Jason Sudeikis touts Jesse Owens biopic 'Race' as antidote to diversity woes

TORONTO - Jason Sudeikis says his film "Race" is the antidote to Hollywood's ongoing diversity woes.

The former "Saturday Night Live" comic co-stars in the Jesse Owens biopic as the coach behind the history-making U.S.

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track star, whose gold-medal feats at the 1936 Berlin Olympics offered a resounding rebuke to Adolf Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy.

"This movie itself, not to be overly convenient, is one of the cures towards the ails," Sudeikis said during a recent stop in Toronto to promote the film, set for wide release on both sides of the border.

"This movie was independently financed by Canadians and French people. It stars an unknown black actor from Toronto, a comedian from Kansas. It's directed by a British fellow who was born in Jamaica. This is an international story.

"The third entendre of 'Race' is not just foot races, it's not just black and white, but the human race. It is a profoundly human story."

He notes that work on the film began around the time of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which were marred by their own controversy surrounding Russia's hardline stance against homosexuality.

But Sudeikis said current events in the U.S. add even more resonance: a slew of racially charged incidents involving police, the Black Lives Matter movement and controversy over Oscar's all-white acting nominees.

Sill, Sudeikis wondered why Owens' story had never been committed to the big screen.

"It's bizarre to me that the only film about Jesse Owens that exists prior to this one was made by Leni Riefenstahl," he said, referring to the German director whose Nazi propaganda films included "Olympia," about the '36 Games.

"I couldn't tell you why it came to me when it did and it's been go, go, go ever since. Maybe they were waiting for (star) Stephan James, maybe they were waiting for (director) Stephen Hopkins, maybe they were waiting for this financier. I couldn't tell you.

"But it is a prime example of the kind of stories that are out there for the taking if people are willing to (take a) risk."

James said he scored the role while working on the film "Selma" in Atlanta. Every day the Toronto actor spent his off-hours training with the track and field coaches at Georgia Tech.

"And I'd never ran track before so it was a whole new world for me, a whole new beast," said the 22-year-old, who befriended Owens' daughters while researching the part.

"I had to learn how to run fast - like a sprinter would, of course - but then I had to learn how to run like Jesse because you know his running style was so unique. It was so particular. The devil was really in the details for me to make sure that I was being accurate to exactly the way he did things."

Sudeikis plays Ohio State University coach Larry Snyder, who takes Owens under his wing and refuses to let discrimination at the school interfere with his colour-blind training regime, or Owens' self-esteem.

"As systemic as racism is, and still is, in America and the world at large, he just didn't bother with it," said Sudeikis, better known for comedic roles in "Meet the Millers," "Horrible Bosses" and "Hall Pass."

"He wasn't an activist by any means. Larry was mostly concerned with the athlete. Not the black athlete. He could care less (about race)."

Sudeikis said he hopes Hollywood's diversity debate spurs more high-profile film productions to examine the way they cast and green-light projects.

"People can be sold a lot of things these days back home and sometimes the gamble should not just only be financial but it should be on the stories itself - that's what we feel, I think, on the artists' side."

"Race" opens Friday.


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