Sterling K. Brown is known for playing Randall Pearson, the loving father in This Is Us, but in Trey Edward Shults’ family drama Waves, he shows us a very different side. As Ronald, he’s the domineering parent of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young man painfully striving to impress his pushy dad by becoming a great wrestler, and Emily (Taylor Russell), who is on her own difficult journey toward womanhood. The Emmy-winning Brown embraced this challenging role as a thoughtful framing of the father-son relationship, highlighting the importance of vulnerability within the masculine mindset.
DEADLINE: When you first read the script for Waves, what was your initial reaction, and what was it that spoke to you about this very unique story?
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STERLING K. BROWN: Reading the script was most unique reading of a script that I’ve ever had because the music cues were embedded in the PDF, so you hit the button, you play a song, and you read the scene. Trey had it scored in his head, how he wanted it to go. I have never done that before. But it’s a really immersive script—the structure of it being the perspective of Tyler in the beginning of the movie, and then switching over to the perspective of Emily. I was like, “Wait. Oh, snap! The movie keeps going.” And thankfully, it keeps going, because I do remember there being a bit of trepidation on my part with a movie where a young Black man kills a young girl, and whether or not we’d be feeding into a negative stereotype.
DEADLINE: How did you handle those apprehensions?
BROWN: I continued on with the movie, but I still had that concern. I felt like there was something beautiful about [Emily] being able to shed the hatred that she had for her brother, something beautiful about the relationship that she has with Luke [Lucas Hedges]—but whether or not that central event is something that’s going to be damaging or uplifting to see a flawed, but good human being make a terrible decision? I talked to Trey about it. I told him what my concerns were, and he said, “Please, share ideas on what you think we can do to make the film better, because I don’t want to lose our audience at the midway point.” And then he said, “Maybe you should talk to Kelvin, too,” who was out in Los Angeles training as a wrestler.
So, we had this conversation and I shared with [Kelvin] my concerns for how he could be viewed, and how the character could be viewed. Once you do it, and you put it out into the world, you can’t fault anybody for how they receive it, and how they receive it may run the gamut.A24
Kelvin said, “I understand. My dad has the same fears that you do. But it’s a good part, right?” And I was like, “Yeah, man, it’s a good part.” He said, “Should I not do it, just because he’s Black?” And I was like, “Oh, sh*t.”
I realized the reasons that I was fearful were actually the reasons why I should do it. Because this father probably has very similar fears for his son that I had for Kelvin. You hope and pray that your children come back safe and sound, in one piece, and that the world gives them a fair shake, right?
DEADLINE: Speaking to that, what was it like going from playing a father who is loving like Randall on This Is Us, to Ronald, who is very demanding in his approach?
BROWN: Pretty awesome, dude. I was actually shooting them concurrently. I was flying from LA on Friday night to work on Waves Saturday and Sunday, and then flying back to work Monday through Friday on This Is Us. So, it was a bit schizophrenic, going back and forth, but I had a plane ride to make an adjustment from one to the other. It was also incredibly energizing, because both Kelvin and Taylor were so locked in to their characters, and also playing with Renée Elise Goldsberry was an absolute joy. There’s something about doing something completely different from what people know you for that excites me.
When you come into people’s homes once a week, they feel as if the character that you portray is you. I think that Randall is a part of me, but I think Ronald is just as much a part of me as is Randall. Every character can’t be loved. I think your goal as an actor is to just make sure that they’re understood, that you understand why a character or why a human being can make the decisions that they make in life.
DEADLINE: Why do you think Ronald is so domineering towards Tyler? Why do you think he treats his son the way he does?
BROWN: Ronald is somebody who’s already lost his first wife, and the biological mother of his two children to a drug overdose, and he knows how fragile family can be, and how easily it can be taken away from you. I think that causes him to hold on that much tighter to his children, in particular his son, recognizing that just by virtue of being a young Black man, you can be threatening. Other people can perceive you as a threat. They can perceive you as not being as important. So, you don’t want to give anybody any excuses for counting you out, for dismissing your presence.
He wants him to be excellent because he recognizes excellence within him. And sometimes that causes him to push a little too hard—to take the air out of the room, to where you don’t give your children the space to express their own perspectives, opinions and feelings.
