Sterling K. Brown of This Is Us on His Ascent, Loving LeBron, and Black Representation on TV

GQ is featuring Sterling in their new issue … and what a great interview it is!

The Emmy-winning actor, here making monochrome look masterful, has some opinions on just how quickly Hollywood is running toward diversity.

However Hollywood charts talent, a pretty swift case could be made that the biggest breakout in the past year is not a newcomer but a veteran, Sterling K. Brown. After years of bill-paying recurring roles, Brown, 41, won an Emmy last fall for his deeply felt portrayal of Christopher Darden, co-counsel with Marcia Clark, in The People v. O.J. Simpson, and just earned a second Emmy nomination, for his hyper-sensitive Randall Pearson, the anchor of NBC’s heartstring-yanking This Is Us. While O.J. earned Brown prestige cred, This Is Us is the reason that people come up to him, spontaneously crying, when he’s out buying eggs. As he’s started getting recognized more, he says, “I catch myself every once in a while doing that weird thing that I see famous people do, where they have sunglasses and hats on and grow out beards thinking that they’re fooling people. Dude, you’re not fooling anyone, you look just like you.”

Brown’s recent success tracks an expansion in film and television of stories focusing on characters of color. This fall he appears in Marshall, about the young Thurgood Marshall, and early next year in Marvel’s Black Panther, the black-superhero movie directed by Ryan Coogler. Brown could not imagine a movie like Black Panther being cast this way a decade ago. “Hollywood is learning—Oh, we can make a dollar off of these stories,” he says. But even still, “there’s often the sort of conversation that transpires behind closed doors, and I shall entitle this conversation: There Can Be Only One.” What he means, of course, is that while there are more parts than there used to be, there still exists a kind of quota. “Why can’t there be two black guys? Why can’t there be a black woman?”

Brown recalls when, a few years ago, ABC green-lit a Kevin Hart project at the same time as it was shooting the pilot for Black-ish. ” The conversation was Well, which one are they going to pick up? Is it going to be ‘Black-ish’ or Kevin Hart? “Brown has spent 15 years with a front-row seat to Hollywood’s justifications of its aggravatingly narrow programming decisions. Now, though, not only is he present for the changing tide, but he’s quickly become one of its most recognizable faces. It gives him the platform to push things a little further. “Well, maybe we don’t have to choose anymore,” he says. “Maybe we can put them both on the air and see how the public responds.”

GQ caught up with Brown in early summer as he was finishing shooting The Predator and before returning to set for the second season of This Is Us.

GQ: A lot of the recent press about you is on how it has been a breakout year for you. It’s true that it’s been a huge year, but you’ve actually been a successful working actor for a long time.

SB: I’ve been able to pay the bills. I’ve been able to pay off my student loans. I was a homeowner before anything happened in the larger public eye. But yeah, I’ve been alright, I’ve been happy.

GQ: So then tell me how things have changed in this last year, year-and-a-half, in terms of getting work, in terms of encounters with the public.

SB: The level of opportunity that has made itself available to me has changed. At one point in time you’re just auditioning and hoping for the next job. Maybe they’ll like you, this guest star can turn into a recurring, this recurring can turn into a series regular. Oh my god, how amazing would that be? [laughs] And right now at this particular point in my career I’m able to breathe a little bit easier, recognizing that there is genuine enthusiasm in having me in projects. Instead of hoping and praying and trying to like, you know, grab crumbs from the table of joy, people are like, Hey Sterling, how would you like to do this? I’m like, Oh my—would I like to do that? And to have choice to be able to exercise that kind of discretion instead of just take, take, take—that’s a new and wonderful place to be living in the midst of.

GQ: Absolutely.

SB: Public recognition. Hmm. I never assume people are going to recognize me. And I think that’s important too. Even now, as many people who watch People v. O.J. or This is Us—the majority of humanity has never seen my face. Never. [laughs] Right? And I think that’s a humbling sort of perspective to maintain. Because I’ve seen people, who have walked up to other people expecting that they know who they are, and aren’t always gracious as they could be because they think like, Oh you know who I am, there’s no need to say my name.

GQ: This is Us has connected with people on such an emotional level, and because it’s coming into your living room every week—I think it’s probably unique with television in particular, this sort of false sense of I know this person, I have an emotional connection with them. For me, I’m sure you get this all the time, but I haven’t been able to watch an episode without crying. Straight up. [SKB laughs] Do people come up to you and cry spontaneously?

SB: Yes. It happens. And it’s lovely to be in the presence of. We thought we had a good show, right? But we didn’t know that it would move people the way that it did. On social media they’ll sometimes give us little tags that they want us to share, and they’ll be like #getreadyforyourkleenex #hopeforagoodcry—I didn’t even know in the beginning that it would evoke that kind of response amongst people. As a matter of fact, I was thinking how funny it was. From the first time I read the pilot I thought, Man this is so funny to me. I did not set out to just have people a mess week in and week out.

GQ: I’m going to switch gears to O.J. for a second. I have two questions. First, were you surprised by how well the show did? Your show did very well, the ESPN O.J. documentary won the Oscar. Does it surprise you how the story has continued to reverberate and that there’s continued to be an appetite for it more than 20 years later? SB: When I read the script I was like, This is something that’s going to touch a chord. And so I think I had an idea. You never know to exactly what degree it will become the phenomenon that it was, but recognizing that you had a sort of cultural icon in O.J. Simpson being at the center of a murder case, the echoes of having a black man, a high profile black man at odds with law enforcement, was something that was clearly of the moment. As a matter of fact, when we were doing Father Comes Home from the Wars [a play by Suzan-Lori Parks in which Brown starred in 2014 in New York] was when the murder of Mike Brown transpired in Ferguson.

