Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown got some more love from the TV academy this year with a pair of nominations for “This Is Us” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He is the first actor of the modern era to earn bids for both comedy and drama outside of the guest categories in the same year.
Brown recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about Randall’s arc in Season 4 of “This Is Us,” creating Reggie for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and what TV series he would like to guest star on next. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: First off, I believe you are making history here with your two nominations in comedy and drama. There’s a bit of a gray area with Ed Asner way back in the day, but you are kind of making history here with two nominations for a drama series and a comedy series in the same year and outside of the guest categories. So what does it mean for you to get that kind of recognition and also just the continued recognition of “This Is Us” as well?
Sterling K. Brown: Well, I can see how it doesn’t happen often, because usually, if you’re a series regular on one show, that’s your job, and the fact that I got a chance to be considered in the supporting actor category for “Maisel” as well was really cool and exhausting and at some point in time, I’m really going to try and just do one thing at a time. But it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I am a huge fan of “Maisel” and I love Alex [Borstein] and I love Rachel [Brosnahan] and I love Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and I love Dan [Palladino]. So when they invited me to come play in their sandcastle, I was like, “OK, let me see what I can do to make it work.” And then, from the “This Is Us” standpoint, we’re four years into the show. I know shows tend to lose that kind of momentum with regards to awards consideration, but the show is still really good and Dan [Fogelman] and our writers continue to craft a journey for Randall that I find compelling and I’m so happy that the academy thought so as well.
GD: Well, I want to start with “This Is Us.” So Randall has had quite an interesting journey this year, didn’t he? He made some interesting choices that the fans maybe weren’t always onboard with. Actually, what did you think of the audience response this season to Randall?
SKB: Completely and totally fair. And it was split, too. There are some people with regards specifically to how he dealt with his mother not wanting to go to the clinical trial, I think that’s what you’re referring to, he was unapologetically manipulative because he felt like the best thing for her was to go to this trial, to maximize her time and quality of life on this planet. He felt as if this was the best possible way to go forward and he didn’t care if she disagreed, if his siblings disagreed. He was going to get it done. When I first read it, Mandy [Moore] and I both, we were reading it like, “Oh, SKB, this is gonna be crazy.” And I read it and I was like, “Oh, shit. He completely goes against…” It’s funny because I’ll check out the tweets and it’s interesting, they’re like, “I can’t believe he did that.” And some people were like, “I totally understand why he did it. He thought that this was the only way to give his mother this quality of life.” So it was interesting to see how people understood and were simultaneously upset and that’s kind of how I felt as an actor, too. Like, I understand. Your job is not always to love everything that your character does, but you have to understand their motivations for why they do what they do, and I understood it. So however you reacted, fair.
GD: Valid, yes. It’s such a big part of the season with Randall really pushing Rebecca to get this clinical trial that would mean that she would be spending time away from her family for several months and I think it’s a gray area where we do see Randall’s point of view but we also see Kevin’s. I’m curious how much you are letting Randall’s stubbornness come to the surface more or whether maybe you haven’t changed much of anything and it’s just kind of the circumstance of this situation.
SKB: Yeah, I think it’s possibly more the latter, and I think any time Randall feels out of control, because he likes to think that he has control over most facets of his life, and then a few things come crashing down and he realizes that that was never really possible to begin with. Number one, his house being broken into and then his mother’s declining health, and so, he feels responsible for everything. Just from a child to the passing of his father to the passing of William, he takes responsibility unfairly on himself. I would love to see him exercise more grace with, like, “Hey, man, this is not all on you and you can share the load.” It’s interesting because it kind of parallels a relationship that I have with my brother and one of the reasons why the storyline between Kevin and Randall sort of came to the fore is because my brother and I were having conversations about how best to move forward with the care of my mom. So it’s really interesting because I talked to my brother as he watched this season of the show and he’s like, “Yo, this is crazy.” He’s like, “What are you telling them?” I’m like, “I’m not telling them that much!” But they’re able to take a grain and then extrapolate and weave it into the Pearson family story. I do think that he feels like he is the person that has been there, who has been a constant in the life of his family and the life of his mother, and now Kevin’s showing up with his fancy premieres and the gowns that he can give her. That’s really wonderful. But then at a moment’s notice, he can be gone. He could be shooting in South Africa, he could be doing that and who’s left to hold all the pieces together? It’s me. And so, he says what he says because he believes it’s the truth. It was incredibly unkind and he could have phrased it in another way, but he didn’t pull any punches because he’s the person who’s been there.
