Sterling K. Brown Fought Harder to Succeed: ‘It’s Not a Meritocracy’
The “This Is Us” Emmy winner and his “Waves” co-star Kelvin Harrison Jr. talk about opportunity, excellence, and responsibility as black men in Hollywood.
When Sterling K. Brown was a boy, his mother would say to him, “I have to be hard on you so the world is not harder on you.”
“Actually,” he starts to clarify, flashing that signature wide smile of his, as close as humanity—or at least Hollywood—has to a beacon on a lighthouse, puncturing the fog of all life’s... stuff. “Mom grew up with corporal punishment and, with relishing gusto, whooped my butt.” He laughs and looks over to his co-star, Kelvin Harrison Jr., who is seated beside him. Tussling the younger man’s sweatshirt as he faux-punches his shoulder, Brown goes on: “She was like, ‘I have to whoop you so you the world doesn’t whoop you harder.’”
Brown and Harrison are on a sofa in a Manhattan hotel room, mimicking the father-son relationship they honed into a devastatingly sharp dagger onscreen. Their dynamic has pierced the hearts of audiences who screened their new film Waves on the festival circuit, ahead of its theatrical release this weekend.
The 43-year-old two-time Emmy-winner flew to Florida from the Los Angeles set of This Is Us on weekends to film Waves, grateful that his 25-year-old co-star, at the cusp of one of those breakout, rising-tide moments thanks to roles in Luce, Monsters and Men, and Godfather of Harlem, was holding down the fort.
Creating a bond in the face of a chaotic filming schedule was easy, Harrison says, giggling at himself for getting “cheesed up.” He had idolized Brown before they met. His character is meant to put his father on a pedestal, desperate to appease him and fearful of failing him. “I was so afraid of failing Sterling as a young actor taking on this part that could be potentially controversial.”
In Waves, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Harrison is Tyler, a 17-year-old wrestling star who spirals while trying to maintain peak fitness and his relationship with his girlfriend under immense pressure from his domineering father, Ronald, who trains him outside of school. The tension in Waves stems from the root of that pressure—a mixture of parental love, societal expectations, and race—and the question of who is at fault if a boy buckles under the weight of it.
It’s a personal film for both actors. One ranks among the most visible and awarded black actors in Hollywood, with recent roles in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Black Panther, his current work as Randall Pearson on This Is Us, and a part in the upcoming Frozen 2 buoying his awards push for Waves. The other is a young man figuring out the specific challenges of navigating the industry and his own identity.
They saw their own lives in the relationship between Ronald and his son. They had felt and lived those expectations. It’s also a project that made them confront their responsibility as black actors: What stories they want to tell, and what stories should be told.
Everyone in Harrison’s life—his parents, his girlfriend at the time, even Brown—wondered if it was a good idea for him to take the role and tell this story. Without spoiling too much, a violent act midway through the film raised concerns about whether the movie feeds into a certain idea that black men are to be feared, or that they’re doomed to a dark fate.
“My mom would tell me, from a young age, when you go out into the world, you’re not just an island unto yourself,” Brown says. She taught him that his actions reflect on his family, on his community. It’s something he’s taken with him as he’s become a public figure, aware of how his face on a TV screen or even his presence on a film set impacts others. “I’m always that dude who knows that if I mess up, it makes it a little bit more difficult for the next person coming up behind me,” he continues, glancing over at Harrison.
He knows that messing up can be interpreted in a number of ways, as institutional trip wires one might not even know to look for. It’s on his mind constantly, not for self-preservation, but for the future. He wants to set an expectation that black men show up, that they do the work, that they deserve opportunities.
“I think real success may be this place where people get a chance to slip and fall and it's not counted against all of us,” he says. “Maybe we’re getting there. It’s like, ‘Oh, you know, that dude was just tripping.’ Not like, ‘All black people are tripping.’ Hopefully the world at large is starting to recognize that it’s not a monolithic sort of thing. But you want to make sure that there’s at least nine on the positive ledger for every one on the negative. That is something I think about a lot.”
During a particularly intense scene between Tyler and Ronald in Waves, there’s a line of dialogue that hits you like a lightning bolt. Tyler is frustrated with the incessant, unreasonable demands his father places on him, and the training regimen that is destroying his body and his sanity. Ronald looks him in the eyes, meeting him with equal parts empathy and severity. “We don’t have the luxury of being average,” he says.
