Sterling K. Brown is now a two-time Emmy Award winner for entirely different performances and categories. In 2016 he won for the first time as a supporting actor on the limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” This past September he took home the prize as Best Drama Actor on “This Is Us.” It is for that show that he just won at the Golden Globes and competes later this month at the SAG Awards (alongside his cast as well as in the male actor category).
Before his second Emmy victory, Gold Derby senior editor Marcus Dixon hosted a chat with Brown. You can watch that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Okay, Sterling K. Brown. First of all, huge congratulations on the incredible year that you’ve had. You won an Emmy for “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” you’re nominated again for “This Is Us.” And you have three movies in the works. You have “Marshall,” you have “Black Panther,” you have “Predator.” So my question is do you ever just get to reflect on this incredible year? Do you get to take a step back and look at what this meant?
Sterling K. Brown: Yeah, I do. There’s time. There’s little intermittent pockets. It happens in your sleep. I’ll think about how this whirlwind has just sort of swept up from “O.J.” to now “This Is Us” to having three films to be able to shoot during the hiatus and it feels good. You don’t know if this point in your career is ever going to come. You’re happy to just be working. But to be working consistently on things that people enjoy, both critically and popularly, I’m excited, man. Yeah.
GD: Before we talk about “This Is Us” I wanna go back to when you won the Emmy for “People v. OJ.” What was that moment like when your category comes up and they’re reading off the nominees? Do you remember or was it all a big blur?
SKB: No, I remember (laughs). I remember. I remember saying to myself, “Whatever happens, Brown, celebrate. Celebrate for your castmates. I had two other castmates nominated in this. There are two other people from FX nominated. And then of course there’s Dr. House who was nominated too, so whoever, celebrate their success.” When they called my name, I think my soul jumped outside of my body and I almost passed out and I remembered, you get like 45 seconds to say something, so get up there, say your words. I got a chance to kiss my wife, and I remember her face. We were both looking at each other like, “This is happening.” I remember hugging Cuba [Gooding Jr.] and I remember I wanted to walk up onstage slowly ‘cause I had already seen many women face-plant. Thankfully I didn’t have a train or anything like that but still, I was just taking it one step at a time. And folks stood up. I remember seeing folks stand up and it takes your breath away for a second when you get that kind of recognition from your peers, people whose work you have respected for years and years and years, they stood up and said, “Welcome.” That was awesome.
GD: In your speech you talked about, you can hear the people in St. Louis shouting and screaming for you. And you said specifically, “Mama I can hear you.” I wanna know when you talked to your mom, I’m sure it was that night, right? What did she say to you?
SKB: I didn’t talk to her that night because my phone died. It got hit with so many different things at once, texts, voicemails, the computer part of it. It didn’t work until the next morning, where I had like 212 messages, something crazy. I had a lot of different stuff. So I didn’t talk to her until the next day but my mom is classically low-key. “Congratulations.” (Laughs). I was like “Thank you mama, I appreciate that.” She’s like, “How do you feel?” I said, “I feel good.” She said, “This is amazing.” I said “Yeah, Ma, it really is.” She was how I expected her to be, you know what I’m saying? But when I talked to everybody else from St. Louis it was really cool to see that love. Because I think I could feel it. I could feel that love from 1,800 miles away, coming my way. And I had to acknowledge where I’d come from.
GD: And onto “This Is Us,” when I first heard what it was about I’m like, “That sounds really interesting, all these people born on this same day.” And then I watched it, and it was totally something other than what I thought. I kind of thought it would be a sci-fi type of show. And it was this really, really gripping family drama with great performances and fun twists and turns that keep people coming back. I wanna know when you read the script, the pilot for the first time, did you know right away that this would be huge?
SKB: I knew it was something special. I remember telling Sarah Paulson, ‘cause I was auditioning for it while we were still shooting “People v. O.J.,” I said, “I think I found what I wanna do next.” She said, “Really?” I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “Go get it.” Because I had so many people saying, “Don’t do anything until the show comes out.” The first six episodes, even Brad Simpson said, “I don’t want you to do anything, pick another job, until the first six episodes comes out.” I was like, “Alright, but I already booked this pilot so I can’t really do anything now.” But it was a no-brainer. It leaps off of the page. Dan Fogelman is a genius, and he makes you laugh out loud and he makes you weep while you’re sitting down at your desk. So I felt, if I had that experience just reading this, hopefully when people actually see it, they’ll have a similar response.
GD: The Emmys loved it. It got a ton of nominations including Best Drama Series, and you are actually up against your TV dad in the same category, you and Milo [Ventimiglia]. You guys gonna duke it out? How are you gonna take him down?
