Anyone who has witnessed him onscreen knows that Sterling K. Brown is something special. This year alone has seen some of his best work yet as an actor. He is the anxious half of one of television's most endearing couples as Randall on This Is Us — a part that won him the coveted Emmy award for Lead Actor in Drama Series. He’s a little too perfect, but still worth a shot as Lionel on HBO’s Insecure. But in his latest role for the upcoming film Marshall, Brown is taking a turn for the worst. He plays Joseph Spell, a Black man in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who was represented by Thurgood Marshall in a legal trial after he was accused of raping a white woman. I had the pleasure of speaking with Brown about this role, and pitched another one I think he’d be great for.
Because Marshall is based on a real case that Thurgood Marshall worked before he became the first Black Supreme Court Justice, what I’m about to say isn’t technically a spoiler. Spell did not rape Eleanor Strubing. They engaged in consensual sex, initiated by Strubing, who accused Spell of rape out of fear that her husband would find out about their affair. Now that we are living a post-Get Out era, Brown agrees that a fresh wave of triggering reactions is bound to come up for viewers of Marshall. “People have strong responses" whenever they see a Black man with a white woman.
Not only has our country’s history of racism and anti-miscegenation influenced Brown’s take, his own personal experiences have made it clear. As a kid, a white girl who’d agreed to be his date to their eighth grade mixer cancelled after her parents made it clear that they weren’t racist, but thought the races should be kept separate “when it comes to dating.” In college, a white friend of his in the drama department was forced to stop hanging out with him after shows because Brown would “ruin her reputation.” While he’s not sure that people will be yelling at Spell through the screen as many of us did when we saw Get Out, Brown thinks that whatever way people respond should be validated. “Never forget or be surprised when people have a reaction because it’s rooted in the history of the country.”
However, there was one person whose reaction to Marshall — which includes a sex scene between Brown and Kate Hudson, who plays Strubing — matters a little more than some of the others: Ryan Michelle Bathe. A fellow actor and his wife of 10 years, Brown says that Bathe is very understanding and “perfectly fine” with his sex scenes. It also doesn’t hurt that Brown is dangling a love scene that Bathe did with Boris Kodjoe a decade ago over her head. He shared this anecdote with me over our mutual laughter (he’s still not buying Bathe’s excuse that the humidity made wearing nipple covers impossible during the love scene in All About Us), but it’s clear that his marriage to Bathe — whom he affectionately calls “Bird” — has made quite the ally of Brown.
With two Emmys under his belt, Brown has inadvertently become one of the shining examples in the same Hollywood that has been under fire for not creating opportunities that acknowledge the talents of people of color. “I try not to confuse my own personal success with the industry as a whole,” Brown clarified. He shares a life with a Black woman, Bathe, who is just as talented but has yet to see the career highs that her husband has. “There does seem to be a bit more admittance for men,” Brown admitted. “Outside of Shondaland, it feels like the doors could open up a bit more for women as well.” I couldn’t agree more. With this kind of marital support, Bathe is still winning.
But according to Brown himself, the character he plays every Tuesday night has set the bar even higher. He told me that even he, too, is inspired by the love that Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) share on This Is Us and insists that Randall is a better man than he is. This certainly isn’t the case for Joseph Spell, who is less than a saint. And this is why Brown loved playing him so much. “Each time you get a chance to step into new shoes, you get a chance to release a little bit of judgement,” he said of the acting experience. Acknowledging the decisions and actions of his characters, which are often very different than what he would do, helps him learn more about humanity, which is what he loves about his job.
And with that beautiful tidbit, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mention a role think he could humanize the hell out of. At the time of our interview I had just finished reading The Autobiography of Gucci Mane and read online that he was working on a screenplay. It hit me that Brown, with all of his amazing talents would do the Trap God the most justice onscreen. Brown gave another rumble of laughter and said it would be an “actor’s challenge.” But his final thought on the matter was “if it fits in the hiatus, let me see the script.” My final thought is that there is no acting challenge that Brown can’t master.
Marshall is in theaters October 13.