'American Fiction' actor Sterling K. Brown lives and works 'moment to moment' Brown won an Emmy for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson, and another for his role in This is Us. He now appears in the film American Fiction.

Sterling K. Brown recommends taking it 'moment to moment,' on screen and in life

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It looks like my guest, Sterling K. Brown, is about to be in the cultural zeitgeist again. He co-stars in the new movie "American Fiction," which is on many critics' 10 Best lists and is likely to be nominated for Oscars. In the popular miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson," about one of the most controversial trials of the 20th century, Brown played Christopher Darden, one of O.J. Simpson's prosecutors. Brown won an Emmy for that performance in 2016.

He won another the following year for his performance in the popular NBC series "This Is Us." That series brought many viewers to tears. While shooting "This Is Us," he managed to get away long enough to play a small but important role in "Black Panther." He was nominated for an Emmy for his guest appearance on an episode of the popular comedy series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which satirized TV series about police detectives.

Let's start with his new film, "American Fiction." It stars Jeffrey Wright as a college professor and novelist who's Black. He writes fiction that's pretty obscure, like a novel based on the Greek tragedy "The Persians" by Aeschylus. No one wants to publish his new novel. It appears to him that the only books white publishers want by Black authors are books about being poor, or in gangs, or addicted to drugs, or being a pregnant teenager. So under a pen name, he writes a book conforming to those expectations to prove his point.

He's offered a huge advance, the book becomes a bestseller, and he gets even more money when the film rights are sold. But the pseudonym leads to unexpected trouble. Sterling K. Brown plays the writer's brother. He's a plastic surgeon who's currently having money problems because his wife has left him and has taken half his practice after discovering he's having gay relationships. He's just come out as gay and is going a little overboard in reconstructing his identity. The film is a funny satire about race and the publishing industry, while at the same time probing complicated family relationships.

Sterling K. Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR. So happy to have you on the show.

STERLING K BROWN: Terry, thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: Did you experience any of the same type of preconceptions about what it means to be authentically Black in your personal life or in your acting career?

BROWN: Absolutely. I found it definitely when I got to Hollywood in the early 2000s, that the idea of being intelligent was something that I needed to shed. Many casting directors'd be like, he's got this smart-guy thing. If he can lose that, then he'll be much more castable. I think that, similar to what you were saying in your intro with regards to the kinds of stories that folks were willing to put money into had to deal with Black folks overcoming certain adversities and dealing with certain traumas. And I think that that was also linked to a certain socioeconomic wash that they thought was appropriate for how Blackness needed to be portrayed in order to be, quote-unquote, "authentic."

GROSS: When you were an economics major and then you interned at the Federal Reserve, did you want to be in business or economics?

BROWN: Yes. I think at that point in time in my life, Terry, the most important thing was being able to pour back into my community in a way that was substantial. And the only way that - the primary way that felt most substantial was through financial resources. So my goal was to make money. I felt like my mom sent me to this fancy college prep school, and I got into Stanford University. I felt like the most important thing that I could do to show my appreciation is make sure that I was able to be a contributing member of the family, a contributing member of the community in terms of financial resources.

So I said, what better way to make money than to be an economics major, learn what money does and how I can make more of it, right? And what I found through my first year at Stanford and through this internship at the Federal Reserve Bank, was that while I was good with numbers, I wasn't really interested or passionate about the inner workings of what it took to make money. Like, money in and of itself wasn't a driving force for me that motivated me to continue - I couldn't see a life just making money if there was - if I wasn't doing something that excited me or ignited me in a more passionate, spiritual, holistic sort of way.

GROSS: OK, so you found the passion in acting.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: But this reminds me of a line that you say in "American Fiction." So, you know, your brother, the main character in the story...

BROWN: Yup.

GROSS: ...Who's the novelist who can't get published - you say to him, like, you know me and your sister, like, we're doctors. We save people. Like, what can you do?

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: Revive a sentence? And so that reminds me...

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, did you worry, like, OK, so I'm not going to give back to my community through learning about economics and money. What will being an actor give back to my community? Like, what meaning...

BROWN: Great question.

GROSS: ...Does that have in the larger world?

BROWN: Great question. And it's something that I thought about for a while. And so, when I told my mom that I was going to change my major, I knew that she would probably have some questions for me in terms of why I wanted to do it. But most importantly, I had to let her know that I had prayed about it, and I said, yes, ma'am, I had, and I felt led. And that gave her permission to give me permission to dive into it without any sort of regrets or second-questioning.

