'People v. O.J. Simpson' Breakout Sterling K. Brown Tackles Race (Again) in 'This Is Us'

"Yes, I’ve been pulled over a few times. DWB, driving while black, questioned for being in the wrong neighborhood, profiled a few times in New York, it happens. It’s real," he says.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Brown in 'This Is Us'

In his breakout performance as Chris Darden in FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson, veteran actor Sterling K. Brown attracted critical acclaim and significant public notice along with an Emmy nomination. Next up, Brown has NBC's highly anticipated drama This Is Us, which may (finally) be setting the actor up to become a household name. 

Count him another “overnight sensation” long in the making. “It’s an interesting phenomenon after having done this for 15 years," Brown tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The actor's long résumé includes all seven seasons of Lifetime's Army Wives, recurring roles on The CW's Supernatural and CBS' Person of Interest, in addition to guest roles in dozens of primetime dramas. Most recently, he appeared onstage at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum in the Suzan-Lori Parks play Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) as a Civil War-era slave. But now he has arrived in a bigger way thanks to his performance as Darden in Ryan Murphy's critical darling anthology.

To hear Brown tell it, nothing previously gave him the opportunity to flex the acting muscles “that Chris Darden allowed me to do on a grand scale.”

He’s the first to note the FX project was a rarity. “Everything is not as sexy and doesn’t catch the zeitgeist the way the O.J. Simpson series did,” he says of the series that has since kicked off a true-crime spree on broadcast, cable and streaming services that has included other O.J. projects.

While Brown says he's “thankful for the last 15 years," he's "eager to see what the next 15 bring.” But first, the future brings a rich role in This Is Us, Dan Fogelman's (Galavant) family drama in which race is again at the forefront.

The story “can’t help but be about race and socioeconomics,” he says. No spoilers, but his character Randall is “devoid of his culture…something we will focus on throughout the course of the show.”

But just as Darden was regarded by some as disloyal to the black community in prosecuting Simpson, Brown’s Randall in This Is Us is a wealthy, suburban, fancy-car-driving financial professional who is disconnected from black culture. When viewers meet him, he has little sympathy for his drug-addicted black father.

Beyond the drama’s concern with race relations, “what intrigues me about Randall are the parallels with me in my personal life,” Brown says, noting a few key similarities he has with Randall. The character lost his dad as an infant and is hoping for some connection as an adult; and Brown's father passed away (of a heart attack) when the actor was 10. Randall is married with two young daughters; “I’m currently married with two young boys," Brown says. "I point to the things within myself that help me into Randall.”

The desire to share one’s children with their grandparents is a primal wish of any parent. “The experience would be that much richer. Randall has so much going for him, but at the same time there’s something missing that drives him," he continues. "There is something for me, having lost my father, that always gets me at my core. It’s about knowing where you came from and how that informs who you are.”

And taking on the emotional weight of that character “is going to be a very full experience.” Brown believes TV has a responsibility to deal with the issue of race relations, to further the difficult national discussion, beyond offering sheer entertainment: “Any great art is meant to illuminate the human condition. I hope our show is able to both have a realistic conversation about the current state of affairs and suggest a way forward that doesn’t keep us in the status quo.” 

Commenting on this summer’s violence by police against unarmed black men, Brown says, “race is a problem; it has been from the very beginning. You should enjoy what you’re watching but should also be educated by it.”

Simply put, “the humanity that is given to other people isn’t given to us. There is an expendability that comes along with being African American,” he says, citing history from slavery to the characterization of blacks as 3/5 man, to the Jim Crow and miscegenation laws. “The ascent toward equal and full rights is ongoing and will probably be so for quite some time.”

He observed that daily life is more dangerous for him and his sons because of prevailing racism. “Yes, I’ve been pulled over a few times. DWB, driving while black, questioned for being in the wrong neighborhood, profiled a few times in New York, it happens. It’s real," he says. "For me, this has been this engrained thing, putting people at ease so they can recognize they have nothing to fear. Seeing women cross the street, hold their purses a little tighter, you aren’t given benefit of doubt.” 

He credits his faith with keeping him from becoming bitter about the inequity. “I’m a spiritual person, I do believe in a higher power, I believe God placed me on this planet to be a beneficial presence. You can have righteous indignation, but I have to believe there is a light at end of tunnel. Things can get better," he says. "I choose to believe there's something better waiting for me, if not for me, then for my children, if not for my children, then for my children’s children.”

He recognizes the power of television to move the discussion forward and effect social change: “Think how instrumental Norman Lear was in holding that mirror up to society.”

Although it's early in production, Brown is quick to praise his current auteur, This Is Us creator and showrunner Fogelman. “Fogelman is a beast of a writer. He gives everybody meat and potatoes, you may have parsley in one or two scenes, but then back to the real meat.… The show wears its heart on its sleeve,” Brown continues. “It doesn’t shy away from emotions, at the same time, it has a biting wit." In the pilot, he notes, Fogelman dares to skewer the inanity of the very medium his show is appearing on: network television.

“Dan is trying to do highbrow cable, like HBO, for network television,” he says of the producer, who also has Fox's groundbreaking drama Pitch due this month. 

Brown recognizes his career arc is a familiar story, as a long-striving actor the public has only lately discovered. “I feel great. It’s an amazing thing to be in the middle of — the fact that I’ve had this kind of recognition," he says. "O.J. opened the door for This Is Us, the access to opportunity has widened, doors are becoming open.” 

As he heads toward the Emmys, and the Sept. 20 premiere of This Is Us, the doors are wide open. Brown will appear in two movies in the coming months, Marshall — about young Thurgood Marshall, due later this year — and Split, in 2017, from M. Night Shyamalan.

" 'Breakout'? It’s a label. I don’t even know how to qualify it. Whether it’s 'overnight' after 15 years or whatever, I’m happy to be in this moment, eager to see what happens next,” he says.

When asked about his advice for other veteran actors still searching for their People v. O.J. Simpson-like breakout role, Brown turns back to his faith, and patience — both things the actor is very familiar with.

“I’d say to my journeymen actor friends waiting for their breaks, don’t doubt yourself. It’s the right audition on the right day, the right project at the right time," he says. "There were so many different factors that conspired for this break-through to transpire. So much of this journey is a self-selecting process.”

“If you believe in yourself, take care of your instrument — not to sound too highfalutin’ — take care of your spiritual self, good things will come.”

This Is Us premieres Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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