The Emmy-winning actor riffs on 'This Is Us,' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,' 'Frozen 2,' and 'Waves,' all of which made him one of EW's Entertainers of the Year.

2019 was a very good year for Sterling K. Brown. Not that 2018 was particularly shabby (Black Panther, guest Emmy nomination for Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Or 2017 (lead actor Emmy win for This Is Us). Or 2016, for that matter (supporting actor Emmy win for The People v. O.J. Simpson). But the gifted, magnetically charming actor continued to impress this year, driving some of This Is Us’ most engaging story lines (another Emmy nomination, thank you very much), making waves in, well, Waves, laying down the law in season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and bringing new dimension to an animated universe in Frozen 2. (Don’t forget about Angry Birds 2, too. Or his Sia stand-in stint in The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience. Or his newly formed production company that has multiple shows in the works.) For these reasons, the 43-year-old Brown has been named one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year. “I’m thankful for all of it,” he says of his 2019, “and also thankful that I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Before Brown reaches the other side, let’s ask him to reflect on his frenzied-yet-triumphant year.

Sterling K. Brown
Credit: A24; Ron Batzdorff/NBC; 2019 Disney; Philippe Antonello/Amazon Studios

Fans of NBC’s time-hopping drama finally exhaled when Randall (Brown) resolved tensions with wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) at the end of season 3. The first half of season 4 featured Randall slowly embracing Deja’s (Lyric Ross) new boyfriend/straight-A student/teen father Malik (Asante Blackk), while also worrying about the rapidly declining mental acuity of his mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore).

“I know that it was incredibly distressing for a lot of fans to see [Randall and Beth’s] marriage in a state of discord. It was really touching to realize just how invested people were into this marriage — because Jack and Rebecca are front and center. All the relationship goals that people would bestow upon us became even more realized because they had to fight for it…. You see a lot of stories that focus on teen mothers and how they deal with that particular situation, how to negotiate it, but not with a teen father [in Malik]. It’s a really fresh and interesting take on how we have to be careful not to judge a book by its cover. This is a young boy who’s really good and comes from a good family, and it took Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson] and Randall a minute to warm up to them….. With regards to Rebecca’s failing cognition, if you are a child of a certain age and your parents are starting to enter their twilight and things are starting to turn — whether it’s a physical failing or a mental failing — there’s something [here] you can relate to. What is their place in terms of being of help? How forceful does someone need to be in insisting or not insisting and still letting them have their independence? It’s something that a lot of kids who are around 40 can relate to. And it’s something powerful.”

Brown shines in this potent indie drama as Ronald, an overbearing, walled-off father who seeks connection with his daughter (Taylor Russell) and wife (Renee Elise Goldsberry) after his son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) tragically spirals out of control. (Warning: Spoilers below)

“The reason I said ‘yes’ was because I was so afraid. I was really afraid of whether we were going to be telling a story that demonized a young black man and added to an already very negative stereotype of black male youth. He takes someone’s life at the midpoint of the film, and I wanted to make sure that if that was going to happen — which was the crux of the story — that it had to be a good boy losing his way, making a terrible mistake.…. For Ronald, there’s a wonderful arc. He starts off very armored, very stern, is a practitioner of tough love, but the tragedy of the loss of this young lady [Alexa Demie] hits his family in a devastating way. While the son doesn’t die, he experiences life imprisonment; it’s the closest thing to a death that you could come to as a parent. Through that loss, he recognizes that there has to be another way to be with your children — because holding on so tight didn’t yield the results that he was looking for. So when it finally comes to this wonderful conversation that he has with his daughter, there’s a realization borne out of necessity more than anything else, that if I want my children to share their lives with me, I have to share my life with them. Thank God, if there has to be tragedy, at least there’s some learning that transpires in the midst of that tragedy.”

Brown guest-starred (and even sang) in the Amazon Prime retro comedy as Reggie, sharp and protective manager of Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain), the entertainer who tapped Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) to be his opening act.

“I was/am a huge Masiel fan. I remember when I discovered season 1 and that pilot — oh! — it’s one of the best pilots that I’ve seen, period. The thing that attracts you as an actor to Maisel is that it’s the closest thing to live theater being done on television. There was nothing more exhilarating than being on that set….. I had a conversation with [creator] Amy [Sherman Palladino] and [executive producer] Dan [Palladino], and they pitched to me who Reggie was and how he was going to fit into the season. The world is expanding and there is now a very strong African-American presence on the show. It’s really exciting to see both Midge [Brosnahan] and Susie [Alex Bornstein] navigating that world; that there is representation there. For a while it wasn’t, and now you’re seeing how folks are interacting with one another, which I think is really, really cool…. There’s something about being the guard dog for Shy that I find very satisfying. He’s a sensitive, artistic soul, and sometimes those people are taken advantage of and they need people in their lives who are their watch dogs, who are able to be the heavy when they can’t be the heavy for themselves. I have people like that who are in my life, so it was really an opportunity for me to pay homage to the people who have my back as an artist and show just how fierce an advocate they are for me.”

The sequel to the blockbuster animated fairy tale added Brown’s Mattias, a loyal lieutenant who was sworn to protect the kingdom — and who helped to open up this all-white winter wonderland.

“We tell these fairy tales and for some reason the fairy tales are all white. And we’re now to a point where someone has brought that into attention and there’s a recognition. Thankfully on the part of [directors] Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, they’re like, ‘Oh snap. There’s something that needs to be done about that.’ Arendelle should be populated with everyone that populates the world as we know it.…. With Lieutenant Mattias, you can do a voice, and you don’t have to necessarily be the color of that voice on screen. But they made a black man who was a soldier in the army of their grandfather who has now been stuck in the enchanted forest with the people of the Northuldra for 30 years under the auspices that they are bad. The narrative that [Arandelle] fed was that these people are a threat to us. And then that notion gets challenged. Jennifer [Lee, who also penned the screenplay] wrote something so incredibly nuanced and thought-provoking. When you take a second to examine whose version of history that you are digesting, you realize that it can’t be objective. I love that Jennifer wrote something that took that into serious critical examination and said, “No, no, that is not the truth. And once we find out what the real truth is, we have a responsibility to make things right.”

Related content:

Frozen 2 (2019 movie)
Elsa, Anna, Olaf, and the rest embark on a new adventure in 'Frozen 2.' Read EW's review.
  • Movie
  • Jennifer Lee
  • Chris Buck