“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.
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?’”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.