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Sterling K. Brown recommends taking it 'moment to moment,' on screen and in life

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. The Academy Awards are less than a month away. Today, we continue our series of interviews with or about Oscar nominees. Sterling K. Brown has been nominated for best supporting actor for his role in "American Fiction." The film has four other nominations, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Brown also played prosecutor Christopher Darden in the miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson," winning an Emmy for that performance. He won another the following year for his performance in the popular NBC series "This Is Us."

Let's start with the film "American Fiction." It stars Jeffrey Wright as a college professor and novelist who is Black. It appears to him that the only books written by Black authors that white publishers want to print are books about being poor or in gangs or addicted to drugs or being a pregnant teenager. So under a pen name, he writes a book conforming to those expectations to prove his point. He's offered a huge advance, and the book becomes a bestseller. Sterling K. Brown plays the writer's brother. He's a plastic surgeon who's currently having money problems because his wife has left him and has taken half his practice after discovering he's having gay relationships. Terry spoke with Sterling K. Brown in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Sterling K. Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR. So happy to have you on the show.

STERLING K BROWN: Terry, thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: Did you experience any of the same type of preconceptions about what it means to be authentically Black in your personal life or in your acting career?

BROWN: Absolutely. I found it definitely when I got to Hollywood in the early 2000s, that the idea of being intelligent was something that I needed to shed. Many casting directors'd be like, he's got this smart-guy thing. If he can lose that, then he'll be much more castable. I think that, similar to what you were saying in your intro with regards to the kinds of stories that folks were willing to put money into had to deal with Black folks overcoming certain adversities and dealing with certain traumas. And I think that that was also linked to a certain socioeconomic wash that they thought was appropriate for how Blackness needed to be portrayed in order to be, quote-unquote, "authentic."

GROSS: When you were an economics major and then you interned at the Federal Reserve, did you want to be in business or economics?

BROWN: Yes. I think at that point in time in my life, Terry, the most important thing was being able to pour back into my community in a way that was substantial. And the only way that - the primary way that felt most substantial was through financial resources. So my goal was to make money. I felt like my mom sent me to this fancy college prep school, and I got into Stanford University. I felt like the most important thing that I could do to show my appreciation is make sure that I was able to be a contributing member of the family, a contributing member of the community in terms of financial resources.

So I said, what better way to make money than to be an economics major, learn what money does and how I can make more of it, right? And what I found through my first year at Stanford and through this internship at the Federal Reserve Bank, was that while I was good with numbers, I wasn't really interested or passionate about the inner workings of what it took to make money. Like, money in and of itself wasn't a driving force for me that motivated me to continue - I couldn't see a life just making money if there was - if I wasn't doing something that excited me or ignited me in a more passionate, spiritual, holistic sort of way.

GROSS: OK. So you found the passion in acting.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: But this reminds me of a line that you say in "American Fiction." So, you know, your brother, the main character in the story...

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Who's the novelist who can't get published - you say to him, like, you know me and your sister, like, we're doctors. We save people. Like, what can you do?

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: Revive a sentence? And so that reminds me...

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, did you worry, like, OK, so I'm not going to give back to my community through learning about economics and money. What will being an actor give back to my community? Like, what meaning...

BROWN: Great question.

GROSS: ...Does that have in the larger world?

BROWN: Great question. And it's something that I thought about for a while. And so, when I told my mom that I was going to change my major, I knew that she would probably have some questions for me in terms of why I wanted to do it. But most importantly, I had to let her know that I had prayed about it, and I said, yes, ma'am, I had, and I felt led. And that gave her permission to give me permission to dive into it without any sort of regrets or second-questioning.

GROSS: I want to talk with you about the role that you got your first Emmy for. And that's the role of Christopher Darden in "The People V. O.J. Simpson," which was the first season of "American Crime Story."

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: You won an Emmy in 2016. You were - you know, Darden was one of the prosecutors, one of the two prosecutors. And he was portrayed by O.J. Simpson defenders, by people who thought O.J. was innocent, as having the job so that the prosecution could present a Black face.

BROWN: Correct.

GROSS: But Darden really, I think, deeply believed in O.J.'s guilt. So I want to play a clip from the closing argument that you make in "The People V. O.J. Simpson."

BROWN: OK.

GROSS: So here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) Ladies and gentlemen, to grasp this crime, you must first understand Mr. Simpson's relationship to his ex-wife, Nicole. It was a ticking time bomb. The fuse was lit in 1985, the very year they were married. Officers responded after Mr. Simpson beat Nicole and took a baseball bat to her Mercedes. Then in 1989, Nicole had to call 911 again, fearing for her life. When officers arrived, Nicole ran towards them yelling, he's going to kill me. He's going to kill me. She had a black eye, a cut forehead, swollen cheek. In her torn bra, Nicole pleaded with the officers. You've come up here eight times. You never do anything about him.

