"This one means something different than last year," says the actor Sterling K. Brown as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's "Awards Chatter" podcast. Brown is referencing his second consecutive Emmy nomination, this one for best actor in a drama series for his portrayal of Randall Pearson in NBC's hit This Is Us, a year after his Emmy win for best supporting actor in a limited series or movie for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in the FX limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. "If my name is called [this year]," Brown elaborates, "I'll be the first brotha this millennium," he notes. Indeed, the last black actor to win in his category was Andre Braugher back in 1998; and Brown is the first African American to be nominated in the category in 16 years. "It's sort of insane to even contemplate that your boy from Olivette, Missouri, is in this place where that could actually be happening. What it makes me think is that I want to live a life and have a career that is worthy of this moment."
Brown, 41, was born and raised in the St. Louis area. He took his first acting class while in eighth grade but, he confesses, "I didn't think it was something you could do for a living," so he initially pursued economics after being accepted at Stanford. An unexpected theatrical experience there convinced him to change his major to drama and ultimately led him to NYU's elite Tisch School of the Arts, from which he graduated with an MFA in 2001. Soon thereafter, he signed with an agent, but spent the next 15 years doing mostly regional theater and small parts on episodic TV (with some notable exceptions being a cop with an eating disorder on FX's Starved, a vampire hunter on The WB's Supernatural, a detective on CBS's Person of Interest and seven years as a doctor on Lifetime's Army Wives). He says he never felt discontent during those years, though, because of "the deal that I made with God when I graduated from school." He recounts, "I said, 'If I can pay the bills by doing what I love, I'll be all right.'"
It's safe to say that ever since he landed the role of Darden, the emotionally reserved prosecutor of O.J. Simpson, on The People v. O.J. Simpson, which kicked off Ryan Murphy's anthology series American Crime Story, he has not had to worry about paying his bills. "I felt the way that every actor in Los Angeles feels every pilot season: this could be the one," he says with a chuckle as he reflects on his prospects of landing the part, before acknowledging that he had a bit more reason to feel confident after he initially read for it: "I crushed that audition." When he found out that he had indeed won it, he says, "I cried, because I knew that it had the potential to do what it ultimately has done, in terms of changing my life."
Brown admits that he felt "euphoria" about the not-guilty verdict in the actual Simpson case 22 years ago. "It had to do with a history of racism, of being subjected to inhumane cruelty, of being treated like and made to feel like 'I was less than a human being,'" he says. But, after he stepped into Darden's skin, he marvels, "I was feeling his rage." Brown never got to speak with Darden (Darden declined his request), but he studied him through archival footage, books and other research, and captured his essence, so much so that he, a virtual unknown until The People v. O.J., prevailed in an Emmy category that also included costars David Schwimmer and John Travolta, and he was greeted with a standing ovation. "To have that kind of love from your peers, from the people inside the room, was a special moment," he reflects. "I will never forget it for the rest of my life."
While waiting to find out if he had won the part in The People v. O.J., Brown made the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa — and after that film was finished, but prior to the release of O.J., they recommended him to Dan Fogelman, who had written a pilot for NBC called This Is Us, which they had been hired to direct. "It was the best network pilot that I'd gotten the chance to read in 15 years," Brown says, which explains his delight at winning that role. "It was easy to work on because [as an actor] you don't get those kind of words all the time." The pilot quickly was ordered to series, became the highest-rated new series of the 2016-17 television season and became the first broadcast show to land a best drama series Emmy nomination in six years; it might yet become the first in 11 years to win.
For Brown, This Is Us carries extra meaning for two reasons. For one, he gets to play a black family man — an adopted son, a husband and a father of two adopted children — which he feels is a type of character that TV doesn't project to society often enough. Also, the show has proved cathartic for him because, when he was just 10, his own father died suddenly, and he never got the sort of closure he would have liked — but on This Is Us, a tearjerking storyline (all-too-briefly) brings together Randall and his own biological father (Ron Cephas Jones). "It was my entree into the character: fathers and sons," Brown acknowledges. "I'm glad it resonated with people, because it was cathartic for me." He continues, "I felt like I got a chance to say goodbye to my dad."