SKB: It’s the eighth time in history, and I know this because I read Gold Derby.
GD: Yes, it’s like you and “True Detective” and “NYPD Blue.”
SKB: “NYPD Blue,” “ER,” “West Wing.”
GD: Those are some good shows.
SKB: They’re decent. They’re solid. They’re solid shows. We’re not duking it out. You know what’s so amazing, too, is that we have two storylines that don’t intersect at all, but that the writing was strong enough to support both of us getting a nomination in the Lead Actor category. It’s a testimony to Fogelman and our writers that they give something for everyone to do. Because oftentimes you can show up and you may have a little side salad or whatnot and it’s tasty but it doesn’t fill you up. We get meat and potatoes, week in and week out and that’s a testimony to our writers. So the only thing that we say is we’re up against Keyser Söze and Hannibal Lecter so we’re just happy to be invited to the party.
GD: I hope you take everyone down.
GD: Your other TV dad is also nominated, Ron Cephas Jones, and you had a lot of scenes with Ron, particularly in the “Memphis” episode. What was it like to know that he was nominated after years and years of working that he gets the bid?
SKB: That was the best part of the day. Because I got a lot of phone calls and people were congratulating me and I was saying, “Thank you,” but my phone call to Ron, his joy is unbridled. And Ron curses up a blue-streak but he does it in such a joyful manner and I won’t do it for our audience or what not but he’ll be like, “Yeah, son! I’m so f’kin’ happy about this shit!” He gets so amped up about the whole thing that I just started crying. So I was really, really happy for him because I didn’t know what his involvement with the show would be moving forward. I knew that he would be involved but probably not to the same extent that he was in Season 1, so for him to get that recognition, I was happy.
GD: Yeah, very well-deserved. One thing I noticed a couple months ago looking through the Best Actor category was that Andre Braugher was the last black actor to win. This was 19 years ago for “Homicide.” And I know you’re a fan of Andre. How could you not be? What would it mean for you to follow in his footsteps?
SKB: Andre Braugher is a Stanford man. As is Sterling K. Brown. Andre Braugher is married to a woman who went to grad school at NYU. As is Sterling K. Brown. I did not know I was following the formula to get a nomination as an African American male for the Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series, but clearly there’s something to it. He’s tremendous. He came and spoke to us when we were still in grad school at NYU and his portrayal in “Glory” was still really fresh in my head and the raw emotion that he brought to that performance. And he talks about how Michael Beach taught him how to act for the camera because at Juilliard and at NYU, there’s not a lot of camera classes. It’s for the stage, and so there’s a slow transition and learning curve to take theatrical truth and turn it into cinematic truth. I think he’s absolutely phenomenal. To see what he’s doing on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” right now, he’s killing the game in a whole new way. If I can have a career like Dre Braugher’s, I’ll being doing aight.
GD: The episode you submitted to the Emmys is, of course, “Memphis.” First of all, before we talk about “Memphis,” were you considering any others or was that just the one that you knew?
SKB: I considered “Jack Pearson’s Son” for sure because I really love the relationship between Kevin and Randall in that, dealing with Randall’s anxiety and the breakdown that he had in the office. It was powerful to portray because it was physically exhausting, inhabiting the space of somebody who was sort of imploding on themselves. And then when the audience saw it, and the response that I got from other people who suffer from anxiety and saying how they felt as if they hadn’t seen it in that way but they were very thankful for it, it was six in one hand, half a dozen of the other. But I felt like “Memphis’ as a whole is just one of those powerful episodes of television that people remember, the way in which I remember “Battle of the Bastards” or “Love’s Labor Lost,” an episode of “ER” back in the day, I feel like “Memphis” may occupy that space for people sometime in the future.
GD: It was also a great episode for Ron and that was his submission too, right?
GD: And Brian Tyree Henry, your buddy in real life.
SKB: Yeah man!
GD: Talk about working with Brian.
SKB: Dude! So Brian comes onto the show and he says, “Brown, I think just swagger-jacked your show.” I was like, “Did you really?” He’s like, “Yeah, man. I don’t wanna toot my own horn or anything but I think I just swagger-jacked your show.” And so, we only get one scene, ‘cause most of his work is in the past with Jermel [Nakia], who plays young William. But it was so much fun to go into that scene, to recognize him as being my family, because he is my family, and the enthusiasm that Sterling has for being in a scene with Brian is what Randall has for being in something with Cousin Ricky. So it was awesome. It wasn’t enough and I believe that there are possible hopes of Cousin Ricky coming back. Right? Get a little tease. But it’s awesome, ‘cause we speak the same language as actors, we work in a very similar way, so any time I get a chance to spend with him is awesome and the fact that he got nominated, also made me very, very happy. Every time I hear that man sing that song I get goosebumps. It’s dope.
