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Sterling K. Brown on ‘Black Panther,’ ‘This Is Us’ — and how O.J. Simpson changed his life

The Emmy winner and Golden Globe nominee is sitting on top of the world

When the news dropped, Sterling K. Brown was about two hours away from wrapping up a scene on the set of the emotionally evocative NBC dramatic series This Is Us. It was the kind of nugget that sends Twitter into a tailspin — social media kudos were issued all around. The announcement that Brown is the latest actor to be cast in 2018’s Black Panther whetted the appetite of cinema-watchers everywhere.

Clearly, this has been Brown’s season.

But the Stanford grad (who also earned an MFA from New York University), has been working tirelessly in Hollywood for 15 years now — his credits include Person of Interest, Supernatural and of course, the much-missed Lifetime show, Army Wives. But it wasn’t until last year’s epic FX series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, that his portrayal of prosecutor Chris Darden made people stand up and take real notice. And soon, he’ll be lighting up the silver screen as part of Marvel’s Black Panther, a cast chock-full of some of the best black actors around — Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o among them.

“Everybody,” Brown said, “meets you at their own time. Even when things weren’t perfect, I’ve never not had a roof over my head. I’ve never not had love in my life. To finally be hitting people’s radar … I just hope I’m able to continue to excite and surprise people.”

We chat.

You’ve been at this for 15 years, and now a big payoff is happening. What that’s been like for you emotionally?

Kind of amazing. Success for me is being able to pay the bills, being able to provide for my family, being able to have a comfortable life, and I’ve been able to do that. It’s been more than enough. So 2016 happens, and all of a sudden, the game done changed! In a big way. From The People V. O.J. — which was a phenomenal experience — and now to be a part of This Is Us, which is proving to be equally phenomenal. And then, [last week] to join the Marvel family is truly great. Like crazy.

It’s a dream, right?

I was reading Reginald Hudlin’s series of the Black Panther 10 or 12 years ago and I remember loving it. A friend of mine was like, ‘Dude, you should buy the rights.’ I was like, ‘C’mon, man. Ain’t nobody going to do no black superhero movie!’ And here we are, 12 years later. It did my heart good to see Chad [Boseman] in Civil War. And after having read the script — which I can’t say anything about or I’m going to have to cut off my pinkie toe — I’m excited for fans to see what Nate Moore and Ryan Coogler has in store for them. It’s something special.

“I can’t say anything about the Black Panther script, or I’m going to have to cut off my pinkie toe.”

What does it mean to be a part of a cast of the most anticipated film of 2018? You all are aware of what this film could mean for black creatives everywhere …

I just worked with Chad on a film called Marshall, about Thurgood Marshall. He’s such a talented human being and a deep soul. He’s the perfect personality to fully inhabit T’Challa. So, to rejoin him, and to work with Academy Award winners … to be with Michael B. Jordan after the incredible work he’s done in Creed. Danai Gurira … Forest Whitaker — like, it’s embarrassing. I’m good at what I do — I don’t try to do any sort of false modesty — but, ‘Wow! I get to be with all of you people!?!’ I think Ryan Coogler is one of the great storytellers that we have working today. The meeting I had with Nate Moore before I even got to chance to audition for Panther, and to see the level of knowledge, and just passion that he has for the whole universe, and for this project in particular … it’s in such good hands. I worked with Joe Robert Cole — he was one of our writers on The People vs. O.J. who co-writes with Ryan Coogler [on Panther]. Like, everyone is so good at what they do.

It all sounds amazing.

I was having this conversation with Nate and he’s saying that Ryan was asking him, ‘So how many white people are going to be in this thing?’ And Nate was like, ‘Well, it’s going to take place in Wakanda, so probably it will be majority African.’ He’s like, ‘Can we do that? Can we do that?” And he’s like, ‘Well, that’s the world, and that’s what we’re gonna do.’

You can’t say anything about the film, I know. But what can you tell us about your character? Anything?

I don’t want to get kneecapped … so I’m just going to keep it at this level: He is somebody from T’Challa’s past.

Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, Atlanta, black-ish. Even This is Us, People vs. O.J. — the level of diversity that is happening is proving to be lucrative.”

We’re in the thick now of one of the most diverse — and more specifically, the most black — awards seasons in memory. What’s it like to be a part of a moment like this?

I’m looking around and I’m seeing a lot of things on TV that reflect my life in a way that hasn’t been commonplace. There’s been a bit of a drought. Empire just kind of broke things open on the television front. Now you got Luke Cage and you got Queen Sugar and Atlanta and you got black-ish. Even This is Us, People vs. O.J. — the level of diversity that is happening is proving to be lucrative. What my man Coogler did with Creed, he was like, ‘Well, let me show you something. I can make a popcorn movie that’s an artistic movie that will move you and make you cheer at the same time. How do you like me now?’ Ranging from something like Creed to something like Moonlight, which is so quiet and so beautiful, like a poem unfolding to someone who basically just took a stage play by one of the great African-American playwrights and said, ‘Not only is this a great play, I’m going to show you it’s a great movie.’ To be alive. To be African-American and alive — it’s a good thing.

And TV this season has been very black. So much representation.

I always thought the right time was back with Norman Lear was doing everything, And not to say that he’s not still doing everything, because One Day at a Time [is out now]. But when you’re looking at Good Times and All in the Family and The Jeffersons, I’d be like, ‘Man, this dude is making stuff that was audaciously funny, politically astute, and unafraid to show the totality of humanity.’ I feel like finally we are reaching a place again, and it’s not the same story being told over and over again. black-ish is not the same story as Atlanta. There’s room and space for the diversity of the African-American experience to be shown on television and on film, I’m very excited and very happy.

You chased your Emmy win up with the very thoughtful This Is Us, and now Panther is in the mix. How have these moments altered how you move in the Hollywood space?

That’s a good question. And the answer is still in process, right? But I will say this, I’m being presented with opportunities that I haven’t been given before. Before it was like, you hope to get a good guest spot. If they like you, maybe it becomes a recurring, and if it became recurring, then they make you a serious character. So to be starting with the benefit of the doubt — what I mean by that is when I go into a room now, I’m not having to prove myself from scratch. There’s an enthusiasm.

This Is Us gut-punches us every episode. What made you pick that role?

The script. Straight-up. They brought me into a meeting … and as far as network television goes, this is the best script that I’ve had the pleasure to read for. It made me laugh out loud, it brought me to tears, just off of the take.

To be alive. To be African-American and alive — it’s a good thing.”

Will we ever see you play an athlete? Is there a real-life athlete who has a story you’d like to help tell?

I like football, I like basketball, I like boxing. Those are my big three. But there’s something so pure about boxing. Somebody said something about B. Hops [Bernard Hopkins], this big guy who had a tough end to an incredible career. That would be a very cool story because he’s such an interesting personality; he’s a fascinating human being. Now, I ain’t got too much longer. I don’t know how old Denzel was when he did The Hurricane, so I got to get at it pretty soon!

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.