Veteran stage and screen actor Sterling K. Brown is most widely recognized for his portrayal of Dr. Roland Burton in the critically acclaimed Lifetime series Army Wives. Brown currently stars as prosecutor Christopher Darden in FX’s highly-rated television event series THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY. In March, Brown will co-star with Tiny Fey in her feature film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. He is currently in production on Dan Fogelman’s untitled NBC project alongside Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, and recently completed production on M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming film, Split.
Congrats on the show! What attracted you to the project?
Sterling K. Brown: 20 years ago this was such a huge thing that monopolized everyone’s time. There wasn’t an eyeball that wasn’t paying attention. I can remember myself when the verdict was announced and how the dichotomy of Black America and White America responded to that verdict, it showed how differently we saw the world which is a very important conversation which speaks to what’s going on now with regards to police brutality and … more readily mainstream America [and] why Black America has such a high distrust for law enforcement.
What was your preparation for the role?
SKB: The first thing I did was read Jeffrey Toobin’s book The People v. O.J. Simpson, which is essentially what the show is based around and I also read Christopher Darden’s book In Contempt. Toobin’s book was an overview and then Darden’s book was about his experience of what he was going though at the time. It’s so interesting to see one person’s experience from the outside then his experience itself. Then I watched as much videos as humanly possible. I also watched a couple interviews of Darden in particular one with Charlie Rose and with Oprah Winfrey that I found particularly helpful and as much court footage as possible.
How was working with Sarah Paulson? You guys have great chemistry.
SKB: Today, it’s probably the highlight of my acting career. Sarah Catherine Paulson is my acting love. Before I even had a chance to work with her on this project, I was a huge fan with great admiration and respect for her work and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that she’s just as awesome a person as she is an actress. It was dope. Sarah is one of those people that it’s impossible for her to tell a lie. She just tells the truth whether she’s on camera or off camera and you can’t take your eyes off of someone whose always telling the truth.
Can you speak about Chris’ relationship with Johnny Cochran? It’s interesting to see what the two men represent.
SKB: They obviously had a relationship before the trial began. It was a mentor-mentee relationship. Cochran was a very well-respected lawyer in the black community at the time and any black lawyer coming up behind him looked up to him as someone who could be a mentor and sort of father figure, if not then a brother. It’s so interesting to see how the trial progressed and that relationship really became dramatic. Darden said in his book one of his great regrets of the trial is the public animosity he and Cochran had for each other, and how it got blown up. I think he was embarrassed in part for his conduct, but at the same time he felt like not everything Johnny did was the most ethical thing. He confesses that he was a very good lawyer, but some of his things were hitting below the belt.
What was the most challenging part of working on this?
SKB: Anytime you’re playing someone who is a real human being, you have to make sure you get it right, so when they see the performance, they recognize at least a glimpse of themselves in that performance. In the back of my mind is — will Darden see himself when he sees this performance? That was probably the trickiest thing.
What was it like watching Cuba Gooding Jr. transform into O.J. Simpson?
SKB: He’s one of those people who can say anything at any time and he has no filter at all. Watching him sort of harness himself – he’s a naturally unhinged brother, so watching him bring himself in to pull off this performance was really quite wonderful. Most of the times when we were on the set, we were in the courtroom, and in the courtroom, he wasn’t allowed to speak that much so it was interesting for me watching the show and seeing him outside of the courtroom seeing what a wonderful performance he’s been giving. He didn’t try to change his voice or anything like that, but he was always connected to the truth of the moment.
What was it like working with John Travolta?
SKB: To finally get a chance to meet him and work with him, he couldn’t be a kinder human being. I mean that. I think he’s one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of being on a set with. For someone who could play games or pull rank, there was no ego involved, there’s nothing but love that he gave and he received nothing but that. He was just so kind with everyone, not just the cast — the crew, producers everyone. I was taken in by the glow that is JT.
What most surprised you about this case and story as it unfolded?
SKB: I was really surprised to hear about the in fighting amongst the dream team … that was very fascinating. Also, to realize just what the makeup of the jury was, all the reasons the trial wasn’t held in Santa Monica versus downtown. There’s a lot of things that conspired for this verdict to go down the way it did that at any one point in time something could have shifted it and changed how it all happened.
You also star in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Can you tell us about that character?
SKB: My character is Sergeant Hurd who’s a Sargeant in the Marine Corps, who’s a no nonsense type of guy. He’s sort of helping Tina Fey’s character when she comes to the Middle East. He makes sure that she doesn’t get herself hurt or any of his troops hurt. He’s definitely different then Darden because he drops F-bombs left and right. If he wasn’t, then he wouldn’t be a marine. It’s so nice to play somebody different than yourself, it’s funny.
What was it like working with Tina Fey, who produced it as well?
SKB: She’s a comic genius. Since Saturday Night Live when she lampooned Sarah Palin, that’s when I realized this woman is boss. She can do anything 30 Rock as well. She writes, she acts, has funky little dance moves that she’ll break out at the drop of a hat. It was wonderful. I had to contain myself from being in crush mode the whole time. There was a lot of improv on the project and just how quickly her mind works, I was like ok I see what I have to aspire towards.
What other actors did you get to work with on that film?
SKB: It was mostly Tina, but I did get to work with Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun and Chris Abbott.
What country did you film in?
SKB: Right here in New Mexico mostly in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but most of my scenes were in Albuquerque.
How was it working with the directors Glenn & John?
SKB: They’re awesome. They’re like a two headed one person sort of thing and each one of them will come up to you and give you a different direction at different times, but they never contradict one another. They have this harmonious working relationship, which I’ve never seen before since I’ve never worked with a two headed director. They were kind and considerate, very professional and they get the days done.
What was your favorite scene?
SKB: There’s a scene where we encounter fire. We have this tank convoy going through the middle of a desert. It was so windy and so incredibly sandy. Some people had scarfs around their face that by the time we finished shooting, if you take off the scarf it would leave the perfect outline where the sand hit your face, it was so much fun to be in the midst of everything and not to have to do too much acting because the environment was so similar to what it would be in war.
Did you get to meet with Kim Barker or did you rely on the script for preparation?
SKB: It was just the script. My part was not that big, but it was very memorable.
How excited are you to bring FATHER COMES HOME to the Mark Taper Forum in LA in the Spring.
SKB: I’m very excited. Suzan-Lori Parks is a bonafide genius. I have loved her since before Topdog. The opportunity to bring her work to life is probably my theatrical highlight of my career so far. It’s a very powerful and timely play about a slave who is asked to fight for the confederacy, by his slave master. In exchanged for fighting for the confederacy, his slave master offers him his freedom or so he says because he’s offered him his freedom in the past so he has to decide if this a legitimate offer for freedom or is it something he shouldn’t take seriously. It’s about identity and what it means to be free. It’s set in the middle of the Civil War. It clearly has echoes and reverberations of what’s going on today. What it means to be African American and what it means to be free.
What can you tell us about your work on M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, SPLIT.
SKB: I can tell you from the title that it is about split personalities. It’s filmed in Philadelphia, where most of his movies are.