And they want to tell you that the police conspired against Mr. Simpson. This case is not about the N-word. It is about O.J. Simpson and the M-word - murder. Now, I'm not afraid to point to him and say he did it. Why not? The evidence all points to him. In February 1992, Nicole filed for divorce. She was running away from the man who said he'd kill her. She saw the explosion coming. Why else fill a safe deposit box with threatening letters from the defendant, a will and police photos of past beatings. She knew that the bomb could go off at any second. And then it did.

GROSS: Now I'm going to skip ahead to the end of your closing argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) He's a murderer. And he was also one hell of a great football player. But he's still a murderer.

GROSS: When I saw the series, I thought, oh, you look so much like Christopher Darden.

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: And it was just - you're so good in it.

BROWN: Thank you.

GROSS: You were in college at Stanford during the trial. What did you think of O.J. at the time? Did you think he was guilty or innocent?

BROWN: I'm going to be honest and say, like, it was a second consideration. It wasn't the first thing on my mind. I think that was sort of what a lot of us were experiencing - was that we wanted the criminal justice system to work in favor of someone who looked like us because we were accustomed to it working against us. But in terms of, like, seeing someone beat the system who doesn't typically beat the system, I think that was the driving factor, at least for me, in terms of why I rejoiced in his innocence at the time, in the not guilty verdict, right?

And it was such a strange thing to step into, Terry, having been so pro-O.J. and anti-Darden as a young person, to have an opportunity to step into that other person's shoes and experience life from their perspective. And it was - me and my friend Sarah Paulson had the best time on that show because she would read Marcia's book. I would read Chris' book. We would read excerpts to one another. We would go over the evidence, and the evidence is pretty overwhelming. I'll say this, that...

GROSS: She was the main prosecutor and your partner in the trial.

BROWN: Correct.

GROSS: So what changed your mind? Was it stepping into Christopher Darden's role, you know, becoming him for the series, or was it examining the facts more closely?

BROWN: Yes. That's yes to both of them. The DNA evidence is overwhelming. My perspective as a human being has shifted in terms of - also in terms of playing Christopher Darden, like, who was the voice for the people who were murdered? They don't have anyone to speak for them. And so someone has to do it, right? Even getting into Darden's book, in terms of being a prosecutor, he's like, we need to have a Black presence in all facets of law enforcement, whether that is as police, whether that is as prosecutors, as defense attorneys. Like, a presence in all of those things means that we can work from the inside. And I think that that's sort of an admirable perspective that he has on how law enforcement can work at its best.

BIANCULLI: Sterling K. Brown speaking to Terry Gross in January - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA KARPMAN'S "(LAURA'S) FEVER DREAM")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Sterling K. Brown, recorded in January. The Oscars are next month, and Brown is nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his work in the movie "American Fiction."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about "This Is Us." And this is a series - this was a series, an incredibly popular series, about three siblings. And the white mother was pregnant with triplets.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: But only two children survive. So the father, who's also white, decides - like, he'd planned on taking home three babies, and that is what he's going to do.

BROWN: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: So he adopts a baby born the same day who is left at the door of a firehouse. Now, that baby is Black. So you're the adult version of that Black baby who grew up in the white family. So you're set apart from the family in two ways. You're the only Black person in the family. And you're only - you're the only sibling who's not a twin.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: In part of the series set in the present, you're married to a Black woman. You have two children and later adopt a third. So I want to play a scene from the first episode. You've been searching for your biological father, and you finally found where he lives. So you go - you drive over there. You bang on his door. And as soon as you - as soon as your biological father opens the door, you make a little speech. So let's start with the banging on the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

BROWN: (As Randall Pearson, banging on door.)

RON CEPHAS JONES: (As William Hill) Yeah. Yeah. Stop all that banging. And I heard you the first time - banging on the door. Who the hell is...

BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) My name is Randall Pearson. I'm your biological son. Thirty-six years ago, you left me at the front door - but now, hold on. Just let me say this. Thirty-six years ago, you left me at the front door of a fire station. Don't worry. I'm not here because I want anything from you. I was raised by two incredible parents. I have a lights-out family of my own. And that car you see parked out in front of your house cost $143,000, and I bought it for cash. I bought it for cash because I felt like it and because I can do stuff like that. Yeah. You see; I turned out pretty all right, which might surprise a lot of folks, considering the fact that 36 years ago, my life started with you leaving me on a fire station doorstep with nothing more than a ratty blanket and a crap-filled diaper. I came here today so I could look you in the eye, say that to you and then get back in my fancy-ass car and finally prove to myself and to you and to my family who loves me that I didn't need a thing from you even after I knew who you were.

JONES: (As William Hill) You want to come in?

BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) OK.

GROSS: I love how that ends.

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: So the father is played by Ron Cephas Jones, who died a few months ago. But I love how you casually - how he casually invites you in after this long, negative harangue about him. And you just say, OK.

