While filming Episode 9 of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” Sterling K. Brown prepared at length for the explosive courtroom scene as assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden, when he releases pent-up rage against defense attorney Johnny Cochran (Courtney P. Vance). Brown knew emotion and sentiment would be high; he had to be on top of it to let it go.
He went to set early, when it was quiet and dark, and did a strong rehearsal. The lights were set. Director Anthony Hemingway called “Action!”
And Brown forgot all his lines. For three takes.
Hemingway called ‘cut’ and gave the actor a few minutes to go over the lines. He took some deep breaths, came back, and nailed it. “I just needed to get over that initial hiccup,” he said. “Once I was able to marry the emotion with the words, it went well, it just took a minute.”
There is no more delicious moment in any working actor’s life than that breakout moment. Some never get it. After making his living for 15 years as an actor, Brown had accepted his role as a journeyman character actor booking recurring TV roles and guest spots, small supporting parts in films, and always, choice theater roles. Then something shifted inside of him that changed his luck.
In 2015, after shooting a small role in 2016’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Brown took a trip to Italy with his wife, fellow Stanford and NYU grad Ryan Michelle Bathe, and their year-old son, to mount a three-person production of “Hamlet.”
“We had two weeks to rehearse it,” he told me. “Andre Holland played Hamlet and my wife and I played every other character. It was a Herculean effort, exhausting, difficult. I felt, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ Then I did Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the War’ at the Public and at the Taper, which was my first opportunity to be the lead in a play.”
Both theatrical experiences bolstered Brown’s confidence. “I took on the mountain and made it to the top,” he said.
So when Brown went into auditions for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 thriller “Split” and Ryan Murphy’s FX series “The People vs O.J.,” “I went in with a different feeling. Sometimes I felt like I was fighting to get into the room. Now I had a sense of belonging; I was not a neophyte; I recognized that I have things of worth that I can bring to the table.”
Brown landed the career-changing role of L.A. prosecutor Christopher Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” without even meeting Sarah Paulson, the actress playing Marcia Clark. Luckily, the actors found instant chemistry and a way of working together as they revealed the detailed story — reported by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin in his book “The Run of His Life” — behind the Trial of the Century.
And when Brown met his fellow actors, he felt welcomed. “When I finally got the chance to do ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson,'” he said, “my peers embraced me with the same attitude. They didn’t make me feel small or insignificant. They treated me as a peer. It was a wonderful experience.”
Like everyone else who watched the trial, Brown thought he knew what happened 20 years ago. For Brown, the most satisfying comments came from black people telling him he changed their view of Darden.
“Clark and Darden were considered to be incompetent and bumbling through this whole prosecution,” he said, “and throwing away a case that should have been a slam dunk, right? What the show was able to address in a lovely way was that these were two competent people who had a lot more stacked up against them then people realized at the time: in terms of the composition of jury, the case being tried downtown vs. Santa Monica, Rodney King just having happened two years prior, and how willing an African-American jury was to see police misconduct at the center of something. The African-American community vilified Darden, he was excommunicated, deemed an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a race traitor. These people had to deal with so much more other than trying to prove a double homicide on O.J. Simpson. It was unfair.”
Darden wanted nothing more than to “come out from beneath the shadows and stand on his own,” said Brown. “It didn’t work out that way for him.”
After the series broke came the kudos, followed by 22 Emmy nominations, including Supporting Actor in a Drama for Brown. After the FX series aired, Reginald Hudlin interviewed Brown to star opposite Chadwick Boseman in the Thurgood Marshall biopic “Marshall” (Open Road). The director was a new convert; previously, Hudlin didn’t think Brown was right for the role of Joseph Spell, an African-American man living in Connecticut who was accused in 1941 of the rape and attempted murder of a white socialite woman.
“Marshall was going around the country with the NAACP defending men and women who were charged unfairly because of the color of their skin,” said Brown. “Marshall got an acquittal for Spell, even though the judge wouldn’t let him try the case himself because he hadn’t passed the Connecticut bar. A Jewish lawyer acted as his proxy; Thurgood had to speak through him to present his defense. It was a sweet part.”
Hudlin is editing the film; it remains to be seen whether Open Road will release it in time for awards consideration.
Brown is also busy shooting a regular role in the ensemble for Dan Fogelman’s family drama “This Is Us,” a Fox series airing on NBC. “It’s about some individuals who all turn 36 on the same day,” he said. “The story opens as they share the same birthday. They all share more in common with one another than you know.”
Stay tuned. We will be hearing a lot more from leading man Sterling K. Brown.