Sterling K. Brown can’t stop smiling.
It’s the morning after his momentous win at the Emmy Awards, and Brown is still grinning from ear to ear. Even on just a few hours sleep, it would be hard to extinguish that famous blinding white beam, what with back-to-back trophies to his name. After winning last year for his work as Christopher Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” on Sunday night he took home the prize for best actor in a drama for “This Is Us,” as the anxiety-ridden but oh-so-lovable Randall Pearson on the NBC-20th Century Fox production.
It’s been nearly two decades since a black actor claimed the prize — a profound fact that was not lost on Brown. Andre Braugher, who starred in NBC’s “Homicide,” was one of the first people he thanked in his acceptance speech. “It is my supreme honor to follow in your footsteps,” he said — referencing not only the moment but also their shared paths as Stanford alums and as stars of dramas on NBC. “The 19 years since another African-American actor has won and been recognized in this category, that meant something to me,” says Brown, still a bit dazed from the events of the past 24 hours. He hasn’t heard yet from Braugher but admits he hasn’t quite caught up with the torrent of congratulations that poured in overnight.
|Peter Yang for Variety|
Brown’s powerful speech was cut off by the producers — much to the chagrin of the audience (“I knew it was a little long,” he confesses) — but he got a chance to continue it in the press room, where he went on to thank showrunner Dan Fogelman, his wife — and especially his two sons. “Your daddy loves you with the strength of a thousand suns,” he said. “I’ll see you Monday after work.”
While the journeyman actor, whose IMDb page features a lengthy list of credits dating back to 2002, couldn’t be more committed to his now surging career, his family is just as important to him. His father died when he was 10, and he never got to say goodbye.
In fact, the only thing that can dim that high-wattage smile on this celebratory morning is reminiscing about his dad and namesake, Sterling Brown Jr. (Brown went by Kelby as a child but switched to “Sterling” when he was a teenager to honor his father.)
“My dad was a reactive kind of guy, similar to me; we let our emotions flow relatively easily,” he says. “So the fact that I had him as an example, I never was caught up with this idea that I have to be a strong, silent type. If you feel something, just feel it.”
The more he talks about his father, the more his eyes well up, and tears start to fall. “The fact that I’m an actor, I know he loves it,” he says, recalling how they’d watch TV together — shows like “Hill Street Blues” and “Barney Miller.” “And now to be a father and to have two boys, I know that makes him happy too.”
Brown’s father died at age 45 of complications from a heart attack — which isn’t lost on Brown, who’s 41. “I want to go for another 60 years,” he says. “I want to be that centenarian that walks up to you with a straight back and says, ‘How are you, young man?’”
He recounts completing a triathlon recently with an 82-year-old man. Brown beat him to the finish line by just 15 minutes. “It can be done, you know?” he says. “This idea of health is something that’s really important to me. Not in a vain way, but black men, we don’t have to be consigned to a death sentence at 65. We can live life to the fullest, and not just exist but really thrive for as long as we want to. You’ve just got to be able to see it.”
Brown wasn’t the only one to shatter a racial divide on Emmy night. Donald Glover brought home the first trophy for a black director, for “Atlanta”; Lena Waithe (“Master of None”) is the first black woman to win for writing a comedy; and Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”) is the first man of Asian descent to win an Emmy for acting.
Brown and Ahmed talked after the show about what the wins meant. Ahmed told him he was “finally about to breathe.” Says Brown, “Color-blindness is one thing, and it has its own merit and virtue, but to be seen and appreciated for what you are, that’s the sweet spot.”
Following in Braugher’s footsteps is a path that began when Brown was a freshman at Stanford, and the dean recommended he check out the actor’s work. “ When you’re 19 or 20, you’re not even thinking about it,” he says. “You’re thinking about not flunking out of the rest of your courses when you’re trying to do this acting thing on the side,” he says. But Braugher’s shadow followed him to NYU, where he went on to study acting — and he spotted a billboard for the ABC drama “Gideon’s Crossing.”
