STERLING K. BROWN IS TAKING HOLLYWOOD BY STORM. THE ACTOR DISCUSSES HIS UPCOMING PROJECTS—INCLUDING HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL.—FAMILY, RELIGION, SHARING HIS LIGHT AND SAYING FAREWELL TO THIS IS US—FOR NOW.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY IRVIN RIVERA
“I’m really excited. It will be the first thing that folks get a chance to see after This Is Us; a nice little contrast,” Sterling K. Brown says of his star turn in Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., of which he—along with Jordan Peele and Daniel Kaluuya—is a producer as well. In the comedic satire, Brown plays Southern Baptist megachurch Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs opposite his co-star and on-screen wife, Regina Hall as first lady Trinity Childs. “Regina runs this,” he says of the film, in which the husband-and-wife team is faced with rebuilding their congregation after allegations of sexual misconduct against Pastor Childs force them to temporarily close.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Brown grew up with religion in his life. “This film is for somebody who grew up in the church, who has a strong affinity to the church, but also recognizes that there are things about it that are worthy of critique,” he says. He then watched the 2018 short with the same title, directed by Adamma Ebo, and felt like it was pure comedy. “The script itself is a bit more scathing,” he says. “I loved it and I knew it would be something that people would be drawn to because they’re curious about the church, [and] they’re not anticipating everything that comes with it.”
The film also highlights the African American community, who, in Brown’s personal experience of where he grew up, tend to be politically progressive but socially conservative. “You reach a point in your own personal development [and] spiritual development where you say, ‘[There] are certain things that I’ve been inculcated with, and do I believe what I believe because it’s what’s been taught to me, or do I believe what I believe because it’s authentic to who I am as an individual?’” That shift is something Brown hopes the film inspires in viewers. As for the role itself, he says he drew from his own life experiences but also had to do research on certain mega-pastors or prosperity pastors, in the Black community.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY IRVIN RIVERA
Pastor Childs is a walking contradiction of sorts—he’s materialistic and speaks of being humble, and is homophobic in his sermons but is attracted to other men. “I believe that he is an authentic child of God,” says Brown. “He really wants to do the Lord’s work, and so I think he sort of suppresses his own desires over carnal nature. If he loses that aspect of himself, then he’s lost. That’s what you see him holding onto with dear life.” The same goes for Hall’s character, he says, who agreed to marry him with some kind of knowledge of who he is as an individual.
When it came to working with Hall, he says, “When I took on the project, one of the biggest selling points for me was getting a chance to work with her and it exceeded my expectations in every imaginable way.”
The film is written and directed by Ebo, whose twin sister, Adanne Ebo, is also a producer. The duo is from Atlanta and grew up attending megachurches, similar to the one they depict in the movie. “They are women of faith also and had a desire to critique the institutions in which they had been raised, so they come from a place of love,” Brown says. The beauty of the film, however, is the messaging, as viewers leave with an uncertain feeling. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to hate the Childs family or love them,” he muses. “Maybe you have a little bit of both for each of them.”
Brown currently lives in L.A. with his wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe, whom he calls his “rock,” and their two sons. He’s raising his children with “what I like to call spirituality,” he says. “It’s more about having an authentic relationship with God, with the universe… it’s a much more inclusive perspective for me.”
The role of Pastor Childs was a big departure for Brown who is known among This Is Us fans as the beloved Randall Pearson. Brown spoke with me from his home office, where a framed This Is Us poster is hung on the wall. With the end of the hit drama series earlier this year, Brown reflects on the trajectory of his role. “Do I think he became president? I don’t know,” he admits. He says that Randall, in contrast to Lee Curtis, “really cares about people, really cares about making a difference, is not ego-filled, but he has a deep desire to be of service— because I think that’s sort of like how he finds self-worth.”
As for the ending after six years of the series, Brown says, “I think he ends up in a place of peace, where I don’t think he’s going to have many more attacks of anxiety, because I think he’s more settled in who he is and recognizes himself as a person of real value. And he doesn’t have to show it or prove it anymore. He just is. I think that’s the thing that gives me the greatest amount of comfort with regard to his trajectory.”
Over the years, Brown has seen similarities between his personal life and that of Randall’s. “I don’t live with anxiety, but I did at one point in my life suffer from what I would call perfectionism,” he explains. “I think most people who go to schools that I went to have this desire to be the best, and it’s not always the best version of themselves.”