That line of dialogue resonated the most with both Harrison and Brown. They’ve had versions of that conversation with their own parents. Brown, now the father of two, is grappling with how to reconcile that ethos with a desire not to replicate the oppression of his upbringing with his own children.
Harrison grew up in New Orleans, the son of two musicians. He remembers how his father used to talk about his grandfather, who was one of the first black men in New Orleans to own his own cab service. Despite it being his work, he never drove his children around, leaving Harrison’s father to cart his saxophone across the city alone. It’s usually at this part of the story that his father would scoff, tossing off some remark about all the privileges Harrison has.
There was a time that his father was in a band with a white musician whose career has since blown up. (Harrison won’t say who.) It’s always frustrated him. They had the same talent and were on the same path. But it happened for this white man, and not for him.
“I've seen that auditioning for things, what gets highlighted and who gets recognized and who gets what part,” Harrison says. “And sometimes it's like, does it come down to race? Does it come down to just talent? What does it come down to?”
“Yeah, it’s not a meritocracy, man,” Brown says, shaking his head. “I mean, you would like to think that it is in an ideal world, that it's just everybody's talent that affords them the greatest level of opportunity. But the starting place is different.”
Brown had a conversation recently with his 8-year-old son. He was on a field trip laughing with all the other kids, but the teacher singled him out and scolded him to stop embarrassing her. His son was frustrated that he was the one who got snapped at, and for something so innocuous.
“I said, bro, that's the bottom line,” Brown recalls. “I don't know if it's fair or not, but oftentimes people will be looking at you and looking for you to make a mistake. Looking for reasons to count you out, to discount you, to see you as being less than. So there's work that we have to do to be seen as equal first just so that you can see our excellence. Because on a conscious or subconscious level, you may see us as being less than before we open our mouths, before we do anything.”
Brown has spent his life doing the work so that his excellence would be seen. His father died when he was just 10; that early confrontation with mortality instilled in him an obsession with fitness and health. He was a star athlete in high school and was recruited to play football at Claremont McKenna College, but chose to go to Stanford instead.
During his first two years there, he studied economics, even interning at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, where he’s from. But a turn in a school production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone changed everything. He was so intense and committed to the role that when his now-wife’s mother came to see the play, she told her daughter, “I don’t care who you date at Stanford, just don’t date that boy.” He and Ryan Michelle Bathe married in 2007, after he graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a master’s degree in acting.
His own drive, and what was behind it, is fresh on his mind, especially after making this film and considering that line of dialogue: “We don’t have the luxury to be average.”
As a father, “I really am trying to be kind of cognizant of not duplicating my childhood, but making sure I meet my child where they are and making sure that their voice is heard and that their perspectives are validated,” he says. “And it's frustrating because the paradigm has not been established for me to show me how to do it. I'm making it up as I go along.”
Waves is a film that explores the dichotomies of what it means to live and love in a modern family, specifically a modern black family. When life stops, how do you keep going? When what you want is taken away, what do you live for? When someone leaves your life, how do you still hold them in it?
It’s also a film that is bifurcated. The first half explores the relationship between Tyler and his father. The events of that act’s climax send the action hurtling into the second half, in which Tyler’s sister, Emily, is left to recover and, again with their father, attempt to mend. Part one is marked by a frenetic, intense energy, a hit of adrenaline that you unmoors you, implanting a certainty that you’re headed for inevitable chaos, or worse. But the reflective, gentler end reminds you of the potential and need for resilience.
“It sort of sticks to your bones and it's hard to shake and some people like that and some people don't,” Brown says about the film. “Some people are like, ‘Can I get this thing off of me?’ And other people were like, ‘Man, this shit is on me.’ Like in a really profound way.”
The smile makes a triumphant return, beaming as he talks about what the film means. To him, it proves love’s power to forgive a multitude of sins, and reveals the possibility of a narrative that resists seeing a young black man as a monster for committing a violent act.
“That shit moves me beyond,” he says. “I don't mean to be reductive, but love is a way of moving forward. That's just awesome.”