Sterling K. Brown has been a busy working actor for many years, but the relatively peripheral parts he was given kept him under the Emmy radar, until that is, he stepped into the shoes of prosecutor Chris Darden on The People v. O.J. Simpson.
The show also helped to rewrite the public’s understanding of Darden’s role in the trial– something that gives Brown a sense of satisfaction, as he says, “The biggest compliment that I receive is when other black folks come up to me and say, ‘You changed the way that I thought about Chris Darden.’”
With M. Night Shyamalan’s Split coming up, along with the role of Joseph Spell in Marshall, Brown is at last getting much-deserved opportunities. “I’ve had meetings with a lot of different people that the TV show has opened a portal to,” he says. “It definitely feels like it’s better than having to go and prove yourself from scratch.”
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Brown is also starring in Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us, a project he says is “Really, really exciting. I’ve always told my wife, ‘Anytime I have an opportunity to be on something that I would watch even if I wasn’t on it, that’s when I get really, really giddy.’”
What made this role happen for you?
I think it was the experience of going to Italy and doing a production of Hamlet with about two and-a-half weeks of rehearsal. What an amazing feat because my wife and I were there with our then two-year-old son, and trying to watch him and also find time to rehearse with Dre [Andre Holland], and we were able to come up with something that was pretty cool. It was like boot camp. And then the experience of being the lead in this play called Father Comes Home from the Wars by the wonderful playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. I felt like when I stepped into the audition I knew that I was capable. At this particular time, I knew what I could do. I didn’t have to prove anything to me. I just had to relax and let the audition do its thing.
Do you remember where you were back when the O.J. verdict was announced? How did you feel about Darden at the time?
I was a freshman at Stanford University. We were watching the verdict in the TV lounge and the dorm was 50 percent African American and 50 percent other. The euphoria of the black students at Stanford University, when that verdict was announced, was unbridled. The disgust of everyone else, as they watched us with our unbridled enthusiasm, was palpable. It was amazing to see that that same sort of thing was being echoed throughout the country, in whatever city you were in, like black euphoria and white disgust and disappointment.
It was one of those things, for me, 22 years ago, seeing Chris Darden, as the black face of the prosecution, attempting to prosecute another black man. What that represented was negative, you know. Here you have someone, who has ‘made it’ and is seemingly a good guy. The image that O.J. Simpson had put out into the world for public consumption was that of the happy-go-lucky, very kind, very charismatic individual that you couldn’t see possibly having done these things to Ron and Nicole. There was a very strong feeling of, “You need to step back Chris Darden, and quit trying to be a crab in a barrel,” so to speak. There’s this sort of parable of people who are trying to keep other people from rising up, and crabs have this way of grabbing each other by the tails and pulling them down so that they don’t get a chance to be set free. It seemed like that was what Chris Darden was doing, effectively, in trying to prosecute another African American man.
It’s been interesting to be able to revisit it, 20 years later, to be steeped in the side of the prosecution, when I was very much on the side of the defense 20 years ago, and have a completely different perspective on the trial and a completely different perspective of Christopher Darden, and I’m very thankful. I think, as I look back on it, I recognize just how judgmental I was of him as a young man without nearly enough information to be that judgmental of anyone. So it was sort of a godsend for me, because you can’t play someone and judge them at the same time. You simply have to understand them and try as best as you can to communicate what their truth was at that time. Having that opportunity, I was able to let so much go, and I was thankful for it.
You reached out to Darden and didn’t hear back, but you’ve had some contact with his daughter?
That’s correct. Jeneé Darden started reaching out to me via Twitter once the show hit the air, and she had mentioned that she was reticent to watch, at first, because she lived it. She was 15 years old at the time of the trial, and doesn’t have the fondest of memories. It was a difficult time for her dad and for her family, as well, so she said she read a few articles of mine and felt as if I had a very compassionate stance towards her dad, and started watching. She was very complimentary of the show, as a whole, and about my performance as well. It was nice to have that sort of feedback. While I wasn’t able to get it from Mr. Darden himself, and he has his reasons, and very good reasons, for why he didn’t watch the show, it was nice to hear from someone who was close to it, who was close to him, who had positive things to say.
Were you watching everything you could find to prep for this?
I watched so much footage of the trial. Even when we were on set, if I wasn’t shooting, I would just go hook up my iPhone or my computer and just watch as much as I could. I would watch interviews of Darden’s–two in particular, one from Charlie Rose and one from Oprah Winfrey–and just try to get his cadences down, speech patterns, etc. It was nonstop, I think, for Sarah (Paulson) and I both. Like if we weren’t shooting, in that moment, we would have headphones in, listening to Marcia and Chris, and just trying to be as faithful to who they were as possible, not trying to do it exactly, but just to make sure it was evocative of them in a very essential way.
You met Marcia Clark. Was she able to give you some helpful insight into Mr. Darden?
We got a chance to meet one time and she was very sweet, very kind, but what she re-emphasized, for both Sarah and I, was just the strength of their connection. I think she said that she would not have been able to make it through that trial if it weren’t for Chris. I think one point in time she said, “He was my rock.” I know a lot of people were very curious about how intimate their relationship became, in terms of a physical nature, but what was more intriguing was just how intimate they were without being physical because there’s a deep love and respect that those two people had for one another, and it just became even clearer.
You’ve got the film Split coming up–what drew you to that?
Well M. Night Shyamalan can draw quite a few people to quite a few things and having the opportunity to work with him is very cool. Most of my scenes are with Betty Buckley, who’s absolutely wonderful. I auditioned for it, I think, while I was still shooting The People v O.J., and when I sent in the tape, and he responded to it, it was very cool to get a chance to meet him, to see how his mind works, and then to read the script, because everything is always very hush-hush, and so I’m always very careful about what I can and cannot say about the film. (James) McAvoy is going to do a stupendous job in this film. I can’t wait to actually see it because I didn’t have any scenes with him. It’s a very intriguing psychological exploration.
It’s also a fantastic job. A young Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman), obviously the first African American Supreme Court Justice, but way before that he was a lawyer for the NAACP, going across the country, defending black men and women who he thought were falsely accused. We come across my character, Joseph Spell in 1941, in Greenwich, Connecticut, and he is accused of raping and trying to murder Eleanor Strubing, a white socialite. Chadwick does a fantastic job, as does Josh Gad as Sam Friedman. Kate Hudson plays the socialite, Eleanor Strubing. Dan Stevens is the head of the prosecution–it’s a great cast. Reginald Hudlin is a wonderful director. Paula Wagner is our producer. I know that they’re eager to try to get this film out as soon as possible. I’m not sure, exactly, when that’s going to be, but I hope that it’s a story that strikes people’s hearts in the same way in which it did mine.
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