It’s been a year since we last spoke to Sterling K. Brown following his Emmy-winning performance as Christopher Darden in American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson. And what a year he’s had: Not only did the actor win an Emmy, but his next TV role as Randall Pearson on the NBC hit family drama This Is Us earned him a SAG nomination. (His American Crime Story performance also earned him a second nomination that year.) In addition to awards love and a role on the only unquestionable breakout TV hit of the season, Brown has lined up an enviable slate of film roles: A supporting part in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, a lead role in this Fall’s Marshall, a period drama about Thurgood Marshall’s early career, and a part in Shane Black’s The Predator. To borrow an expression Brown is fond of using himself: The guy’s a beast.
Recently, we reached out to Brown to catch up on what’s been the most successful year of his nearly 15-year career. He spoke to us about his upcoming roles, the ways he’s been motivated to give back even more as his profile has risen, and the importance of having a character like Randall Pearson on This Is Us portray the experiences of a black man navigating a predominantly white world.
So you’re in the new Predator movie!
Sterling K. Brown: I’m going to Vancouver for a couple of months for this new Predator film. Shane Black is a beast, the script is off the chain. I think it’s a really nice reboot to something that people are familiar with, but it’s gonna turn it over on its heels a little bit. My character’s a very different character than Randall, which is very exciting for me. I won’t elaborate too much more than that, but he’s definitely not Randall.
How’d you get involved in the project?
Well, the producers reached out to my agent, they said, We have this wonderful script and Shane is a fan. John Davis, who’s the producer, said, “I’m a fan of Sterling’s and we would like for him to check out the script and see if he’s interested.” And I read it, and it was fantastic, and expressed my interest, and they said “let’s make it happen. ” And I tell you, that’s a pretty cool thing for me personally, because, it hasn’t been like that up to this point in my career. So to receive a call from a producer like Mr. Davis, with a writer/director like Mr. Black, who are interested in Mr. Brown, is alright by me.
Were you a fan of Shane Black?
When I saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I was like, this is the shit. I was like, this movie is so dope, and Downey was so flawless, and so was Val, and the script just crackled. And what I didn’t learn about Shane until I just had a meeting with John Davis a couple days ago, was that Shane became a superstar from Jump Street, when he was 21 and he wrote one of the best scripts that anyone had ever scene, called Lethal Weapon. This dude wrote Lethal Weapon at 21! I was like Holy shit! So between that, Kiss Kiss, and Iron Man 3—he’s a beast. Yeah, I’m a fan.
Kiss Kiss was a big litmus test my girlfriend had me take.
[laughs]That reminds me of one time when I was in high school. I went to go see The Crow with my girlfriend at the time, and you know, I thought it was cool and everything. I don’t think I knew about Brandon Lee’s passing. I was just judging the movie on its merits, and I was like, “What’d you think?” And she said, “I think it was my favorite movie of all time.” I knew the writing was on the wall right then. I knew we weren’t gonna be together forever. She was very sweet, she was very kind, but no, [we didn’t end up together].
You’ve also got a big movie coming out this year, too—Marshall.
I’m really excited for people to get to check it out. It’s a chapter of Thurgood Marshall’s life that a lot of people don’t know a whole lot about—I definitely didn’t know—when he’s a young man, and he’s a lawyer for the NAACP, going around the country looking to defend African-Americans whom he feels are falsely accused. I play the defendant—I go from playing a prosecutor at the beginning of  to playing a defendant at the end of the next year—and this guy’s name is Joseph Spell. He’s accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white socialite by the name of Eleanor Strubing that’s played by Kate Hudson.
“It was 2006 or 2007, and I was like ‘Man, ain’t nobody gonna do no black superhero movie, I don’t know what you’re talking about!'”
And so it’s basically a he-said-she-said that gets played out in front of an all-white jury in Connecticut, and Marshall himself [played by Chadwick Boseman] is actually not allowed to try the case, because he hasn’t passed the Connecticut bar. So the judge decides to let him sit in on the case, but the lawyer who brought the trial to his court—his name is Sam Friedman, he’s a Jewish lawyer who is totally out of his depth, played by Josh Gad—and what winds up happening is that Sam Friedman tries the case, and Marshall is the puppet master behind his mouthpiece. He’s not allowed to speak in court, but he can whisper all of his directions to Sam. So it’s a wonderful interplay between Chad and Gad. They try to see if they can get a brother acquitted, and that’s the story.
And you’re going to be with Chadwick Boseman again in Black Panther!
So Reginald Hudlin was the director of Marshall, and he wrote a series of Black Panther comics in the early 2000s that I was first introduced to the Black Panther by, and I remember talking to a friend of mine when I was on Army Wives—I had this collection of all these Black Panther comics, and he was like, “Do you read comic books?” And I said, not a ton. I like the X-Men, et cetera, but I own these Black Panther comic books. And my buddy was like, “Dude, you should get the rights to this.”