GD: Yeah, it’s true, and you’re submitting the episode called “After the Fire” for your Emmy consideration, which is the second to last episode of the season where Randall is in therapy and imagining these different scenarios of what his life would be like if he had saved his father when he was younger. We see this nice idealized version and then also this version that’s basically the worst-case scenario. So my first question is, why did you choose that episode just as your highlight of the season, but then also, which of those versions do you think is closer to the truth of what you think would have happened if Jack survived?
SKB: Let me answer the second question first, because that’s interesting. I don’t think either of them is true. There’s an idealized version and then 2.0 is sort of a worst-case scenario where he finds himself disconnected emotionally from his family completely. He has a slight tie with his dad but there’s no William, there’s no relationship with his mom, there’s a frayed relationship with his brother and sister and I don’t think that that would ever be who Randall is. Nor, obviously, would it just be all sunshine and roses if his dad lived and everything would just be happily ever after. So the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.
Why did I submit this episode? I loved playing with Pamela [Adlon]. She’s wonderful. Like, I absolutely adore her. So her coming to our show was a breath of fresh air in the best way possible, because the scenes would be so intense in therapy and she was so dadgum funny. She had me peeing on myself in between takes and then I had to go back to crying. But it was a joy to be able to have some sort of levity in the midst of that intensity. I loved seeing the two different versions of reality and I was pleased with my work, but I was also just pleased with the structure of the episode and I loved watching Niles [Fitch], too. So like, it’s weird because I should be saying all these great things about me and I felt like I was good. I felt good. But I also really love the continuity that Niles and I were able to create amongst the character because it seemed seamless. He would come watch me sometimes, I would come and watch him sometimes to see, “What’s this young man doing? Let me see how he’s establishing this through-line.” I was like, “Nice, Niles. Nice.” As I get to a certain age and Randall’s getting to a certain age, having to deal with taking care of your parents is a really interesting thing that 20 years ago is not even on my radar. But now it’s a real thing that I’m dealing with on a day-to-day basis. And I felt that it was such an interesting turn, the way they wrote it, that you felt as if he was going to do the right thing, that he was going to stop taking such responsibility for everybody else’s lives and maybe focus more on himself. And then at the very end, he tells his therapist, he’s like, “Look, I’ve lost two parents and I have an opportunity to do something right here. I’m going to do whatever it takes. I’m going to come to therapy, we’re going to work it out. I’m not losing my mom.” And then you see how he goes about not losing his mom and as an audience member, because that’s how I watch the show as an audience member, I was like, “Oh shit, dog. I can’t believe you fuckin’ went there, son. That was crazy.”
GD: It’s a great episode, for sure. Let’s go over to “Maisel” here. When we talked last year, you were telling me about how it was like theater, playing in this world. Obviously, we can talk about your character more now. So Reggie is the manager for Shy Baldwin, who is a famous singer who Midge is opening for and I found your character really, really interesting in how he was written because we know that he has such a protective relationship over Shy, but I feel like there was room for you to kind of fill in your own backstory for Reggie and you get that sense of history, I think. So what was that process of you figuring your way into Reggie and also working with Leroy McClain and establishing that interesting relationship?
SKB: So Leroy and I have known each other for a while just by virtue of being Black in New York City, having gone to grad school for acting, Leroy is a Yalie. I’m at NYUer. Big up to NYU, MFA, Tisch. But it was fun. It was like being reunited with an old friend. So there was something that you could bring from life into the character. My way in, there’s a couple of things and it was mostly in the writing. Number one, here’s a man who has to have a white man be the front for his organization. He is the brains behind all of this. He’s the architect for this man’s career, but he can’t take credit for it most of the time, especially with a white audience. So when he does and has the ability to exert his power, he does so with an iron fist (laughs). And given the fact that he’s hiding such a big secret for his best friend, there really is no room for error. Like, this is the type of thing in 1960 that would devastate someone’s career, and I mean, the argument can still be made today, even, that it could devastate other people’s careers. Maybe not to the same extent, but people are not as accepting as we would like them to be all the time. Even more so in 1960. It’s interesting, too, I gotta give Amy and Dan credit for this, we never use the word “homosexual,” “gay” or anything, which I think was also sort of indicative of that time. “We’re just not going to talk about it. We’re going to move forward. We’re going to get the fame and success. We will enable the facade, even, of your masculinity and how that attracts a female audience, so that nobody will even ask questions about it.” When they’re at the news conference in Vegas when they ask, “Who are you dating now?” that’s where Reggie’s like, “Let’s talk about business. We’re keeping this about business.” So there’s a vigilance that is necessitated by the time because the stakes are so big, there can’t be a misstep. So it was just fierce mama bear from the beginning, who also felt like people didn’t recognize his genius, his authority. So he’s like, “I’m gonna show you my authority when you get within my sphere.”
