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‘American Fiction’ Actor Sterling K. Brown On Breaking Out Of His ‘This Is Us’ Persona And Why You Should Always Listen To The “Still, Small Voice” Within

Prior to American Fiction, Sterling K. Brown was best known as Randall Pearson in the long-running, award-winning NBC family drama series This is Us. The part that director Cord Jefferson was offering him couldn’t have been more different: in Jefferson’s adaptation of the satirical novel by Percival Everett, Brown plays Clifford ‘Cliff’ Ellison, a caustic plastic surgeon and brother to the film’s protagonist, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright). After divorcing his wife, Cliff comes out as gay, further estranging him from his uptight family. This nuanced role allowed Brown to explore the many facets of Blackness and the challenges of the LGBTQ+ community.

DEADLINE: You studied economics at Stanford and interned at the Federal Reserve, among other things that mesh with this upper echelon of the Black experience. American Fiction also touches on other avenues of the Black experience. How did you relate?

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STERLING K. BROWN: Cliff comes from a very upper-middle-class family. My mom was a schoolteacher, my dad was a grocery clerk, but I think the emphasis on education was very big in our family because education was a guaranteed pathway to upward mobility. When I went to Stanford — and my wife and I have had this conversation before — she went full ride. Her father was in information systems and worked at different Fortune 500 companies. He paid her tuition in full. As for me, Uncle Sam helped me tremendously during the Clinton years, and I left Stanford with $12,000 total [debt].

So, I had this feeling when I went to Stanford that all the Black people are going to be like me, hustlers who’re striving beyond odds. And my wife thought they would all be like her [with rich parents]. So, my proximity to [the upper-middle-class lifestyle in the film] probably has more to do with my wife than my own upbringing. I’m bougie by association.

But, in choosing a lifestyle [like Cliff], when I went to Stanford and decided to take the path to acting, most people in my family looked at me like, really? Not many people understood it, except for my mom, who’s seen me act since high school. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s the best one that I have to my own personal life experience regarding Cliff being gay, and not even a decision he was able to articulate because I think he knew not to articulate it because he probably had enough indicators around him that it wouldn’t be the thing to be. I think everybody, to a certain extent, has this feeling of being on the outside, that everybody else understands what it’s like to be a part of the club, and then you feel like you’re on the outside of the club. I think I’ve had that feeling when choosing to be an actor. I think Cliff has that in being gay and finding a way of finding your tribe and acceptance and feeling comfortable with yourself. So, it really doesn’t matter if people agree with your decision or agree with your lifestyle, because your comfort allows you to be whatever you need to be, and to move through the world regardless.

Sterling K. Brown interview
Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown in American Fiction.

DEADLINE: Post-This is Us, you vowed to get roles different from Randall Pearson, between Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., Biosphere and American Fiction, it seems you’ve got this knack for satirically relevant projects now.

BROWN: It’s interesting because those three movies, in their own way, address things around LGBTQ+ lifestyles, but each from a very different angle. Honk for Jesus dealing with the church and the church’s stance on homosexuality and lack of acceptance, and a preacher wrestling with the fact that he’s gay and how he can still do god’s work but sees those things as being at odds with one another.

Biosphere has to do with someone who thinks that they are an evolved, enlightened human being, being faced with something they never thought they would be faced with, and then finding out how their programming can come back into play.

And then, in American Fiction, you’re just talking about somebody seeking to live their authentic truth and tired of other people telling him how he should be or shouldn’t be. He’s comfortable with being messy because he knows at the end of the mess, he can find some form of happiness that he wasn’t able to have up to that point in his life. In all three cases, they’re all funny, satirical things and comedies that come from the truth of exploring a real subject.

I like comedy that’s based on character, that’s based in truth. And I’m not trying to do a bit just to do a bit. I think Lee-Curtis [in Honk For Jesus] was probably the closest, that when the cameras are on him, he probably enjoyed the performative aspects. But I think each one was a gift because I got a chance to flex my comedy bone, which is always fun. These films also just ask some really deep questions too, but because you’re laughing while exploring the characters, you can also catch people off-guard. So, I liked that, and I think I honored myself in terms of that mandate of trying to do something different with each one, not being on the surface where people thought it was going to be, and then coming out of me like, “Damn, I didn’t expect that.”

DEADLINE: Cliff oscillates between spouting cold one-liners and heart-wrenching gems at his brother, being both antagonistic and misunderstood. What did you think of him initially, and how did you determine how you would play him?

