Sterling K Brown: 'I was told to lose this intelligent Black guy thing'
The actor talks to RadioTimes.com about his Oscar-nominated role in American Fiction and reuniting with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.
Sterling K Brown has enjoyed an impressive and decorated small screen career so far, with three Emmy wins and a host of nominations to his name for projects such as This Is Us and The People vs OJ Simpson.
Now, thanks to his role alongside Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction, the actor's big screen work is being recognised by awards bodies as well.
Brown – whose previous film credits include Black Panther, The Predator and Waves – is up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as Clifford 'Cliff' Ellison, the brother of Wright's main character Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison, who we find living with renewed freedom after divorcing his wife and coming out as gay.
The acclaim his performance has garnered has left Brown understandably chuffed – but as he explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com, it's easier for him to "get truly enthusiastic about my peers and the film as a whole" than it is to revel in the individual accolades coming his way.
"I felt privileged to be a part of a film that was saying something and could sort of change the perspective of stories featuring Black people and the sort of narrow purview they've been confined to," he says.
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"[And] I was happy to play a character who is LGBTQ and was out – and was sort of, like, messily out – because he had been confined to sort of colour within the lines for such a long time.
"And to be in a movie with Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and John Ortiz? The nomination is a wonderful cherry on top of an already incredible sundae."
American Fiction is loosely adapted by first-time feature director Cord Jefferson from Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure, and although Brown didn't know the novel "at all" before he was sent the script, he has since read several of the author's other works and become a big fan – in part because his work embodies something similar to Monk: a refusal to be pigeon-holed.
"He does not repeat himself," he says. "All of his books are necessarily Black by nature because he's a Black man who's writing them, but, like, to call them just Black literature would be to sort of minimalise the universal appeal that so many of them have. He is masterful and constantly reinventing himself."
Meanwhile, when it came to Jefferson's script – which makes several changes from the Everett novel, including a change of location from Washington, DC to Los Angeles and Boston – Brown was instantly on board.
He reveals that he "laughed out loud from page one through to the end" and instantly believed that the film could be "pretty special".
That first impression proved to be a prescient one, and his hunch has been confirmed not only by the critical appraisals and awards attention, but also the reactions he's seen from general audiences.
"[I've enjoyed] sitting in the audience and seeing people laugh in a mixed audience," he says. "And folks sort of laughing at themselves at the same time was a really sort of delightful experience as well.
"But the counterbalancing of [the satire] with the family drama is almost like saying, 'You have confined us to such a narrow definition of what you think our humanity is. And then I'm going to show you another example of what our humanity can be.' And having those things married in such a way one informs the other: I thought it was just masterful."
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It was exploring the relationship between Cliff and Monk that Brown found most rewarding, especially as he has an older brother himself, and so found it easy to understand their dynamic.
And what he particularly enjoyed about their relationship was the tenderness with which the two brothers treated each other – even if they weren't always on the same page towards the beginning of the film.
"I think there was a level of sensitivity that you got a chance to see these two Black men treat each other with that didn't diminish their masculinity," he explains. "But it also showed that men can be gentle and caring towards one another, and express affection in a way.
"My wife, when she saw the movie and saw me kiss Jeffrey on the forehead, said it was such a... not tender or sensual, but she used something in between those two words.
"And I was like, 'Jeffrey has a nice soft landing space on his forehead. So maybe that's why I haven't been able to hit you the same way!'
"But I enjoy being able to bring that representation to the landscape of how men can be with one another."
Meanwhile, another thing that drew Brown to the role was the chance to play someone rather different from Randall Pearson, the character he portrayed for six seasons on the hit TV series This Is Us.
While he loved playing Randall, he says that having starred consistently as one person in such a well-loved show has "hugely" impacted the decisions he makes about future roles.
"I think it's infinitely more rewarding to be recognised for a body of work than it is to be recognised for an individual character," he says.
"So if someone sees me on the street, and they say, 'Are you Sterling Brown?' you get a much better response than if they just yell out, 'Randall.' So I'm definitely looking for things that sort of challenge people's expectations of what they think I am – I always like to try to surprise people."
Of course, this ties in directly to the themes of American Fiction, which explores Monk's frustration that he and his work are expected to be one thing – in this case because of his race – when he sees himself as something else.
And that frustration is something that Brown has himself experienced.
"I think there have been times early in my career when people said, you have to sort of lose this intelligent Black guy thing so that you can fit in more readily with their concept of what they considered blackness to be," he explains.
"And that's not... I think, the film and myself, I would say there are still stories that have been told, that Hollywood has seen as being marketable, that are definitely a part of our story. [But] they aren't the totality of our story, right?
"So the idea of when someone meets me who's not Black and says, 'You're not like Black Black, like, you're not a real Black guy,' it's because they haven't seen examples of people like me on the screen to know that this is another way of being Black that is just as valid and valued as anything else."
Brown has a number of other varied projects currently in the pipeline, including sci-fi flick Atlas, which stars Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu and doesn't yet have an official release date.
He describes the project as "a big old shoot 'em up" and adds that it asks questions about how artificial intelligence and humanity can coexist with one another.
And then, he's reuniting with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman on a new project, Paradise City, which begins filming next month and will reportedly follow a security service team tasked with protecting a past president.
Brown says he's looking forward to getting started on the show, and seems delighted to be working with Fogelman again following their fruitful collaboration in the past.
"I love the guy," he smiles. "He is a wonderful writer and he's a wonderful human being. And so [reuniting with him] was something that was always on the table.
"And I also think, just for me, in my career – as much fun as I have doing films and going all over the country and all over the world telling different stories – it's nice to know that for a certain period of time, I get a chance to be at home with my family, and do something that I know will be incredibly rewarding.
"So it's a shorter season. It's eight episodes instead of 18 episodes, [but] at least for four or five months, I know where I would be before I start looking at other opportunities to have different kinds of fun."
And what about Randall – does he still miss the character after playing him for so many years?
"I had my time, I loved my time," he responds. "And it was great. But whenever something is over, I think as a performer you're already having to make peace with the fact that you're going to move on to something else.
"So, for me, it's always... I'm curious to see what's next. I don't usually spend a whole lot of time going backwards and thinking like, 'Oh, I wish I could...' No, I had a great, great time, loved it, and now I'm just looking forward to what's next."