GROSS: I want to talk with you about the role that you got your first Emmy for. And that's the role of Christopher Darden in "The People V. O.J. Simpson," which was the first season of "American Crime Story."

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: You won an Emmy in 2016. You were - you know, Darden was one of the prosecutors, one of the two prosecutors. And he was portrayed by O.J. Simpson defenders, by people who thought O.J. was innocent, as having the job so that the prosecution could present a Black face.

BROWN: Correct.

GROSS: But Darden really, I think, deeply believed in O.J.'s guilt. So I want to play a clip from the closing argument that you make in "The People V. O.J. Simpson."

BROWN: OK.

GROSS: So here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) Ladies and gentlemen, to grasp this crime, you must first understand Mr. Simpson's relationship to his ex-wife, Nicole. It was a ticking time bomb. The fuse was lit in 1985, the very year they were married. Officers responded after Mr. Simpson beat Nicole and took a baseball bat to her Mercedes. Then in 1989, Nicole had to call 911 again, fearing for her life. When officers arrived, Nicole ran towards them yelling, he's going to kill me. He's going to kill me. She had a black eye, a cut forehead, swollen cheek. In her torn bra, Nicole pleaded with the officers. You've come up here eight times. You never do anything about him.

(As Christopher Darden) And they want to tell you that the police conspired against Mr. Simpson. This case is not about the N-word. It is about O.J. Simpson and the M-word - murder. Now, I'm not afraid to point to him and say he did it. Why not? The evidence all points to him. In February 1992, Nicole filed for divorce. She was running away from the man who said he'd kill her. She saw the explosion coming. Why else fill a safe deposit box with threatening letters from the defendant, a will and police photos of past beatings. She knew that the bomb could go off at any second. And then it did.

GROSS: Now I'm going to skip ahead to the end of your closing argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) He's a murderer. And he was also one hell of a great football player. But he's still a murderer.

GROSS: When I saw the series, I thought, oh, you look so much like Christopher Darden.

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: And it was just - you're so good in it.

BROWN: Thank you.

GROSS: You were in college at Stanford during the trial. What did you think of O.J. at the time? Did you think he was guilty or innocent?

BROWN: I'm going to be honest and say, like, it was a second consideration. It wasn't the first thing on my mind. I think that was sort of what a lot of us were experiencing - was that we wanted the criminal justice system to work in favor of someone who looked like us because we were accustomed to it working against us. But in terms of, like, seeing someone beat the system who doesn't typically beat the system, I think that was the driving factor, at least for me, in terms of why I rejoiced in his innocence at the time, in the not guilty verdict, right? And it was such a strange thing to step into, Terry, having been so pro-O.J. and anti-Darden as a young person, to have an opportunity to step into that other person's shoes and experience life from their perspective. And it was - me and my friend, Sarah Paulson, had the best time on that show because she would read Marcia's book. I would read Chris' book. We would read excerpts to one another. We would go over the evidence, and the evidence is pretty overwhelming. I'll say this, that...

GROSS: She was the main prosecutor and your partner in the trial.

BROWN: Correct. And the way that it was set up, even in the room, in the courtroom - like, we had sort of crappy kind of chairs, and the Dream Team had, like, these spinning swivel chairs that had, like, nice armrests on them and everything. And Sarah and I would look over at them, and we're like, going to beat these bastards, you know what I mean? - like, completely convinced that we were going to sort of, like, retell the trial and it was going to come out the way that we wanted it to.

GROSS: Did you see - as a young man, did you see...

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Christopher Darden as a traitor for prosecuting a Black man?

BROWN: Absolutely, hands down, 100%. He was persona non grata as far as I was concerned. Like, you're trying to take down one of our heroes. I think that's the way - a lot of Black folks will relate to people who, quote-unquote, "make it," celebrity or otherwise. But particularly celebrity and particularly at that time, we have so few people that are able to make it to a level of esteem, notoriety, what have you, that the idea that the system, the man, that you know, America is trying to bring them down and that a Black man got attached to - being Christopher Darden - to the wrong side, it just felt like, why are you allowing them to use you? That was definitely my perspective at age 18 or 19 when it happened.

GROSS: So what changed your mind? Was it stepping into Christopher Darden's role, you know, becoming him for the series, or was it examining the facts more closely?

