Jason Sudeikis is best known for being a regular cast member on Saturday Night Live and starring roles in big box office comedies like Horrible Bosses and We're the Millers. Now he's kicking off his very busy 2016 with a major role in Race, the Jesse Owens biopic hitting theaters today.
In case you know nothing of sports or history, Owens (played by Stephen James) was the track and field legend who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It was record-breaking performance in the heart of Nazi Germany, home of the white "master race", by a black American ahlete. In the film, which tackles Owens's own struggles against prejudice and racial oppression in America, Sudeikis plays the famed track star's coach Larry Snyder.
Enstars caught up with Sudeikis to dicuss the challenges of playing Snyder, being in a movie about confronting racism that premieres just days before #OscarsSoWhite and the coaches that inspired him.
Enstars: This is your first "based on a true story" film. Did playing a character that was a real person change how you approached the role?
Jason Sudeikis: Well, the story is more important than any of the specific characters outside of probably Jesse, himself. So for me, I kind of got off lucky. There's like three photographs of Larry, there wasn't much. There's an article here, an article there and an appearance I think on This is Your Life when Jesse was on there as a contestant. But I didn't attack it the way we would go after or prepare for impressions on SNL. I don't think I would've been as keen to take it if I had to pretend to portray someone.
There was something about when I first read that script. I just resonated with him and I liked what he had to say, I liked that it was convenient for my personal opinion that he was on the right side of history.
With biopics, there's always aspects that get changed to make the story more dramatic. Are there any parts about the story that you're not so sure are perfectly accurate?
There's more things in here than not that actually happened. The first five minutes of [director] Stephan [Hopkins] and I talking, we were like, "Did this really happen?" This story is still relevant. No way I could've known by the time the movie was released how even more relevant it would be outside of the world about Olympics.
You guys are opening the week before this year's Oscars , which has sparked a lot of discussion about diversity. But those are almost different issues than the ones in Race. It's 80 years ago, almost a different world. Is the Jesse Owens story relevant to the current conversation?
It's a nice measure against how far we've come in 80 years. And I do believe that with technology, the expediency that we connect with other human beings these days, I don't think it'll take another 80 years...the wounds slowly heal when people truly empathize and try to see each other from one another's point of view. I think it's a hopeful story.
Did working on this make you more aware of racial issues? Was that something that, as a white man, you'd not really reflected on before?
I was lucky enough to play sports in Kansas City, which is a very diverse town and so I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by different races my entire life...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, and for me personally, he was just the funniest, coolest guy in the world. And the fact that he was black was secondary to his spirit. And I feel that every bit of my point of view, I brought that to Larry.
Race seems like a turning point in your career. It's a high-profile dramatic role (which is something we haven't really seen from you) and (I think?) your first period piece. Does that make you dig deeper or change your acting style?
I've done a lot of period pieces in the sense of sketch form [laughs]. Me and my family were in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge as extras filming in Kansas City around the time I was 13-years-old so this might be my second period piece...but 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.
I'm used to playing scenes as believable as possible whether it's smuggling drugs across the Mexican border or murdering bosses, trying to make it feel real. And those moments are designed to end with laughter, and dramas are designed for just whatever reactions. You're just trying to make it feel real.
You mentioned playing sports while growing up. I'm curious what sport you played and if you had any coaches like Larry Snyder that really inspired you.
Basketball was my sport. I started in fourth grade, to high school, through college for a couple years. I was lucky to have coaches and pull from that experience, but also the mentors I had like Jeff Richmond and Tina Fey, and wanting to be that at this point. That's why I'm excited to move into helping produce shows and use the little bit of name recognition that I have to help people who have talent and give a damn about the work.
Oh yeah? What position did you play in basketball?