Sterling K. Brown, Emmy winner. It is a résumé-enhancing qualifier that the This Is Us actor has barely gotten used to. In fact, it’s still a little surprising every time he sees his award in the garage, where the golden-winged beauty he earned for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has lived for almost a year in order to keep her sharp edges and heavy base away from the curious hands and fragile eyeballs of his two young children.
“That night was surreal, and when I think back to it, it sometimes feels like it didn’t really happen,” Brown says. “But there’s tangible proof in the trophy, or reporters will mention it, and it comes flooding back. I allow myself a moment of satisfaction because I know how much hard work and years went into getting on that stage.”
It’s a stage that may very well welcome him back next month, as he is now a contender in the Best Actor in a Drama category alongside Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Kevin Spacey, category regulars Liev Schreiber and Bob Odenkirk, and even his own co-star/TV dad Milo Ventimiglia. “It’s an impressive and intimidating group,” admits the man behind the utterly lovable and relatable Randall Pearson. “I feel like everyone in the category, if they won, I would not be disappointed or upset in the least. The one thing that I try to remind myself is that you need to celebrate other people’s success if you want them to celebrate yours. So that’s what I intend to do September 17, whether I’m celebrating for myself or I’m celebrating for somebody else. If it came my way, I would be through the roof. If it doesn’t, I’m happy to be nominated. Not to sound cliché, but that’s an honor in and of itself.”
It’s comments like that, plus his genuinely affable nature, sense of humor, and overall modesty, that make Brown as easy to like as Randall. Some of the similarities — both dads, both husbands, both men who unfortunately lost their fathers at a young age — helped him find his character. In other ways, he admits, he can’t measure up to the image fans of the Pearson clan project on him because of the role. Given that he’s been back on set for the highly-anticipated Season 2 since mid-July, he doesn’t usually have time to explore those kind of thoughts, but he made an exception for us. Read on to find out why he thinks he made the Emmy ballot, how he feels about being the first black actor nominated in the category in 16 years, and what he believes keeps people watching the NBC drama.
Thrilled to see you back in the Emmy scrum so soon. You had to have expected it, at least a little, given the hype surrounding This Is Us.
A little. People say that you’re in the running for these sorts of things, and you hear different predictions from different outlets and whatnot. I think more than anything, there was a sense of relief that it actually came to fruition in terms of the nomination. Then there was a sense of true awe and gratitude at the fact that the show got  nominations in total, seven for acting, which is kind of insane. I got a chance to share not only my own personal joy but the joy of my castmates [for] our show getting recognized in the Best Drama category. There were celebrations abounding on that particular Tuesday.
Not sure how any work is getting done. Your heads must be so big now.
None at all, whatsoever. [Laughs] We’re so far up in the clouds, it’s not even funny.
People are nutty about This Is Us. Most of us could have put “crying uncontrollably” on the calendar every Tuesday. What is it about this show that you think people responded to?
First of all, in a very simple way, which is sort of interesting in that the show didn’t get recognized in this way, it is the writing. I think our writers, our creator Dan Fogelman in particular, are exceptional, giving all of us as actors substantial things to do and say and having those storylines interweave in a way that informs the past and the present of the Big Three and the Pearson family at large. You don’t get seven acting nominations without some damn good writing. So I just want to say Dan and my writers are killing it.
I also think that it’s a show that, in the midst of everything that sort of focuses on counterculture and anti-heroes — and I do love me some Walter White, and Frank Underwood, and Game of Thrones, and dragons — focuses on people just trying to figure out what’s the next move in their day-to-day regular lives. They’re trying to figure out relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, how to move forward. It’s incredibly relatable. It’s just so well-written that it forced itself into this whole awards conversation. Dan was able to take something that’s simply a family drama, essentially a dramedy, but [make] it feel larger than that [with] the time jumping, the multitude of characters, people who have died but are still a part of the fabric of our storytelling. He took something that shouldn’t be that special or that interesting and made it something quite profound and epic. That people see themselves in either one or all of us as characters is a testimony to our writing once again.
Randall is the focus of a lot of that love. Did you expect people to fall for this nerdy dad/adopted brother so strongly?
