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The night before the Academy Award nominations were announced, Sterling K. Brown had left his phone on until it was out of juice and then fallen asleep in his son’s room. His first inkling that he’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actor (for his performance in American Fiction) came when the 48-year-old actor plugged his phone back in the next morning to the dings of 126 text messages. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, who’s the popular guy?’”


Nevertheless, he still drove the kids to school and then went to work — a reading for Paradise City, an upcoming Hulu series written by Dan Fogelman, the creator of This Is Us. Or as he puts it, “It was sort of normal, except I was also trying to return the multitudinous messages of love that I received from friends and family.”

The Oscar nomination was just the latest milestone in the multitudinously talented actor’s rise, from playing Riff in his high school production of West Side Story to portraying attorney Christopher Darden in The People v. OJ Simpson. When he won the Golden Globe in 2018 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama Series, he became the first African-American to do so. Along the way, he married his fellow Stanford University alum, actress Ryan Michelle Bathé, and together they are raising two sons, Andrew and Amaré, in Los Angeles

Next up: On May 24th he will be co-starring with Jennifer Lopez in the Netflix sci-fi film Atlas, and he is producing Washington Black, a limited-run series based on Esi Edugyan’s novel that was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. With his acting and producing careers firing on all cylinders, it seemed the perfect moment to check in with him as he test-drove some of our favorite warm-weather looks at the Sheats-Goldstein Residence in the Hollywood Hills.


You arrived at Stanford University thinking you’d major in economics and work in finance. What changed?

There was a professor who was putting together a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I was cast as Herald Loomis, and something just happened; I noticed that whenever I was in a play, I got better grades all around. So I talked about it with my mother and she was nothing but supportive. I prayed on it, and I eventually switched from being an econ major to a drama major. I’m on a text chain with some of my classmates, Black folks from Stanford. The thread is called “Chocolate Cardinal ‘98,” and after the nomination, someone brought Joe Turner up and said that they knew it was only a matter of time.

After Stanford, you received your Master’s from New York University and began working as an actor?

And I’m cast as Antonio in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night with Julia Stiles and Jimmy Smitts — and I tear my ACL.


But you land on your feet. You’re then cast in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Alberto Ui at the National Actors Theatre, part of an ensemble that includes Al Pacino, John Goodman, Paul Giamatti and sitcom royalty, Tony Randall…

It was stupid. We had eight weeks of rehearsals, and I was like a kid in a candy store, watching the process of these other actors whose work I’d loved and admired.

When you won the Golden Globe, what went through your mind? What did you mean when you talked about “being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am”?

This was the first time I had auditioned for a role where the character was written for an African-American actor. I wanted people to understand that the more specific we can be about who a character is ethnically, the closer we can get to a point where folks see what’s universal in people from different cultures and backgrounds.


How did you come to be involved with American Fiction?

I was sent Cord Jefferson’s script. I knew Jeffrey Wright was already attached, and I brought it along on a plane flight. Normally, I’m quick to fall asleep on planes, but this flight I didn’t. I read it with an ear-to-ear smile and turned to my wife and said, “Ryan, I think I just found my next project."


Even when your character, Cliff, is being bad (giving oxycontin to his mother’s caretaker, so she can sleep and he can party in peace at the family’s beach house), you manage to give him a devil-may-care charm. . .

God gave me this gift, this natural affability, to help me navigate through life. And because of that affability, I know I can go pretty far without losing the audience.


And how would you describe your personal style?

California chic…the kind of looks where if you’re playing with your kids and then going to a dinner meeting you would look good in them. When I go home to St. Louis for a wedding or a funeral, I might not be as buttoned up as everybody else, but I like the versatility of dressing in a more relaxed way.


Photographs by Matthew Brookes

Interviewed by John Brodie