Ready for Sterling K. Brown to break your heart all over again?
On NBC tear-jerker “This Is Us,” the Emmy-winning actor plays fan-favorite dad Randall Pearson, who struggles with extreme anxiety, perfectionism and identity as the adopted black son of white parents.
Now he’s looking to make a splash this awards season with the searing new drama “Waves” (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding nationwide throughout the month), playing the stringent father of a star high-school athlete named Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whose increasingly reckless decisions lead to immense tragedy.
As Ronald, the patriarch of a middle-class black family in South Florida, Brown delivers a performance of “remarkable subtlety” and “ferocity,” Indiewire and The Hollywood Reporter critics raved in respective reviews. It’s an emotional turn that could take him all the way to the Oscars, with several prognosticators on GoldDerby.com saying he’s a dark-horse contender for best supporting actor.
“Aside from being an amazing actor, Sterling is just a good-natured human being,” says writer/director Trey Edward Shults (“It Comes at Night”). “And that was really important for Ronald: He’s stern and we go through some intense stuff with him, but you always want to understand it’s motivated by love.”
Brown, 43, talks to USA TODAY about how the role impacted his own parenting of sons Andrew, 8, and Amaré, 4, whom he shares with his wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe.
After an injury threatens his college athletic career, spiraling teen Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., left) gets hard advice from exacting dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). (Photo: Courtesy of A24)
Question: In “Waves,” Ronald continually reminds Tyler that as a black man, he needs to work twice as hard to be afforded the same opportunities as white men. Did that resonate with you in any way, looking back at your own upbringing?
Sterling K. Brown: I was raised exactly in that fashion. It wasn’t a conversation I had with my dad, because he passed away when I was fairly young. But my mother used to talk all the time about how the consequences of my actions were different than those of my white counterparts. I couldn’t just afford to go out and be silly or foolish, because little black boys get treated differently. So education was always something very important to my mother. I wound up going to Stanford University and then to grad school at (New York University) to get my MFA in acting. I felt like that drive was something that was instilled from childhood: My mom wanted me to know my 12 times table when I was in second grade, so when we finally got to them in fourth grade, I was smoking people on the flashcards. There was a real strong emphasis on being the best.
Q: What kind of impact did playing Ronald have on you as a parent, with two sons of your own?
Sterling K. Brown and wife, actress Ryan Michelle Bathe, on the red carpet earlier this month with sons Amaré, left, and Andrew. (Photo: Jesse Grant, Getty Images for Disney)
Brown: It allowed me to be even more attentive to making sure they felt they had the space to express themselves. One of Ronald’s greatest failings was that he didn’t create the space for his son to share his problems. Tyler felt as if he had to take care of his problems on his own, because “that’s what men do.”
I want to make sure my children know that even if I don’t expect perfection out of them, I do expect them to give their best effort. And when they fall short of the mark, they can come to their parents and they’re going to be loved.
"Waves" tells the story of a successful Florida family: Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., left), Emily (Taylor Russell), Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry). (Photo: Courtesy of A24)
Q: Although difficult to watch at times, this movie is ultimately about forgiveness and moving on. Did it inspire you to reach out to anyone in your own family?
Brown: I’m fairly well-connected with most people in my family. Thankfully, there’s nothing that I would feel uncomfortable with if someone passed away – they would know how I felt about them and vice versa. I had an uncle who I loosely based Ronald off of, who was a military man and had a very particular prism through which he expressed his affection. He’s no longer with us, but I do feel as if I was able to reach a greater level of understanding of exactly how he loved. I was able to make peace with knowing that a lot of his actions that didn’t always seem loving were indeed based out of a place of deep, unabiding love for me.
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