After six seasons of portraying network television’s favorite dad on “This Is Us,” Sterling K. Brown isn’t leaving Randall Pearson behind. Nor does he want to; his breakout role is along for the ride.
The 46-year-old actor made his debut on the popular NBC series in 2016 on the heels of his Emmy award for his supporting role in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.” Brown went on to earn numerous accolades during his run on “This Is Us,” including several back-to-back best actor Emmy nominations — he won in 2017 — and the Golden Globe award in 2018, making him the first Black actor to win in the Best Actor in a TV Drama category. At the same time, the actor was picking up nominations for projects he filmed during his time off from the show: a supporting role on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and a SAG ensemble nod for “Black Panther.”
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Brown wants to continue surprising audiences with his range of roles. Upcoming projects include “Biosphere” with Mark Duplass, a biopic on Arkansas lawyer and politician Scipio Africanus Jones, and a recently announced role in sci-fi thriller “Atlas” with Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu. Soonest, though, is the satirical “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” which Brown filmed during summer 2021 before heading into the final season of “This Is Us.” The movie, produced by Daniel Kaluuya, premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released on Friday theatrically and streaming on Peacock. Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions signed on as an executive producer for the film’s distribution.
“Honk for Jesus” marks the feature film debut for twin filmmakers Adamma and Adanne Ebo (collectively, the Ebo twins); Adamma, who wrote and directed the movie and the short on which it’s based, is a recent graduate of UCLA’s graduate film program.
“My manager, Jennifer Stockton, got the script first and said ‘This might be something you should take a look at,’” Brown says. “She said, ‘Take a look at the short and see how it vibes.’ And the short is hilarious — 15 minutes, makes you want to pee on yourself. So I was like, ‘Oh, this would be really, really funny — I’d love to do this.’ Then you read the script, and you go, oh, the script is a little bit deeper than what the short was about.”
The actor leads the film, with costar Regina Hall, as the fashionable pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch. In the wake of a personal scandal, the couple attempt to create their own redemption story — by hiring a documentary film crew — ahead of the church’s reopening. But they discover new competition from a younger married pair on the scene.
“It’s fun; I’m a big ‘Best in Show’ fan, ‘Waiting for Guffman,’ etc.,” says Brown, adding that he was excited to take on a project in a similar vein. “A little bit heavier, because tonally [the film] moves around a wee bit — but a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Gotta get you with the sugar, then give you something to think about, too,” he adds. “It’s a critique, and it sort of lampoons the church to a certain extent, but it comes from a place of love.”
The actor brings dynamism to his character, navigating the comedic moments with nuance and subtlety opposite Hall. “She’s a wonderful [screen] partner,” says Brown of his first time working with the comedy veteran. “We’d seen each other in passing at different award shows, etc., but having the opportunity to spend six weeks with her uninterrupted [was a gift].”
After reading the script, Brown met with the Ebo twins and Hall, who had already signed on to star. “Creatively, everybody was in such sync, and the vibe was so positive,” he says. “And the last contributing factor for me was [to] try to do something different than Randall Pearson. I don’t want to make people cry all the time — they’ve done enough crying for six years. Give their eyes a rest a little bit, see if I can give them a couple of yuks and something else to think about.”
The actor is in New York for several days of promotion in mid-August; Brown started the day early with an appearance on the “Today” show before heading back to the eclectic Whitby Hotel. The actor is upbeat and cheery, a willing model while posing for a portrait. When the photographer suggests a reclined pose, a well-intentioned member of Sterling’s team suggests skipping it in favor of a standing setup to allow his look — a silky mint-colored top and pants set by menswear brand Dzojchen — optimal drape. But Brown is game: why not try it and see? Why not give the creative process a chance?
While the stakes were fairly low for a portrait photo shoot, it matches his approach to his career — take creative risks on stories and emerging talent — and certainly as he moves forward from “This Is Us.” After six-plus years, the actor doesn’t seem to mind fielding questions about his role on the network show, and while it’s possible to consider that, yes, Brown’s job is to act, his gratitude reads sincere. After all, the popularity of “This Is Us” has allowed the established actor to choose the projects he wants to do moving forward, and it allowed him to work close to home in Los Angeles and be there in person to watch his two young sons, with his wife Ryan Michelle Bathe, grow up.
In 2018, Brown established his own production company, Indian Meadows Productions. As a producer, he looks for underrepresented stories with a focus on opportunities for people of color and women. Current projects include an untitled film with Randall Park, and the miniseries “Washington Black,” based on the novel by Esi Edugyan. The project, in post-production, follows a young boy who escapes slavery by way of a flying machine and goes on an international, time-hopping journey; Brown plays a supporting role, and praises the project for centering joy over trauma, and speaks to the power of dreaming big.
While currently based in L.A., Brown lived in New York for eight years as a young actor, and relishes his brief time back in the city. (After graduating from Stanford, he moved to New York as an MFA student in NYU’s Tisch program.) Because of his time in the city, he walks fast — “The G train doesn’t run that often,” he says, knowingly — and hints that he and Bathe could move back to the city after their kids graduate from high school. Brown has his sights set on returning to the stage, and nods to the plethora of interesting and challenging roles available on Broadway for older and mid-age actors.
But until then, he’ll just keep fans guessing.
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