No, I didn’t. The show works best to me as an ensemble. The Pearsons who are represented throughout time shoulder the majority of the storytelling, but then we have Toby, Beth, and William helping us tell these stories as well. I don’t know why Randall [is singled out]. I will say this — Dan told me that Randall is the character that most reminds him of himself. That when he goes home to talk to his family, they will say, “So you’re Randall?” And he’ll say, “I guess so, to a certain extent.” He has to shoulder the responsibility of bringing the family together. Holidays are at Randall’s house and whatnot.
I think that Randall, and myself as Randall — because Randall is me, a very particular aspect of me — is this guy that wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s got this incredibly adorable relationship with his mother that his brother and sister often tease him about. He has missed his father, Jack, and has been absent of his biological father his whole life, so he’s been searching. He’s a man who has been in search of a place of belonging fully. He is a Pearson. He loves his family, but he’s also African-American and knows that there are people out there who did not see fit to keep him as a part of their lives. Because of that longing and searching, he becomes a perfectionist, because in his mind, perfection will ensure him love and security. You see someone who is supposed to have it all together, but he is constantly in search of and feels the lack of what’s missing in a very profound way. People want to put their best front forward. They want to put on a face for everyone that everything’s OK. Randall does that. We, as viewers, get a chance to see a little bit behind the curtain. This guy who seems like everything is going his way is actually hurting. I think everybody can relate to that. I relate to him. I admire him.
There is this thing that happens with actors who play bad guys very well like, say, Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. Even the most logical viewer can get wrapped up and confuse actor and character. Does this happen with good guys too? Do people assume you are as awesome as Randall, and is that hard to live up to?
It does happen. When people say, “Is that pretty much who you are?” I’ve got to tell them straight up, “No.” I don’t want to mislead people. Randall is a way better version of Sterling than the Sterling that gets presented in day-to-day life. But I aspire to be more Randall-like in my day-to-day.
I have to do things sometimes just to throw people off. I will randomly sing the lyrics to “The Story of O.J.” out loud so they hear Jay-Z’s lyrics come out of Randall Pearson’s mouth. They’ll be like, “Whoa, that’s weird.” That doesn’t quite fit. I’m very cognizant of the image that’s being put out there and the way in which people perceive me. I’m honored and flattered that they see me as being a decent human being. I try my best to be a decent human being, but I fall short of the mark like we all do on a regular basis. I don’t want to try to fool people into thinking that I’m something that I’m not.
What do you think earned you, in particular, favor with voters?
In terms of getting into this category, I think it began with the Thanksgiving episode when he finds out that his mother actually withheld from him the knowledge of his biological father and him coming to grips with that. It starts off so joyously with Thanksgiving being his favorite holiday because of this thing that transpired in their past. Then that holiday is dashed by this betrayal from his mom. Then Milo and I had a chance to share a scene together in the following episode when I get high on mushrooms and hallucinate. He’s just a man trying to come to grips with where he is in life and not being able to trust the things that he’s been told. What’s real? What’s concrete? What can I hold on to? I think then there’s the Christmas episode and the scene with Beth segueing into the scene with Jimmi Simpson, who played [his coworker] Andy, who was thinking about taking his life. That was something moving.
So starting with the back half of the season, then ultimately coming into “Jack Pearson’s Son.” That was focused on Kevin on opening night of the show, but you also saw Randall desperately trying to keep everything together — his father’s health, his wife having to go be with her mother, to be responsible for the children, pressure at work. It all just imploded on him to where he couldn’t move. He short-circuited. That panic attack.
Then you go from that to Episode 16 in Memphis, where you have this wonderful homecoming for William [played by Emmy nominee Ron Cephas Jones], Randall meeting all this new family and learning some of his history that he’d been searching for his whole life, only to have this high undercut by his father’s demise. So I think that’s where it began, in my mind, I guess.
I don’t myself enjoy the competition element of awards shows, but lots of people spend weeks devoted to arguing who is going to win and why. A lot of the oddsmakers and critics seem to think it’s a tight race between you and Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul). Thoughts?
Jimmy McGill is the s**t. The relationship between him and his brother is absolutely fascinating. Odenkirk is fantastic, absolutely fantastic. I’m a huge, huge fan of his, a huge fan of the show. It’s an impressive and intimidating group. [We’re all playing] such different characters. To be able to say that someone is head and shoulders the best, it’s such a subjective thing. …
Honestly, I don’t think about the odds of it so much as the history of it. I’m the first African-American person nominated [in this category] in 16 years. If I do win, I’d be the first African-American in 19 years, following Andre Braugher on both accounts. [Braugher was nominated for Gideon’s Crossing in 2001, and won for Homicide: Life on the Street in 1998.] I say to myself, “If you have a career like Andre Braugher’s, you’re going to be just fine.” I try not to get too ahead of myself.
