PLUS: What it's like facing off against your TV dad at the Emmys and details about the season 2 premiere

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August 22, 2017 at 02:37 PM EDT

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?
“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.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

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‘s Gerald 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

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