“There’s a black dude on a billboard for a TV show!” says Brown. “You clock these things because you don’t see them. You have to see it first because then you can allow yourself to envision it.”
|Peter Yang for Variety|
It took some time, admittedly. After years of patiently toiling away on series including “Third Watch,” “Supernatural” and “Army Wives,” it was his plucked-from-near-obscurity turn on FX’s recounting of the O.J. Simpson murder trial that ignited his career. And the way audiences have so fully embraced the multiracial Pearsons is not lost on him.
“I’m not trying to pat Hollywood on the back too much, but the power of a story well told moves the needle,” he says. “It changes the way in which we interact and see society. I think Randall Pearson coming into people’s houses may offer the opportunity to say, ‘That guy is more like me than I would have thought.’ The next time they come across another African-American male they may not cross the street. They may not pretend like they don’t see him. They may actually look him in the eye and say hello.”
Brown calls the 19-year diversity gap between his win and Braugher’s “absolutely insane,” and hopes his recognition opens the door for more black actors. “You have to have the roles and the opportunities, but you have to have the people in that writers’ room, the creative minds behind it, to make it worthy of the consideration,” he says. “To paraphrase Nate Dogg, ‘It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none.’ I look forward to seeing other brothers step up on that stage. And hopefully myself as well.”
Making the rounds on Emmy night, Brown ran into his “People v. O.J.” co-star Sarah Paulson. It was during the filming of “O.J.” that Brown first read the script for “This Is Us,” and sought her advice about whether to take the role.
“She was saying about my speech, ‘You seem so comfortable up there. You seem like you’d done this before.’ And she told me that I’d lapped her,” he says, laughing about Paulson’s 19 nominations and one win for “People v. O.J.” “And I was like, no. It just happens to be fortuitous for me in that particular regard.”
In the frenzied weeks of the Emmy campaign, buzz had been building that he would take the prize, amid competition that included his co-star Milo Ventimiglia. In the moments after his name was announced, he says he took stock of just how far he’s come now that he’s landed what he calls “the best job on TV.”
“I was thinking Keyser Söze and Hannibal Lecter are in the same category as me, and they actually called my name,” he says, referring to fellow nominees Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”) and Anthony Hopkins (“Westworld”). “I was thinking about how much I love Milo and how incredibly cool and supportive he’s been throughout this whole process. Because we know the most important thing is the job and the story. I hope we get the chance to keep doing that for several years to come.”
With all the rigmarole that happens after a win at an awards show, the first face Brown saw backstage belonged to Elisabeth Moss, star of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The two shared a hug and then were awkwardly held in the wings by a producer to wait for the announcement of best drama, for which both their series were vying.
“The stage manager kept trying to push us toward the edge of the stage, and I was like, ‘No, I’m just going to stand back here,’” he says. “We got a chance to hug right before she stepped out onstage for her much-deserved victory.”
As the Emmy annals now reflect, the night’s top prize went to the Hulu series, but Brown doesn’t begrudge it the victory. “Nobody can hit on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” he says. “The show is absolutely phenomenal.”
Had “This Is Us” won, however, Brown would have gotten a chance to return to the podium. The famously attention-shy Fogelman told him for once he wasn’t nervous — because he was prepared to turn the mic over to Brown to let him finish his cut-short speech. The actor especially wanted to give a shout-out to the shows’ writers — who went unrecognized in the Emmy nominations, although they did nab a coveted WGA Award. “We would be an improv troupe if we didn’t have the writers,” he says. “I’m sure we’d be OK, but we wouldn’t have gotten seven acting nominations for our show. We owe them everything.”
Since the show’s debut, he and Fogelman have forged a close bond. Notes the showrunner of the actor: “He’s at the top of his profession right now, and it’s happening at the same time as he is also displaying a complete mastery of his craft.” Fogelman says Brown brings “everything” to the character of Randall. “He’s paid his dues; he’s worked his ass off; he’s trained properly. It’s nice to see great things happen to any great person, but this feels really special and really big, and we just couldn’t, collectively, be happier for him.”
Brown credits Fogelman and his writing team for crafting a role that allows him to shine. “Randall Pearson is special. Not because of me but because of the journey,” he says. “It’s such a unique story being raised by this white family. Seeking out his adoptive father and making that connection only to lose him. We haven’t seen that before. When you have these craftsmen writing and telling these stories, you have this perfect synthesis in order for it to happen. I hope it happens for more people of color.”
