This Is Us: Sterling K. Brown on the season 1 scene he's most proud of
When he stepped onstage last year to accept an Emmy for his turn as Christopher Darden in American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson, Sterling K. Brown was already well on his way to winning over next year’s jury. In season 1 of This Is Us, the 41-year-old actor captivated as Randall Pearson, the family man searching for a connection with his terminally ill biological father while nearly collapsing under the weight of his own anxiety and struggle for perfection.
Here, Brown chats with EW about the significance of his nomination in the Lead Actor category, what it’s like to face off against the man that plays his onscreen dad, and the NBC family drama’s chances of claiming the Outstanding Drama Series trophy. In addition, Brown — who has played a part in many of the show’s powerhouse moments thus far — selects the scene from season 1 that he’s most proud of, as well as the one that challenged him greatly. Plus, he reaches into his bag of teases and reveals what you can expect from the season 2 premiere of This Is Us.
[To sneak a peek at a Randall-Rebecca scene from the season 2 premiere, click here.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the last thing that you thought when you went to bed the night before the nominations?
STERLING K. BROWN: “How cool would it be?” I’ve heard a lot about how Andre Braugher was the last African American male nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series [for Gideon’s Crossing in 2001]. And I was thinking to myself, “Andre Braugher went to Stanford University for undergrad, Sterling Brown went to Stanford University for undergrad. Andre Brown is married to a woman from NYU grad school. I am married to a woman from NYU grad school.” So, clearly there’s a formula for being nominated for lead actor in a drama, and I just so happened to pick up on the cues. It’s nice to be recognized in this category, especially because it’s been 16 years since the last time that it’s happened for a black man in this category.
And what was the first thing that you thought after you got the nomination?
Well, I worked until about five o’clock in the morning [on Hotel Artemis], because we were on night shoots. So, what I was thinking was, “Man, can I sneak in another nap before I have to go back to work?”… There’s a sense of relief, like, “Okay, it did come through. That’s really cool.” Then I think an addendum to that, the fact that my show got recognized the way that it did — 11 total nominations. [Note: That number is now 10.] Milo [Ventimiglia] and I both in the same category. Ron [Cephas Jones] getting recognized. Chrissy [Metz] getting recognized, and then, of course, my dear friend Brian Tyree Henry getting recognized for his performance as cousin Ricky [in the guest actor category, along with TIU‘sGerald McRaney and Denis O’Hare]. When he came to shoot his episode, he said, “Brown, I think I just swagger-jacked your show.” And I said, “Did you really?” He said, “I don’t mean to be coming in, just stealing the spotlight, but I think I just swagger jacked your show.” So, he did indeed swagger jack my show, and he got recognized for it.
You’ve already won once. So, what does a nomination mean to you this time around? Is it about the fact that it’s been 16 years since Andre’s nomination?
Well, there’s the history and then there’s also the perception, and it’s a subtle but probably important perception from supporting to lead, right? Last year, Christopher Darden was definitely a supporting character, and to be perfectly honest with you, the Pearson five — those represented in all three timelines — we take turns sort of leading and supporting each other in the journey of the show. So, I put us all in the same boat. I think it’s a subtle but important little distinction. Brown, we’re 41 years old now, and we’re putting our big boy pants on, and we’re seeing if we can help lead the ship a little bit. And I think that’s really cool.
Few and far have been the opportunities to lead anything, and so to be recognized by your peers, by the Academy, in this way, it means a lot. And then there’s the history. There have only been four who’ve won this award, and I tread lightly into this particular subject, because at one point in time there would’ve been just unbridled enthusiasm for the company in which I have joined, that company being one William H. Cosby, Sr., James Earl Jones, and Andre Braugher… I’ll emphasize more James Earl Jones and Andre Braugher, if indeed I get a chance to be part of their company. But it’s a pretty, pretty cool group to be a part of, with that asterisk being attached to it.
Your costar Milo Ventimiglia is nominated in the same category. What exactly is the etiquette here? Is Dad supposed to let you win, or are you supposed to let Dad win?
Normally I would say Dad is supposed to let me win. But I’m actually older than Dad, so maybe I’m supposed to let him win? I’m not really quite sure. Somebody on set asked us that, and we both said, “Look, we got to go up against Keyser Soze [Kevin Spacey, for House of Cards] and Hannibal Lecter [Anthony Hopkins, for Westworld]! There’s no guarantees for anybody in this particular case.” We’re just happy to be invited to the party right now.
