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As the big personality brother in ‘American Fiction,’ Sterling K. Brown has it covered

Sterling K. Brown covers half his face while looking into the camera for a portrait.
“If your barometer for success is to do work you believe in, I’m winning. I feel good,” Sterling K. Brown says of his career.
(Julien James / For The Times)
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Sterling K. Brown doesn’t have a lot of screen time in Cord Jefferson’s razor-sharp satire “American Fiction,” yet he’s indelible as Clifford Ellison, brother to Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a novelist played by Jeffrey Wright. On leave for “racial insensitivity” from his position as an English professor, Monk reunites with family at a Massachusetts beach house where he aims to start a new novel while caring for his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams). Visiting from his home in Phoenix is Clifford, a gay cosmetic surgeon and the youngest of three siblings, who has deliberately put distance between himself and his homophobic mother.

Like Clifford, Brown doesn’t live in the same vicinity as the rest of his family. He lives in Los Angeles — not St. Louis, where he grew up. His father died when he was 10, leaving his mother, a public school teacher, to raise them on her own.

“I am the youngest biologically of three. So I sort of understood that role pretty well. There’s no drama like family drama,” Brown says. “Similar to Cliff, everyone lives in St. Louis except me, who’s the weird Hollywood kid out on the West Coast now. So I always wear a little bit of black sheep. There’s a different point of connection I have with the character,” he adds. “He’s got a big personality, and my family would say I have one of the biggest personalities out of everybody in it. And there is an insistence in his life right now to be his most authentic self, whether people are comfortable with it or not. I think I can relate to that as well.”

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In the film, Monk struggles to come up with a novel that publishers will respond to even as he privately seethes at rival writer Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose latest is set in the hood, a trope Monk considers demeaning to people of color. Out of frustration, he emulates her, anonymously writing a novel about a gangster. When it becomes a hit, Monk must pose as a fugitive outlaw to promote it.

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“Cord delicately pokes fun at the Hollywood machine and the stories it finds most digestible for mainstream audiences regarding the Black community,” Brown says of Jefferson’s screenplay based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, “Erasure.” “He even shows clips through the movie of hood tales and slave narratives. Not that those things are not apropos of our community, they do not express the totality of who we are as Black Americans.”

A working actor for decades, Brown got his first series regular job playing a bulimic cop on the FX comedy “Starved.” After his mother, a staunchly religious woman, watched the pilot, he told her, “If you don’t want to watch [any more], I understand,” to which she responded, “Thank you.” He had better luck with “Army Wives,” on which he played Dr. Roland Burton, the series’ lone Army husband, playing opposite his real-life wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe, in a recurring role.

“That played real big in Middle America, St. Louis. At that point, I was legit. She was very happy, until my character had an affair on the show. Then she stopped talking to me for a little while, because, for Mom, there’s no separation between character and child. I think at this point she understands it’s not me.”

Two men talking on a porch at night.
Jeffrey Wright, left, as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and Sterling K. Brown as Cliff Ellison in “American Fiction,” adapted and directed by Cord Jefferson from Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure.”
(Orion Pictures)

Moving on to recurring parts on such shows as “Supernatural” and “Person of Interest,” he first came to the attention of awards voters playing real-life attorney Chris Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” for which he won an Emmy. That role led to the show that has come to define his career, “This Is Us,” for which he won a second Emmy. In it, he plays Randall Pearson, father, husband and adopted son of white parents.

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In recent months, “This Is Us” fans have been buzzing about Brown re-teaming with show creator Dan Fogelman for a new Hulu series in which he’ll play a Secret Service agent. “The template of the show has very strong influences from ‘Lost’ and ‘The Leftovers,’” says Brown, hinting that it’s set in the near future. “I think he’s influenced by [Damon] Lindelof a lot.”

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With awards season upon us, Brown is happy just to be part of the conversation. He’s won numerous accolades throughout his career, including three Emmys, a Golden Globe and four Screen Actors Guild Awards. Yes, they’re an effective ego boost, but that’s not really the point.

“It did make a difference in terms of people saying what would you like to do next. Inviting you to the table rather than waiting for crumbs to fall, that’s huge,” he says. “I feel like once you feed the behemoth, the behemoth wants more, and eventually it’s like a classic Greek tragedy — prosperity, presumption, ruin. You can only go so high before you hit the summit and start going down. But if your barometer for success is to do work you believe in, I’m winning. I feel good. I’ll let other people become movie stars. I just want to do good work.”

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