Sterling K. Brown Jumped Into ‘American Fiction,’ Leaving ‘This Is Us’ Behind

Through six years and 106 episodes, Sterling K. Brown enjoyed his regular gig as the beloved family patriarch Randall in popular NBC series “This Is Us.” But he could only do a few things during the show’s hiatus periods. Now, he’s free to check out all the options coming his way.

“As an actor, it’s nice to have a job,” he said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “I got a chance to do something artistically fulfilling, with a story that impacted people’s lives by virtue of seeing the character in their living rooms, to pay the bills, to be at home with my wife and with my two kids. My babies are eight and 12. I guess I shouldn’t call them babies, but at any age until they leave the house, that’s how they feel. And I just want to enjoy as much of that time as possible.”

Now Brown is branching out. He’s tackled a few independent flicks that dovetailed with the end of “This Is Us” that offered an opportunity, he said, “to show some different colors.” He played a grieving father in “Waves.” He enjoyed testing his improv skills with Mark Duplass in “Biosphere,” a sci-fi two-hander.

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“We had a wonderful time doing it,” he said. “It’s a crazy movie. Very funny, with a lot of heart. He wrote it, so he knew the whole thing. So he’s always going to be apt to play. And as an actor on that playground, you have to be ready. But it was fun. It was very un-Randall-esque, if you will. Anytime you can do something to subvert folks’ expectations, I welcome the opportunity.”

Randall is “someone who folks expect to handle things,” Brown said. “And it’s not somebody who is meant to be handled. Sometimes it’s nice to be the person who needs to be handled.”

In that category falls Cliff, the gay brother of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) in “American Fiction.” “He’s a stable family man who always does the right thing,” said Brown. “Until he doesn’t. That part is fun. And it’s an aspect of my own person, but it’s not the totality of who I am. So it’s nice to get a chance to express all aspects of personality through character.”

AMERICAN FICTION, from left: Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, 2023. © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection
“American Fiction“©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Brown is happiest when he’s working, showing up on a set every day, knowing what is expected of him. “Knowing that you get a chance to exercise that muscle is stabilizing,” he said. “So if you’re talking about the pandemic, or the strike, those are times where you have to find a new equilibrium. And while you have time to yourself, it’s not like time that you wanted to have for yourself. Right? Not a vacation. It’s a forced break. Not the same thing.”

“American Fiction” offered a juicy role. “Cliff is the youngest of three siblings,” said Brown. “He is gay, but he’s been trying to live a life in the closet for most of his adulthood until his wife finds him in bed with another man. He has blown the whole thing up, but it was bound to happen. And he wasn’t happy. It’s difficult to be happy if you’re not your authentic self. And so when we encounter Cliff, someone who has been trying to play the game by everybody else’s rules in terms of what is expected of him, we find him coloring outside the lines.”

Given the freedom to be himself, Cliff is going wild. “He’s a bit of what we call a hot mess,” said Brown. “But purposefully. In his mind, it’s all or nothing, right? It’s either you try to stay in this closet, and be a good husband, and be a good father. And then after it all blows up, he’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to go about as opposite as I possibly can’. Eventually there will be a new equilibrium that he finds where he’s able to be truthful.”

Sterling K. Brown

While Wright saw his role in a family drama as a first for him, Brown felt the opposite: he’s played in several family dramas and reveled in being the person who was losing his mind. “It’s a first,” he said. “Absolutely. I’m usually the person that’s asked to keep things together. Not the person who is: ‘We got to look out for this brother, because he’s about to blow shit up.’”

Brown loved it. “You walk around in somebody else’s shoes, however foreign they are to you, and how uncomfortable they may be,” he said. “You get a chance to release judgment. All of those things are fun, but they don’t always feel good necessarily in the moment.”

He trusted writer-director Cord Jefferson, who adapted Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure” for his lauded feature debut. “Just because you have a good script doesn’t mean he’s going to be a good director,” Brown said. “But it was so nuanced. In the writing, he was able to combine the satire in this family drama in a way that seems like these things should go together. I felt like if anybody was going to tell the story, it was the person who was able to execute it on paper.”

Brown is proudest of the last scene with Wright on the porch of the beach house. “Cliff is able to have a moment where he’s feeling complete and accepting himself,” he said. “So he’s able to be generous with his brother in a way that he hasn’t been generous with him before: ‘I know what you did, because it’s what you do. It’s what our father did. And this is what it leads to.’ But the one that was most fun to play was the phone call when Cliff is eating his burger and snorting his cocaine. Cliff is in his moment.”

Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass in "Biosphere"
Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass in “Biosphere”IFC Films

When “American Fiction” won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, Brown was sitting at home “figuring out what life looks like in the midst of the strike,” he said. “Yeah, that’s a big thing. It takes it to a different level.”

Post-strike, when Brown got back into being on the circuit, he attended December’s Academy Museum gala, where Meryl Streep was being honored, along with Sofia Coppola, Michael B. Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey. “It’s Meryl, for anybody who’s worth their salt, she’s the pinnacle,” he said. “And so I started talking to her: ‘Hi, I’m Sterling.’ And she goes, ‘I know who you are.’ She gave me a hug. She was warm and kind and loving and sweet. And talks like, there’s a possibility of us doing something in the future. Whoa, possibility? There’s possibility? Everything’s a possibility until it becomes reality. Not a bad thing to be thinking about. She said, ‘Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’ And I said, ‘Woman, you have no life.’ She blessed me with a nice smile a little bit. We went on about our business.”

Brown is one of those journeyman actors who worked a lot but never seemed to be in the limelight. Until FX’s breakout series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” in which he starred as prosecutor Christopher Darden.

“It changed things a bit,” he said. “When Darden came along, folks were like, ‘Where have you been this whole time?’ When I met the producers on that show, in particular, they ‘couldn’t find anybody.’ And they were going to South Africa, London. We have to leave these wonderful United States of America in order to find capable people? On behalf of Andre Holland, Brian Tyree Henry, and Leslie Odom Jr., there are plenty of trained actors in these United States.”

THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY "The Race Card" Episode 105 (Airs Tuesday, March 1, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FX
“The People v. O.J. Simpson”Ray Mickshaw/FX

Now that the world is his oyster, Brown wants to “keep surprising people as much as I possibly can,” he said. “I enjoy making people feel. I don’t need to be a superhero.” He did, however, appear in “Black Panther.”

If Marvel called his name again, “I wouldn’t kick them out. But when you reach a certain place, and people see within you the potential to become a star, you have to be adamant: ‘That’s not really what I’m interested in.’ I will go where the story is, where the best story is told, with wonderful creative partnerships. I’m happy to be in a place where I have choice. That’s a rarity in this business.”

Next up: “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman is casting a new show on Hulu, the near-future thriller “Paradise City,” which starts filming in February to air in the fall of 2024. “We’ll have some topicality,” said Brown. “There’s a secret service agent. That’s me, tasked with protecting the president of the United States. Then something goes wrong.”

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