Actor Stephan James is here for the experience.
He rose to fame after playing track and field icon Jesse Owens in "Race," civil rights legend John Lewis in "Selma" and a wrongfully convicted young man in "If Beale Street Could Talk." His latest project is "Surface," a psychological thriller series on Apple TV premiering Friday, July 29.
These are heavy roles and James, 28, told TODAY in a Zoom interview why he prefers challenging roles.
"I just look for the characters that give me the most to chew on that are the most challenging," he said. "I think sometimes it's cool to just go through the motions, and not really have to think about it. But I love a challenge. I love something that makes me develop maybe a skill set that I never had before."
"Surface" is doing just that for James, he said. The show flashes between time as triggering events bring back memories previously unknown to the characters. James stars alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Ari Graynor and one of the executive producers is Reese Witherspoon.
James said their characters try to fill in memory gaps by piecing answers together as more memories flood in and portraying that has made him ask questions of himself.
"It's certainly has gotten me thinking in a way I never really thought before about the people around me," he said. "If I were to forget something, who would I rely on to sort of help me remember them, and trust, in those circumstances? So it definitely makes you question your home environment for sure."
Blasting Beyoncé's new album 'Renaissance'
James said outside of work, his home environment has been inundated with all the new music from his favorite artists who recently dropped new albums: "Breezy" by Chris Brown, "Honestly, Nevermind" by Drake, "Mr. Morales and the Big Steppers" by Kendrick Lamar and "Come Home the Kids Miss You" by Jack Harlow.
And yes, Beyoncé is high in his song rotation: "The ‘Break My Soul’ joint — that’s been crazy. That’s been going all over my speakers, all up in my house.”
"Renaissance" is his top listening priority now that it's out, he said, on the same day "Surface" is premiering.
"I'm through the roof excited for this album," James said. "We should have pushed back. No one should drop when Beyoncé drops."
Another big release happening this year is Marvel's "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," the sequel to "Black Panther" starring the late Chadwick Boseman. James starred alongside Boseman — who tragically died at age 43 from colon cancer in 2020 — in movie "21 Bridges" and vividly remembers their camaraderie on set.
Boseman was 'always checking for me'
“21 Bridges” depicts a manhunt — led by Boseman’s character — for two people who killed a police officer where most of the searching takes place at night. James played one of the suspected cop killers.
James said Boseman used his status as a more seasoned actor to invite him into the process and make him feel more comfortable.
"I remember that he was incredibly gracious to me, just inviting me into the process from day one," he said. "He was always sort of checking for me. He would always make it clear just how important the work we were doing was for the people that were watching."
Boseman taught James about the responsibility actors carry to make something that will move people. James said, "A lot of the things he said to me, really stuck with me just as far as our duty as artists and the obligation that we have to tell great stories and to have an impact on life and culture and society in a positive way."
James admired Boseman for going out of his way to build a relationship and for his work ethic on a difficult shoot.
"I definitely appreciate him for that and just his work ethic," he said. "That was a tumultuous shoot, I think, for both of us. An all-night shoot — we did pretty much three months of all nights."
What's next? A dream role
Coming up next for Stephan James is his dream role of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a famous painter, in a limited series currently in development.
"I've been passionate about Jean-Michel since I was 13, 14 years old, before I knew anything about acting or anything like that," James said. "So to have it sort of be a full circle moment, and now developing a project to play him in a series, is very, very exciting for me. I don't know if I've ever been more excited."
Basquiat was a renowned painter primarily between 1978 and 1988 and was known for painting Irony of Negro Policeman and other post-modern works. His esteemed career was cut short when he died of a heroin overdose at only 27 years old.
"I definitely love to paint in my free time and Jean-Michel has inspired a lot of that," James said. But he still has one question for himself: "Do I paint very well? That's still up for debate."