Over the last four seasons of NBC’s This Is Us, Sterling K. Brown has established himself as America’s new TV dad. His searing portrayal of Randall Pearson, a flawed but earnest people pleaser trying to navigate his identity as a Black man raised by White parents, has earned him an Emmy nomination for Lead Actor in a Drama Series and a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Drama.
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Brown’s latest role is in the upcoming film Waves, directed by Tre Edward Schults and starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. as an intensely driven high school athlete named Tyler growing up in present day Florida. Brown plays his father, Ronald, who is as different from Randall as you can get. If Randall is Street Fighter’s RYU, then Ronald is Akuma, or better yet Heihachi Mishima from Tekken, a stern task master who is uncompromising in his beliefs and his governance over his children.
“They both show up,” Brown says of the two contrasting father figures, underpinning a common (and somewhat undeserved) critique of Black fathers as being absent. “They’re there for their families, they’re there for their children in the best way that either of them knows how to be. They both love, but the prism through which that love filters is very specific and can be somewhat overwhelming and not always feel loving, but it’s still love.”
Brown and Harrison are joined by Taylor Rusell (Emily) Alexa Demie (Alexis) and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Ronald’s wife, Catharine. As a married father of two (Sterling’s wife is actress Ryan Michelle Bathe), Ronald is hardly a stretch for Sterling to play, but as we find out in this conversation, there are layers to being an on-screen father that even he didn’t see coming.
BET: Ronald is very health conscious, and I saw your Men’s Health cover. It didn’t seem like you were acting at all in some of those workout scenes.
SKB: Tre [Edward Schults) had some workouts and things that he wanted to incorporate, and I don’t even know if they showed all the stuff we did. We did a lot more. I try to stay fit. I’m an older dad, older for like this generation. My mom had me at 34, and I was her last child. I had my first child at 35. 35 and 39. I’m a better dad because I waited, in terms of my patience and my ability to communicate. But also want to make sure that they don’t lose out on my ability to play. So I take care of myself so I can play with these kids and, God willing, I can play with their kids, too.
My son is 16, and I played basketball with him one time and I was dying…
There is a conversation about the “new masculinity” brewing thanks to Pharrell’s recent GQ magazine cover, and Waves seems especially timely. How do you feel masculinity is explored in the film?
You know, I feel like Ronald has a lot of good information to impart to his son. There are opportunities that he’s able to take advantage of that his father did not. He has access to things — a nice crib, a big-ass truck — there are some White people problems that this family is dealing with. And it’s nice to see Black folk dealing with White people problems. But I think his failing, what he could have done better, and what I try to create with my children — I have two boys — is make sure they have the space and permission to make their voice heard and to know that their perspectives and opinions are as valuable and anybody else’s in our household.
Ultimately, it’s going to be my wife and my decision as to what transpires, but that they have input. And I feel like Tyler at no point in time had input. So it forced him into a position where he felt he had to take matters into his own hands. Whether it was about his shoulder or [redacted for spoilers], he never felt as if he had the space to share that with his family. And I think that his dad could have done a better job of letting him know that whatever happens, whatever you’re going through, you can share it and you will still be loved. It’s not conditional. I have expectations and a desire for how I want to see your life go, but if those things don’t turn out the way that I want them to, it’s not going to make me love you any less.
I feel like we as Black men often feel as if we have to arm ourselves to go out into the world, there’s a protection, you can’t allow yourself to feel all this shit, because it can be overwhelming. But in the second half of the film, after we experience this massive tragedy, there has to be a reassessment that the way I was with my son didn’t yield the results that I was looking for. So maybe there is another way of being that’s better. And that there is a strength in vulnerability, and being able to share what you’re going through with your children that is appreciated, because they see you as a fully realized human being. And that may be even stronger than this armor that you’re attempting to put on.
That reminds me of a quote from the Men’s Health profile where you said that your father allowed you to cry. Is that something that you’ve imparted to your own sons?
Absolutely. Every once in a while, you catch yourself saying, "Wachu crying about, it’s not that big a deal," but then you catch yourself and you’re like, "I understand how you feel, man. And I’m really sorry, but we can’t get the Nintendo Switch right now. I get it, it’s really, really hard. Mommy and daddy have their reasons. We want to make sure that your brain develops in very particular way. And it’s OK if you play with it from time to time when you go over to friends' houses, but right now, we don’t have a game system." To them it’s the end of the world, but you have to meet them where they are, not try to belittle their feelings. I said, "Would you like a hug, man?” And most of the time you get [mock sobbing] “Yessss!” And you give ‘em a hug and say, “You want to take a few deep breaths with daddy?” *inhales* So you’re not negating that experience, you try to meet them where they are.
Me and my dad, we would be watching Pritzy’s Honor, and I’m like, why am I watching Pritzy’s Honor? I’m like 7 or 8 years old watching this Jack Nicholson and Angelica Houston movie and we would cry. We would cry at the craziest things like The Color of Money because we liked to play pool a lot. There was no stigma. My son and I would go to the movies… I took him to see Inside Out and he was like, "Bruh, you gonna be OK?" And I was like, "He lost his innocence and can’t get it back."
That movie did us in!
A mess! And he was like, "Alright big dog, you gonna be alright." So the flip of that is we go see two movies where I see him cry uncontrollably; Black Panther—not when I died—but when Killmonger died—
Cuz I gotta remember, OK, be careful next time you take your son to a movie where your son in the movie dies. This is the 8-year-old, and he cried like a baby. And I was like, "Hey man, it’s all good." And THEN, in Avengers: Infinity War, when everybody starts disappearing, when they got to Peter Parker… Peter Parker is every kid's favorite, and now Miles Morales, too — but the Spider-Man character is so relatable because of its relative youth and proximity to them. So when Peter Parker went? I thought my kid’s whole family had died. I lifted him onto my lap and rocked with him back and forth. So in Endgame, when Black Panther came back, he was like, “Cool, cool,” but when Peter Parker came back? He jumps up and screams for joy! “Yes! I knew it!” And I said, "Bruh, you’re being real African-American in this theater right now. Let’s bring it down a bit, please."
That’s so real. To pivot just a bit. The marriage between Ronald and Catharine is another big part of the film. They go through their trials, but what do you think keeps them together?
I think that with any marriage -- I’ve been married for 13 years, Ronald and Catharine probably around the same amount of time -- you invest so much time and love and energy into another person into creating something, and they created a beautiful family. Marriage is something where you stay the course. My wife and I say this sometimes, too. Just as long as both people aren’t willing to throw in the towel at the same time, you’ve got a chance. Because sometimes shit gets HARD. And they were grieving in different ways. He’s gotta take responsibility for his own actions, but as a parent you can’t help but put stuff on you. I think you say we have invested so much, and ultimately, is our life going to be better together or separate. Time heels wounds and it takes different amounts of times for different people’s wounds to heal. But she was able to see that he was doing his best. And I was able to see that she was doing her best. And I think there has to be a respect for that. It may not always feel or be exactly what you want in that moment, but you have to respect an individual doing their best to meet you where they are.
There is some early Oscar buzz about the film. Are you tuning it out or embracing it?
I’m aware and I’m flattered. I’m a fan. If Brown’s name gets mentioned in the same as Pitts and Hanks and Foxx? Child, please! That would be stupid. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The movie, the story, being part of it was an award in and of itself. But I’m not gonna sit here and [pretend] I don’t think about it.
Waves is in theaters November 15.