BROWN: I thought he was loveable to the people he loved. I thought that Cliff coming back home was like him going into enemy territory because the fond memories that Monk might have don’t match his own. Cliff’s childhood was different because he knew he wasn’t accepted for who he was. If his sister hadn’t passed away, I don’t think Cliff would’ve come home. His sister was the person he was connected to. So, I saw him as someone who was constantly on the back burner because he was just waiting for people to invalidate his existence, because that’s what his experience had been until that point.

So, this humor he has is a way for Cliff to keep his feelings at bay. He uses a certain aloofness to protect himself. And you could say the same about the drugs or anything else. He does not want to be close to anyone in his family because closeness other than that of his sister causes him pain. So, there’s a little bit of the tears of a clown in him because he’s sharp, and that keeps him safe until Lorraine hugs him and says, “You are family.” You can feel Cliff exhale and feel that thing of, “I can be myself here.” And that feels good.

Sterling K. Brown interview
Brown with Susan Kelechi Watson in the pilot episode of This Is Us.

DEADLINE: Another scene that happens just after that that I can’t stop thinking about is when Cliff explains to Monk how he wishes their father got to know the real him before he passed away, even if he would have rejected his lifestyle. How did you personally connect to that? Maybe in your experience as an actor having to power through rejection? What kept you going and was there ever another option for you?

BROWN: I decided to be an actor in sophomore year of college. I’m pretty good at staying the course once I set my mind on something. The only time I felt [unsure] was when I did a TV show for six years called Army Wives. After about three years, I felt I had done everything I could with this character. If they needed to bring in fresh blood and wanted to take somebody out, I even told my showrunner, “If you have to take somebody out for like May sweeps or something, your boy’s offering himself up.” And he was like, “Dude, no, I’m not going to do that.” So, I did the show for another three years, and while other people were renegotiating to go beyond, I knew that I wasn’t going to go beyond. And so, we parted amicably. Then, I did three years of guest spots on shows like Person of Interest and a pilot for AMC that didn’t get picked up.

Meanwhile, I had my first son and we’d bought a house at that time. And I was like, “Man, I wonder if I made the right decision.” And I was talking to a friend, and she said, “Of course, you made the right decision. You did everything you wanted to do artistically, and you’re not in this for the cash. You do this because you love expressing the human condition.”

And I was like, “You’re right. I appreciate that.” Things weren’t destitute, but they were getting to a place… My wife likes a certain style of living, and she’s been accustomed to it. And I’m like, “Oh man, I got to make sure I keep this woman.” And so, it was right after I had this conversation, the next pilot season that I auditioned for was [The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story], and then things happened from there, but in those three years, I wondered, “Oh, should I have done something else? Made a smarter decision?” And I think at the end of the day, the universe, god, nature have shown me that if I listen to the still, small voice and am obedient in that way of trusting that you are where you’re supposed to be on purpose, not by happenstance, that good things tend to come my way.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Oscar Preview issue <a href="https://issuu.com/deadlinehollywood/docs/0221_oscar_nominees?fr=xKAE9_zU1NQ" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:here;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">here</a>.
Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Oscar Preview issue here.

DEADLINE: American Fiction doesn’t have a definitive ending, but it looks like Cliff and Monk are in a better place as brothers than at the beginning of the film. Do you think it needed a neat bow of an ending? What’s your take on the ending?

BROWN: It didn’t need a bow. As a creative for Cord [Jefferson] and Monk, it brilliantly shows that if he were left to his own devices, he would’ve ended the movie one way. But because producers and other people need something more to put butts in the seats, you need to have some sort of angle that leaves people reeling. But I love that Monk can show you that he would have done it this way, but the system asked him to do it another way. I think that’s dope.

The ending with Monk and Cliff together wasn’t in the original script. And I asked Cord why he had Cliff waiting in the car instead of Coraline. In his mind, he felt the movie’s central love story was between Cliff and Monk, and if he had Coraline in the car, that would have been a happy ending for Monk. But by Cliff being in the car, it’s a happy ending for them because he knows that these brothers will be part of each other’s lives and have not been for such a long time. So, Monk and Cliff will have to deal with their mom’s ailment together and be supportive of one another, and at least they found their way back to each other. And they’ll have their ups and downs, but at least they won’t be separated. I found it very reassuring. I don’t think it needed any neater bow than that.

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