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Waves star Sterling K. Brown learned a lot about parenting from playing a father on screen

The This Is Us and Frozen 2 actor explains why he overcame his fears to take a role in Waves.

Sterling K. Brown at the Waves premiere in Atlanta in October 2019.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Today, Sterling K. Brown is everywhere. But he’d been working for years in TV, film, and theatre when he finally broke out in 2016, playing prosecutor Christopher Darden in the FX series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Since then, he’s become one of the most recognizable faces on TV in his role as Randall Pearson in NBC’s This Is Us, while also showing up in an array of mainstream movies ranging from Black Panther to Frozen 2.

His latest role is as Ronald, the stern but loving father of two teenagers (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) in Trey Shults’s family drama Waves, which opened in limited theaters on November 15 and expands on December 6. Ronald’s relationship with his children as well as his wife (played by Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry) undergoes a transformation when catastrophe strikes and the family must navigate an uncertain future.

Brown was hesitant to take on the role at first, not least because writer/director Shults is white and he feared the story could play into stereotypes about young black men in particular. But eventually he agreed to do it, and the result is a heartfelt and spectacular film. I spoke with Brown by phone about his decision to take the role, his feelings about parenthood, and why you have to tell culturally specific stories to get at universal truths.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was it about the role of Ronald in Waves that appealed to you?

Sterling K. Brown

Oh, man. It was a complicated decision for me, because I was shooting This is Us at the same time that they were going to begin production on Waves.

And there’s something about the story that I found particularly frightening: The question of whether or not I wanted to be a part of a story — not to spoil it — that could add to a particular representation of black male youth [as potentially dangerous]. I did not want to feed into that stereotype.

I was able to see on the page that Tyler [Ronald’s son, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.] has a good soul. He lost his way and made a tremendous mistake, but that mistake didn’t define him. However, when a screenplay originally envisioned a character as white, and then a black actor is put into that white character’s place, the way in which the audience may experience the tragedy could be very, very different.

So, I talked to Trey about it. I said, “You know, I think the movie’s very powerful. It’s a very big swing. But I am worried.” I shared my concerns, and he shared his concerns, too. He said, “Listen, I don’t want to lose anybody at the halfway point in my movie. What ways do you think we could ensure that the audience is able to stay for the full ride?” So we talked for a little bit, and he said, “You know, do you think it would be helpful if you also talked to Kelvin?” And I said, “Yeah. Let me talk to this guy,” because I wanted to make sure that he was entering into this thing with his eyes wide open, as well.

I said to Kelvin, “Look, man. This is huge, and I think it’s a cool role. But I’m also worried about how folks may receive it. And then, once they do, you’ve put it out into the world, and it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to them. They are entitled to their feelings, whatever they may be — good, bad, or ugly.”

He said, “I know what you’re saying.” He’d had conversations with his parents. His dad, in particular, was like, “I don’t know how you guys are going to pull this one off. This is really difficult.” He said to me, “But it’s a good part, right?” I said, “Yeah, man. It’s a good part.”

He said, “Should I not do it, just because I’m black?”

Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry in Waves.
Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry in Waves.

I started to think about, how many times have I not done something because I’m black? I am concerned about the representation of the black experience that I put out into the world. I think about it all the time. I can’t not think about it. And I think I was right to think about it, in this particular instance.

But [Kelvin] was also right to not be afraid, and I give him all the credit in the world for not finding a reason not to do the role. His choice to play this part meant that Taylor could now be his sister, that I am now his father, that Renee is now his mother.

He and Trey were able to collaborate on the script so that the characters are not just black people by happenstance, but on purpose. Kelvin shared experiences of his mother and his father, of his sisters, of relationships that he had had, so he and Trey were able to find the commonalities from their youths. They put those things into the script, and found something universal by being as specific as possible.

Ultimately, I realized my fear was not a reason I should shy away from the film. It was a reason why I should do the film. That fear is very much akin to the fear that Ronald, as a father, has for his son. He’s raising a young black man in America, realizing that people see him as a threat just by virtue of who he is. That people will expect him to not be as accomplished as he is, and are looking for reasons to dismiss him as irrelevant and unimportant.

So I said, “Okay. All this stuff that I’m feeling can be fertile soil for Ronald, and not a reason not to do the movie.”

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s quite powerful and thought-provoking. As a white critic writing about a movie like this, I find myself trying to come up with the best way to describe it — I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying it’s not about race because it’s “really” a universal story, because while it’s about families and certainly resonates with all kinds of people, Waves is also very much about being black in America.

Sterling K. Brown

I think you can’t get to the universal unless you’re willing to go through the specific. Anything that gets the edges sanded off feels vague and lukewarm. People tend to spew it out.

