Standing outside a Mayfair hotel suite waiting to interview the American actor Sterling K Brown, I hear what sounds like some kind of sports event going on inside: grunting, laughing, cheering. Do I have the wrong door?
No, it turns out that Brown, 43, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr — the 25-year-old who plays his sporty son in the forthcoming indie film ‘Waves’ — have been talked into doing a shirtless press-up contest by the previous interviewer. Brown wins (narrowly), managing 51 to his co-star’s 50.
By the time I join him, however, he is back in a spotless white shirt, tucked into beige corduroys, and barely seems to have broken a sweat. Getting physical is all in a day’s work for Brown. On Ellen DeGeneres’s American talk show, she challenged him to strip to his waist and ride around the stage on a child’s tractor. Meanwhile, there are fans of NBC’s widely adored comedy-drama series ‘This Is Us’ — shot for five months each year, a 15-minute drive from Brown’s home in Los Angeles — who know in exactly which episodes he shows his abs. “Once they see you with your shirt off,” Brown admits, “they look for other reasons to make you take your shirt off!”
About 6ft tall, he has a way of making everyone around him feel a foot shorter. It’s partly to do with his voice — a hearty, companionable baritone, which he’s lending to the role of a king’s lieutenant in the long-anticipated sequel to ‘Frozen’. On its release in 2013, Disney’s animated reworking of ‘The Snow Queen’ triggered both a box office avalanche (taking more than £1 billion [Dh4.7 billion]) and a touch of frostiness about the fact that all its characters were, as Brown puts it, “a little bit Anglicised” — even those meant to be of indigenous Sami ethnicity.
“It was,” he says, “pretty white the first time around.” In ‘Frozen 2’, which out now, he helps Disney iron out that particular wrinkle by taking the new role of Lieutenant Matthias: he is a soldier who has spent 30 years trapped in a magical forest and, Brown grins, “the black guy!”.
For now, though, the thing Brown is best known for is welling up on screen. He’s become the master of the slow-burning, tearjerking soliloquy. If you’ve seen any of his performances — which also include his turn as N’Jobu, the assassinated father of Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger in ‘Black Panther’ — chances are you’ve seen the waterworks in action. “It has become a bit of a thing,” he concedes. “By and large, people aren’t used to seeing men be emotional ... I don’t have any qualms letting it out.”
He puts it down to the way he was raised: he grew up with two brothers and two sisters, in a St Louis, Missouri, family that lost its equilibrium after his father, Sterling Sr, died of a diabetes-induced heart attack when Brown was 10. Christened Kelby, Brown took his father’s name at 16 to honour him.
“My dad used to cry all the time,” he remembers. “We’d watch movies and the both of us would be crying, and then laughing at each other, and just kept it moving. I never thought it was going to be the asset that it has become.”
Something he keeps telling himself — and repeats aloud three or four times while we’re talking — is he probably needs to lighten up. ‘Waves’ wasn’t exactly a prime opportunity: in Trey Edward Shults’s upsetting family drama, Brown plays a demanding patriarch whose son goes violently off the rails. Late in the film, a heart-to-heart with his neglected daughter (Taylor Russell) gives the actor one of his textbook emotional workouts. “Next job,” he reminds himself, “I’ve got to make people laugh!”
Brown took a long while to reach the level of household recognition he now has in the States. After taking an acting degree from Stanford and an MA in performing arts from NYU, he started out in regional theatre, then moved on to recurring TV roles as a vampire hunter in ‘Supernatural’, and as an NYPD narcotics cop in ‘Person of Interest’.
He could have stayed forever at this jobbing level, like so many of his contemporaries from those NYU days. “Mahershala Ali [who won Oscars for ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Green Book’] was the year above me,” he says. “And we each have multiple classmates, who are brilliant actors, that nobody knows except for us.”
