ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
If there were an Emmy for best crier, Sterling K. Brown would have it sewn up. As Randall Pearson, the buttoned-up, neurotic dad on the NBC juggernaut This Is Us, he lets loose cascades of tears weekly, fogging up his glasses and inviting us—all 10 million–plus viewers at home—to join in and feel all the feels. Which we do. Happily.
It’s hard to believe that just two and a half years ago the majority of America didn’t know who Brown was. But then came his breakout turn as prosecutor Christopher Darden in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which earned him his first Emmy just a couple of days before This Is Us premiered. He earned his second Emmy, for This Is Us, last year, and in January he became the first African American to win a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama series. (Note: He never cried during any of his acceptance speeches. Acting!)
On September 25, Brown returns for the third season of This Is Us—or as he calls it, TIU—so break out the Kleenex. He’ll also have us crying in fear when he steps onto the big screen in The Predator, the sixth film in the sci-fi/horror franchise. How does it feel to join an iconic franchise that started with a 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film? “I don’t even think of it in terms of franchise—I think of it in terms of the nostalgia,” says Brown, calling from Los Angeles earlier this summer. “Being a little kid who watched this movie with these larger-than-life people up on the movie screen and now being up on the movie screen? This is make-believe at the highest spirit, and I get a chance to do that for a living. It’s pretty sweet.”
Given your age, I assume you were a big fan of Predator growing up?
That is correct. I was a kid of the ’80s, and everybody in it was larger than life—Arnold in his prime! And I was a huge fan of Carl Weathers. And Bill Duke—I’m constantly teased by my friends that I’m taking all of his roles because I’m a darker-skinned African-American male.
Let’s get to the important stuff: Do you show off the abs?
I do not, thankfully, because most of this was shot outside in Vancouver in February! But my costar and immensely more ripped fellow thespian, Mr. Trevante Rhodes, spends most of the movie with his arms exposed. So we have actual guns, and then we have Trevante’s arms—which are pretty much the same thing.
Agreed. Those things are unreal. So do you need to see the previous Predator movies before you see this one?
If you’ve seen the original one and two, specifically, there will be some Easter eggs that you will appreciate. That being said, if you haven’t seen any of the previous films, this one also stands on its own. There’s a bit of comedy to it, but it’s also dark. And people get effed up. The Predator is ridiculous! There’s a guy and he’s in a suit, and he’s like a 6-foot-7 parkour athlete. He is so freaking bada**. The man is wearing, like, 20 pounds of latex but still whupping a** with the utmost of ease. People will be fascinated by the athleticism that is the Predator.
What was your first reaction to seeing him? Were you like, Holy Moly?
Yeah! That was it—like, Oh s***! This is really happening! This is him! You have puppeteers who control his face and the movements of his mouth, and then you have him inside there, just doing jumps and kicks and flips and all this stuff. I got excited! He was trying to hurt me at the time—because that’s what predators do—but at the same time I was going, Whoa, this is really cool! The Predator’s trying to f*** me up!
What are your actual fears in real life?
Oftentimes as an actor you have a fear of looking foolish, because you always want to put your best foot forward. So I would say that and failure—doing something and not doing it as well as you would like to. I think it’s one of the things that has driven me but also something I’ve had to release the grip on, because you’re not going to knock it out of the park every time. You have to give yourself the space to grow.
But, like, what are you really afraid of?
At the end of the day, I really don’t like raccoons. [Laughs.] Because they’re nasty, first of all. They’re very intelligent, and they’re pack animals, so when you see one, you’re probably gonna see five or six of them. They are one of the few woodland creatures, quote-unquote, that do not scamper when they are faced with humans. A raccoon will stay and look at you and be like, “We got a problem.” And I’ll be like, “No, I’ll leave now. I’m going to give you a wide berth.” Because any animal that is that gangster, who will stare me down, I will gladly back away from. They’re rabid, they’re disgusting, and I want no part of it.
Good to know! Let’s move from fears to successes. After you won an Emmy for O.J., did you pinch yourself every day?
It’s still a bit of a shock. Every day, I’m acclimating to a new normal. More than anything else, I secretly mourn the loss of anonymity. As an actor, one of your favorite things to do is people-watch, and it’s really hard to people-watch when people are watching you. [Laughs.] You can’t really be a fly on the wall, listening to someone’s conversation, when they’re like, “Oh my god, it’s Randall!”
Speaking of Randall, like most people, I’m obsessed with This Is Us. It’s my free weekly therapy session. Thank you for that.
