalized a number of times, “How did we get here?” which is probably not too dissimilar from the conversations that Larry and Jesse had themselves. And the answer to that in a lot of ways is talking to people that know about films is that it was independently financed.
Forget about the actual thing. Think about the process of the movie. No studio made this. So you’re talking about (not) getting awards and recognition for movies that have been made; what about movies that aren’t being made, this being one of them, but eventually got made, and had to be financed by the Canadians and French folks. It’s an international human story that we only got this opportunity (to do) because it was produced independently.
Q: How did playing Larry Snyder inspire or affect you? Did it affect you as a white male in Hollywood?
Sudeikis: No, because I got it. I was lucky enough to play sports in Kansas City, which is a very diverse town. So I’ve been lucky enough to have been surrounded by different races my entire life. I’m one of those suburban white kids that bought “Straight Outta Compton” that forced the revolution that that album, specifically, and that group, which we know mostly now from the movie, caused that shift. I’ve always been keen into it.
When I saw Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop,” it didn’t matter to me that he was black. He was just a cool guy who was avenging his best friend’s murder. For me, personally, he was just the coolest, funniest guy in the world. The fact that he was black was secondary to his spirit. I feel that every bit of my point of view that I brought that to Larry. Larry and I were simpatico in that. It doesn’t make it right. He is speaking towards white privilege without seeing the phrase we see in quotation marks in a lot of articles these days and yet Larry knows from the intention, and Jesse knows the intention that Larry’s coming from, and how it doesn’t really matter to him. That’s where the “accidental non-racist” comes from.
One of the great things in this film is the mentoring Larry does for Jesse—seeing something in Jesse that Jesse may not allow himself to see in himself, based on where he’s coming from, his financial background, just the idea of “Would you want to run in the Olympics?” I think Stephan plays it very well.
For me, that moment was when Tina Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, asked me if I would ever audition for “SNL.” I know it’s very different in terms of changing the world, but it made me think, “My heroes are on ‘SNL.’ I can’t be on it. C’mon.” But it put the thought in my head, and change comes from a thought. That’s Larry giving Jesse the thought scene. Then, when Jesse says he couldn’t be at practice, and Larry says, “I didn’t know you had a daughter,” and Jesse says, “You never asked.” That’s Jesse mentoring this coach, who’s almost robotic in his lack of concern about race. He’s basically saying, “I’m a human being, old man, so you have to meet me halfway.” So when that tide switches, that’s when the friendship came. It’s through that friendship and one man’s support of another man’s gifts, and the two of them working together, and going through that with eyes wide open, that led to a thought that changed the world.