Ssterling K. Brown is a man in the middle in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
As Assistant District Attorney Christopher Darden, the St. Louis native is a black man seen as being on the wrong side of a case that has divided the country along racial lines. Despite the evidence, African-Americans overwhelmingly believe Simpson, the football hero, is innocent of killing his ex-wife, Nicole. Prosecutors, including Darden, are determined to convince a jury that he did.
Darden sees both sides, and so does Brown.
Being added to the prosecution team, in part because he is a man of color, is a big step up for Darden, but “he is warned by his family and friends to stay away from this case,” Brown says.
Darden knew “that black people don’t always see things the same way” as white people, Brown says, but he also knew “that this case was not about black America against the police department. It was about a privileged individual who hadn’t given back to the black community, who had in fact extricated himself from the black community, and who saw himself as above the law.”
Still, “I don’t think (Darden) really took into full account the environment of Los Angeles at the time, two years after Rodney King was beaten. Black folks felt that they were neither protected nor served by the police.”
Executive producer Ryan Murphy and his team re-created the 1994-95 case in a 10-part miniseries that is envisioned as the first in an “American Crime Story” anthology.
Brown, who grew up in Olivette and graduated from Country Day School (now MICDS) and then Stanford University, with a master’s degree from NYU, was one of the last cast for the miniseries.
“We knew we needed an incredibly strong actor for that role, and we auditioned many, many people,” executive producer Brad Simpson says. “If you know Sterling’s work, you know he’s actually a very strapping, charismatic individual. Part of the challenge is that you need an actor who can play somebody who had charisma, but also was in the shadow of Johnnie Cochran (played by Courtney B. Vance). Sterling transformed himself.”
Brown appreciates the praise, but points out that he was also one of the few actors, in an all-star cast including Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as lawyer Robert Shapiro and Sarah Paulson as Assistant DA Marcia Clark, who had to audition to win his role.
Getting the job, and shooting the miniseries, “was such a joy,” Brown says. He sat down to talk about it at a cocktail party for the cast and TV critics meeting recently in Los Angeles.
“Everybody checked their egos at the door,” Brown says. “It was about putting out the best product possible. Everybody embraced me immediately. Sarah was wonderful. Courtney was so warm and inviting. At the highest level of your craft, you don’t have to play games or make people feel small, you can just embrace. And I was totally embraced.”
Brown spent six seasons on Lifetime’s popular “Army Wives,” playing the only Army husband, and had a recurring role on CBS’ “Person of Interest.” He recently shot the Tina Fey movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” due out in March, and is in a pilot being made for NBC this season.
“It’s like a boxer,” Brown says. “You keep jabbing and jabbing until hopefully you have an opportunity for a hook or straight right. I believe, through the grace of God, other doors are finally starting to open for me.”
When he was cast in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Brown reached out to the real Christopher Darden, now a defense attorney in private practice, who lives near him. After dialing what he thought was Darden’s office number to see if it was still in service, he got a text back asking who had called.
“Turned out it was his cell number. I told him who I was, how I’d be portraying him. He didn’t respond. I understand that he wouldn’t want to revisit that time.”
But Brown hopes Darden will watch. “I think he is an honorable man, and I think we show that. I hope he sees that in the way I portray him. I hope he feels that I did him proud.”
Revisiting the Simpson trial took Brown back to his freshman year at Stanford, where he lived in a “theme house” set up purposely to be 50 percent black “and 50 percent other.” When Simpson was acquitted, “The reaction of the black students was pure joy. Everybody else looked at us like, are you guys crazy?” But “the prism through which you experience life is so unique. There is no objective experience.”
The question of Simpson’s guilt or innocence didn’t really factor in. “For young black men who had had experiences of driving while black, DWB, or being accused of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was very easy to believe that somebody was trying to set him up and to see it as the criminal justice system finally working for someone who looked like me.”
Now, “20 years later, playing Christopher Darden, you see that what should have been at the front of everyone’s consciousness was that two people had their lives brutally taken away,” Brown says. “They became an afterthought.”
Themes in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” are as timely today as ever, Brown says, mentioning the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson.
“We all have our prejudices, and we may or may not be aware of them,” he says. “Sometimes people walk by me and give me a wider berth. It happens. I wear hoodies all the time because my head gets cold. Something innocuous can be misunderstood.”
Brown and his wife, actress Ryan Michelle Bathé, his college sweetheart, have two little boys, 4-year-old Andrew and 4-month-old Amare.
“As a father of two black sons now, you ask yourself, what do I have to do to assure the safety of these boys? It can be daunting.”