When Sterling K. Brown received Trey Edward Shults’ script for “Waves,” he found a PDF with embedded music cues, rainbow-colored enlarged fonts, and notes about changing aspect ratios. And that, Brown said, is why he wanted to work with him.
“Trey is unreined,” Brown said. “I dig that. There are no rules in the back of his brain about how films are supposed to be made.”
When Brown first talked to Shults on the phone, he thought the filmmaker was black. “I don’t know too many white dudes named Trey,” he said. “He talks in a deep voice, ‘Brother, nice to meet you.’ Then I watched ‘Krisha,’ and he cameos in the film. ‘This is the dude, he wrote this!’ I realized he was white.”
Shults wrote “Waves” for Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“It Comes At Night”). Harrison plays a tightly wound South Florida high school overachiever from a middle-class family who feels pushed by his controlling father (Brown) to succeed in every aspect of his life, especially competitive wrestling. The first half of the movie is driven by his anxiety, his coping and escape mechanisms, and the propulsive sense that something bad is about to happen. It does — and then the movie shifts into a more meditative and reactive healing space.
Brown had some fears for the film. “With a young black man taking a young woman’s life halfway through the film, the idea of black masculinity is already something fearful in this country,” Brown said. “And I wasn’t sure if it was furthering a stereotype, or getting inside a young man’s life and illustrating how good people people can make treacherous decisions that lead to the worst possible scenarios. Audience members may say, ‘I don’t know if I can get down with that.’ That’s ok.”
However, Brown was impressed that Shults “was egoless,” he said. “He asked, ‘What can we do to make this better? I don’t want people to stop watching halfway through and not make it through to other side.'”
As Brown tried to work through his concerns, Shults suggested that he talk with Harrison, who was intensively training for the wrestling matches. “I was watching him order two entrees and a side, and chowing down,” said Brown. However, he gave Harrison a stark warning: “Once you do this, you no longer have control over how it’s perceived. I understand the artistic journey you want for yourself.”
“My dad thinks I’m crazy, and my mom,” said Harrison.
“I don’t think you’re crazy, but I understand their concern,” said Brown.
“Is it a good role?”
“It’s a good role.”
“But should I not do it just because I’m black?”
That’s when Brown had an epiphany. “I realized that the fear I had for him was not the reason why I shouldn’t do the movie. It was the reason I should do it. Because this dad has similar fears for his son.”
Brown was also attracted to a movie about middle-class issues that are universal to many families. “This is a black family with white-people problems, for sure,” he said. “Prototypically, we are used to seeing stories of struggle from the African-American community, about making their way to strive toward good times. This is not that family; it exists in the world.”
The demanding father driving his son to achieve is a familiar trope in white and black families alike. “He loves his family,” said Brown, who lost his father when he was 10. “One of my first filters into a character is, ‘How does somebody love?’ Randall [“This is Us”] has a big open heart and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Ronald is not like that; he’s experienced loss and tragedy early in life and was left to raise two children on his own for a couple of years before he met his second wife who helped him raise his kids. That can be a lonely feeling.”
Ronald worries about his son. “As a parent, you constantly live in a place of fear,” said Brown, who has two boys, eight and four, “knowing how dangerous it can be for young black boys, how they can be perceived. He wants to make sure he gives his son the armor necessary to navigate these United States. He knows a lot of people are looking for you to fail and be less than, any reasons they can come up with to count you out as being undeserving: ‘Oh yeah, it’s what we expected. We expected you to not to be able do this.'”
Brown understood this man. “I was raised in a similar way,” he said. “You have to be twice as good to get just as far. The starting line is in a different place for us, where the consequences of our actions have greater ramifications than they do for our mainstream counterparts.”
Brown creates sympathy for his character, who leaves his son no room to breathe. “I wish he had created a space for his child to have a voice in his home and be appreciated. Ronald’s house, Ronald’s rules. That’s how it’s going to go, for better or for worse. He’s unwittingly [modeling] for his son what it means to be a man: ‘Don’t complain. Figure out a way to deal with our problems on our own.’ His son feels he’s in a dark hole and not feeling he has someone to confide in.”
When the father finally turns to his shy teenage daughter (Taylor Russell), he learns how to have a two-way conversation. That heartrending scene could earn Brown an Oscar nomination. “That’s the one that cemented my desire to do the role,” he said, “because you get a chance for him to learn something, a new way of being — embarrassingly so for him, because some characters cry freely and they don’t care who sees, but Ronald, as soon as it comes, he has to wipe it off. He’s not used for this to happen in front of anybody, and apologizes for it. It’s nice for someone to see that there’s not one way of being in the world. You’re not erasing anything by being a different way.”
Production was a bear for Brown, who shot NBC’s “This Is Us” during the week in Los Angeles and flew on the redeye to Florida on Friday nights. (He had a similar schedule while shooting “Black Panther.”) “This shit is crazy,” he said. “But for an actor it’s a month or a few weeks of your life, for the writer-director it’s years. If you show up and don’t give them your best, that ain’t right.”
Brown remembers years of playing lawyers, doctors, and cops on TV. “Even on ‘O.J.,’ I was a lawyer,” he jokes of his Emmy-winning performance as Christopher Darden in “American Crime Story.” “Just now it’s starting to open up. I’m energized and proud. And I’m blessed to be working at a time when there’s a bit more fluidity, that doesn’t preclude you from moving from one medium to another.”