BROWN: Yes. That's yes to both of them. The DNA evidence is overwhelming. My perspective as a human being has shifted in terms of - also in terms of playing Christopher Darden, like, who was the voice for the people who were murdered? They don't have anyone to speak for them. And so someone has to do it, right? Even getting into Darden's book, in terms of being a prosecutor, he's like, we need to have a Black presence in all facets of law enforcement, whether that is as police, whether that is as prosecutors, as defense attorneys. Like, a presence in all of those things means that we can work from the inside. And I think that that's sort of an admirable perspective that he has on how law enforcement can work at its best.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sterling K. Brown. He co-stars in the new film "American Fiction." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BELLAR'S "HOT BOX MAGIC")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sterling K. Brown. He co-stars in the new movie "American Fiction." He won Emmys for his performances in "The People V. O.J. Simpson" and the series "This Is Us" and was nominated for another for his guest appearance on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

So let's talk a little bit about "This Is Us." And this is a series - this was a series, an incredibly popular series, about three siblings. And the white mother was pregnant with triplets.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: But only two children survive. So the father, who's also white, decides - like, he'd planned on taking home three babies, and that is what he's going to do.

BROWN: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: So he adopts a baby born the same day who is left at the door of a firehouse. Now, that baby is Black. So you're the adult version of that Black baby who grew up in the white family. So you're set apart from the family in two ways. You're the only Black person in the family. And you're only - you're the only sibling who's not a twin.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: In part of the series set in the present, you're married to a Black woman. You have two children and later adopt a third. So I want to play a scene from the first episode. You've been searching for your biological father, and you finally found where he lives. So you go - you drive over there. You bang on his door. And as soon as you - as soon as your biological father opens the door, you make a little speech. So let's start with the banging on the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

RON CEPHAS JONES: (As William Hill) Yeah. Yeah. Stop all that banging. And I heard you the first time - banging on the door. Who the hell is...

BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) My name is Randall Pearson. I'm your biological son. Thirty-six years ago, you left me at the front door - but now, hold on. Just let me say this. Thirty-six years ago, you left me at the front door of a fire station. Don't worry. I'm not here because I want anything from you. I was raised by two incredible parents. I have a lights-out family of my own. And that car you see parked out in front of your house cost $143,000, and I bought it for cash. I bought it for cash because I felt like it and because I can do stuff like that. Yeah. You see; I turned out pretty all right, which might surprise a lot of folks, considering the fact that 36 years ago, my life started with you leaving me on a fire station doorstep with nothing more than a ratty blanket and a crap-filled diaper. I came here today so I could look you in the eye, say that to you and then get back in my fancy-ass car and finally prove to myself and to you and to my family who loves me that I didn't need a thing from you even after I knew who you were.

JONES: (As William Hill) You want to come in?

BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) OK.

GROSS: I love how that ends.

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: So the father is played by Ron Cephas Jones, who...

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Died a few months ago. But I love how you casually - how he casually invites you in after this long, negative harangue about him. And you just say, OK.

BROWN: (Laughter) That's a good term.

GROSS: Talk about deciding how to play that and whether you talked about how to play those final notes, whether you talked about it with Ron Cephas Jones.

BROWN: So that was one of the audition scenes for the show.

GROSS: Did you audition with him for that scene?

BROWN: No, no, no, auditioned by myself, you know? So in that scene, I remember thinking that what I understood from reading the pilot of the show and what was very sort of surprising in terms of how it landed on people, ultimately, was that it made me laugh from beginning to end. And so I was always sort of focused on, like, the amount of light that the show had. And so when people talk to me about it, they're always talking about the tears that the show caused. But I think both of those things are true. So I felt like in that scene, like, you have to be able to - you can't live too much in one tone. Otherwise, the show becomes monotonous. So you're able to go in and you give this man the peace of your mind. But at the same time, all you really want is to be in relationship. And so you see that front-facing anger towards this man. But really, what he wants is to be understood, to understand why he left in the first place and ultimately, to be loved.

GROSS: So Ron Cephas Jones, who was in that scene with you, your biological father in the series - he died a few months ago. And Andre Braugher, who you also work with - and we'll talk about him a little bit later...

BROWN: Sure.

GROSS: He died at the end of 2023. And then you also worked on "Black Panther," and you knew Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer at a young age, shocking...