GD: Do you have a favorite Randall moment for all of Season 1? My favorite was actually the moment where you found out that your dad had a male lover.
GD: And Randall’s reaction was just like, “Wait, what?” It was such a funny little moment that I just love. What about you? What was your favorite Randall?
SKB: I like that moment. I think about some of the lighter moments, like when he meets Cousin Ricky, he’s like, “Wait, are you my cousin?” I enjoy the goofiness that he has, in particular when he goes to the career day for his daughter and he writes a song about what he does for a living, it just tickles me. When I watch it, I’m like, “You’re a damn fool, Randall, but you try so hard and God bless you for it.” So that’s probably the one that I really enjoy. There’s heavier moments. There’s so many heavy moments that sometimes I just hold onto the lightness of it.
GD: You teased a little bit about Season 2. Is there anything else you can give us a little hint about what’s gonna happen?
SKB: Yep. You found out how Jack dies. That’s one. You’ll learn something in 201, the first episode, and then the details will get filled in throughout the course of the season. Randall and Beth are looking to adopt, but they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on how to proceed with that adoption. Kate is looking to begin a singing career, which she treads into slowly. But hopefully something shall come of it and it also forges a very interesting relationship between Rebecca and her, because mothers and daughters can have somewhat fractious relationships sometimes, especially mothers and daughters who both fancy themselves chanteuses. And then, I actually really delighted… maybe I’m most delighted by Kevin’s storyline, for two reasons. No. 1, Justin [Hartley] doesn’t get the credit he deserves, ‘cause Justin’s great. I feel like because he’s handsome and debonair, people think that he’s just eye candy but he puts in work, great work. And so the storyline that he has with regards to having Sophie back in his life, but also having a second start on his film acting career and trying to find the balance there, something I can understand quite intimately being married and having children and making sure that everybody gets the attention that they deserve, takes on some very interesting complications as we move forward in the season.
So I’m excited about that and then you got Jack and Rebecca, who we pick up the day after they decide to spend the night apart. I don’t know if I wanna call it a separation but they took a small little break and you see how these people, if they can, how they can make their way back to each other. It’s marriage, man. As a married man, better or worse, sickness and health, ’til death do you part, you try to honor that vow and then you hit something that you don’t know if you can make it through and then you decide, God willing, that you can make it through. And this is what we get a chance to watch Jack and Rebecca do this season.
GD: Are you guys gonna make America cry again? ‘Cause you made us cry quite a bit in Season 1.
SKB: Probably. It’s not my intention. I don’t even know if it’s Dan’s… yeah it’s probably Dan’s intention. He likes making people cry. But more than just the tears in and of themselves, it’s the idea of putting the show out there that wants people to connect with one another, ‘cause things have been so divisive, politically speaking, that it’s nice to have something that makes people want to come together. If in that coming together you happen to shed a tear or two, sorry about that, but it’s worth it.
GD: Final question here, Mr. Brown, you are also getting some Oscar buzz. I don’t wanna jinx anything, but for your new movie, “Marshall.” I haven’t actually seen the trailer yet. Is there anything you can tell us about this upcoming film?
SKB: “Marshall” follows a young Thurgood Marshall. I think it’s 1941, we’re in Connecticut. He is the sole lawyer for the NAACP. He goes around the country looking to defend African Americans that he feels are falsely accused of whatever crime they’re accused of. So we’re in Connecticut, this guy Joseph Spell, is accused of the rape and attempted homicide of Eleanor Strubing, played by Kate Hudson. It becomes sort of a he-said, she-said. She’s saying one thing, Joseph’s saying another thing. The truth lies somewhere in there, and Marshall and his partner in crime in this particular instance, a lawyer by the name of Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad, are trying this case and trying to figure out what the truth is. I think it’s a really interesting story. We know that he’s that the first African American Supreme Court Justice. We know about Brown v. the Board of Education. But we didn’t know that he was going back and forth throughout this country looking to give the best defense possible to these African American men and women that may not have had counsel otherwise of that caliber. So, I’m ready for America to see it. It’s been a long time. Let’s get it out there. I hope they enjoy it.
GD: Yeah, sounds great. And best of luck at the Emmys. You’re an old pro now. You’re a former winner.
SKB: Thank you very much, man. Appreciate it, Marcus.