Emmy nominee Sterling K. Brown isn't done playing around

The actor, who's up for an award Sunday for his role in This Is Us, talks about being a Black Panther fan and gaming "obsessive."
Mark Mann

Sterling K. Brown doesn't want to be limited in the roles he plays. That's how he explains the diverse set of characters he's taken on over his award-winning career, including rogue Wakandan royal N'Jobu in Black Panther, outgunned prosecutor Christopher Darden in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, vampire hunter Gordon Walker on CW's The Supernatural, psychiatrist Roland Burton on Lifetime's Army Wives and likable perfectionist Randall Pearson on NBC drama This Is Us, a role that got him an Emmy nod for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.

"Most people try to ascribe you to a particular box, and it's always been my goal to try to shake expectations, to give people something different than what they might be anticipating," says Brown, a St. Louis native who earned degrees in acting from Stanford University and New York University. "One of the reasons I've tried to pick things as different as possible is to avoid that box."

He delivered on that promise, again, when he gave voice to Garry, a tech-savvy, overconfident, bespectacled pig (green, not pink), in Sony's The Angry Birds Movie 2. The sequel to the 2016 computer-animated comedy opened in theaters in August

Brown, a 43-year-old father of two who admits to being "obsessive" when it comes to playing games, including the popular Angry Birds puzzler, is happy to tell me all about Garry. But first he's got to finish playing Ms. Pac-Man and Space Invaders on the video game arcade machine we've brought in for the photo shoot. "I feel like acting is about reconnecting with a sense of play," Brown says. "You learn something about yourself; you learn something about humanity at large. But I never take it so seriously that I lose a sense of play."

We resume our conversation after he picks up a slingshot and takes out a few Angry Bird figurines. "Garry is an inventor, albeit not the best inventor ... but that doesn't keep him from moving forward," says Brown of his porcine character. "He doesn't like a lot of criticism, but he probably deserves most of the criticism that he receives. And so it's a journey for Garry to learn how to not take things so personally, and just try to make his gadgets work in the best way possible."

Thoughtful, engaging and very funny -- Brown boasts about beating fellow actor Paul Rudd at Words With Friends --  he gets serious when talking about having the chance in his lifetime to be part of the first black superhero film, which he calls a "historical piece of entertainment." He's also passionate about his quest for health care tech that'll help him live to 100. Here's an edited transcript of our conversations.

A still from Angry Birds 2

In The Angry Birds Movie 2, Sterling K. Brown plays Garry (center), an overconfident pig whose inventions don't always work.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Q: You've said you have 1,000 different people living inside you and that every once in a while one of them gets to come to the forefront. So my question is: Who are you?
Brown: [Laughs.] I think I'm fundamentally a decent human being with a strong streak of douchebaggery that goes through the center of my being. Ask my wife. I do my best to be a good human being. I'm an inherently playful human being. I think the universe/God intended for me to have children, so that we could have fun together. We have an absolute blast with one another, just being silly. 

I feel acting, too, is about reconnecting with a sense of play. And it's the thing that I enjoy the most about it. You get a chance to walk around in another human being's footsteps. And you learn something about yourself; you learn something about humanity at large. But I never take it so seriously that I lose a sense of play. That's the core of what acting is for me is -- play.

In Black Panther, you portray N'Jobu. How did you get introduced to the Black Panther?
I was living in New York City in the Village and I came across a comic book store that was right before a movie theater, because I'm always going to the movies. And I saw in the front window Who Is the Black Panther? It was penned by Reginald Hudlin, who I got a chance to work with later on, in [the 2017 movie] Marshall

I was fascinated. I didn't know about this character that Marvel had created a long, long time ago. I'm curious ... and I picked up all of the graphic novels, read them cover to cover. I'm absolutely fascinated by this warrior king who's more technologically advanced than anybody else in the world, who's been able to keep his country from invasion, from colonization. And they thrive economically as well as technologically.

I was doing a TV show called Army Wives in Charleston, South Carolina. I was talking to my buddy. He's like, "Are you into comics?" I said, "Not really. But I'm into the Black Panther." He's like, "Dude, these are awesome. You should try to get the rights to these things." I say, "Bro, they're never going to do a black superhero movie. Why don't you just calm down. It's no big deal." 

Then 15 years later, it actually came to fruition. And it's being made by the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe], which is sort of the pinnacle of pop culture. And in doing so, it's that this story deserves to be told. That's an historic event, the greenlighting of the movie in and of itself. This story needs to be told. That was huge.

It's just such an interesting time to be alive, to have been at the mind-set that this is an impossibility -- to watching it actually come to fruition. Having the honor of being a part of the production was amazing.

Sterling K. Brown

Brown describes himself as "fundamentally a decent human being with a strong streak of douchebaggery."

Mark Mann

To some people, N'Jobu betrays Wakanda. What's your take?
I understand people who see it in that way, but it's all about who are you responsible for? He had his reasons, and his reasons were larger -- he was thinking on a macro level while the rest of Wakanda at the time was thinking on a micro level.

