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Sterling K. Brown recommends taking it 'moment to moment,' on screen and in life

Sterling K. Brown, shown here in January 2020, stars in the new film <em>American Fiction.</em>
Amy Sussman
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Sterling K. Brown, shown here in January 2020, stars in the new film American Fiction.

When Sterling K. Brown first came to Hollywood in the early 2000s, casting directors told him he needed to lose his "smart guy thing" in order to get more roles. The actor, who had studied economics at Stanford and interned at the Federal Reserve, says he didn't fit the mold of the stories being told about Black people.

Those stories, Brown says, "had to deal with Black folks overcoming certain adversities and dealing with certain traumas. ... That was also linked to a certain socio-economic wash that they thought was appropriate for how Blackness needed to be portrayed in order to be 'authentic.' "

The notion of "authentic" Blackness is at the center of Brown's latest film, American Fiction. The movie is about a novelist (played by Jeffrey Wright) who's told his work is unpublishable because it's not Black enough — and who, in turn, writes a book that traffics in stereotypes. Brown plays the novelist's brother, a plastic surgeon whose wife has left him after discovering he's been having affairs with men.

Brown won an Emmy in 2016 for his portrayal of prosecutor Christopher Darden in the miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson, and another Emmy in 2017 for his role as Randall Pearson, the Black adopted son in a white family, in the NBC series This Is Us. In Black Panther, he played the prince who betrayed Wakanda.

Brown says of his Black Panther part was a small but important role that he shot while he was working on This Is Us. "The fact that I was able to moonlight in something that did wind up making history is something that I get a chance to celebrate until the day that I pass away," he says. "I'm so honored that I got a chance to be in that film."


Interview Highlights

On initially seeing O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden as a traitor for prosecuting a Black man

Hands down, 100%, he was persona non grata as far as I was concerned. Like, you're trying to take down one of our heroes. I think that's the way a lot of Black folks will relate to people who "make it," celebrity or otherwise, but particularly celebrity. And particularly at that time. We have so few people that are able to make it to a level of esteem, notoriety or what have you, that the idea that the system, "the man," that America is trying to bring them down and that a Black man [Darden] got attached to ... the wrong side. This felt like, why are you allowing them to use you? That was definitely my perspective at age 18 or 19 when it happened. ...

My perspective as a human being has shifted. ... Like, who is the voice for the people who were murdered? They don't have anyone to speak for them. And so someone has to do it. Even getting into Darden's book, in terms of being a prosecutor, he's like, "We need to have a Black presence in all facets of law enforcement, whether that is as police, whether that is as prosecutors, as defense attorneys." ... Like, a presence in all of those things means that we can work from the inside. And I think that that's sort of an admirable perspective that he has on how law enforcement can work at its best.

On going by Kelby (his middle name) as a child, but switching back to Sterling (his father's name) as a teen

My dad passed away when I was 10, almost 11, and it had been about five years that I hadn't heard his name in my life on a regular basis. And honestly, Terry, I wanted to hear his name. I wanted to hear the name of Sterling. So I said, "Hey, guys, could you call me Sterling now?" ... I think I really grieved my father about five years after his passing away. I think for the first five years, I felt like I had to be the man of the house. I had to keep it together for my mom. I also believed — and still believe — that my father ascended to heaven so that he was in a better place. But that still didn't allow me the space to, like, really just be like, "I miss you, I miss this man." And so I think it took about five years for me to fully let that out. And then after I let that out, I was like, "OK, I'm ready to hear his name again."

On his mother's ALS diagnosis

I don't talk about it that often, but I'm talking about it more now because I think that the universe is calling me into some sort of action, and I'm still figuring out what that is. My mom was diagnosed with ALS in April of 2018. She lost the ability to speak in October of 2018. And I think [she] has far exceeded the expectations of most doctors in terms of lifespan, because she's still with us, and about to go into 2024. But the joy that my mom is able to hold onto in the midst of this incredibly debilitating disease, the smile that she still has for the people who walk into her sphere is radiant. And it shows you, it shows me that, first of all, I don't have to allow circumstances to dictate how I am in the world, that I still have choice. I may not have choice over what the circumstances are, but how I respond to them. And my mom has been a shining example of how to maintain radiance in the midst of a very difficult situation.

On working with Andy Samberg and personal hero Andre Braugher for an episode of the comedy tv series Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I think for me more than anything else, is that when you try to stay in the moment, the next moment has a way of taking care of itself. When you're trying to project to the future and be like, "Oh, I hope I make it to this crescendo at the very end," then you sort of, like, wind up missing what's happening just right now. Taking it moment to moment in life, on stage, on screen is usually the best recipe to get to the end of anything. That's what I try to do as a performer. And I think those two gentlemen in particular are wonderful at it. And so they made it easy for me to join in the symphony.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.