Everything changed in January 2015 when Brown auditioned for the part of Christopher Darden, the much-reviled assistant prosecutor in the OJ Simpson murder trial, in the first season of Ryan Murphy’s ‘American Crime Story’. It was a gift of a role — one of the show’s most shaded and sympathetic, because of the accusations of “race traitor” levelled at Darden when he was simply doing his job.
For months, Brown didn’t expect to be cast. “You know, at a certain point in your career, that there are people in the pecking order above you. Right? And if those individuals wind up passing on it, then maybe it will fall into your lap.
“Out of the blue, they told me they wanted a screen test. I was sitting in the Fox building wondering who else could be auditioning for this part. And every black guy that walked by, I was critiquing, thinking — this dude has dreads, this guy looks way too light. But it was just random brothers who worked at Fox! I was the only guy they called back.”
Brown’s beautifully nuanced performance would go on to snag him 2016’s Emmy for Best Supporting Actor — beating his co-stars, John Travolta and David Schwimmer. A voracious TV watcher and long-standing Emmys geek, he couldn’t believe it. “My soul flew out of my body for a second,” Brown says. “And the doors that it opened were crazy. Life changed.”
The very next year, he’d win a second Emmy — and, a year after that, a Golden Globe — this time, for the lead role of anxiety-prone councilman Randall Pearson in ‘This Is Us’, a then-brand-new show now halfway into its fourth series. Right before he won the Emmy, Nicole Kidman went up to collect hers for ‘Big Little Lies’, and spoke for, as Brown puts it, “a decent amount of time”. Brown’s speech wasn’t long, but before he’d managed to finish it, or even thank his wife, “the music comes up, the camera pulls back, and they retracted the microphone into the ground. I was like, Oh!” He’d later have a dig at the ceremony on Stephen Colbert’s show, saying: “Not everybody can be pretty, Australian white women who have won Oscars in the past.”
There’s a motto that sticks out in ‘Waves’, passed down from father to son before everything goes to hell: “We don’t have the luxury of being average.” I wonder if it resonated with all the hard graft Brown has put in?
“It’s not even about success,” he says. “This is a common sentiment that is echoed in African-American households — not to be a success, but simply to survive. There are so many cards that can be stacked against us. Our starting line is behind the average — and you have to do all of this work just so you can be on even par.”
He wants to see Hollywood’s storytellers become more diverse, so that “roles become more plentiful for more kinds of people”. And he’s doing his bit to nudge the situation forward.
Married to the actress Ryan Michelle Bathe since 2007, Brown suspects that their two young boys — aged four and eight — will get a kick out of seeing him in an animated blockbuster ‘like Frozen 2’.
“They saw ‘Black Panther’ too,” he says. “Some parents are split on whether their kids should be entrenched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a bit more liberal with mine. You know, people will die, but I think you can take it. There’s no bloodshed.”
He says he has “a very strong attachment to fathers and sons,” and recognises it must be related to the early death of his own father. It’s a theme that comes through in ‘Waves’, in ‘Black Panther’, and in ‘This Is Us’, which had a particularly intense storyline about the adopted Randall’s relationship with his dying biological father.
“That thing hooks my attention immediately,” Brown explains, “because I always wonder what my relationship with my dad would be now.”
He found himself misting up during the ‘Hamlet’-like ‘Black Panther’ scene in which N’Jobu appears to Killmonger as a ghost.
Teary male bonding experiences remain a fixture in the Brown household, too. “I remember we went to watch ‘Inside Out’,” he says, referring to Pixar’s tear-jerking animation about the emotional interior life of a young girl. “And I was crying like a baby. The loss of innocence! I was just a blubbering mess.
“And when Peter Parker died in ‘Infinity War’ — little boys love some Peter Parker — I had to pick my son up, put him on my lap, and shake him and tell him it was going to be OK. Then there were tears of joy in ‘Endgame’, when he comes back. We looked at each other and had a moment ...
“It just happens, man! My wife laughs at me. But I don’t even try to fight it any more.”