To N'Jobu, as well as [his son] Killmonger, we have a responsibility to all descendants of Africa, not just Wakandans. And so in order to arm and better prepare those people to have agency in their own lives, with the resources that Wakanda had, he saw the country, the nation, as being selfish by not coming to the aid of their fellow brothers throughout the world. 

So some people saw him betraying Wakanda. But his whole point was that our responsibility is not just within this border. Our responsibility goes beyond. It gets you to the notion of nationalism versus globalism and who is your brother. I'm very much in the mind that we should collectively be our brother's keeper and it's not just what happens within the walls of our nation.

And so while he may not have gone about it in the best way, nor his son, his heart was in the right place. I love the idea of someone who may be doing something wrong but for the right reasons, because most of us tend to live in the gray.

You're the father of two young boys. What do you want them to remember about your performance in Black Panther?
Before this moment, this wasn't a commonplace occurrence -- a movie of this magnitude, this level of production, with a predominantly African and African American cast. This didn't happen. 

My oldest son kind of understands it right now. He's like, 'Yeah, it's cool my dad was in Black Panther. But in 2030, he'll be like, "Yo, my dad was in Black Panther."

In The People v. O.J. Simpson, you played the role of prosecutor Christopher Darden. How did you view that role? 
I was in college when the O.J. case went down, and I lived in this dorm at Stanford University called Ujamaa House. Half of the dorm was African American, half was all other ethnicities. And this microcosm of what happened in our dorm was happening all over the United States. When O.J. was found not guilty, the black students were like, "Yes!" And everybody else was like, "Huh?" 

It was really interesting to revisit it 20 years later. I believe I was the same age as Mr. Darden when he began the trial. And it was just sort of like kismet, because I remember myself thinking, "This joker is on the wrong side of history. Why is he trying to take down one of our heroes?" And then I got a chance to put myself in his shoes and look at the evidence that he came up against. He was trying to do his job. 

Sterling K. Brown plays Ms Pac-Man

Brown says he's an obsessive gamer.

Mark Mann

So what I was faced with was, while it was an unpopular decision at the time, in the black community especially, I have to show that this man actually had the integrity to do something that nobody else wanted to do.  

My dear friend Sarah Paulson [who played prosecutor Marcia Clark] and myself, we felt like it was us against the world. It felt like they would tell the jury not to pay us any attention. I was like, "I'm gonna make them pay attention." They gave us crappy chairs to sit in at the prosecutors' table, where the dream team had these cushy, rotating chairs that they're spinning around in. I'd be looking across. I'm like, "I can't believe it. Ain't this some bullshit."

The public scrutiny that those people had to go through -- they had never had to experience anything like that before, whereas the dream team had been on TV and they were all slick, with their fancy suits and stuff. These were two people who were trying to do the right thing. It was a really amazing experience as an actor to re-create.

In This Is Us, your character, Randall Pearson, is a father, husband and perfectionist who's very human. Did being a father inform how you play that role, or did that role inform how you're a father?
Yes, to both of those. I'd played fathers before I had children, and now I have the opportunity of playing a father now that I do have children. I would say Randall Pearson is probably a fundamentally better human being than Sterling K. Brown. Not by a ton, but by a bit. I don't know if he's a better dad. I'm not gonna give him that one. We're like tit for tat on that. 

I've always had an affinity for children. I have six nieces and nephews that I grew up [with] and helped sort of raise. And there's something inherent in my nature that is childlike that just automatically connects with young people. My being a father helps in this role, and especially because of the age that I was when I started my family. I was 35 when I had my first child, 39 when I had my second. I think parenthood is a young person's game in terms of the day-to-day. But in terms of what happens up here [pointing to his head], it serves you well to have spent some time on the planet.

Is Randall a role model people should get behind?
I love Randall. I think he is worthy of emulation in a lot of ways. He is the individual who's always looking for where he fits in the world, by virtue of being adopted by a white family and not being white -- knowing that this is his family but one of these things doesn't look like the other. 

And then whenever he connects with the black community, he knows that these are "his people," but he didn't grow up with them. So he's always trying to figure out: Where do I belong? Am I enough, in and of myself? [He] suffers from anxiety because he's a perfectionist. And learning how to be forgiving with himself, learning how to be patient with himself, is a lifelong journey.  

When people say that they love him, I was like, "I do too." I honestly do. And my wife -- from time to time, when I'm sitting around the house being Sterling, and not being the person that she wants me to be in life, she will say, "I need you to stop and ask yourself, what would Randall do in this moment?" And immediately [snaps his fingers] it's like Randall always does the right thing. He inspires me.

Susan Kelechi Watson and Sterling K. Brown in This is Us

Sterling K. Brown as Randall in This Is Us, with Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays his onscreen wife, Beth.