It was 2006 or 2007, and I was like “Man, ain’t nobody gonna do no black superhero movie, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” So then fast forward ten years! It was really interesting to talk to Reggie about his involvement in the comics, and then to talk to Chad, and then wind up being a part of this world. It’s exciting, not just on an artistic level, but I also think it’s historic, to have a film of this magnitude, with a primarily African-American cast, telling a story of this mythical African country of Wakanda. It’s just something I couldn’t have even fathomed when I was a kid. And now my little boys get a chance to go to the multiplex, and see it happen right in front of their eyes, and that excites me.
Can you say anything about your character?
His name is N’jobu. He is a character from T’Challa’s past, and I think, without losing any limbs on my body, that’s all I can say.
You’ve been doing a lot of charity work lately, including an episode of NBC’s Give that focuses on a few things that have been really important to you. Can you tell me a little more about that?
The episode of Give focuses on a couple of different charities in Los Angeles that focus on helping young people of color better themselves: The Brotherhood Crusade, and the Social Justice Learning Institute. It was a really wonderful experience for me because—listen, I think for 13 and a half years of my career I’ve been pretty incog-negro. I get a chance to walk around, go about my business without people making too much of a fuss. But it was really nice to see the level of enthusiasm they had when I stepped into their world. As I find my profile sort of rising, I am looking for more and more opportunities to lend this asset to whatever it is I can shed a light on. My big focus has been young people of color working to better themselves in life. When I was a young man I worked at the Boys and Girls Club in St Louis, Missouri, and another boys club called Matthews-Dickey. I’m always looking to see how I can be of service, because if you can’t use this platform for something of benefit, then what good is it, right?
“Listen, I think for 13 and a half years of my career I’ve been pretty incog-negro.”
That’s very much like the way you talk about Randall Pearson on This Is Us, whom you’ve described as a man that’s always trying to better himself, even as he deals with what Marc Bernardin at the L.A. Times called “the simmering rage of the successful black man in white America.”
I’m glad you brought [that article] up. I can remember—this happens a lot—I’ll have conversations with people, friends who are white, and I’ll make a statement about something, and I’ll bring to light my blackness. I’ll be like, “Y’all know black people don’t do that, blah blah blah—that’s some white people stuff.”
And they’ll say something to the effect of, “Why’s everything always black and white? Why can’t it just be about people?” And I’ll say, “That’s a very interesting thing for you to say! Because for me, everything is black and white, and the way that I experience the world—there’s no objective experience of reality, it is all based upon our own personal history.” And my personal history as an African-American allows me to see things in a way—forces me, in a way—that sometimes folks of the majority don’t necessarily have to.
It’s always the case that the minority has to navigate two different worlds. Women have to know how to live in a man’s world. Gay people have to know how to live in a straight world. Black people gotta know how to live in a predominantly white world. And so what I so enjoy about the show, is—first of all, our writers are brilliant, Dan Fogelman is a beast—they have wonderful scripts that they set out as our blueprint. But they also give us room to improv on things, and a lot of the improv will make it into the show. And so every once in a while Randall will say something [passive-aggressive] about “Hey it’s just your friendly neighborhood black guy,” right? And it’s me, bringing myself to the role, and they’re also saying “Hey, that works, that’s right. We’re not shying away from it.” He’s not a character that is black just by coincidence. He is purposefully African-American, and his perspective on things is incredibly valuable.
It reminds me of that scene with Darden and Marcia Clark, when he says “You wanted a black face, but you never wanted a black voice.” I am so proud of NBC and Fogelman for putting this black family in the midst of the Pearson family and not having it be coincidental. Having our race be an asset to the show, rather than something that needs to be glossed over. t’s interesting, as a young man, you can always talk about your socioeconomics and what people can see and whatnot; you can be rich and you can be successful but when somebody sees you from a distance, do they have an instinct to cross to the other side of the street or not? There are prejudices that we have to acknowledge, and Randall is perfectly aware—even though he was raised by his parents, society has showed him that the way that they treat his brother and sister is necessarily different than the way in which they treat me. And I’m so happy to get a chance to illuminate that perspective on national television.
I get approached quite frequently—we were shooting in downtown L.A. one day, and a young black man approached me. He wouldn’t go into detail—he recognized me from the show, he knew I was in costume, he knew I was going to the set. But he was like, “Hey man, I don’t want to take too much of your time and I know you’re busy right now, but I just have to tell you, you saved my brother’s life. I just have to let you know that and how much your work has been appreciated.” He said thank you, he gave me a hug, and he went on about his business. I was like, wow. I don’t even know what he was talking about, but it’s touching people in away that I did not anticipate but I am very, very happy to be a part of.