So, have you always been good at crying on command?
[Laughs.] I remember having a breakthrough with regard to vulnerability in public in grad school. I was doing an August Wilson play called Seven Guitars, and there’s this moment when my character is remembering how his mother used to always sing the Lord’s prayer to him, and he’s a musician, so he starts to sing the Lord’s prayer. I remember finding myself with tears streaming down my face and thinking, Wow, there’s something happening—there’s a connection. There’s a remembrance of my mom and her sort of religious background, and then the character that I’m playing and his mom’s religious background, and then mourning the loss of his mother, and I’m thinking, Man, what would happen if my mom were gone? Ever since that moment, the ability to access strong emotion has been relatively on the surface.
Your dad passed away when you were a kid. That must have been tough.
I was 10. And I don’t think I cried over his death for about five or six years. Because I thought that now I was the man of the house, and I had to keep it together. That was the first time I saw my mom cry, and I thought, Well, we all can’t cry. So I’m gonna let mom cry, and I’m going to try to keep moving forward. It wasn’t until five or six years later, and I’m stepping into this new stage of life where I don’t get to ask my dad questions—liking girls and navigating that whole social landscape—and I knew he would have had just the right thing to say, and it sort of came out. There are a few different touchstones in life that sort of crack open my chest and spill it all out. And so now—you say the show is therapy for you? It’s been therapy for me, too. Sometimes we don’t even recognize the things that we’re holding on to that we need to let go of to process and move forward. And the show has offered me this tremendous opportunity to do exactly that.
Have you learned any good parenting or marriage lessons from doing the show?
Not lessons, per se, but what will happen from time to time is my wife will check me. She’ll say, “Look, man, I know your basketball game is on and you’re absorbed in that, but right now I need you to do what Randall would do.” And immediately I turn off the game, I start washing dishes, I vacuum the house. I’m like, “OK, you got it—I’m having a selfish moment. I shall now become R.P. and become the best husband that there is!” Because he is irrefutably a better husband than me. As far as being a father, I think I give him a run for his money.
We don’t have many examples of black family life on network TV. I assume a lot of viewers see your nuclear family on This Is Us as the model black family. Do you feel a lot of pressure to portray that experience in a certain way?
I don’t feel pressure. I feel privilege, because I recognize not every show has the same sort of crossover appeal. Our show crosses everything: It crosses generations; it crosses cultures. So we have an opportunity in the nuclear #blackpearsons family to show to people who may not come in contact with black America that we are not that different: We love our children; we love our spouses; we do the best we can with what we know how to. In my mind, people grow through exposure, which can come through books, through travel, and, God willing, it can come through media. It may change the way you deal with a black man or a woman the next time you see them, because you follow that love of Randall and Beth and Tess and Annie and Deja. And nothing gives me greater joy than knowing that that is a possibility.
In your Golden Globes speech this year, you talked about feeling “seen” in this role. Color-blind casting has become more common in Hollywood, which obviously is great in many ways, but it must be nice to play a character like Randall, where his blackness is front and center.
A wealth of opportunity has been given to actors of color because of color-blind casting, but I don’t want anyone to be blind to who I am. When people actually see you and appreciate you for who and what you are, there’s something about that that gives you access as a performer to bring the fullest of your humanity to what you’re doing. Oftentimes, when a character is written to possibly be white and not African American, you have to do some massaging to make it work exactly the same way. And sometimes it feels like taking a square peg and sticking it into a rectangular hole. Like, it’ll fit, but you kind of gotta jostle it a little bit. When you get a chance to call on your life experiences in a very specific and cultural way, it feels like home. And so even though he was raised by white parents, Randall feels like home. I dare you to find someone who hasn’t questioned their identity at some point: Am I black enough? Am I male enough? Am I woman enough? Do black people do this? I love to live in the body of someone who is such a beautiful, caring, and giving soul, who is always questioning and trying to be better. He’s a bit of a neurotic, but he’s a lovable neurotic.
OK, lastly, I have to ask you about being in Black Panther. You took your son to the premiere, right?
Yes, my older son, Andrew.
How was seeing it with him?
It wasn’t quite the experience I thought it was going to be, because it was way more emotional for him than I anticipated. As you know, I die in the movie—N’Jobu dies. And I looked over at Andrew, and he was fine. But then when Killmonger died, he was the most inconsolable I have ever seen him! So, note to self: Anytime the character who plays your son in a film dies, maybe don’t take your son to go see it. [Laughs.] It’s a learning curve. I had to experience it one time, and now I know.