NBC

In The Angry Birds Movie 2, you're a pig who you described to me as sort of like Q for 007, but not as successful. Tell us about Garry.
There's a heist that is going to transpire in the film, and in this heist they need to get a game plan together and they need some gadgetry. Garry is an inventor, albeit not the best inventor, but always with the spirit of innovation. Some of his gadgets worked very well for the group and some of them have problems, but that doesn't keep him from moving forward. 

He's very full of himself. He doesn't like a lot of criticism, but he probably deserves most of the criticism that he receives. And so it's a journey for Garry to learn how to not take things so personally, and just try to make his gadgets work in the best way possible.

It's a really fun character. I think people will respond to it. I'm always looking for opportunities to make people laugh, especially if I get a chance to take my son. If he laughs at me, I know I did my job.

Did you play a lot of Angry Birds (the game)?
Oh, yeah. When the game first dropped, I probably had to get my phone replaced a couple of times from just wearing it out. [It was] between Angry Birds and Words With Friends -- those were the two that I played real hard.  

Is it true you played Words With Friends against Paul Rudd?
True. We did a movie together, Our Idiot Brother. He saw me playing Words With Friends and he goes, "Hey, I'm pretty good at that." I said, "Are you?" He's like, "Yeah." I was like, "I love a challenge." He's like, "Alright." So he starts to play me -- and I beat him a lot. And then he stopped playing me. [Laughs.]

What about video games -- would you describe yourself as a gamer?
So in my youth I was -- and so I have to work diligently not to become one again because I'm not the kind of person who says, "I'll just do it for a half hour and then let it go." I'm a little bit obsessive.

I got my first Nintendo when I was 11 or 12 years old. I knew it was expensive. It was $120. I said, "Look, guys, I know you can't buy me Nintendo. But if everybody in the family gives me $10, I can get my own Nintendo." And they gave me $10 and I got my Nintendo on Christmas and my best friend comes over and I was like, "Dude, what are you doing? You just left your family." He's like, "Dude, you got Nintendo."

My first games outside of Super Mario, because it came with the Nintendo, were Pro Wrestling and I think Tiger-Heli. It was a tiger, helicopter, shoot-them-up type thing. That was fun, man. This is the thing about me and gaming. I am obsessive. And that's why I can't game too much. Because whatever game I'm doing, my goal is to destroy whomever is in front of me. 

Sterling K. Brown closeup

"I'm very much in the mind that we should collectively be our brother's keeper."

Mark Mann

But you did spend your undergraduate career in part perfecting your golf game playing Tiger Woods golf games, right?
Yeah, so this was an example of the obsessiveness that is Sterling K. Brown. We had Tiger Woods Golf, I can't remember which generation of the game it was. I think we were on the PS3 at that time. My roommate loved golf in real life and he loved this game. So he would be at home on days off, and he'd be building up his golfer. And he'd come and he'd kick my ass.

So he would go to work the next day, and I'd just be up all night, getting all these traits on my golfer, just so that I could just destroy him. He would come back and he would get so pissed off. He's like, "How did your golfer get so good?" I was like, "I don't know, buddy. I was just playing and the time got away from me." 

So that's what I'm saying. I have to keep it to a minimum. Otherwise it gets a little ridiculous.

Technology is changing the world of entertainment, from streaming services to virtual reality and augmented reality prompting a rethink of the art of storytelling. What do you think about the role of tech in entertainment?
I have a buddy who shot a movie and Netflix picked it up. His name is André Holland and he produced a movie called High Flying Bird that was shot by [director] Steven Soderbergh. They shot the film entirely on the iPhone

And so that idea, that you don't have to have the most expensive cameras -- because cameras can be cost-prohibitive. There are tools that are at everyone's disposal to create their own content -- so that the diversity of stories that can be told, if inspiration is there, can be told, because they have a camera. I think that's really, really wonderful. 

What piece of tech would you like invented just for you?
It would probably have to do with something regarding restoration of the body.

If there was something that just tracks your activity, tracks your dietary intake, monitors your vitals overall. I'm really obsessed -- "obsessed," this seems to be the word of the day -- with the idea of living the longest and fullest life possible. 

African American men tend to have the lowest life expectancy in this country. And I'd very much like not to be a statistic. And besides not being a statistic, I would also like to model what life can be. I just want to show other brothers that there's another way of being in life that is fulfilling, that is responsible, that is active, that is participatory in all facets of society. And that we don't have to be a statistic, we don't have the life expectancies that we have right now.

I feel like, oftentimes, when we don't see it, it's hard to imagine vitality into one's 90s, into triple digits. I know it can be. And so if my life could be a model for that, then other people could see it and be like, "You know what, I don't have to check out at 65. I don't have to check out at 68." 

My father was 45 when he passed away. He had sugar diabetes and he passed away from a heart attack. That's way too young. I'm 43 years old. There's no reason why you shouldn't be around for twice that. And so my goal is to live that. I'm trying to go for 100. And if there's a piece of technology that can aid and abet in that existence, that would be pretty sweet. 

Originally published Aug. 12.
Update, Sept. 20: Adds Brown's nomination for an Emmy at this Sunday's awards show.