BROWN: (Laughter) That's a good term.

GROSS: Talk about deciding how to play that and whether you talked about how to play those final notes, whether you talked about it with Ron Cephas Jones.

BROWN: So in that scene, I remember thinking that - what I understood from reading the pilot of the show and what was very sort of surprising in terms of how it landed on people, ultimately, was that it made me laugh from beginning to end. And so I was always sort of focused on, like, the amount of light that the show had. And so when people talk to me about it, they're always talking about the tears that the show caused. But I think both of those things are true. So I felt like in that scene, like, you have to be able to - you can't live too much in one tone. Otherwise, the show becomes monotonous. So you're able to go in and you give this man the piece of your mind. But at the same time, all you really want is to be in relationship. And so you see that front-facing anger towards this man. But really, what he wants is to be understood, to understand why he left in the first place and ultimately to be loved.

GROSS: So Ron Cephas Jones, who was in that scene with you, your biological father in the series - he died a few months ago. And Andre Braugher, who you also work with - and he died at the end of 2023. And then you also worked on "Black Panther," and you knew Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer at a young age...

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Shocking everybody 'cause he didn't make it public. I'm wondering if that made you think about your own mortality.

BROWN: Yes. First of all, yes. And I would say even predating all of those beautiful souls transpiring was my own father, who passed away at the age of 45. And so I've thought about it since then, when I was only 10 years old. And my brother and I will have this conversation. My brother is 14 years older than me, so he's 61 now. And he'll always say that, you know, no Black men in our family have lived beyond age 65.

And I remember thinking that, like, that may be true for them, but it does not have to be true for us. And so I've been very conscientious in terms of health and lifestyle choices that I try to make for myself to be here for as long as possible. I have two beautiful boys - Andrew, 12, Amare, 8 - and I want to be here to experience and enjoy them as much as possible. And beyond them, I'm looking forward to - if they, indeed, have children - to being able to enjoy and experience those young people, as well.

GROSS: You know, one of the focal points of "This Is Us" is the loss of the father. So much of the story is flashing back to the impact of the father and the father's death on the three siblings' lives.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: So I want to mention another parallel between your life and your character Randall's life in "This Is Us." Randall decides since he was adopted, he's going to kind of pay it back and adopt a girl. And the person who he adopts is in her teens, and her mother is addicted to drugs, and that's why she needs a home. And, you know, your mother adopted two children when you were in college. Were they teenagers, too? And why did your mother decide to adopt two children at that stage in her life?

BROWN: Good question. They were not teenagers. They were babies.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

BROWN: And so my Aunt Vera, who I adore - she's always - my mom's little sister was the collector of things in her family's life - like, pets and stuff - and would be like, she got a new cat. She got a new dog. But my Aunt Vera was also dealing with substance abuse issues at that particular time in her life. So she would get a dog - go to the Humane Society, get a dog, get a cat or whatever. And then she would be gone for a while, so then that dog or cat became somebody else's. My aunt was also fostering my little brother, Robert, who is now 25 or 26 years old - just had a birthday. And she was fostering, and then she went missing for a period of two weeks. She had dropped the - my little brother off at my mom's house. And my mom called the social worker after a day and said, listen. I want you to know this little boy is here with me. Social worker came to the house and said, are you OK to keep him? And my mom said, yes, absolutely. So then my mom became the foster parent for my little brother Robert.

Then the birth mother for Robert, who was dealing with substance issues herself, was pregnant with twins, my little sister Ariel and my little sister Avery. And the social worker said, would you be willing to take on these twins as well? And my mom said yes. Now, I don't mention my little sister Avery that much because early on in her life, she passed away from SIDS. And it was very difficult for my mom. She was like - why would God bring these children into my life to have one of them pass away? - and for a minute was wondering whether or not she would wind up keeping them. But after a moment of just saying, like, my life is more full and rich with them in it than without them, she decided to continue fostering, and then another two years later, wound up going through the formal adoption process. And so my brother Robert and my little sister Ariel have been with us for 25 and 23 years now. And my little sister Avery, similar to - Kyle is the young man's name in "This Is Us," the third of the triplets that didn't make it - went on to sing with the angels.

GROSS: That's quite a story.

BROWN: Yeah. I have quite a mom. I have to say that, too. She's an extraordinary human being.

GROSS: There's so much that you must have related to in "This Is Us."

BROWN: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Thank you so much for coming to our show. It's really been great to talk with you.

BROWN: Terry, the pleasure has been all mine. Thank you for having me, and I look forward to doing it again.

GROSS: Me too.

BIANCULLI: Sterling K. Brown speaking to Terry Gross in January. He's nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in the movie "American Fiction." Coming up, another of this year's Oscar nominees, Colman Domingo, star of the movie "Rustin," about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Drift." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.