Guest of Honor

Sterling K. Brown Talks Fathers and Sons, Sinners and Saints

The newly-minted Emmy winner and "Marshall" star, shares his thoughts on his "This Is Us" character being "black on purpose," not-so-blind justice, and more.

Photo Credit: Nathan Johnson

Actor Sterling K. Brown won his first Emmy for portraying Christopher Darden in “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” And he won his second, a little over a week ago, for his performance as Randall Pearson in the acclaimed NBC drama “This Is Us.”

His latest role in the biographical drama “Marshall,” which tells the true story of one of the first cases of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Sterling plays Joseph Spell, a man accused of rape and attempted murder of a wealthy socialite, and Marshall chooses to defend Spell.

Brendan met with Sterling before he won his recent Emmy. Sterling talked about a change on the horizon of casting in the television industry, why his “This Is Us” role resonated with him, and more. (You can hear their almost-unedited chat right here.)

Interview Highlights:

On how Randall represents a change in the way people of color are portrayed on television

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, let’s talk about this character you play. You play Randall. And he was adopted and raised by a white family. You’ve said that you like playing him partially because he’s “black on purpose.”

Sterling K. Brown: What I mean by that is so many people or people of color who happen to be on network television, oftentimes wind up playing roles that are all ethnicities submitted. And it is a wonderful sort of thing because it allows for people of color to have roles where they may not have before, in terms of colorblind casting. But I think the next step forward from colorblind casting is actually seeing people for what they are and using all of what they bring to the table to help tell the story of that character.

So, if you’re dealing with an African-American, or a Latino, or an Asian, you make reference and address their culture and their experience within this country, and you use that to help tell the story of that person. They’re not just Asian by coincidence or black by coincidence. So, I like the idea that we’re moving in that direction, where people are being fully seen and appreciated for their differences rather than trying to wash them away and have us all become something that is more homogenized.

On how Randall’s backstory and white family influence Sterling’s portrayal

Sterling K. Brown: I ask myself these kinds of questions a lot. My wife and I have conversations. There’s certain sort of cultural touchstones that my wife and I share with one another by virtue of being born the same year in St. Louis, Missouri, both African-American, having a similar education, as well. And so, there’s a lot of those things that Randall probably missed out on and had to play catch-up with.

I have a friend of mine from St. Louis who’s married to a guy who’s black, who was raised by a white family on the East Coast. And so, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him on occasion about what his experience, and he’s like, “I was constantly trying to figure out what the joke was. People would make references to these movies that I had never seen or music that I hadn’t heard, but through time and because I had a genuine curiosity, I sought it out.”

And I feel like Randall’s that person that actively sought out his culture through his exposure through this mentor he had as a child named Yvette and being around her children. And then, later on, when you choose somebody like Beth for a wife– oftentimes, men choose women that look like their moms or remind them of their moms in some way, but Randall made the choice to choose this black woman to share his life with, and I think she probably helps him, also, you know, educate him in those cultural touchstones that he may have missed out on in his youth.

On how Randall’s storyline with his biological father resonated with him

Sterling K. Brown: Stories about fathers and sons always have a particular resonance for me in my life because I was 10 years old when my dad passed away. And so the opportunity to sort of explore this relationship with William and Randall was intoxicating because the question that I asked myself entering into it, I said, “If my dad were around or someone who I knew could possibly replace my dad or replace that father figure in my life, I would do everything that I could to pursue that relationship.”

And so, now Randall is given that opportunity. Now there’s this biological father that he’s finally found, and there’s so many what-ifs that if you don’t actively pursue it, they’ll just remain what-ifs, and then what-ifs usually lead to regret.

And so, he had to — even though he thought when he first met William that he just wanted to chastise him and show him how much he had made of his life in spite of his absence, what he was really longing for was that sense of connection. You don’t go 100 miles away from your home and wind up bringing somebody home to stay with your family unless there’s something on the inside of you that is really longing for something that’s missing.

On working on courtroom dramas like “Marshall” and “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and how he scrutinizes scripts

Sterling K. Brown: I mean, the history of the African-American male and how they’ve been treated systemically by the criminal justice system is sort of at the forefront of both of those stories. And it’s the reason why black America rejoiced when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder of Ron and Nicole, and it’s the reason why the NAACP had Thurgood Marshall going around the country looking to defend African-Americans that they felt were not getting the defense that they deserved and possibly were being falsely accused because the system doesn’t seem to have us in their best interest all the time.

It seems as if there’s another eight-ball that you’re working behind as an African-American male where you’re almost presumed guilty, and you have to prove your innocence, which is not the way in which it’s supposed to work.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you feel like, in some way, having that heightened awareness of that situation in society–is it a heavier weight to bear when you’re delivering those lines or scrutinizing those scripts?

Sterling K. Brown: Yes and no. So, there are things that I’ve always been aware of as a black actor that I can’t do in the same way as some of my white counterparts because of the way in which it might be perceived. And I give… The most innocuous one that I think of immediately is “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

I think Jim Carrey is absolutely amazing in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” but if a black actor gave you the exact same performance, like, note for note, people would be like, “Why is this brother making an ass of himself?” Right? It just comes across in a very different way.

And so, I’m cognizant of that sort of thing as I take on roles and look at what I’m doing because–not that I want every character that I play to be upstanding or whatnot, but I don’t want them to be an embarrassment to black people, right? That is important to me. I want to play as wide a breadth of people as I can, saints and sinners alike, but I don’t want to embarrass nobody.