Sterling K. Brown earned his fifth consecutive Emmy nomination this year, his third in a row for playing Randall Pearson on “This Is Us.” The actor previously won in 2016 for his role as Christopher Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and followed that up with a win for “This Is Us” in 2017.
Brown recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about Emmy love for “This Is Us,” Randall’s emotional journey with Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) in Season 3 and what’s ahead for Season 4 of the NBC series. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: So first off, Sterling, you, Milo Ventimiglia and Ron Cephas Jones have now received nominations for all three seasons of “This Is Us” so far. Now this year we had Mandy Moore and Chris Sullivan getting their first nominations. So what was your reaction to hearing the news of your own nomination but also the nominations for everyone else?
Sterling K. Brown: I was very grateful, and I say that because it never gets old. It’s always a real joy to be invited to the party but I really get giddy for my other castmates. Obviously, Milo and I both in the lead actor category with two separate storylines, being recognized by the Academy is tremendous, and also Ron, he’s my heart. I wish I got a chance to see and work with him more on a regular basis on the show but I’m so happy that we have a chance to keep bringing him back on an annual basis. But for Mandy and for Chris, that was huge. I was so happy for my mama. I was so happy for my brother in law. They were two of the first calls that I made. I heard early in the morning and I was like, “Okay, this is cool.” I was happy, but then I heard about Chris and Mandy and I was overjoyed. I called Sully and he was like, “What?! Are you kidding me?” He’s fixing a car up in Sacramento with his dad. He starts cursing, everything, that sort of enthusiasm because it never gets old. It’s always exciting, but there’s nothing like your first time and to be able to share that with him and with Mandy was a real joy.
GD: You are submitting the episode “R + B” at the Emmys as your best work of the season. It’s the penultimate episode of Season 3 where Randall and Beth really go through a rough patch, where Beth is unhappy with how Randall is starting to be consumed by work and feeling like she can’t really have a life of her own. What was that experience like of really going at it with Susan Kelechi Watson and going to such a dramatic place with her in that episode?
SKB: First of all, let me say this. Susan is my heart. I love her as a human being and I love working with her as a fellow thespian. We both went to grad school at NYU, where we received our Masters of Fine Arts so we approach the work in a very similar way. There’s a playfulness that both of us maintain even when things get serious. There’s always a sense of play that is transpiring, which is my favorite sort of acting. I will say this, you can put this in a parenthetical, as overjoyed as I was for Mandy and for Chris, I was as crestfallen for my dear partner in crime, ‘cause I think it could’ve gone her way. Big ups, kudos to all my “GoT” ladies. I love “Thrones.” It’s not like anyone is undeserving. I’m just hopeful for the future that the academy also gets the chance to recognize Sue.
But that episode, man, it wasn’t just the present day and the crux of where they found themselves and who’s supposed to give and who’s supposed to take and who has given over the course of the relationship and who’s taken. It was just seeing the growth from their youth and how it developed over time and it had gotten to this place of Randall is a big personality and he is by no means someone who is trying to override anyone else’s dreams or whatnot, but he has no problems asserting himself. You can see Beth took some time. Even in her episode, “My Little Island Girl” with her mom, and her mom said, “We’re gonna stop dancing now,” she took it on the chin and went onto the next thing. So now you see this woman who’s come into her own and she’s like, “No, this is what I wanna do. I’ve been living with dreams deferred my whole life and it’s my turn.” So it’s really nice to see the both of them reach this place where Randall said, “You know what, this job means a lot. I’ve made a huge commitment but I’ve made a bigger commitment to the person that I’m supposed to share my life with and if she’s not happy, I can’t be happy and was willing to walk away, and then she found the door. I really think it’s a testimony to what marriage is. There’s a lot of give and take. There’s a lot of growth and if you’re not careful, people can grow apart and the goal is to try to grow together, make sure that your interests are in line with your partner’s at all times. I think that it was the most hashtag couples goals season for us because it was earned. You got a chance to see more of the sunnier times in previous seasons but then you got a chance to see them go through something, fight for it and make it through to the other side. That’s what marriage is, man.
GD: Speaking to that, what kind of fan response did you receive from everything Randall and Beth went through this season?
SKB: Oh dude, It ran the gamut. I would say mostly people were hashtag team Beth, because they were like, “I can’t believe Randal left that voicemail! I can’t believe he told her not to be a dance teacher!” I totally get it because after you see what she went through, what she gave up and how she battled with her mom, you didn’t wanna see her husband put her in a similar light. Then there were some people that were team Randall and they’re like, “Beth’s being selfish. He’s a councilman now. She’s gotta understand that he gotta do this and that.” I think the biggest one that made me happy, that showed the investment that people had and the relationship between Randall and Beth, when they were like, “Y’all need to work this out.” They were like, “I don’t care who says ‘I’m sorry’ to who, whatever you have to do to fix it. Fix it.” So when Deja told Randall, “Man, you won the lottery twice. I don’t know what’s going on between y’all but you need to figure it out,” people were like, “Preach.” I had people tell me, bro, that, “If Randall and Beth break up, I’m done. Not watching the show.” My own wife, she said, “Look, if Lucious and Cookie can figure it out, Randall and Beth gotta get their stuff together.” I think there was a real sense of relief at the end of the season when they saw that we were together and that we were together in the future. Sorry we had to put them through it but it is what it is.