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Everybody 'cause he didn't make it public. I'm wondering if that made you think about your own mortality.

BROWN: Yes. First of all, yes. And I would say even predating all of those beautiful souls transpiring was my own father, who passed away at the age of 45. And so I've thought about it since then, when I was only 10 years old. And my brother and I will have this conversation. My brother is 14 years older than me, so he's 61 now. And he'll always say that, you know, no Black men in our family have lived beyond age 65. And I remember thinking that, like, that may be true for them, but it does not have to be true for us. And so I've been very conscientious in terms of health and lifestyle choices that I try to make for myself to be here for as long as possible.

I have two beautiful boys - Andrew, 12, Amare, 8 - and I want to be here to experience and enjoy them as much as possible. And beyond them, I'm looking forward to - if they, indeed, have children - to being able to enjoy and experience those young people, as well. So, you know, some things are out of our control, Terry, but the things that are within our control in terms of diet and exercise, in terms of water consumption or whatever else there is out there, I try to make myself as informed as possible so I can be around in the healthiest version of myself for as long as I possibly can.

GROSS: Well, speaking of exercise...

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...You go around shirtless a lot after...

BROWN: (Laughter) I don't go around...

GROSS: In - wait. Wait. Wait.

BROWN: ...Shirtless a lot (laughter).

GROSS: Your character does in "American Fiction"...

BROWN: He does.

GROSS: ...After he comes out. And so we could see your chest, and it is very ripped.

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: So you've been in the gym a lot. So I know you're...

BROWN: Sure.

GROSS: ...Doing your part in terms of exercise.

BROWN: I appreciate that.

GROSS: So let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sterling K. Brown. He co-stars in the new film "American Fiction." We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA KARPMAN AND ELENA PINDERHUGHES' "(ELENA'S) MONK IS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sterling K. Brown. He co-stars in the new movie "American Fiction." He won an Emmy for his portrayal of prosecutor Christopher Darden in the miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson" and had a small but important role as a Wakandan prince in "Black Panther." He starred in the popular TV series "This Is Us," where he portrayed Randall Pearson, the adopted Black son in a white family. He won an Emmy for that role, too, and was nominated for another for his guest appearance in the comedy series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." When we left off, we were talking about how his life was changed by his father's death.

You know, so you were talking about, like, losing your father when you were 10. And he was in his 40s. You know, one of the focal points of "This Is Us" is the loss of the father. So much of the story is flashing back to the impact of the father and the father's death on the three siblings' lives.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm wondering, like, in the day-to-day world of your lifetime, how much of it has been spent thinking about the loss of your father and how much of his loss - this is a lot to ask in one question. I apologize.

BROWN: It's all good. Go for it.

GROSS: But how much that loss affected your sense of who you were, of your own confidence, your self-esteem, your identity? You could probably talk for hours about that, so I apologize for packing that into one interview question on a radio show (laughter).

BROWN: Hakuna matata. I will try to synthesize and make it as concise as possible. My dad is one of the most beautiful people that I had an opportunity to know in my life. And it was a short time, but it was full and meaningful. I was my dad's only son. I have other siblings, but I am my dad's only son. And my mom would often come up to my dad, whose name is Sterling Brown Jr., and say, like, Sterling, you're going to spoil that boy. But I tell you what, the love that he poured into me is still with me.

There are specific moments of interactions that we have. I would sit and watch boxing matches and football matches with my dad. Like, those were his two favorite sports, so they're probably kind of my two favorite sports as well. We would wash his car outside, where he'd play his Michael McDonald 8-track...

GROSS: Oof (laughter).

BROWN: ...In the pink Eldorado Cadillac as we washed it. And we'd listened to, like, (singing) I keep forgetting how you made it so clear - you know, whatever it was. Like, we have moments of bliss that are so ingrained into my soul. And while you don't remember all of the specifics, you remember that, like, that man loved me as much as any human being could love another human being.

GROSS: So your father was Sterling Brown Jr.

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: But you went by your middle name, Kelby, until you were 16.

BROWN: Correct.

GROSS: Why did you go by that name and why did you change it back to Sterling Brown and keep the K as the middle initial?

