Sterling K. Brown talks about his journey to 'This is Us'
Brown has a personal connection to his character Randall, a man who investigates his past to understand his present
Few people could claim to have had better weeks than Sterling K. Brown.
The “People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” actor won an Emmy on Sunday for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series. On Tuesday, his new show “This Is Us” premiered to rave – if not tear-filled – reviews. And Wednesday, it was announced the series notched more than 10 million viewers in its debut, making it the network’s highest-rated scripted program in the 10 p.m. time slot in more than six years.
But even before all this success, Brown had a positive outlook on the weeks to come.
“I just try to enjoy the moment because I know how long it’s taken to get to this moment and I know how fleeting it all can be,” he told CNN in an interview this summer, just after him Emmy nomination and just as buzz about his new show was beginning to stir up. “But when you look at the totality of the journey, I’ve been blessed each and every step of the way.”
Journey is a good way to describe it.
Brown has been been able to support himself acting since completing graduate school in 2001. That, he said, is lucky in an of itself. But the consistency with which he’s worked indicate Brown’s had much more than just luck on his side.
His first time on FX was more than a decade ago when he co-starred in a short-lived comedy series about a group of people who struggled with eating disorders called “Starved.” When that was canceled, roles on “Supernatural” and “Person of Interest” followed before he landed a major role on Lifetime’s “Army Wives.” There he played the psychiatrist husband of a lieutenant colonel who returns from Afghanistan for seven seasons.
To call the role that came next a game-changer would be an understatement.
As Christopher Darden, the young prosecutor thrown into the spotlight during the O.J. Simpson trial, the actor who had been on people’s TV screens for years had eyes on him like never before.
“I would say about halfway through [the season], it became something clear that something special was transpiring,” Brown remembered.
“The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” – like the case on which it was based – struck a nerve with viewers. It found new drama in a story everyone thought they already knew well and a stark look at the state of racial relations in the country then and now.
“Fortunately for the producers and unfortunately for society, our show is way more timely than it should be,” Brown said. “We had big suits with shoulder pads and colorful ties and whatnot but you trade out the suits for the slim cut of today and the same story could be told and you wouldn’t know it’s a period piece.”
The limited series was a big winner at Sunday’s Emmy Awards.
Brown was still filming the show when secured his next gig on a heartstring-pulling broadcast drama called “This Is Us.”
Like every pilot, he wasn’t sure if it would get picked up by a network for a full season – but he did know it was something special.
“It was one of the best network pilot scripts that I have had the pleasure of reading in 15 years,” he said. “The material was so rich and every character, too. We introduce a lot of pieces in the pilot and you get a strong sense of who all of those people are from the beginning and you want to go on the journey with them.”
Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen the show: Brown plays a man named Randall who goes searching for his birth father after being abandoned as a baby and adopted by a couple who loses one of their triplets during birth. Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia play his parents. The story takes place in two time periods, in a twist that is revealed in the final minute of the show.
Brown related to this character’s journey more than some might realize. His father – also named Sterling – died when he was 10 years old. At 16, the boy most knew as “Kelby” – Brown’s middle name – started going by his first name to honor his father.
“I had this desire to take my father with me wherever I was,” he said.
He sees Randall’s journey as something similar. Randall loves his parents, but desires to connect with his biological father so he can pass something from his birth roots on to his children.
“He has so many things going well in his life but he still had this void and this lack of knowledge from whence he came,” he said. “And he just needed to know and I can understand that.”
In the episodes that follow the premiere, Brown said the story “gets deeper.” In addition to revealing more about Randall’s father and his past, the series will explore socioeconomic issues.
“Randall being affluent because of the job that he has, his father nothing affluent at all, different issues of identity in terms of the climate of race in this country right now, what it means to be black, how one identifies as being black but also being raised by a white family – like there’s all sorts of interesting and ripe soil for us to explore that I’m excited to explore,” said Brown.
Brown said he doesn’t define success as anything other than paying the bills and putting food on the table. (He has a wife and two young boys.) But “if I can do quality work with wonderful writers and directors and producers … that’s the cherry on top.”