There is competition closer to home because Milo Ventimiglia is nominated in the same category. It happens only occasionally that actors from the same show wind up nominated in the same category, and it always makes me wonder how that goes over on a set. Has it made it weird at work?
No. I did the same thing last year. I had two other [The People v. O.J. Simpson] castmates that were nominated in the same category as me, two other actors from the same network nominated in the same category, and then Dr. House himself, who is always worthy of the nomination. It just proves the ensemble argument I made earlier — better together.
Jumping back to the historical aspect of you being the first African-American lead actor in a drama nominee in 16 years, which was a very surprising and disappointing statistic to read, what does that mean to you personally?
It’s big. I feel like I’ve spent so much of my career on the sidelines watching these things happen to other people. And being content to be like, “Oh my God, I don’t know who’s going to win this. I’m so excited.” To be that person now that’s in the conversation, it’s big. [The actors who have won before] are heavyweights — Andre Braugher, James Earl Jones [for Gabriel’s Fire], and dare I say, Bill Cosby, who was the first African-American to win it and then won it three times in a row [for I Spy]. That’s sort of a precarious link right now, but a couple of years ago, you’d have been like, “Wow, what incredible company to be part of” without any sort of asterisk next to it. There’s a great sense of responsibility to live up to the careers that these gentlemen have already put forward, if I do win. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. I don’t want people to just remember me for one thing. I want to be remembered for a body of work, so that when the next guy comes up, he could think of Sterling K. Brown in the same way that I think of Andre Braugher and James Earl Jones.
I think it is important to note that race also plays a big part on the show and in an inclusive way. Like it isn’t trying to be just a show about a white family or a black family; it is about where they come together, where they are different. And then you throw in all these storylines about other categories of people. I so appreciate the diversity and how it reflects reality.
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me for you to say that, and for that to be what I consider also to be the reality of the show. I’ve done a lot of television where I’ve been the black guy. I am always happy to cash a check and get the points towards getting my health insurance. But what I love about This Is Us, and about Randall Pearson in particular, is that his blackness is part of the storytelling. We don’t gloss over the fact that he’s black. We use his race to tell a story that doesn’t get told that often. Even though he is raised by a white family, he still experiences America as an African-American. His parents have to figure out how to deal with that, and [when he is grown] he has to figure out how to deal with that.
It is such a joy when people come up to me and say they see Randall reflected back to them whether they’re black or white. The black people will say, “We don’t get a chance to see this character in life that often — a successful black man who loves his family, loves his children, who is trying to figure out how to proceed in life the best way possible [despite] the unique set of circumstances that he has.” I feel like what the show does with race, we’ve been able to do with regards to homosexuality, with body image with Kate [played by Emmy nominee Chrissy Metz] and her journey. The show is able to show a multitude of people who don’t get represented as often on screen in a very real way. We don’t just gloss over it. Kate’s weight is not always the butt of the joke. She has a serious storyline. Women who are plus-sized get a chance to see someone dealing with that, having a love life, and trying to figure out what their career is. We see her relationship with her brothers. But it’s not all about her being heavy either. She’s a fully realized character. Randall is a fully realized character. I go back to the writers, and the level of thoughtfulness that they put into how they tell the story — it’s remarkable. I sit in that writers’ room and listen. I’m proud of that. Proud.
You guys closed out your first year on such an incredible high. It must be nerve-racking going into Season 2. Are you worried there’s no way to live up to it?
I will say I felt just a tinge of pressure because people love the show so much. You don’t want to have a sophomore slump. And then, I got the first script written by Dan Fogelman, and all of my fears magically went away because the man can write like nobody’s business. As soon as he puts pen to paper and you see where we pick up with Jack and Rebecca the day after their separation and their big argument, and where we pick up as the Big Three on our 37th birthday and see how this exploration of adoption, and singing, and career, and Sophie affects us moving forward into the future — it’s so good. It’s so full. We all get a chance to do something really, really wonderful. As long as Dan Fogelman is at the helm, we have nothing to worry about.
The 69th Emmy Awards will air Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on CBS. Season 2 of This Is Us premieres Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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