He also shares a love for his family, particularly his mother— another quality Brown shared with his character. “I want this on the record—Randall is Rebecca Pearson’s favorite son, hands down! I don’t care [who] was given power of attorney,” he says. “I don’t care who built the house. … I just know. The same way [my real-life mother] Arlene Brown doesn’t have to tell me [that I’m the favorite], I know.” Also similar to Randall, Brown’s father passed away early in life. “Randall was a little bit older than I was,” Brown says, “but that loss from an early age and how that loss can define you, that’s something that we had [in common].”
But with all these similarities, Brown’s biggest takeaway from This Is Us, in addition to the people’s lives he touches through the show, was the family that was born out of it. “The text thread is still on and poppin’!” he says of his Pearson family co-stars. “These people have been a part of my life for the past six years, it’s not just gonna suddenly stop. I text Sue [his on-screen wife, Susan Kelechi Watson] all the time. I text Justin [Hartley] all the time.” Brown hopes that a 10-year reunion will happen or, he jokes, “We’ll do the E! True Hollywood Story in about 15 years for all the juicy juice!”
An Ivy League grad, Brown attended NYU and Stanford University, but first discovered his love for acting in high school. After wanting to be a professional athlete and then a businessman, he discovered the joy and fulfillment he got from acting. “There’s something about when you feel yourself drop into what it would really be like to live somebody else’s life that I found very rewarding as a spiritualist because you can’t play someone and judge them at the same time,” he shares. “And I think for me, in terms of my own spiritual evolution, it is to love without limits. Anytime I find myself having limitations or close-mindedness toward any individual or group of people when I get a chance to play that part, you have to love them, and you get a chance to release that judgment.”
When first getting into acting, an August Wilson play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is what made Brown feel at home. For the first time, Brown felt like he was playing someone who felt familiar to him. He described his experience when the August Wilson play came along as: “I finally had this feeling of, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to be home’,” he says.
Brown continued to explore this feeling of homecoming. He continued to audition and his grades would also improve. “The focus shifted from making money to doing what lights me up on the inside,” he says. Yet changing his major to drama and sticking to acting was a tough decision for the practical Brown, who wanted to give back to his family, particularly his mother who paid for his private school education. “But I try to say this as soberly as possible,” he shares. “I knew I had an ability for it and a proclivity for it.”
The actor credits his mother for encouraging and supporting her son to follow his passion. Today, Brown’s passion has led him to establish his own production company, Indian Meadows, which seeks to champion diverse stories and inclusive projects.
“I was talking to somebody the other day about when do you stop fighting for equality and what is the basis for when it’s actually been attained. … It’s when people of color, disenfranchised individuals have the opportunity to make bad things that no one watches and then they get a chance to do them again,” he says of the progress made but the need to do more. “So, yes, things have gotten better, but they’re still, like, well, can we open a movie overseas with a person of color, then Black Panther happens and it’s like, oh, shit! Now the question is, like, can you do it with an IP that’s not as well known? So I think that there have been tremendous strides,” he says. “Hollywood realized that diverse stories are commercially viable.”
Under Indian Meadows, Brown has Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. as well as their first project greenlit by Hulu. Currently in production, Washington Black is set globally and points to the universality of the African experience. “For a long time, folks had this idea that white people would not be able to see themselves in the stories of people of color… but that fear that we’ve had is unfounded,” he says. “We just need to tell good stories.”
Brown enjoys that he gets a chance to champion new talent through his production company. “The production company for me is an opportunity to further create opportunities for people who look like me or do not have easy access into this business,” he says.
Next up, Brown stars in a sci-fi film, Biosphere, alongside Mark Duplass, and The Defender, an in-development film at Searchlight about a real-life African American attorney in the early 1900s. He will also lead in Amazon Studios’ Coyote Blue written by John Wick creator Derek Kostad. And he’s teamed up with Randall Park for an Amazon Studios action-comedy that the two will produce under their own respective banners, Indian Meadows and Imminent Collision.
“There’s something in seeing yourself in other people,” he says. “And then there’s something in just learning about a culture that is foreign to you—that is exciting for people.”
As for how to make the industry more diverse and inclusive, Brown says, “We just got to keep pushing.”