LOS ANGELES — Jason Sudeikis knows that his reputation is based mostly on his comedic roles in such films as “We’re the Millers,” “Horrible Bosses” and “Sleeping with Other People” and his eight-season run as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.”
So, it was a nice opportunity for the former Chicago improv performer to showcase his dramatic chops when he was cast as Larry Snyder, Olympic legend Jesse Owens’ famous track coach, in the film “Race” (opening Friday).
“Yes, it’s a serious role, but I had to let in a few moments of levity. This film has too many tense situations for there not to be a bit of release needed every now and then,” he said, explaining his pleasure at discovering Snyder’s sarcastic sense of humor in the script.
The film, directed by Stephen Hopkins, focuses on Owens’ years at Ohio State University and his heroic journey to participate in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — in the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship.
Sudeikis explained that Hopkins shared a key line from Jesse Owens’ autobiography “that was very helpful for me in working on this role. Jesse referred to Larry as an ‘accidental non-racist.’ Of course, we still deal with racism today, but given the time this film is set in the mid-1930s, racism was obviously far more overt.
“But I would have been intrigued to ask Larry — if I had the chance — how that description by Jesse would have resonated with him. I took it to mean that he was a person who wasn’t concerned about race at all. He was all about whether someone was fast or slow,” said Sudeikis, who then shared his own take on the title of the movie.
“Everyone talks about how the title of ‘Race’ is a double entendre. But I think it’s a triple entendre,” said Sudeikis with a broad smile. “For me ‘Race’ is not just about Jesse running races or about race, as in black and white races, but it’s also about the human race. I think Larry had the intuition of seeing things at the basic, human level. He had little time or patience for the rigmarole that race issues can raise.
“To be blunt, we need more Larrys and Jesses in this world today. I think that’s obvious, and that’s something the film really conveys,” said Sudeikis.
In preparing to play Snyder, Sudeikis depended heavily on one of the film’s technical advisors, a former Canadian national team coach who had led his teams to a number of Olympic games.
“One of the nicest things he told Stephen Hopkins while we were filming was, ‘I’d run for him,’ meaning me. That was the best compliment I could have gotten, because it said to me I was portraying a coach the way he should be portrayed.
“To be honest, I based my Larry Snyder on some of the people I played under and was coached by in high school and college — with a bit of Gene Hackman in ‘Hoosiers,’ Kyle Chandler in ‘Friday Night Lights’ and Kevin Costner, from ‘Bull Durham’ in his case, thrown in,” added Sudeikis with a smile.