Sometimes we only do what we see done in our presence. If your model for being a man is you pull it together and you figure it out, then you’re going to pull it together and figure it out. If you don’t see vulnerability modeled for you, it can be a difficult thing to take on for yourself.
DEADLINE: As a father, what did you personally take away from Waves?A24
BROWN: My kids are eight and four. Their mother and father are still the center of their world, and God, if it could only last forever. But I know once we start to get to middle school, your peer group becomes the primary influence and you have to take a back seat. For me, more than anything else, is that I want my sons to know that whatever is going on in their life, they can share it with their parents and they will be loved unconditionally. I never want to create an environment where they feel as if they fall short of the expectations that we have set for them; that’s a reason to close themselves off. Sh*t happens. People fall short of the mark. You can rebound, and it’s easier to do it together, rather than in isolation.
DEADLINE: We’re in this time when the words diversity, inclusion and representation are being thrown around. How do you think Waves adds to this conversation?
BROWN: What I love about how the movie came together is that it didn’t start off necessarily as a story intended for an African-American family. Trey is a white dude from Texas, who lives in Florida with his girlfriend and wanted to tell the story about his life—but he also wanted to work with Kelvin, because he had worked on his last movie, It Comes at Night. He gave Kelvin the option to choose either the son or the boyfriend, and Kelvin was like, “I want to play the son.” And he’s like, “Are you sure? Because you’re only a buck-15 soaking wet.” And Kelvin’s like, “I’m going to do it.” He bulked himself up and learned how to wrestle. So, now necessarily, with a young Black man in a role which you may have seen yourself, you have to populate the world. His sister, the parents, are necessarily African-American.
What I love about Trey is, he spent time with Kelvin, talking to him about what his experiences were as a young Black man, what his relationships were with his father, sister, mother, his girlfriends from the past, and layering that into the story to where it’s kind of autobiographical for the both of them. Different snapshots of each other’s lives are incorporated into this movie. You come up with a really fresh collaboration that allows for an African-American experience to be present, for race to be something that is discussed, but it’s not necessarily the central theme of the film—it’s something that is undeniably present.
DEADLINE: What was it like to have that kind of collaboration? How does it move the needle?
BROWN: I applaud the collaboration that Trey was open to, because he could have said, “Kelvin, why don’t you just play the boyfriend? I’ve got a role for you as the boyfriend, you get to come in and save the day.” He could have kept the family white and kept it moving. Instead, he was like, “No. I want you to play the part where you most see yourself.” And Kelvin was like, “I see myself here. Now, how do we make it specific?” Because you reach the universal through specificity.
DEADLINE: The film is very much in the arthouse indie space that appeals to cinephiles, but how do you think it could go beyond that and reach the masses?
BROWN: We had a series of screenings recently on the East Coast, New York, Atlanta and D.C.A24
When we were in D.C., we had a talk-back after the screening. We had a group of students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts come to check out the movie. There was a father in the audience, talking about how he has a son who is ranked sixth in wrestling in the state of Virginia. He works with his son to become the best that he can be and he wants to be able to have open and effective communication with his son, but he feels as if the era of social media and the telephone has usurped the opportunities that are available for authentic communication.
He said, “I don’t know how realistic the movie is because as much as I want to reach out, I don’t know if he’s really receptive to it.” And all the hands from kids, primarily African American, from Duke Ellington, shot up.
I was sitting up on stage and this young Black man had something to say. I took my microphone and ran it back to him at the back of the house. You could tell he was nervous, because his hand was shaking just a little bit as he was speaking, but he was incredibly eloquent. He was talking about the things that he’d endured in his life and the relationship that he had with his father. He was talking about how he knew that his father loved him, although his father never really said it out loud.
He said, “How cool it would be if my dad actually did say it, because then I think it would give me permission to share more of my life with him, because I want to. But I think he keeps me at arm’s length, and is not interested in knowing the totality of who I am.”
Masculinity seems like it has to appear in a very particular way. When life is throwing so many slings and arrows at you your knee-jerk response is to hold up your armor and protect yourself and keep things from penetrating. But actually, I saw my father exude that sort of vulnerability that he wanted to see from me. Because of that, I think we could be much closer. So, it’s something as simple as Gandhi. You’ve got to be the change you want to see in the world.