Sterling K. Brown Has His ‘American Fiction’ Role Wired


Sterling K. Brown doesn’t have much screen time in Cord Jefferson’s sharp satire “American Fiction,” but he is indelible as Clifford Ellison, brother of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a novelist played by Jeffrey Wright. On leave for “racial insensitivity” from his position as an English teacher, Monk joins his family at a Massachusetts beach house where he intends to start a new novel while caring for his sick mother (Leslie Uggams). From his home in Phoenix we are visited by Clifford, a gay cosmetic surgeon and the youngest of three brothers, who has deliberately put distance between himself and his homophobic mother.

Like Clifford, Brown doesn’t live in the same neighborhood as the rest of his family. He lives in Los Angeles, not St. Louis, where he grew up. His father died when he was 10, leaving his mother, a public school teacher, to raise them alone.

“I am biologically the youngest of three. So I understood that role pretty well. There is no better drama than family drama,” says Brown. “Like Cliff, everyone lives in St. Louis except me, who is now the weird Hollywood kid living on the West Coast. That’s why I always carry a little bit of black sheep. There is a different point of connection that I have with the character,” he adds. “He has a great personality and my family would say that I have one of the biggest personalities of anyone who appears in this. And there’s an insistence in his life right now on being his most authentic self, whether people are comfortable with that or not. I think I can relate to that too.”

In the film, Monk struggles to come up with a novel that publishers will respond to, even as he privately rages at rival writer Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose latest novel is set in the hood, a trope Monk finds degrading to people of color. Out of frustration, he emulates her and anonymously writes a novel about a gangster. When it becomes a hit, Monk must pose as a fugitive outlaw to promote it.

“Cord gently pokes fun at the Hollywood machine and the stories he finds most palatable to the general public about the black community,” Brown says of Jefferson’s script based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, “Erasure.” “He even shows clips from the film about cocoon tales and slave narratives. “It’s not that those things aren’t appropriate for our community, they don’t express the totality of who we are as African Americans.”

A working actor for decades, Brown landed his first series regular job playing a bulimic cop on the FX comedy “Starved.” After her mother, a staunchly religious woman, observed the pilot, he told her: “If you don’t want to see [any more], I understand,” to which she responded: “Thank you.” She had better luck with “Army Wives,” in which he played Dr. Roland Burton, the show’s only Army husband, opposite his real-life wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe, in a recurring role.

“That had a big impact in Central America, St. Louis. At that time, I was legit. She was very happy, until my character had an affair on the show. Then she stopped talking to me for a while, because for mom there is no separation between character and child. “I think at this point she understands that it’s not me.”

Jeffrey Wright, left, as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and Sterling K. Brown as Cliff Ellison in “American Fiction,” adapted and directed by Cord Jefferson from the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett.

(Orion Images)

Moving on to recurring roles on shows like “Supernatural” and “Person of Interest,” he first caught the attention of awards voters playing real-life lawyer Chris Darden in “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story”, for which he won an Emmy. That role led to the show that came to define his career, “This Is Us,” for which he won a second Emmy. In it he plays Randall Pearson, father, husband and adopted son of white parents.

In recent months, “This Is Us” fans have been talking about Brown reteaming with show creator Dan Fogelman for a new Hulu series in which he will play a Secret Service agent. “The model of the show has very strong influences from ‘Lost’ and ‘The Leftovers,'” Brown says, hinting that it will be developed in the near future. “I think he is influenced by [Damon] Lindelof a lot.”

With awards season approaching, Brown is happy to be part of the conversation. She has earned numerous accolades throughout her career, including three Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and four Screen Actors Guild Awards. Yes, they are an effective ego boost, but that’s not really the point.

“It did make a difference in terms of people saying what they would like to do next. Inviting you to the table instead of waiting for the crumbs to fall, that’s huge,” she states. “I feel like once you feed the giant, the giant wants more and eventually it’s like a classic Greek tragedy: prosperity, presumption, ruin. You can only go up so far before you reach the top and start going down. But if your barometer of success is doing work you believe in, I’m winning. I feel good. I’ll let other people become movie stars. “I just want to do a good job.”

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