Breaking out in a big way last year with an Emmy win for The People V. O.J. Simpson, This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown walked a long road before becoming a household name in two of the most celebrated network series in recent memory.
Catching the acting bug in high school, the pragmatic actor went to Stanford with other plans in mind, only later realizing that “the hobby was actually the calling.” For Brown, acting is the gift that keeps on giving, a pursuit that nourishes his soul, where awards are merely the fortunate byproduct.
Speaking with Deadline, Brown gives a detailed account of his journey from the high school stage to the big leagues, and the event in his personal life that made Randall’s story so immediate and compelling.
You’ve been working for years and hit a career high with O.J. and This Is Us. Can you give a sense of how you arrived at this point?
I discovered that I love being on stage in high school. My first play was Godspell—I was a member of the ensemble, and there’s this part where you sing this song, [sings] “Prepare Ye (The Way Of The Lord).” One night in particular, people were standing up and applauding.
My buddy and I got up onstage and bowed, and were like, “We gotta keep doing this shit.” It was the first time I’d experienced a high outside of athletics. I was a basketball player, football player. But this high was so pure—you get bit, and you just keep chasing that.
I go to Stanford and I’m an economics major, not thinking I’m going to do anything with acting. A professor came to the dorm where I lived looking for people to audition for an August Wilson play, Joe Turner’s Come And Gone. I gave it a shot, got one of the lead roles in the play. He said, “Look, I know you’re not looking to major in this, but you should keep auditioning. I think you could have some fun with it, and the department would benefit from your presence.”
Every time I’d do a play, my grades would get better because I was doing something that fed my soul. It took me a couple of years to recognize that the hobby was actually the calling. I go to grad school at NYU and I learn all these things about speech, and voice, and games. It’s like camp for an actor, and I got a chance to immerse myself 12 to 14 hours a day in what I love.
Then, I come out and have an agent, thankfully, from the showcase we had, and I did theater in Ithaca, New York, in Berkeley, in Minnesota at the Guthrie Theater. I start doing more local theater in New York City at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park.
Then, you get a chance to ease your way into a bit of film and television. That was the natural progression. I came out to L.A. for pilot season, and in a couple of years I booked Army Wives, and during the hiatus, you do little guest spots here and there.
That’s what happens—you become a working actor. People will look at you and be like, “Yo man, were you in my Boy Scout troop? Do I know you from church?” Whatever it is, because they see you for a moment and then you’re gone. Then, something happens that catches the nation’s attention in The People V. O.J., and you go from that guy who looks familiar to, “Yo, Darden!” [laughs.]
I was used to being “that dude from that show, who got shot in that episode,” but at this point, which is really cool for me, people will say “Randall,” but they also say, “Are you Sterling K. Brown?” I didn’t know that was ever going to be part of the thing.
What were your initial thoughts reading the pilot for This Is Us?
It was the best pilot I had read for network television. It was so layered, and what particularly struck me was that every character of the Pearson Five had something really substantial to do. It made me crack up; it made me cry. When the twist comes at the end, my jaw hit the ground. I was like, “No, you didn’t.”
Then, Dan Fogelman has the nerve to sign off the end of the script as “M. Night Fogelman” [laughs]. He writes that, knowing that he got us. It was the most entertaining script to read because he leaves these little things just for the reader to experience and enjoy.
You go to so many raw emotional places with Randall. How did you tap into the role?
There’s the connection between fathers and sons—I lost my dad when I was 10, so that was an immediate connection. The question I would ask is, “If I had a chance to reconnect with a father figure, would I take advantage of it?” The answer is yes.
While Jack is gone, there’s this dude named William Hill that’s out there who may have something to teach you about yourself. Even though he wants to tell him all these things about himself— that he doesn’t need him, and how successful he’s been in spite of him—he’s also, to his own surprise, looking to connect with him. I really got in tune with who my dad was for me, and how special the bond was that we shared with one another. Then, I got myself in tune with the absence of that, and what that does to a person.
That was first and foremost, but Randall has a lot of colors. There’s an emotional gymnastics to the character that you have to breathe into. You can’t predict it, you can’t try to force it in any particular way, but if you’re present with your scene partners and you’ve done your homework, you try to live in the moment.
