EXCLUSIVE: Sterling K. Brown Reaps the Rewards of 'American Crime Story'

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“You never get a second chance to make a first impression. And
I felt like this would be a lot of people's first impression of me,” Sterling
K. Brown tells ET about his breakout role as prosecutor Christopher Darden on
FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American
Crime Story
, the Ryan Murphy-produced, true-crime series about the infamous
O.J. Simpson murder trial. 

While he played Dr. Roland Burton for seven seasons on
Lifetime’s Army Wives, Brown knew
most “people would be meeting me for the first time, and I didn't want to
appear as if I was the rookie amongst a lot of veterans. I wanted to try to put
my veteran’s face on and see if I could play with the big boys.”

Those “big boys” included Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, Sarah
Paulson as Marcia Clark, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, John Travolta as
Robert Shapiro and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. “I knew there would be
eyeballs and I didn't want to disappoint those eyeballs so I put pressure on
myself just to try and do the best job possible,” Brown continues. 

FX

Protective of Darden, Brown felt that he had to be an
advocate for the lawyer tasked with proving Simpson was guilty of murdering
Nicole Brown Simpson. Darden was largely criticized by the African-American
community at the time of the trial for being a sellout and a traitor. “I put a
lot on myself to say while this person may have been seen in a particular prism
20 years ago, we did not get the full picture,” Brown says. “I hope, in part
with my portrayal, people will get a more well-rounded idea of who he was as a
man and what he was dealing with.” 

While largely an understated role, Brown latched onto the
way Darden conducted himself. “He’s very observant and very bright,” he says.
“I was just mindful of his attentiveness and being a fly on the wall until it
was his opportunity to speak.” 

One of Brown’s big moments came in the season finale, when
Darden addresses the press following Simpson’s not guilty verdict. Emotionally
exhausted, Darden breaks down onscreen. “I watched that press conference many
times,” Brown says, adding that the scene was originally shorter than what’s
seen in the episode. “I asked Ryan, ‘Look, I’ve watched this a few times. Do
you mind if I try it the way in which it transpired in real life?’” 

MORE: Sarah Paulson Gushes About 'Smoking Hot' 'American Crime Story' Co-Star Sterling K. Brown

Given permission, Brown was able to transfer “that sense of
loss, that sense of regret” into an emotional performance.

While Brown hasn’t spoken to Darden, he has connected with
his daughter through social media. “She’s been very kind in terms of sharing
her thoughts about the performance,” he says, adding: “As for her dad, I guess
if it hasn’t happened it probably won’t happen, and that’s OK.” 

When ET spoke to Darden about the series in March, he had no
intention of watching it. “I can do without it,” he said. “Maybe in three years
I can go back and read Twitter and not be offended. You know? Or angry. But you
spend 20 years trying to get past something like that. You spend 20 years
trying to move on with your life, and then it all catches up with you.”

MORE: Tina Fey Changed Her Emmy Voter Status Because She Loves 'American Crime Story' So Much

Even though Brown never got a reaction from Darden, the Television
Academy took notice. American Crime Story
earned 22 Emmy nominations, including recognition for those previously
mentioned “big boys” and for Brown, for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a
Miniseries or a Movie. It happens to be his first. 

“Well, I get to be in the room where it happened, to quote
my favorite musical on Broadway right now,” Brown says with a laugh when asked
what the nomination means to him. “I could try and play coy or whatnot, but
it’s really a level of recognition that I’ve been unaccustomed to.”

And that recognition has already offered some reward. When speaking
with The New York Times
after the
finale of American Crime Story first
aired, Brown said, “Hopefully, there are great things to come for me, but right
now, it’s a good moment and I just want to enjoy it while it’s here.”

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In the four months since, Brown says “there are doors that
are beginning to open that have not been open in the past, and meetings with
people who are interested in working with me who may not have been that
familiar with me before The People v. O.J.
Simpson
.”

“Before, life was one of those things you were happy to get
whatever audition that comes across your table. You go and you try to knock it
out and you get a guest spot on something and hopefully they like you enough to
turn that into a recurring role,” Brown says. “I feel like we're like shifting
into a new phase where I don't have to hope so much.”

NBC

One of those newfound opportunities is NBC’s new dramedy This Is Us, created by Dan Fogelman
(writer of Crazy, Stupid, Love). On
the series that tells the stories of people born on the same day, Brown plays a
father of two, who on his birthday finds his own father. 

“There are lots of opportunities for comedy, and it’s nice
to be able to express the lighter side of myself,” he says of the role, which
offers him something new to play with. “There will be a serious thing that we
deal with in this dramedy, but there will also be some lighter moments in which
I get a chance to let my comedic chops come to the forefront. That’s always
exciting because I get cast in heavy roles.”

“I have a funny streak and I’m looking forward to letting it
run free,” Brown says. 

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