GD: This episode, it does have flashbacks to Randall and Beth when they were younger where we see him repeatedly try to propose to Beth and later get married, we see how they work on their vows together and they do have their differences in certain moments but it’s certainly not as intense as what we’re seeing in the present, with what they’re dealing with now. Was there anything about actually filming those scenes from Beth and Randall’s past that actually added anything to how you play these characters in the present?
SKB: I can say this, the day in which we recreated our wedding, I came home and I told my wife, I said, “Ryan, I have to tell you something. It’s not bad but it’s weird and I have to be honest with you,” and she goes, “Okay.” I said, “I think me and Susan got married today.” (Laughs.) She’s like, “Okay?” Because the extra who was playing the reverend was a reverend in real life. You say these vows to each other face to face. I deliberately kept my eyes closed and did not see her in her dress until the first time we shot the vows in front of the reverend, in front of all of the audience. I was just overwhelmed. It was like I was getting married. We jumped the broom, which is an African American tradition. In slave times, we weren’t legally allowed to get married so jumping the broom symbolized a new beginning, a new union, and Ryan and I jumped the broom at our wedding. It was just like, “Wow, this is really happening.” So I think having gone through that, and Sue and I both felt the same way, there was this investment, that newness, that freshness, that hope and zeal of starting a life together. And then fast forwarding 18 years, however many years later, and seeing where we are in our life now, more like 13, 14 years, I don’t know. It made it real. You always try to make it real as much as you can by going to your sense memory and remembering things from your own life but having the opportunity to actually shoot the scene and live that moment made it all the more real in the present day.
GD: I can see that. It’s interesting how Randall made some choices in Season 3 where he wasn’t always in the right and we in the audience may not have really been on his side in certain moments, as you were saying. How much work did you put into still conveying Randall’s truth and his perspective through everything he goes through while also now giving him a little more shades of grey?
SKB: I don’t think there are too many people who are truly just good or just truly just bad. We mostly live in shades of grey. Most of Randall’s faults in Season 1 and 2 are illuminated in he tries too hard. He’s a guy that tries so hard that it almost becomes self-debilitating. In Season 3, he makes a commitment to doing something, to running for office. He was to be of service. He wants to be of service in general and he wants to be of service specifically to his community. I think his own struggles with identity and his blackness, he found that through this job, he had an opportunity to really be of value to his community in a very direct way and it’s something that was important to him. So even though he was losing the race and whatnot, he wanted to see it through to the end. He’s the kind of guy that sees things through to the end. When she asked him not to, he’s like, “I’ve come this far. I’ve invested this time. Even if I lose, let me finish it.” So then they went back and forth. “You told me that if at any point in time I wasn’t happy how it was going, you said that you would stop.” So he reneged. That’s the first renew that I can recall where Randall’s just like, “I know what I said and I’m sorry, but you gotta let me see this through to the end.” And then ultimately he was gonna stop and then his wife was like, “No, you are the guy who sees things through and that’s the man that I’m in love with, so see it through.”
They wind up biting off more than he can chew. That commute is no joke. The toll that it takes on your time with your family and especially with Beth finding something that gives her joy, that gives her purpose outside of her being a mother, I can relate. My wife is a wonderful actor. She’s also a wonderful mother but if you took either one of those things away from her, there would be a void. So Beth finally fills this void and then her husband says, “Look, we have a daughter who is just now starting to figure out what her sexuality is. We have another daughter who’s just now getting used to the routine of a regular family life, who’s been in foster care for years. Is now the time for us to begin this new venture? Can we press pause, given the fact that you have to work nights and weekends, which is when our children need a presence in the house?” I understand his argument. I didn’t put any sort of good or bad. I don’t think he was being selfish. He was looking at the family as a whole and saying, “Is this something that is gonna serve us in toto?” She was like, “Bruh, nobody asked you to stop doing what you was doing. Nobody said, ‘You ain’t gotta drive an hour and a half to two hours every day to work.” So I get it. I get both sides of it. The thing about it, you can’t apologize. I tried to portray it in such a way that he wasn’t apologizing for his choices. He said, “Look, you ultimately said I could finish doing this. You actually encouraged me to see it through when I was about to take a step back. We won. This is where we are. Given where we are right now, how do we add this on top of it?” And I get what she’s saying, too. It’s been years that she’s been trying to find something that gave her a real sense of purpose. She lost her job. She tried to work on his campaign. She felt empty and now she felt overjoyed to have re-found this passion that she had to put aside. So you have people at an impasse. This is what happens. Couples come to different impasses and you have to find the door.
