Keep an eye on Stephan James.
The 23-year-old rising star hails from Scarborough, the star-making area of Toronto that was also home to Mike Myers, Eric McCormack, Barenaked Ladies and the Weeknd.
Five years ago, he was just another Canadian teen actor trying to make it on “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” After “Degrassi” (“a Canadian rite of passage,” he says), he worked his way up the local series ladder on “How to be Indie,” “The Listener” and “The LA Complex.”
He was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award in director Sudz Sutherland’s 2012 feature “Home Again” and then made a big step up playing civil rights activist John Lewis in 2014’s Oscar-nominated “Selma.”
“The Book of Negroes” followed and then last year, James was cast as American Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens in “Race,” which earned him another Canadian Screen Award nomination.
Now he’s the guy you can’t take your eyes off of opposite Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfus, Stephan Moyer and Jill Hennessy in “Shots Fired,” a 10-part event series premiering Wednesday on Fox and City.
“It’s been incredible,” says James of his career so far. “I’ve been extremely blessed with incredible opportunities to work with phenomenal actors and directors so early in my career. Blessings on blessings.”
James plays special prosecutor Preston Terry, a hotshot Yale grad parachuted into a potentially explosive murder investigation. He’s paired with a seen-it-all police veteran, Ashe Akino (played by Sanaa Lathan, “The Perfect Guy”).
The case they’re investigating: an unarmed white college student has been shot in broad daylight by a black police deputy (Tristan Wilds). This brings to light the neglected murder, days earlier, of a young African American. Officials with the Department of Justice, along with the governor (Helen Hunt), are counting on cool-headed Akino and Terry to defuse a racial time bomb.
There are echoes of real-life police shootings and as Dreyfus — who plays a local real estate mogul — told TV critics in Pasadena, Calif., earlier this year: “We shot probably the most current show you’ll ever see…. This is America.”
Husband and wife showrunners Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood looked at hundreds of actors for the key role of Preston Terry. The writer/producers needed someone who would not get blown off the screen by Lathan, the commanding film and TV veteran they hand-picked to play Terry’s seasoned police partner.
“Chemistry is hard, you can’t really manufacture it,” says Rock Bythewood. “The chemistry that he had with Sanaa was just so clear cut. You know it when you see it.”
The producers were also looking for a young actor who could seem like he was prep school educated and athletic but also had an edge.
“Sometimes it’s very hard to get all three of those in one. Stephan just kind of walked in the door and just owned it basically.”
James was impressed with the “Shots Fired” script, as was fellow Canadian Hennessy, who plays the mother of a student gunned down in the pilot.
“You can’t predict anything about the plot, about the characters, which I love,” says the former “Crossing Jordan” star.
James felt he’d never seen a character like Terry on TV before.
“His whole life, he has defied the odds of what people thought he should be,” says James. Destined to be a superstar athlete, “instead he wanted to change the world.”