Toronto-born and raised actor Stephan James, who rose to fame in Hollywood films such as Selma and Race, plays Walter Cruz in the Amazon Prime Video series Homecoming. Cruz is a soldier who experienced emotional trauma while serving and in season one, he is accepted into Homecoming, a program to rehabilitate soldiers. In the second season, he discovers more about what happened to him at Homecoming, and takes action to correct past wrongs.
We participated in a virtual roundtable with Stephan, who's currently back home in isolation in Toronto during the pandemic, to talk about his experiences while filming season 2 with several new co-stars, including Janelle Monáe in the lead role, what his aspirations are for the future and what it meant to him to continue Walter Cruz’s story. ~Alexandra Heilbron
The role of Walter Cruz was never defined as far as his color or race before you landed the role. What did it mean for you to be cast?
It meant a lot. Honestly. It meant a lot. And I didn't really fully grasp that until afterwards, that Walter could have been from anywhere. He could have looked like anyone. But to me, it's really important that it was someone who looks like me. Too often do we get to see the story told from maybe the Caucasian character's perspective. And were never able to see what this means in the context of a black man. For me, I didn't take that lightly at all. I had veterans coming up to me telling me that it meant so much to see someone who had looked like them on screen, battle the trials and tribulations that a lot of these veterans have to go through and what that means. So it's definitely not lost on me.
How do you convey these roles of men who've been wronged? You have a slate of them, but they're never really victims. They have a power of their own.
First of all, I love stories. Homecoming just caught me as a cool story ever since I listened to that podcast of season 1. And obviously there is this vulnerability that takes place in that first season, but honestly season 2 gave me an opportunity to show that Walter was more than just this vulnerable, naive veteran. It gave Walter his power back this season of being able to be educated, to show that he was smart, to show that he was determined and to show that he had will and he wasn't going to be a pushover. So, this season meant a lot to me in terms of vindication.
What did you learn during the first season that helped you tell your character's story this season?
I think that first season I definitely had to do a lot of work as far as veterans and understanding their process into really what took place while they were overseas, or in the fight, but moreso understanding their process as far as reacclimation to civilian life and things of that nature. And so, for me I definitely had to do my homework as far what that meant and the different everyday trials and tribulations that a solider coming back from war might have to deal with. So that's where I set the foundation of this character but this second season just allowed me so much more of an opportunity to color in all the missing pieces from that first season. You were dealing with a man who was losing his memory by the day to all of a sudden, he's figuring out everything that happened to him just as quickly. So, really a cool arc for me to go through as far as character.
What did you like most about the transition your character goes through this season?
Originally when I signed on to do Homecoming I signed on for one season so I had no clue that I was going to be back, but obviously I was elated when they invited me to come back and be a part of season two. Mainly because I felt there was so much unfinished business, probably like most viewers felt after watching that first season. I just felt there's so much of Walter that was missing, because you're dealing with a man who is losing his memory pretty much by the day during that first season. So when I found out that there was going to be a second season where essentially, we'd be able to see Walter in a different sense, a man who was figuring things out, a man who was going to be taking back control of his life, of his identity, it just struck me as an awesome. I could see myself going from this naive, sort of aloof character to one who now has motivation and determination to right the wrongs from season one.
How did Janelle Monáe coming aboard this season impact the energy for you?
When I first found Janelle was going to be a part of this show, I was excited. Obviously, I've been a fan of her music and some of the things she started to do acting-wise, being a big fan of Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and her work in that. We connected at industry events and sort of voiced our mutual respect for each other and so it was just really cool when I found out they were going to cast her in that part. She does a heck of a job carrying the show this season, which could be a daunting task for someone like her to come in and say, "I’m going to do a TV series for the first time" and "I’m going to take on a TV show that used to have Julia Roberts in it," so I think that that could have been a little daunting for her but honestly she rose to the challenge in a way that I think people will be pleasantly surprised about. So, kudos to her.
Sam Esmail wasn’t able to return to direct season 2 due to prior commitments, so Kyle Patrick Alvarez was brought on. What differences were there in their directing styles?
I loved both Sam and Kyle. They were certainly different. I think they both have a different energy to them. As far as pacing, quite frankly, and sort of aesthetically and the vision they have, I think both of the seasons feel like they could stand alone, yet they're looped into each other. So, I mean, just a cool thing to have two obviously very capable filmmakers telling their story. It was just great to work with both of them.
You’ve spoken of your desire to become a director yourself. Do you have projects in mind right now?
I've certainly had directorial aspirations for quite some time now. I've been very very lucky and fortunate to work with incredible directors in my short career. And to be able to learn from them, to be a fly on the wall in each of their processes has been something that I haven't taken for granted. I definitely think directing is in my future, probably my near future as I'm always looking at different ways to challenge myself and to expand my knowledge. So, writing comes with that as well. Me trying my hand at writing, this quarantine has afforded me the opportunity to do things I never knew I could do, really. And writing's one of those things, so I'm grateful for that.
Do you feel that you've gotten all the answers to the questions you were asking yourself about the show and did you keep any memento from the set?
To answer the first question, yes. I do feel like the questions I was asking were answered ultimately at the end of the season. Or I feel like enough were answered for a person like Walter to move on with his life and to be able to get back to what he desperately wants. Just normal life again. So, I definitely think that he's in a position to do that.
And then as far as the show. We have a bunch of different memorabilia, whether it be cast shirts and jackets and things of those nature that I take from every project and Homecoming was no different. So, it will always be a special part of me.
The second season of Homecoming begins streaming on Prime Video tomorrow (May 22, 2020).