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Sterling K. Brown: The trying issues of 2020 will be key to ‘This Is Us’ Season 5

Actor Sterling K. Brown
“You feel like racism should be on pause, right? The pause button should be on while the whole world is trying to figure out how to get itself healthy. But it’s not,” says “This Is Us” actor Sterling K. Brown.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

If this were a normal year, Sterling K. Brown would already be deep into production on the fifth season of “This Is Us” — cooking up scenes that would maybe help revive viewers who were left breathless by the tense exchange in the Season 4 finale. (You know the one.)

But there’s no telling when he’ll be back on set. “This Is Us” managed to wrap filming of its fourth season in early March, just before the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. brought Hollywood to a halt — there was even a wrap party.

For now, in early August, he’s like millions of parents working remotely: holed up in his home office — his navy-colored walls and a “This Is Us” poster within view of his computer camera — and on a Zoom call that is having moments of connectivity issues. Of course, unlike other parents, Brown is a double Emmy nominee this year: up for lead actor in a drama for “This Is Us” as well as supporting actor in a comedy for his role as a hard-nosed manager of a famous singer in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

How have you adjusted to life in quarantine?

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The first challenge, and probably still [in the] Top 3, is homeschooling. We have a third-grader who is going into fourth grade who loves “Fortnite” more than his parents at the present. And then in the midst of that, there’s the ocular proof of Ahmaud Arbery, there’s the knowledge of Breonna Taylor and then again the sight of George Floyd. You feel like racism should be on pause, right? The pause button should be on while the whole world is trying to figure out how to get itself healthy. But it’s not. There’s a profound — first, for me — sadness. And then, just like, WTF? What was interesting was the world sort of had a similar feeling. I went out with my family to protest. And I was moved by the multitude of faces and ethnicities who were saying, “Black lives matter.” I don’t know if I’ve experienced that in my lifetime.

Five seasoned entertainment journalists predict the shows and performances the Television Academy will honor with Emmys; do you agree with their picks?

We’re living in unprecedented times and people are struggling with the psychological effects. Randall’s mental health was central to his story line in Season 4. He reluctantly agrees to see a therapist, normalizing the idea of men seeking help.

This exploration of therapy, I find it really significant. My family — we just went through a death; a young person in our family passed away. Talking to the parents about, like, “What do you guys think of therapy?” And they’re like: “We’ll pray on it. And if God thinks that it’s appropriate ...” I was like, “OK, I get you, God shows up in a multitude of ways. Not just through prayer but sometimes through people that are put in your path to be of assistance to you. “

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Scene from “This Is Us” Season 4 between Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his therapist (Pamela Adlon).

As an artist, you sometimes forget how difficult self-reflection and introspection are for most people. The idea of excavating things from your past as a way for you to clear a path into the future is like, “Why would I do that? I put that ... behind me years ago, and you’re asking me to bring that all up again?” And you forget because your job is to remember these experiences from your life as a way of connecting to what other people could be going through, and if they can see an authentic experience in your portrayal, then there’s healing that can possibly come from it.

Speaking of which, Randall and Kevin [Justin Hartley] had a blowout argument in the season finale. What was that like?

[Randall] does desire to do the right thing, but he also kind of likes credit for doing the right thing. We did the exchange a few times. There were some that were more bombastic. And then we did it in a way that felt a little bit more contained, and it’s almost like the words pierced even more. It’s like, “No, I mean this. You’re a great guy, Kev, but what have you ever had to be responsible for? I’ve been dealing with this the whole time. You don’t get to pop in and change the narrative. You earn that by being present.”

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In real life, I am sort of like Kevin. I’m the bopper. I’m the actor who goes off to all these places and then I try to put in my two cents and then my brother is like: “Nah nah nah.” So I get both perspectives very well.

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Trailer for Season 4 of “This Is Us.”

Looking ahead, how do you think the issues of 2020 will be addressed on “This Is Us”?

They’ve been writing. They probably even have the first four or five [episodes] written. I can tell you the show is coming back with a bang. And I can tell you that the world will be reflected in our show. I won’t go into the details, but it is in the forefront of the show’s consciousness that the times in which we are living in are extraordinary and [showrunner Dan Fogelman] took it upon himself to say, “I think that we can help people through this time by showing them how the Pearsons are dealing with it.”

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You guest starred in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” as Reggie, a no-nonsense manager of a singer. What was it like to play a character in that world? The interactions Reggie has with Mrs. Maisel’s manager Susie [Alex Borstein] are so good.

It’s so interesting .... You can tell Reggie is a person who doesn’t get a chance to assert his power publicly ... there’s a white face he has to put out for public consumption. So when he does rule, he rules with an iron fist. He brooks no nonsense ... and puts people in their place. And [Susie] is so tough. It’s so interesting to see her in these instances be like, “OK, OK, OK.” She’s so much fun.


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