But when you really get specific with a story, two things happen. The culture and the people you are representing on screen get a chance to see themselves. And people outside of that culture, outside of that particular group, who may not relate to the specifics, find things that are akin in their own particular experience, to where they feel like I know that person. I don’t know exactly that particular path, but I know that person. Some universal things can only be found once you get really, really specific.

A professor of mine told me that at one point in time the famed African American playwright August Wilson only wanted black people to do his plays. Then he went to China, where he saw a production of Fences. He said it was all in Chinese, and [Wilson] couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying. But he saw the souls of the people on stage and he recognized that they understood his play. And he was like, “I take it back. Anybody who sees themselves in it, they can do it.”

Alissa Wilkinson

So for you, when you’re looking for roles to play or projects to produce, what are you looking for? What’s the spark of inspiration or themes that you’re hunting for?

Sterling K. Brown

I’m always intrigued by variety — especially since I’m on a network TV show that comes into people’s houses 18 weeks out of the year. I’m always looking to switch it up, to give people something they may not have expected from me. It’s always nice to be appreciated for a body of work, rather than for one particular character.

Listen: There’s so many stories out there. I trust my instincts. If a story moves me, regardless of who the character is — the character could be lead, the character could be supporting — but if I feel that the story is something that needs to be told and I want to be a part of the telling of it, then that’s my primary factor in terms of the decision. I know I’ve played a lot of fathers, like Randall [from This Is Us], Ronald [from Waves], N’Jobu [from Black Panther], but there’s been other roles. I got to do Hotel Artemis, and that was a lot of fun. I loved playing the bad guy in Predator. I’m looking forward to playing other bad guys.

2019 Toronto International Film Festival - “Waves” Premiere
Brown with his on-screen family in Waves: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Taylor Russell.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Acting is a sort of therapy for me. It’s interesting, because with acting, people will praise you for doing things that, if you did them in real life, they’d be like, “Are you okay?” So, you get a chance to exorcise so many demons through all these different characters. It keeps me whole; it keeps me judgment-free. My goal is to love humanity, and it’s hard to love people and judge them at the same time.

With each character that I step into, I find myself releasing a little bit of judgment, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, and able to love more wholly each time I step into a new person’s shoes.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you find yourself releasing something specific in this case, playing Ronald in Waves?

Sterling K. Brown

There have been a few different men in my life — uncles of mine — who I thought were pretty tough. They weren’t always the most gentle of human beings, but they had very high expectations and demanded a very high level of performance. Sometimes I would just be like, “Do you have to be so hard on everyone all the time?”

Ronald held a revelation for me in particular, in regards to how he came to be the father that he is. He comes from a world of construction, where you need blueprints, where you need permits — things have to be done in an ordered way. He also raised these two children on his own for a period of time after their birth mother passed away. You never enter into a family thinking that you’re going to lose your wife, the mother of your children. Now your need to hold things together has become enhanced, and you hold on extra tight.

But sometimes there’s little-to-no recognition of the fact that holding on extra tight can feel suffocating to the people who are the recipients of that extra tight squeeze, even though you know that you’re doing what is necessary in order to keep your family together.

So, for me, there was a recognition that the way in which someone loves has a story behind it. It doesn’t negate their love. My job is to receive the love and just try to live in a place of understanding.

Alissa Wilkinson

You talked about letting go of things in your own life through these characters. Do you find yourself receiving things from them, too? Do you learn things from them?

Sterling K. Brown

Absolutely. I think Ronald, in particular, has made me hyper-conscious of creating an environment where my children feel comfortable sharing everything. That means, in turn, you kind of have to model it for them. There’s a book that I read called The Conscious Parent, by Dr. Shefali Tsabary. In it, she writes that it’s okay to argue in front of your children. It’s important for them to know that that’s part of your relationship. But, don’t go behind closed doors for the reconciliation — let them see all of it, so that they know when they get into arguments with whoever they’re in a relationship with, that it’s not the end of the world. Arguments are part of being in a couple, but reconciliation is also a part of the process. And you expose them to the totality of that.

You think you’re doing your children a service by keeping certain things from their purview. But they’re smarter than what we give them credit for. They know what’s happening, and they’re going to have to interpret it for themselves if you don’t show them all of it.

So, our goals as parents — my wife and I, as a collective — is to show our kids what our marriage is, good, bad, and ugly, so that it’s not idealized in their minds, but something that they want to strive towards, because they see two people who are in constant communication, who are working to be better as individuals and as a couple. You’ve got to model sharing for them.

Waves opened in limited theaters on November 15 and expands nationwide on December 6.

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