Were you given time to connect with your co-stars prior to filming?
Our producers set up a dinner for all of us to get together and break bread, and just enjoy each other’s company. I think because we’re all in our 30s or 40s, we’ve all reached a point in our career where we recognize that what’s happening with this show is something special. It’s not to be taken for granted, and we’re all very appreciative of the moment.
My TV wife, Susan Kelechi Watson, and I both went to graduate school at NYU. She was a couple years behind me, but we knew and respected each other’s work, so we had a fast connection. I did not know Chrissy [Metz] or Justin [Hartley], but when you’re on a show where you really enjoy the writing, you wind up peeking your head in to see other people’s scenes. Every once in awhile, I’d peek my head in and I was like, “Nobody is faking the funk. We’re all doing the damn thing.”
You’re inspired and encouraged by your castmates’ work to go out there and give it your all as well. When we get a chance to see how it comes together in the final product, we all collectively have our breath taken away because of the way it comes together. There’s good stories, but then there’s good storytelling. It’s a family drama that has serious scope. I think that’s an amazing thing that Fogelman’s been able to create.
So, it’s just time spent—there’s no secret formula. The more time you spend with each other, the easier it is to love.
How was the experience of working with Ron Cephas Jones on your unique father-son relationship?
Ron is such a soft, beautiful man. When you think about a quintessential artist, I think of Ron. He’s delicate, but hard-boiled because he’s lived a long life. But you put your hand on his back, and he’s such a teeny tiny man. That means something, because the way in which Sterling deals with Ron is the way in which Randall deals with William. You have to be careful with him, as someone you could lose at any time, who you haven’t had a connection with for 36 years, and now you’ve decided to introduce him to your whole family.
Your family’s falling in love with him, and now you’re wondering, “Did I make a mistake in allowing myself to become vulnerable in allowing this man into my life?” These are all huge things, and Ron is just the epitome of grace and professionalism. The man’s got soul.
Why did you submit “Memphis” as your Emmys episode this year?
It’s interesting because I remember reading it and dreading having to shoot it, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Ron, and Randall didn’t want to say goodbye to William. But we shot it. We shot the death first, and then we were able to go to Memphis and just enjoy each other’s company. Most of that story is so joyous, so much fun, and so new that when the death finally comes, it’s so heartbreaking.
What’s interesting for me in watching it was being on Twitter and seeing the responses to it as it was happening in real time. People took that journey with us. They went there, and they were devastated. I was proud of Jack Pearson’s son, and the depiction of anxiety. When I see Kevin run down the street to come to the office to be with his brother, it breaks my heart, to see someone who tries to keep everything in the air, between his family, his job, and the health of his father.
To have all of these things happening at the same time, he was going to break. There’s no way to keep it all going at the same time without something falling. Because his desire for perfection was so incredibly desperate, he just implodes. He couldn’t really articulate to his brother that he couldn’t come. He just stopped. It’s like a short circuit happened inside of his brain. But the fact that Kevin came to his aid, that still moves me.
How have you felt, seeing the way in which this show has connected with a mass audience? It’s been a real sensation for broadcast television.
It’s nice to know that there’s something of quality about people trying to live their lives that is accessible to everyone. While we in the industry are very much in the know about all the industry shows, they don’t always hit Middle America. It’s a show that, counter to what’s typically buzzworthy within the industry, is not about an antihero, or about a counter-culture that’s being highlighted. It’s about people trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
It’s nice to be a part of something that wants people to connect in a time in which things seem so incredibly divided.
Where are you with the series’ second season, and what can we expect for Randall?
We’re on Episode 3 right now, and Beth and Randall are trying to see how they want to move forward with this adoption. They don’t necessarily see eye to eye, so this is married people trying to get on the same page with each other, which happens.
What I like about Randall right now is that he’s more focused on the journey. He’s able to breathe a little bit easier. He may still go on a morning jog, but if he has to stop to say, “Hi,” it doesn’t ruin his day that he didn’t get the perfect time. He makes space for other things to influence him, other than being so driven that he can’t see anything else.
Beth is working more, so he becomes the primary caretaker of the girls at home, and he’s enjoying being with his children. As they move forward with the whole adoption storyline, they find common ground after some time, and we’ll get a chance to see how this new addition affects their life.