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‘Black Panther’: How Sterling K. Brown Went From Auditioning for M’Baku to Stealing Scenes as N’Jobu

Sterling K. Brown is better known for his small-screen roles, such as Emmy-winning performances in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “This Is Us” than for films, but this year his role as N’Jobu in “Black Panther” started to turn the tide. Brown only had two short scenes of dialogue in “Black Panther,” but his character’s death was the catalyst for the events of the film. After being discovered as a traitor to his people, N’Jobu was killed by his brother, leaving behind a young son who grew up planning revenge against his family.

Brown: “I was doing ‘The People v. O.J. [Simpson: American Crime Story]’ and Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote [‘Black Panther’] with Ryan Coogler was one of our writers, and he was like, ‘Yeah man, I’m writing this “Black Panther” movie and everything,’ and I was like, ‘Say what? … Yo, you’ve got to let me know who I’ve got to talk to; I want to be in Wakanda!’

“I originally went in for M’Baku, and I had fun with it; I was taking my shirt off and I was like, ‘Yeah, come mess with this cad, see if you can handle it!’ They were laughing, and [Ryan] was like, ‘Look man, you had a great audition, I don’t know if the timetable necessarily works out with your TV show or whatnot, but I’ve got this role of N’Jobu that I need a real actor for, and if you vibe with it, maybe it’s something you’d consider doing.’

“It was only a couple of scenes, but he has such a strong perspective — and a perspective with which I can relate to in terms of the emancipation of black people across the globe and allowing them to have a position of power globally. And knowing that I, as a prince of this country, have access to materials that could give black people to access to opportunity by any means necessary, it seems like it was a justifiable position. And I loved that it was such a strong perspective just from those two scenes that I was like, ‘Bro, however I can be a part of this, please let me be a part of it.’

“I knew that my perspective had to be strong enough that my son could take that and interpret it however he saw fit. … He lost his father — his father who was a radical — and he became even more radicalized than his father. So I knew it had to be passionate.

“At the time of shooting we were also shooting the ‘Memphis’ episode of ‘This Is Us’ so I was going back and forth from one heavy thing to another. No one had necessarily communicated to me that there was a specific accent that we were going for until I showed up on set. I had worked on this whole other thing. … So you go back to the drawing board, you sit in your hotel room and you listen to accent tapes and the dialogue coach’s suggestions and you just do it over and over again until you feel like it’s right.

“I had to focus on one of two things: it’s either the accent or the acting — and not trying to sacrifice one over the other, but if the accent is not quite up to snuff, so be it, as long as the truth of N’Jobu’s trials and tribulations is communicated.

“I usually go by the principle that less is more. … Once he dies, you also get the benefit of playing a scene beyond the grave, so you don’t have to prolong the actual death because there’s this lovely point of connection between father and son on the other realm — where he gets to mourn the choices he made as a father and tell his son he should have done better by them.

“It was nice, in terms of being able to shoot the scene of him being beyond the grave, with the young version of [his son] and with Michael B. [Jordan] as well. Ryan kept saying, ‘Yo you don’t need any tears,’ and I would say, ‘I’m not trying to cry.’ But there was this moment of recognition of if I failed my son, I couldn’t help but.”

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