BROWN: So my mom tells a famous story. She said when I was in kindergarten and I had to spell out my name for the teacher, I came back home and I said, Mom, I think I'm going to go by Kelby. And I said, because Kelby is five letters and Sterling is eight, and it's just way faster for me to get through. I told her, I said, when I'm 16, though, you can call me Sterling again. Now, I didn't remember this. My dad passed away when I was 10, almost 11. And it had been about five years that I hadn't heard his name in my life on a regular basis. And honestly, Terry, it was just like, I wanted to hear his name. I wanted to hear the name of Sterling. So I said, hey, guys. Could you call me Sterling now? - because I just wanted to - maybe I felt like I - and I think I really grieved my father about five years after his passing away.

I think for the first five years, I felt like I had to be the man of the house. I had to keep it together for my mom. I also believed that my father - and still believe that my father ascended to heaven, so that he was in a better place. But that still didn't allow me the space to, like, really just be like, I miss you, I miss this man. And so I think it took about five years for me to fully let that out. And then after I let that out, I was like, OK, I'm ready to hear his name again.

GROSS: So I want to mention another parallel between your life and your character Randall's life in "This Is Us." Randall decides since he was adopted, he's going to kind of pay it back and adopt a girl. And the person who he adopts is in her teens, and her mother is addicted to drugs, and that's why she needs a home. And, you know, your mother adopted two children when you were in college. Were they teenagers, too? And why did your mother decide to adopt two children at that stage in her life?

BROWN: Good question. They were not teenagers. They were babies.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

BROWN: And so my Aunt Vera, who I adore - she's always - my mom's little sister was the collector of things in her family's life - like, pets and stuff - and would be like, she got a new cat. She got a new dog. But my Aunt Vera was also dealing with substance abuse issues at that particular time in her life. So she would get a dog - go to the Humane Society, get a dog, get a cat or whatever. And then she would be gone for a while, so then that dog or cat became somebody else's. My aunt was also fostering my little brother, Robert, who is now 25 or 26 years old - just had a birthday. And she was fostering, and then she went missing for a period of two weeks.

She had dropped the - my little brother off at my mom's house. And my mom called the social worker after a day and said, listen. I want you to know this little boy is here with me. Social worker came to the house and said, are you OK to keep him? And my mom said, yes, absolutely. So then my mom became the foster parent for my little brother Robert. Then the birth mother for Robert, who was dealing with substance issues herself, was pregnant with twins, my little sister Ariel and my little sister Avery. And the social worker said, would you be willing to take on these twins as well? And my mom said yes.

Now, I don't mention my little sister Avery that much because early on in her life, she passed away from SIDS. And it was very difficult for my mom. She was like - why would God bring these children into my life to have one of them pass away? - and for a minute was wondering whether or not she would wind up keeping them. But after a moment of just saying, like, my life is more full and rich with them in it than without them, she decided to continue fostering, and then another two years later, wound up going through the formal adoption process. And so my brother Robert and my little sister Ariel have been with us for 25 and 23 years now. And my little sister Avery, similar to - Kyle is the young man's name in "This Is Us," the third of the triplets that didn't make it - went on to sing with the angels.

GROSS: That's quite a story.

BROWN: Yeah. It - I have quite a mom. I have to say that, too. She's an extraordinary human being.

GROSS: There's so much that you must have related to in "This Is Us."

BROWN: Oh, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. Your mother must have been very - is she still alive?

BROWN: My mother is still alive. And here's an interesting one. I don't talk about it that often, but I'm talking about it more now because I think that the universe is calling me into some sort of action. And I'm still figuring out what that is. My mom was diagnosed with ALS in April of...

GROSS: Sorry to hear that.

BROWN: Thank you very much. I appreciate that - diagnosed in April of 2018. She lost the ability to speak in October of 2018. And I think has far exceeded the expectations of most doctors in terms of lifespan, because she's still with us and about to go into 2024. But the joy that my mom is able to hold on to in the midst of this incredibly debilitating disease, the smile that she still has for the people who walk into her sphere is radiant. And it shows you, shows me, that first of all, I don't have to allow circumstances to dictate how I am in the world, that I still have choice. I may not have choice over what my - what the circumstances are, but how I respond to them. And my mom has been a shining example of how to maintain radiance in the midst of a very difficult situation.

GROSS: My guest is Sterling K. Brown. He co-stars in the new film "American Fiction." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sterling K. Brown. He stars in the new movie "American Fiction." He won Emmys for his performances in the popular TV series "This Is Us" and in the miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson," and was nominated for another for his guest appearance on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." In the film "Black Panther," he played a prince killed by his brother, the king.