GQ: That’s near where you’re from.

SB: Yes. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, Ferguson is a suburb. And when it happened, I had to do a show that night. And our cast was collectively sort of dumbfounded, and they didn’t know what to say to me because I was a mess. Before I had to step on stage I went to the theater, as is my custom, to do my vocal warm up and to sort of enjoy being in the space in solitude, because it’s like church. I love being in an empty theater. And I just started crying. And I know a couple of stagehands walked by me, and they gave me my space to just let it out and what not. And we talked as a cast collectively, and we decided, I can’t remember if it was immediately after Mike Brown or if was after Mike Brown and then what transpired in New York with [the death of] Eric Garner. Protesters were going by in downtown New York and we wanted to be connected to that protest and so we decided as a cast at our curtain call we were going to lift up our hands into the air: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. And it was such a wonderful moment for us to be able to use our platform, for the 300 people that we were performing for, saying we recognize what is going on in the world around us and this is our way of standing in solidarity with those people who are protesting police violence against the African American community. So I say that to say, unfortunately, our show was incredibly current. It was a period piece of sorts but with what was transpiring in our country at that time, the obvious reverberations were very, very clear.

GQ: Do you remember where you were when the verdict was announced? SB: I was at Stanford University, living in one of the four ethnic theme houses on campus. Ethnic-theme houses have half of the ethnicity which they’re designated for and then half of the dorm is, you know, everyone else. I lived in the African-American house, Ujamaa, and I remember everyone gathered in the large lounge watching the verdict, right? And the euphoria that erupted from the black folks in this dorm was transcendent. We were like, We have gotten off collectively! Finally, the criminal justice system has worked in such a way that we got to hold our hands up in victory. And the other half of the dorm was like, What are you guys doing?

GQ: Wow.

SB: Two people died. Two people more than likely did not receive justice for that death. So it was really interesting to be at Stanford University in this little microcosm of what was happening across the country. Black euphoria and white dismay.

GQ: Exactly what was happening all over the country.

SB: Yeah.

GQ: Over the hiatus for This is Us you shot Black Panther. You’ve spoken about this in the past, that eight, ten years ago a black superhero movie probably was not going to get made. What has changed that this movie is now getting made? And, then, what you think hasn’t changed still?

SB: I think what Hollywood is learning at large is that there is profitability in stories that are culturally specific, and that you can only address the universal through the specific. So whereas things may have been seen as commercially not viable, now there’s a recognition of some things that have come out: The People v. OJ. I would say the success that Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther has had, with Fruitvale Station, on a critical basis, and then on a commercial basis also with Creed, I think Hollywood has been able to pay attention. And I mean, please, let me not forget the phenomenon of the current moment and Get Out where folks can look and say, Oh, we can make a dollar off of these stories. So if it weren’t viable it wouldn’t be happening. But if there weren’t really great artists out there telling these stories it probably wouldn’t be happening either. So I look at it as both an artistic boom that is transpiring right now and an allowance that Hollywood is saying like, Oh—let’s capitalize. Wait there was another question too, wasn’t there?

GQ: What still has to change?

SB: Right, right. There’s often the sort of conversation that transpires behind closed doors, and I shall entitle this conversation [in a deep serious voice] There Can Be Only One. And what I mean by that is highlighted quite lovely in season one of Master of None where Aziz [Ansari], or Dev I should say, his character, is going to audition for this pilot and they’re thinking about making one character Indian and then they decide to switch that character to be white so then they decide to make this other character Indian, and Dev says, Well, why can’t there be two Indians? Why can’t there be two black guys? Why can’t there be a black woman?

My wife and I have this conversation frequently—outside of Shondaland, you know, if there’s a mainstream TV show there’s usually a spot for a black dude. Is there also a spot for black women? There’s an interesting sort of way in which I as a black man have been able to be absorbed into the mainstream a little bit easier than the black woman has, and thankfully to Shondaland I think that’s starting to change slowly over time as well. But the idea that when [my wife] auditioned for pilot season a few years ago ABC greenlit a pilot, an “Untitled Kevin Hart Project,” and they were also shooting a little show called Black-ish at the time. And the conversation behind closed doors is, Well which one are they going to pick up? Is it going to be Black-ish or Kevin Hart? And the question we ask is: Why can’t we have both? So that sort of thing is still happening right now, and hopefully over time there will be room to say: Well maybe we don’t have to choose. Maybe we can put them both on the air and see how the public responds.

GQ: One very last question. I saw you post a picture in a Cavs jersey. You’re a Cavs fan because…LeBron?

SB: It’s LeBron. I’d say the fact that this particular young man has been in the public eye since age 13, and has been sort of hailed as the second coming since he was a teenager, has come straight out of high school and has performed, dare I say above expectations. His level of basketball intelligence is surpassed by no one. And there’s been no scandals associated with LeBron, there’s been no, you know, extracurricular activities that I can point to for my kids to say, Look, I don’t want you to be like this. He has conducted himself exceptionally on and off the court. He showed business acumen in terms of developing his own production companies and whatnot. I just love everything about this dude. And the fact that the biggest knock that you can put on him is that when he was 25, 26-years-old he wanted to take his talents to South Beach? Have you been to South Beach? If I was 25, 26-years-old I’d want to take my talents to South Beach too! So that’s like the biggest guffaw of his career? Well this guy is somebody who you can actually point to and be like, Yo, this is the way to conduct yourself on and off the court. I’m a LeBron fan.