The thing that I think is most admirable about them both is that even though Beth said she didn’t see the door, she didn’t stop trying. Even though Randall had committed to doing this job, he still talked to Jae-won, “What happens if I decide not to do this?” They were actively still working towards saving their union and I think that’s the best lesson that I even take away from it in terms of my own marriage. There are times in which people wanna throw in the towel. For better or for worse, for sickness and in health, til death do you part, find the door. I think he’s a fundamentally really solid human being and we all have a tendency. There would be things on social media where people would be like, “I can’t believe Randall’s being so selfish.” Most human beings are selfish. Most of us. Most of us try to find things that allow us to feel a certain sense of joy and fulfillment in life but also hopefully, that spreads to the greater good as well. Not too many people are like, “I’m gonna allow myself to be shat on for year in and year out.” That’s antithetical to what it means to live, I think. There’s very few people who would do that. When folks would say that to me, or, they wouldn’t say it to me directly, they would say it on social media, I was like, “That’s good. That’s accurate.” But it doesn’t mean that he’s evil. It didn’t mean that he didn’t love his wife, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love his family. Just trying to find the best way to serve all constituents. That was long-winded but you get what I’m saying.
GD: No, that was great. Actually, speaking of Emmy success, at least, you are about to be on the third season of a show the Emmys love, which is “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I’m sure you aren’t allowed to tell me any specifics of exactly who you’ll be playing on that, but thinking about it, “This Is Us” has these moments of contemplation and these quieter moments at times whereas an Amy Sherman-Palladino show is rat-a-tat-tat, go, go, go. I don’t know if you’ve filmed yet. Was it an adjustment to step into that world of “Maisel” for a little bit?
SKB: There’s a definite adjustment. I would say that “Maisel” for me, in terms of an hour-long single-camera format is the closest thing to theater that I’ve ever experienced. I would say the medium that’s closest to theater in film and television is the multi-camera sitcom because there’s no close-ups, it’s a full-bodied sort of thing, you’re in front of a live studio audience. You can play to the room. But Amy’s shows, to be a drama, to be a single-camera are theatrical as well. She does a lot of oners, so you have to know your lines. Her and Dan [Palladino]’s scripts are like 85, 90 pages and they still try to squeeze it into about 60 minutes. It’s so much fun. I have a theater background so it’s something that I always look to return to. It was almost like doing the show was like getting a chance to do theater without being onstage. It was great. Their cast is great. Rachel [Brosnahan] is ridiculously talented. Alex [Borstein] is the bomb. Their table reads are so much fun. Kevin Pollak at a table read is just the biggest ham. [Tony] Shalhoub, everybody. Marin [Hinkle] and I went to NYU together so it was really nice to be introduced to a new family and they embraced me as such. It was lovely.
GD: Can’t wait for that. As we wrap up, is there any sort of broad teaser you could give for Season 4 of “This Is Us”?
SKB: The show continues to expand, like the way in Season 3 we reached further back into the past of Jack’s Vietnam experience. We do something not quite the same but the world continues to get bigger. Randall and his family ultimately decide to move to Philadelphia so there’s gonna be a lot of new things happening for them. I’m excited for Randall having a chance to be more directly involved with the black community and what that means for him as a person growing up in a white family, in a white community. Because sometimes, not all that glitters is gold so there can be expectations that you have in your mind about what it would feel like to finally be a part. Sometimes you’ll be received and sometimes you might be rejected. He’s a very sensitive soul so I’m curious to see how he responds in those moments.
There’s gonna be a lot going on with the girls, Tess with her sexuality, Deja finding her own routine in life. Hopefully Annie doesn’t give us too many problems because she’s just sweet and beautiful but I think the newness of Philadelphia is gonna add a really wonderful dynamic to the hashtag black Pearson household. Toby and Kate with the baby, Jack, there’s a lot coming up in terms of them being parents. I don’t wanna say too much about it but it’s really, really good. Kev, always trying to find love, whether or not he wants to be a father. We know that he has a child in the future but to see what his journey to that ultimately is. Recognizing that Uncle Nicky becomes a part of their lives, seeing him in the future and how that happens over time. Those are my broad teases. I could be more specific but that’s good.
GD: Yeah, that’s plenty. Thank you so much, Sterling, and best of luck with the Emmys. Also, before we forget, I wanna congratulate you on another Gold Derby Award nomination you just received from us.
SKB: Thank you, Kev. I appreciate it.