Well, since we've been talking about "This Is Us" and how it relates to your own life, I want to play your Emmy acceptance speech for "This Is Us." And this was in 2017. And in this excerpt of your acceptance speech, you're holding your Emmy, and that's what you're referring to when you say, this one right here. So here's the excerpt of that speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: This one right here, like, this one right here, when I think about it, like, Walter White held this joint.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Dick Whitman held this joint. I may have lost some of y'all, but, you know, Google it.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: And 19 years ago, detective Frank Pembleton held this joint...

(APPLAUSE)

BROWN: ...As impeccably played by Andre Braugher.

(APPLAUSE)

BROWN: I just want to say, Mr. Braugher, whether it is at Stanford University or on this Emmy stage, it is my supreme honor to follow in your footsteps.

(APPLAUSE)

BROWN: I want to thank Bob Greenblatt, Jennifer Salke at NBC for your support from the beginning. I want to thank Dana Walden, Gary Newman and everyone at 20th Century Fox for keeping your brother gainfully employed. Appreciate that. I want to thank my cast. Milo, Mandy, Justin, Chrissy, you are the best white TV family that a brother has ever had.

(APPLAUSE)

BROWN: Better than Mr. Drummond, better than them white folks that raised Webster. I love you. Susan Kelechi Watson, it is my pleasure to rep Black love with you, sister. Let's keep doing it like Martin and Gina. Ron Cephas Jones, you just have to show up and the work is already there, brother. Thank you so much for embodying the presence which is never an absence. I love you. Our writers, you are our - you can play. You can play. You can play. I can get that loud - nobody got that loud music. Writers, I love you. You are our life's blood. Our producers and directors, I love...

GROSS: You were so funny in that - especially when you were being played off. What went through your mind when the orchestra started playing to...

BROWN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Tell you that your time was up; get off the stage?

BROWN: Oh, my goodness, that is - the fact that you played that through to the end was priceless 'cause I was like - I was thinking in my mind, I was like, this is when I got cut off; isn't it?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.

BROWN: I remember thinking that I saw earlier in that show, Nicole Kidman had won best actress in a limited series. And I remember thinking, I was like, OK, I was listening to her speech, and I was like, oh, man, this speech is taking a little bit longer than the average speech is, but they're giving her a little bit of latitude, so I was like, OK, that's cool. And I was sort of, like, clocking it on my watch. I was like, OK, my speech isn't that long, so I should be OK. And before it came what I thought was close to that length, I was like, oh, my goodness, they're not going to play me off. Like, it's really - it's not going to happen. I was like, let me just keep talking and I'll get a chance to finish what I need to say. And I was sort of surprised because, like, the microphone, they literally pulled it into the ground as if to say, like, bro...

GROSS: No. Are you kidding? Like, it physically...

BROWN: Oh...

GROSS: ...Moved?

BROWN: ...It physically - like, it came, you know, like, it had a hole in the ground that it started to retract back into.

GROSS: Oh, that's so...

BROWN: And I was like, well...

GROSS: ...Funny. I just figured maybe they would, like, mute it or something, but they physically...

BROWN: No.

GROSS: ...Lowered it.

BROWN: They physically lowered it. And it was like, it's time for you to go, sir. And I was a little in my feelings, I'll be perfectly honest, Terry, but I was like, OK. I still won, and I still got a chance to share with a lot of the people what it is that I want to share. You always - in these situations, you always want to thank your wife. So I was like, oh, man, my wife is going to be so mad that I didn't thank her. But I know she knows that I love her and that if I had more time, I would have got there. So, yeah, I was in sort of a state of shock more than anything else. Like, they're really going to play me off.

GROSS: Well, you protested. You said, you didn't play music this loud for anyone else.

BROWN: You know, that's what I was thinking to myself.

GROSS: So that was all spontaneous. You hadn't rehearsed like, say I'm played off. Here's what I think I'll say.

BROWN: No, no, completely spontaneous.

GROSS: Oh. That's great.