Brown has been increasingly spending time in the writers’ room — even pitching a few things, he admits. “I have a pitch about how Randall and Beth came to know one another,” he says. “It’s a good pitch.”
He won’t reveal details — secrecy is paramount to the ever-twisty narrative. No rest for the Emmy-weary, Brown was en route to San Pedro to film an upcoming episode that features his character prominently. He took every available opportunity to learn his lines, even carrying the script around with him backstage during the awards show (not to mention our photo shoot). Reports Fogelman, “The poor guy must have been exhausted but he killed every scene, wrapped at 9 p.m., and I don’t know that a crew member went home without a picture.”
The pressure couldn’t be higher going into season two — delivering on the promise of last fall’s success story. Fogelman recently held a viewing party at his house for the cast, writers and producers, and all Brown will reveal is: “We were happy with what we saw. The relationships are there; the beautiful struggle of humanity is there. People just trying to make the best out of a crazy life is there. So folks who are fans, I don’t think we’re going to lose anybody.”
Brown admits he didn’t imagine the show might be awards material when he first signed on. But as the storytelling progressed, he started to get a sense it could be a contender — from the Thanksgiving episode, where Randall learned about his mother’s betrayal, through the journey to Memphis with his dying father, William (Ron Cephas Jones). “It felt like there was some heft behind it,” he says.
|Season two will find Brown’s newly unemployed Randall as a stay-at-home dad.|
That episode — a risky creative move, given that it was a stand-alone that featured Brown and Jones — scored with viewers as well.
Brown has learned, too, from a year spent in Randall’s three-piece suits. He calls him a better man than he is — especially when it comes to marriage. Randall’s relationship with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), has reminded Brown to be a bit more attentive to his own. He’s realized, he says, “you need to tell your wife you love her.”
At the TCA Awards in August, Brown surprised the audience by performing a duet of “For Good” (from “Wicked”) with Kristin Chenoweth. He more than held his own opposite the Broadway star.
But here’s something else you should know about Brown: Not only does he have a pitch-perfect singing voice (unlike on-screen alter ego Randall), but he’s got a spot-on knack for voices. Throughout the conversation with Variety, he slips seamlessly into a British accent (when he’s recounting his chat with Riz Ahmed) or a pretentious snobbish twang (for fans surprised that they like a broadcast show).
“I told you, I have a thousand people living inside me,” he says. “I picked the right profession for me because every once in a while, one of them gets to come to the forefront and introduce themselves to the public. And hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that as time goes on.”
Even a musical, perhaps? “If I had some time, and somebody would teach me some things, I would be open to the possibility,” he says, pointing out that Braugher once sang on-screen, too, in “Duets.”
Ever the workhorse, Brown packed his summer hiatus from “This Is Us” with multiple movies — a varied lineup ranging from “Black Panther” and “Predator” to “Hotel Artemis” and “Marshall,” in which he plays Joseph Spell, who stood accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white woman, and is defended in court by Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman).
“Trusting people you’ve seen shape performances” is what leads him to choose a project. Simply put, he loves working: He’s already strategizing for his next hiatus. “I’m going to start trying to be a bit more intentional in terms of something that really speaks to my soul, a story that feels like it necessarily has to be told, and then trying to do something while I still have my girlish figure that gets me into some sort of costume that’s chic and sleek, and I get the chance to get lots of eyeballs,” he says. “Hopefully they will both resonate.”
One thing we won’t be seeing, though, is any nudity — an early cut of “Marshall” included a love scene between him and Kate Hudson featuring “a full moon.” “It took me aback,” he says with a laugh. “Kate and I both collectively were like, Woah. I clutched my pearls! But it’s going to be good, even without the booty shot.”
What he will always respond to ultimately, he says, are father-son stories. “It’s one of the first things I connect with,” he says, pointing to “In Good Company,” which stars Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace. “I remember the first time I saw this movie, bawling like a baby.”
It couldn’t have been more fitting, then, that it was Quaid who presented him with his award. What would he say to his own father if he could talk to him now? “I talk to him all the time,” he says. “His shell may have shuffled off this mortal coil, but he lives forever. We go hand in hand.”