NEXT PAGE: Brown on the toughest scene he had to pull off in season 1 —and the one he’s most proud of
This Is Us was nominated in the Outstanding Drama Series category, and becomes the first Big Four network to get a nomination in six years. How greatly are the odds stacked against it?
The odds are stacked against us. We’re not the sexy show. We’re not the show that the L.A, critical scene necessarily is championing, and there’s a lot of good shows out there. I mean, I love me some Handmaid’s [Tale]. Ryan [Michelle Bathe, his wife] and I just finished watching it, and it’s a dope show… I think in this particular situation — and it sounds so cliché, but I hold to it — it is an honor just to be nominated. The fact that we got that recognition means a lot. The fact that we didn’t receive any recognition in terms of the writing and the directing probably means that we’re a long shot, but we get a chance to go to the party as a group, and I’m alright with that.
People responded so passionately and emotionally to Randall. Was there a part of Randall that fans responded to that you weren’t expecting would evoke such a universal feeling?
When people who have gone through anxiety said, “I haven’t seen this on TV. Thank you for representing it as well as you did, and making me not feel as if something is wrong with me.” You often have this feeling that it’s just me, and then you get a chance to see somebody else go through what it is that you go through, and then you feel like you’re not alone again. I am always really, really proud of an opportunity to tell people that they’re not alone.
I have moments where I feel overwhelmed and I can go inside of myself, maybe not to the same degree in which Randall does. I have family members who have social anxiety disorders, et cetera, and I have witnessed it firsthand, and I know — because the wounds aren’t visible, because it’s something that’s more internal — it doesn’t get the same sort of respect and acknowledgement that a broken leg can get, because you can see [that]. I wanted to try to do it in a way in which people could see themselves in it. So, it was surprising, but also greatly gratifying that folks felt connected to that.
What scene from season 1 were you most proud of?
You have to submit an episode for [Emmy] consideration, and I did submit “Memphis.” I feel like it was the pinnacle of the journey that culminated throughout the season between William and Randall. And it was the thing that sort of jumpstarted us into Randall’s life, the fact that he had found his biological father. What I love about the episode, truly, is that the majority of the episode is full of so much joy and liveliness. It’s about enjoying the time that you have with someone — not even knowing; William definitely knew more than Randall did when the journey began — and that’s what it was like as an actor too… But the scene I’m most proud of? “Memphis” has a lot of scenes in it, but maybe slightly above something from “Memphis” would be in “Jack Pearson’s Son,” immediately prior, [when Randall is] talking to Kevin [Justin Hartley] on the phone. Just the incapacitation of anxiety and the overwhelming feeling that he had, that he just couldn’t do anything, and Randall could feel it coming on and was trying to observe social graces and tell him, “I won’t be able to make it [to the play],” and not being able to tell him why he won’t be able to make it. But then [Kevin] knowing — honestly, when I see him run down the street, I start bawling like a little baby because my brother’s got my back. I feel like the two of us together in that scene were able to create something really, really special.
What was the scene from season 1 that challenged you the most? Perhaps one that was hard to wrap your head around or one that took a while to crack.
[Deep breath.] Boy, there’s a couple of scenes that come to mind. First of all, was ‘”Pilgrim Rick,” at the Thanksgiving table, telling my mom, “Why is there a picture of me at William’s house?” And that was tough because it required a lot of focus, and it required me for the first time to not be warm on set. [Laughs.] I was very focused, and I wouldn’t talk to Mandy [Moore], and folks could tell, “Oh, Brown’s not his normal, bubbly self,” because it was about to go down. I was like, “I am feeling betrayed, I’m feeling unsafe, and everybody is about to know it.” And there would be a couple of times where there would be chatter on set, and I will, with kindness, but also letting it known that it is a true desire, need people to be quiet. So, I’ll say, “Quiet please, everyone! Need to concentrate!” [Laughs.] And folks will oblige, and then the tone of everything shifts. And I purposely changed the tone of the room because there’s something that I need to accomplish, and it’s easier for me to do it with a certain level of focus. And it went well.