GD: And you also get to be part of the final climactic moment of the season where Midge has very strongly alluded to Shy’s sexuality in her standup at the Apollo, and Reggie lets her go and says she’s not going on tour and he also seems very emotional in that moment as he’s telling her that and also telling Susie that she’ll be in his shoes one day, which I found to be an interesting comment. I’m curious why you think he is as emotional as he is in that moment.
SKB: He talks to Susie early in the episode about some of the things that you have to do as a manager that don’t always feel good but you do them so that your client is happy, because an unhappy client is an unproductive client. Artists are such emotional creatures, singers, actors, dancers, etc., that when you don’t feel good about yourself or what you’re doing, you can’t perform, and it’s probably heightened amongst musicians even more so than it is among actors. We have “The show must go on” or whatnot but musicians leave you waiting two or three hours and everybody will sit there in the crowds looking like, “Are they coming out or not?” So I don’t think it was Reggie’s mandate that she’s not there. He was definitely following the orders of Shy. I think Shy felt betrayed. He shared something with her. He even told Midge his real first name, which is not even anything that we discuss openly. So the fact that she could go out on that stage and while she was not explicit, just toying with the idea of sharing something that wasn’t meant to be shared with anybody else, hurt him to the core.
So this is the dirty work, when they can’t come out and do it for themselves, but you have to be the emissary. You have to go and pass along the news. It’s the messenger. Don’t kill the messenger. But it is my job to make him feel good about the situation, even though I feel shitty. I recognize Susie’s hustle. I recognize that she is a good manager for her client. She’s getting better. She’s not great, but she’s learning and she’s getting better and he has respect for the hustle and he has respect for Midge. She’s a cool girl and he also feels kind of guilty because he told her to go out there and talk about Shy. Now, he did not in his wildest dreams imagine that she was going to go out there and make multiple allusions to something that he didn’t even know that she knew about. Show business, man. It’s the reason why, Kev, everybody tells you, “If there’s anything else you can do with your life that gives you as much joy, please go do that,” because this business is hard. And he also knows that it’s sort of a rose-colored glasses coming off moment for the two of them and hopefully they’ll be able to find a way back. But it’s not going to be on this gravy train.
GD: Yeah, it’s a very dramatic note to end on there. Well, I have to ask on a more lighthearted note as we finish up here. You really slipped so seamlessly into “Maisel” and I think you’re someone who is very conscious of the television landscape. You know what’s out there. Are there any other TV shows that you would like to see yourself having a little guest arc on for the future?
SKB: (Laughs.) I love TV. I really, really do. There’s so many good things that are on right now. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, so the idea of introducing some color into “Ozark,” that’s a crazy world. We used to have a resort, a timeshare at the Lodge of the Four Seasons, which is at the Lake of the Ozarks. So we would go down there for a week every year and be like, “These white people, they’re really white down here.” And then we’d go back to St. Louis but we’d had so much fun. So that’s a possibility. I really love Ramy [Youssef]’s show. I think it is a depiction of Islam in America that I had not seen on camera before. I enjoyed the first generation telling of how you try to make peace with your religion and how to be a part of Western society and how those things can be seemingly at odds sometimes. I love what Mahershala [Ali] did on the show and I like the idea of a Christian guy and a Muslim guy having a parallel existence, trying to be faithful to their religions, and also, like, “How do we get at these females?” I love the idea of someone tracking that parallel sort of thing.
GD: That sounds really good, not gonna lie.
SKB: I got pitches, dude! What else is there?
GD: “Succession,” I mean…
SKB: You took the words out of my mouth, really. Two seasons and I’m trying to track, has there been a brother or a sister on the show? Kev, do you know? Because I can’t really recall anybody.
GD: I can’t think of anyone of prominence.
SKB: I can’t think of anyone of prominence. It’s like if you go back to “Mad Men,” there’s the elevator operator. He was the one brother that you would see all the time, like, “How you doing this morning, Mr. Draper?” And that was it. So if there was a way to enter into that world of excess and greed and treachery in a way that made sense, oh, that would be delightful. That would be delightful. Shout out to [Jeremy] Strong. I think he’s gonna get the W. I think he’s deserving of the W. Because once he dropped that rap, “L to the OG,” I was like, “That was it. Give him that shit.” (Laughs.)