BROWN: But thank you. Those speeches - when you're blessed to have an opportunity to win something, you want to be able to say something that sticks to people's ribs. And I felt like it was a bit of history in terms of - I was the first Black man to win that particular award, Best Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series, in over 19 years. And the fact that it came after Andre Braugher meant all that much more to me because he's been somebody who I've been looking up to the entirety of my career since I started acting at Stanford University and people said, you know, Andre Braugher went here. And I did some research and saw the wonderful things that he did in terms of Shakespeare in the Park, all of his stage stuff. And that - "Glory" had just come out. And so you got a chance to see him do his thing in that. And "Homicide: Life On The Street" was happening. And by the time I got to NYU, a TV show called "Gideon's Crossing" was on ABC, and he was the main character in that.

And so everywhere I went, I would see this man doing this incredible work with this incredible integrity. The way that he carried himself through the work - not just the work itself but just his presence meant something. I was like, if I can represent the way that that man has represented, you'll be doing something all right.

GROSS: While you were shooting "This Is Us," you got away long enough to shoot a couple of scenes in "Black Panther." First of all, what did "Black Panther" comics mean to you when you were growing up?

BROWN: I didn't read the comic...

GROSS: Oh.

BROWN: ...Growing up. But I did - when I graduated from NYU, Reginald Hudlin had done a new series of the "Black Panther" comic, and it was entitled "Who Is The Black Panther?" And it was a series of about five graphic novels that I consumed and loved because I didn't know about T'Challa until I was 25 years old. And then as I was working on a TV show with a friend of mine called "Army Wives," he asked me - so he goes, are you into any comics? I said, you know, not hugely, but I am into this "Black Panther" comic. And I showed him my collection, and he goes, dude. He goes, you should try to get the rights to this so you can make the movie. And I told my buddy, Drew - I said, dude, they're never going to make a Black superhero movie. Get out of here. And then fast-forward. I was like, I should have got the rights (laughter).

GROSS: So how did you know it was happening? And since you couldn't get away for long because you were shooting "This Is Us," how did you manage to get a role in it?

BROWN: So I auditioned for it, and I felt like I did, you know, a good job. And I had a meeting with Ryan Coogler, the director of "Black Panther," and he goes, listen. You're not quite right for this one role who is of the tribe that is sort of outside of Wakanda because he has to be a big guy. But there's a role that we have that I think requires a really good actor, and it's not a lot of scene time, but it's important. It sort of, like, sets the narrative into place. And I said, I said, bruh, how can I be down? - because I knew it was going to be a cultural moment because it was something that I could not have conceived of 15 years earlier, when I was reading the comic books, that was now actually coming to life. And it was not just coming to life. It was coming to life with the most Zeitgeisty (ph) movie studio in Hollywood. Like, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was unstoppable at that particular time, and the fact that they were going to put their eggs into the basket of telling the story of the Black Panther was enormous.

So for me, it wasn't a matter of, like, oh, I can't get the part that I wanted. (Vocalizing). I was like, this is going to be huge. Whatever it is that I can do to be a part of it, I am happy. And it turned out to be a great role where all of my friends, of course, would be like, oh, man. I can't believe they killed you so fast. Spoiler alert - I die in the thing. I can't believe they killed you. Well, listen. I have to get back to my day job as well. So the fact that I was able to moonlight in something that did wind up making history - it's something that I get a chance to celebrate until the day that I pass away. I'm so honored that I got a chance to be in that film.

GROSS: My guest is Sterling K. Brown. He co-stars in the new film "American Fiction." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAB SMITH'S "HURRICANE T")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sterling K. Brown. He stars in the new movie "American Fiction." He's known for his performance in the popular TV series "This Is Us" as Randall Pearson. He won an Emmy for that and for his performance as prosecutor Christopher Darden in the miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson." He was also nominated for an Emmy for his guest appearance on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

I want to play another clip. And you talked about Andre Braugher...

BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: ...And how your lives intersected and how you looked up with him. You got a chance to do an episode of the comedy series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" with him. And in the series, he plays a police captain, and Andy Samberg plays a police detective. And, of course, Andre Braugher was famous for being a police detective in "Homicide: Life On The Street," a terrific series that really showed off his acting quite well. So this is basically a parody. This episode of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is a parody of a famous episode from "Homicide"...

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In which Braugher and one of the other detectives are interrogating one witness for the entire episode, for the entire hour-long episode. And that's what happens in the episode of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" - that Braugher and Samberg are interrogating you. You play a dentist who is accused of murdering his partner, his dental partner.

BROWN: Yeah.

GROSS: And they want to get a confession out of you, and you keep coming up with answers. So let's play a clip from that episode.