And then number two was the Christmas episode [“Last Christmas,” with] Jimmy Simpson [who guest-starred as his suicidal co-worker, Andy] on the rooftop. Trying to get Andy not to jump, for a couple of reasons, was a long scene. The way that episode was laid out, it had these chapters — you followed one story line for seven, eight pages and then it was over, and then another seven, eight pages for a different storyline. It was a very full scene, and I love Jimmy; we’ve known each other since the Williamstown Theatre Festival, summer of 1999, when we were both in a non-equity company. So, it was great to be reunited with a friend, and someone whose work who I respect so much. But there was a lot of concentration, a lot of lines, very little time to do it. Just wanting to get it right. That sounds like Randall in his pursuit of perfection, and I think there’s an added sort of pressure when you’re like, “Oh, this is my buddy, we got to bring it. I got to bring it for him, he’s going to bring it for me.” That scene was tough, and it was also one of those things that I loved so much from reading it. I was like “All right, the only way that I mess this is up is if I don’t step up to the challenge.” And it was also kind of personal. I have a friend named Andrew, who passed away one year out of college, who, it’s inconclusive, but he may have jumped, pushed, or fallen out of the third story of his building where he lived. So, the fact that I was doing this scene, trying to stop Andy from jumping — it sort of resonated on a whole other level for me. And real talk — I had nothing to do with the naming of the character, it was written that way. But when I saw it, I was like, “Certain things are meant to be.”
NEXT PAGE: Brown on the season 2 premiere: ‘The surprise is so big that when Dan wrote the script, he omitted the final scene from the script’
What was the feeling like on that very first day of season 2? Was there a coming-home feel?
It was absolutely coming home. I had a very busy hiatus and was very blessed to be at work pretty much constantly. [Brown filmed Black Panther, The Predator, and Hotel Artemis over the hiatus; he can be seen in Marshall in October.] I don’t think I had a real break. But coming back to This Is Us, it felt like home. The first day I saw Mandy and Milo on set, we got to hug it out. And I wasn’t even on set. I had a day off from Hotel Artemis. I just wanted to go see everybody because I knew we were getting started again. We’ve been off doing our own things, but we get back together and it’s family, right from jump street…. We’re back in it. We’re excited. Dan [Fogelman, the series creator] had us in before the season started, each of us, to pitch to us how the season was going to go — what our individual storylines were, how they would intersect with one another — and the enthusiasm is as high for season 2 as it was for season 1.
What can you tease about how the season opens?
At the end of last season, Randall approaches Beth with the possibility of wanting to adopt. We pick up with them very much in the midst of making that decision — to move forward, not to move forward, how to move forward, if indeed they do. They are not on the same page, I can say that much. And then Kate is looking to get back into her singing. She’s excited, but also nervous. But she has a wonderful partner in Toby [Chris Sullivan]. Then you the storyline that I am most intrigued by is Kevin’s. Boy, it’s so good. Kevin is getting a little bit of success based off of the recognition that he got from the play, and he’s parlayed that into some really nice film opportunities. But that’s kept him away from Sophie [Alexandra Breckenridge], longer than he would want to be, and so he’s in this place that I can empathize with, where career and personal lives are both things that are extremely important to him, but can sometimes be at odds with one another, and how to find that balance…. The younger versions of the Big Three, you see some things with the teenage versions and the aftermath of the “separation” between Jack and Rebecca. And it’s really, really interesting to see the way in which they set up how each of them responds, given who we are at age 37 now.
Dan said that we don’t get all of the answers about the how-Jack-died mystery right away in season 2, but a “huge piece of the puzzle” is given in the first episode. What can you say about that reveal?
We know from the past that the kids were around 15, 16, 17 when Jack passed away because we saw flashes of them at that age at the funeral. I’ll tell you how big of a surprise it is. The surprise is so big that when Dan wrote the script, he omitted the final scene from the script just so it couldn’t be leaked. I know what it is, but he didn’t put it in writing because he just didn’t want it to be leaked.
The show courted that mystery in season 1, and people responded so passionately. It’s exciting because so many people became deeply engaged, but, as we saw, if you don’t give people the answers when they want them or think they’re getting them, you run the risk of frustrating or alienating them. So it becomes almost this responsibility at one point.
It does, indeed. I know that by the end of the season, all the puzzle pieces will be in place with regards to all of it. So, just be patient with us — your answers are coming.
This Is Us season 2 kicks off Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.