Sterling K. Brown isn’t used to being in demand.
“Busy. That’s the most apt description I can come up with, and busy is good,” Brown says of his life over the past whirlwind year and a half. The actor is speaking to ET by phone from a car on his way to the airport to catch a flight from New York City, where he’s just wrapped a photo shoot, to return to Vancouver set of the upcoming Predator reboot.
It’s been nearly a decade and a half, Brown says, “of showing up and saying your lines and then going on to the next project, hoping that one job moves into the next. But this has been a situation where people actually want to hear what I think. This is all still new.”
His Emmy-winning portrayal of prosecutor Christopher Darden on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Storyanointed Brown as a standout actor, but it’s his deeply resonant performance as adopted son Randall Pearson on this TV season’s most popular new drama, NBC’s This Is Us, that’s catapulted his career into the stratosphere. Since production on the first season ended in February, Brown has taken full advantage of his sudden surge in Hollywood, booking high-profile films Black Panther, The Predator and Hotel Artemis, often flying back and forth across the country juggling his new jet-setting reality.
“It’s a wonderful position to be, in terms of people who are enthusiastic and wanting to work with you. For such a long time, you spend most of your time hoping and putting your best foot forward and maybe something will come along that will be a break. Now, I’ve had a couple of breaks,” the St. Louis native says, noting how dramatically different life is from the way it was before filming American Crime Story in 2015. “It’s night and day.”
Prior to the FX anthology true-crime series, Brown was perhaps best known for his starring role on Army Wives, which ran for seven seasons on Lifetime, and a long list of one-episode roles on everything from ER to The Good Wife. “It’s nice to be validated this way in this business because you hear no a lot. It’s nice to hear yes.”
Still, there’s an element of wanting more, of achieving the unfamiliar and reshaping the public’s perception of what he’s capable of in front of the camera that keeps him hungry. “What was so lovely about O.J. and This Is Us to a certain extent is that I got a chance to surprise people. And now that people know who I am a bit more, I still want to be able to do that.”
On This Is Us, he has done just that as Randall, a character that’s widely considered to be the show’s beating heart -- much of which is credited to Brown’s fearlessness in depicting a grown man unafraid to shed a tear or seek out a relationship with his birth father or struggle with his childhood anxiety. Ask Brown how much of Randall is deeply inherent in him and the answer isn’t surprising at all.
“Every character I play is me,” he says, explaining with a friendly charm that he “secretly has thousands of people that live inside of [him],” as he chuckles at the absurdity. “Different roles call for different aspects or different faces of Sterling to emerge. I think [Randall] is a better version of me. He may even be slightly goofier than me, even though I am pretty goofy myself. He’s definitely smarter than me. I don’t worry about the lines being blurred anymore. I just try to see what it is this character is asking of me right now, and then I go through my Rolodex of personalities that exists inside and see which one works best for the character.”
And so far, it’s working. Brown calls attention to “Memphis,” one of the most devastating episodes from the first season, in which Randall and his birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), embark on a father-son road trip, only for it to end in heartbreaking fashion when William dies from stage 4 cancer. It’s an episode that holds special meaning for Brown, who lost his own father when he was just 10 years old. “The feedback that I got from my family, they were all in tears,” he recalls, sharing that a producer told him it was “one of the most powerful hours of television he’d ever seen.”
“They knew what that episode was for me. I wasn’t able to say goodbye when I was 10 because I was too young to go to the hospital. It was an opportunity for me to get a do-over; Randall saying goodbye to William was [me] getting the chance to say goodbye to [my] dad.”
Equally striking is a scene in the penultimate episode, in which Kevin (Justin Hartley) abandons opening night of his play to come to the aid of his brother Randall, who is in the middle of an emotional breakdown. Brown calls that moment “one of the most exhausting scenes I’ve ever shot.” It was also one of the only times he questioned if he could accomplish what was asked of him. “We shot it over and over and over again until my eyeballs were bone dry,” he remembers, at one point telling director Ken Olin, “I don't know if I can do this anymore.”
“I felt a responsibility because of people in my family who have anxiety or different mental disorders, I’ve been witness to it, and it's important to put it out there in a way that releases the stigma of it. And the only way to do it is to go all the way through. The response from people who suffer from different social anxiety disorders was they felt represented and that made me feel it was all worth it.”
Not lost on him is the profound effect his character -- and on a much larger scale, the show -- has had on the viewing public. Much as “Memphis” served as personal therapy for Brown, he views each obstacle or triumph his character goes through in exactly the same way. “I get the chance to work out whatever things I'm working through and I get a chance to leave it at work,” he says. “I come home every night to my wife and kids and feel cleansed.”
The chance to make Emmy history could make it all worthwhile, too. If Brown is to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his work on This Is Us, he would be the first black actor in nearly 20 years to do so -- after Andre Braugher took home the trophy in 1998 for his role on Homicide: Life on the Street.
“When I hear somebody say it out loud like that, it’s very crazy,” Brown confesses, letting out a small laugh in disbelief, and joking that having attended Stanford “helps.” (Brown and Braugher are both graduates of the university.) “It’s surreal for me, too, because we all collectively, meaning the Pearson family -- Justin, myself, Chrissy [Metz], Milo [Ventimiglia] and Mandy [Moore] -- we take turns leading the show. To be singled out in that way, amongst who I consider to be one of the better ensembles on television, I’m honored.”
Though Brown has barely had time for a proper vacation or even a string of lazy Sundays, the actor is OK with going from This Is Us to Predator and eventually back to the NBC series, which will start production on season two in July. The actor also knows this -- the attention, the roles, the awards -- could all go away in a snap. Humbled by it all, Brown isn’t so much looking forward as he is trying to be appreciative of what’s happening in the present.
“It can go just as quickly,” Brown says, offering himself a slight warning: “Don't look too much toward the future. Don't look toward the past because right now is special.”