BROWN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROOKLYN NINE-NINE")

ANDRE BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) So the night of the murder, you met with Robert in the surgical suite. Why there? Why not your office?

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) I was just preparing for the next day's surgeries.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) Don't you have an assistant who does that?

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) I'm a meticulous person. I'm careful how I do things.

ANDY SAMBERG: (As Jake Peralta) So careful that you - I'm sorry. I forgot what I was going to say. Come back to me.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) Now, we did a sweep of the room where you and Robert fought.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) Talked.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) Right, talked. The entire room had been scrubbed.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) It had been cleaned.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) It had undergone industrial sterilization to remove all traces of blood and DNA.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) It's a surgical suite. People bleed in there every day. We have to sanitize it by law.

SAMBERG: (As Jake Peralta) Ooh, I remember what I was going to ask. Did you kill him?

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) No.

SAMBERG: (As Jake Peralta) Ah. If you had said yes, I would have had you.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) So after you and Robert fought...

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) Talked.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) ...You left the office, but you didn't take your car.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) I went to a bar, the Scotchman. I didn't want to drive drunk, so I took a cab.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) And you didn't have your phone.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) I left it charging in my office, and I didn't realize till I was already out of the building.

SAMBERG: (As Jake Peralta) Oh, man. If I go 10 minutes without looking at my phone, my pumpkin crop dies on my little farm.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) It's not the time for stories about your digital squash, Peralta.

SAMBERG: (As Jake Peralta) Fine.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) We're talking about your phone.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) Why does it matter that I forgot it? Oh, if I had it on me, you could have seen it pinging off the cell tower. Doesn't matter - didn't have it on me.

BRAUGHER: (As Raymond Holt) So you took a cab to this bar. But we talked to the employees of the Scotchman. Nobody saw you there.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) Nobody remembers seeing me.

SAMBERG: (As Jake Peralta) But let me ask you this - did you kill him?

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) No. You know, it's not surprising nobody remembers seeing me. The bar was extremely crowded that night, and I spent my whole time in the corner talking to this woman, Dana.

BROWN: (As Raymond Holt) Oh, so you said. But when we ran all the credit card receipts, nobody named Dana ordered any drinks that night.

BROWN: (As Philip Davidson) Hey. Trust me. Dana wasn't buying her own drinks, you know?

(Laughter).

GROSS: That is such a great scene, and your timing is so good. I really want to see you in more comedy.

BROWN: Thank you very much. It made me smile just listening to it. It was so much fun to do.

GROSS: Can you talk about, like, doing that scene and, like, getting the timing right and getting the kind of nonchalance that your character is aiming for?

BROWN: Yeah. It is just dogged repetition. And you show up. One thing you learn in the world of television is that you don't get a lot of rehearsal, so you do a lot of that work on your own by yourself so that when you come to the set, you're ready to dance. And you know that Andy and Andre are going to be ready to go. So you're like, all right, let me not be the weak link in this threesome here. Let me show up ready to play ball the same way as everybody else. And they make it so much fun that it sort of just happens naturally. You'll go over the scene a couple of times before the cameras start rolling, and then you'll start to do it or whatnot. And there's a little bit of a hiccup. It's just like anything else. You'll take it back to the beginning, and you'll do it again.

And you just breathe, Terry. I think for me, more than anything else, is that when you try to stay in the moment, the next moment has a way of taking care of itself. When you're trying to project to the future and be like, oh, I hope I make it to this crescendo at the very, very end, then you sort of, like, wind up missing what's happening just right now. Take it moment to moment in life, on stage, on screen is usually the best recipe to get to the end of anything. That's what I try to do as a performer. And I think those two gentlemen in particular are wonderful at it. And so they made it easy for me to join in the symphony.

GROSS: Thank you so much for coming to our show. It's really been great to talk with you.

BROWN: Terry, the pleasure has been all mine. Thank you for having me, and I look forward to doing it again.

GROSS: Me, too. Sterling K. Brown co-stars in the new film "American Fiction." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, "Sex With A Brain Injury." That's a title that makes you want to hear more. We'll talk with the author of that memoir, Annie Liontas. It's about how a concussion - actually, more than one - changed everything and made sex difficult, led to migraines, dizziness, memory fog, anger and nearly divorce from her wife. We'll also talk about concussion research. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA KARPMAN'S "HI LORRAINE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA KARPMAN'S "HI LORRAINE")

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