To say that Sterling K. Brown’s star is on the rise would be an understatement. In the past 18 months alone, the MICDS alum won his first Emmy Award, captured the hearts of millions as Randall Pearson on the hit new TV show, This is Us, and signed on for three film roles. He has become a regular on the red carpet following an Emmy win for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a Critics’ Choice Television Award, and a Golden Globe nomination for the same role. He also was a two-time nominee for Screen Actors Guild awards, for The People v. O.J. Simpson and This is Us.
Through it all, Brown has remained focused on what matters most: his family, “doing as much good work as possible for as long as possible,” and following his bliss. He took time from his busy schedule to talk to MICDS Magazine from Vancouver, where he was filming a reboot of the Predator film franchise.
What drew you to This is Us?
I received the script while I was still working on O.J. and hadn’t read it for long before I started dropping tears on the paper. This is Us has something for everyone: Kevin, who is an artist looking to maintain his integrity; Kate, who is dealing with her weight and finding out exactly who she is in the midst of that battle; Randall, who’s looking for his biological father for the first time in his life; and Jack and Rebecca, who are about to enter into the wonderful world of parenthood with triplets. It has so many different points of entry that most people I talk to say they relate to one or all of us in some shape, form or fashion.
Did you have a feeling This is Us would be a hit?
I knew we had a great pilot, but I didn’t know it was going to be the show that it went on to be. People will hit us up on social media and say, “are you going to make us cry again?” We have a tendency to do that, but I think it’s because the show emphasizes the power of connection and how we are social animals who need each other. The definition of family as portrayed through the Pearsons is expanding and to a certain extent I feel that the show is saying that we are all family. It’s not Us vs. Them. The name of the show is This is Us. It feels really good to be a part of something in a time when people feel so divided, whether it is politically or socially or religiously speaking. This is Us is a show that tends to emphasize the togetherness of us all. I think that, more than anything else, drew me to the script. We’re in this together. The script said that right from the beginning.
How are you like Randall Pearson, and how are you different?
Every character I play is part of me, and it just depends on which aspect of my personality I choose to bring to the surface. I would say that Randall is a better version of Sterling, and I mean that sincerely. Randall is someone who does his best all the time, which I wish I could say for myself, but I’m close! I would say that one thing I have learned from my personal history that I can share with Randall is that perfection is not achievable. It is something you can continuously approach but never reach. If you give yourself that bit of grace then you start to enjoy the process rather than being focused on the end result. I do believe that with the passing of William, Randall had to learn to ultimately relinquish control of the situation and just be there for him in his last moment. Hopefully he can take that lesson and apply it to his life in a way that help him deal with his own issues of anxiety. Sometimes you have to just be inside the moment and let it take care of itself.
How did it feel to win an Emmy Award?
It was magical. A lot of people were rooting for me and saying it was going to be my day. But in the back of my mind I told myself I’m just a little kid from Indian Meadows in Olivette, MO, and awards are for famous people. This was never part of the plan. It was surreal. When they said my name, I think my soul sort of flew out of my body to the top of the auditorium and started looking down on everybody, including myself. When I realized that you only get about a minute to make a speech I said ‘Brown, you need to get up and thank these people and try not to trip walking up the steps.’ When I looked out into the crowd again, now that my soul and body were one, and everybody was standing up, I felt in that moment there was a real appreciation for the performance and the work that I brought to the table in a way that humbled me and I will never forget for the rest of my life.
Tell us about the experience of filming The People v. O.J. Simpson. What was it like playing a person who is still alive?
I was hoping that if Christopher Darden watched the show he would see some sliver of himself in my portrayal. I watched a lot of footage of the trial and interviews of his from that time to get inside his psyche and understand how he felt. It was probably the most immersive thing that I’ve done. The producers did such a great job too. Most sets don’t have ceilings, which makes them feel like a soundstage, but our sets had ceilings and it made everything more authentic. We felt like we were going to work. Filming was intense and I consider my co-star, Sarah Paulson (who played Marcia Clark), to be one of the finest actors with whom I have ever shared the screen. Her level of preparation was as immersive if not more so than my own. It was so much fun to just throw myself into it as fully as possible.
What are your best memories of your time at CDS and MICDS?
I would not be who I am today if I had not had the experience of going to Country Day School and MICDS. It was such a wonderfully nurturing environment where I could explore so many different aspects of myself without stigma. I was student council president, a three-year varsity letterman in football and in Troubadours for four years. I say this not to brag, but to convey that I never felt like I had to choose between being a theater geek, or a jock or a politician. The school encouraged us to do it all. As I’ve gotten older I hear about so many different people’s experiences in high school where they had to hide the fact that they were intelligent because they didn’t want to be bullied or teased, or because they loved theater the popular kids had nothing to do with them. The fact that I got to experience all of those things without feeling like I had to choose one or hide from any of them created this wonderful space to just explore.
I must give a shoutout to my drama teacher, Milton Ray Zoth. He sparked the flame. He had us doing such nuanced and adult work at age 14, whether it was Harold Pinter or Sam Shepard, he treated us like little adults and said we could do the work. He told us that we had the life experience and the emotional intelligence to step in and wonder what if. Thank you, Mr. Z., for showing me that this was even a possibility. It took a little bit more time for me to recognize that the hobby was actually the calling, but if it weren’t for MICDS, none of this would have even been possible.
What advice would you offer to young aspiring actors?
When I first went to Stanford I did not think theater was my route. I was an economics major. I felt like that was the safe plan. After two years, I had an internship at the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis and was bored to tears. I earned good grades but was not excited by the work. My grades always improved every time I was onstage because I was doing something that fed my soul and allowed me to have joy with everything else that was transpiring in my life. If you can find joy doing whatever it is that you do, pay attention – you can’t push it to the side because it doesn’t seem like the right thing. That being said, if you pursue it and ultimately are led to something else, that’s ok too. A young person might interpret that as being a failure but the path leads you where it leads you. You’ve just got to trust that it takes you where you need to be. Pay attention to your bliss, it rarely misleads you.
It feels like things are just beginning. The thing that I so enjoy about this profession is that you never stop learning because acting is about the illumination of the human condition and as long as you continue to live life and put yourself in situations where you can’t be inoculated from life, every experience feeds into that. Writers are always writing, actors are always observing – observing themselves within certain given circumstances, and observing others. I will continue to watch people and how they deal with each other for the rest of my life and try to illuminate that on the screen or stage. It’s a real privilege to do it. I thank God that I had the audaciousness early enough in life to say yes to this path, because it is not the prudent path. It didn’t make sense in the beginning but my heart said this is it and I’m just thankful that I haven’t gotten far away enough from that heart center to ignore it.
During his hiatus from This is Us, which received an early renewal by NBC for two more seasons, Brown is busy making and promoting films. In addition to Predator (due in 2018), fans can look for him as Joseph Spell in Marshall, a drama about the early life of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall due in theaters in October 2017. He will also star as N’Jobu in Marvel’s Black Panther, scheduled for release in 2018.