Actor Sterling K. Brown talks about fatherhood and role in new family drama ‘Waves’

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Two-time Emmy Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown is mostly known for his current role in NBC’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated drama series “This Is Us,” for his role as Randall Pearson, a loving father. However his latest role in the family drama “Waves,” calls on him to play a very different type of father. 

Set against the vibrant landscape of South Florida and featuring an astonishing ensemble of award-winning actors, “Waves” traces the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family—led by a well-intentioned but domineering father—as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss. From acclaimed director Trey Edward Shults, “Waves” is a heart-rending story about the universal capacity for compassion and growth even in the darkest of times.

In “Waves” Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell (left) play teenagers with a complex relationship with their parents, played by Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry (right). (Publicity photo)

Brown plays the film’s dad, a man wholly devoted to raising his teenage son and daughter, two kids at pivotal moments in their lives. 

Brown recently hosted a screening of the film in Los Angeles. I got the opportunity to speak with him about his character, Ronald and how he’s trying to hold his family together in the new film.

“I play the role of the patriarch of an African American family. He is a stern disciplinarian,” Brown said. “He is somebody who’s already lost his first wife – the biological mother of his two children – to a drug overdose. He knows how fragile family can be and how easily it can be taken away from you.

“True strength lies not in perfection, or having it all together, but in being able to lean on the people who care about you when times get tough – to be able to communicate and ask for help.” – Sterling K. Brown

“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,” Brown continued. “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.”

Brown embraced this challenging role as a thoughtful framing of the father-son relationship, highlighting the importance of vulnerability within the masculine mindset.

“He wants both of his children to be excellent because he recognizes excellence within them,” he said. “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.”

Brown welcomed the chance to show a different type of story on screen.

“It’s a story of an African American family that I haven’t seen before,” he said. “They are an upper-middle class family but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a particular set of problems that has to be navigated, like each of us. 

“It’s very specific in that it’s a black family, but I feel that it’s so specific that people who aren’t black can see themselves in these characters as well,” Brown said.

“Waves” portrays a range of emotions: how hard it can be to be a teenager; complex family dynamics, and the drive to succeed. But at its heart, there’s a deep, complicated story about fatherhood. In fact, Brown seems to be drawn to intricate father figure roles.

“My dad passed away when I was 10,” he said. “I am 43 right now, and my dad was 45 when he passed away. Playing those roles and being a father myself with two young sons, I carry him with me all the time and with every role that I play.

“In these different expressions of fatherhood, I can feel his presence in my soul and it feels good to feel that closeness, to feel that connection,” Brown said.

“‘Waves’ is a really wonderful dissection of how people can be living under the same roof and still be missing each other and not connecting with one another, and this movie demonstrates the importance of connection and how detrimental it is that parents truly understand what’s going on in their children’s lives,” he added. “This is an R-rated family drama that every family should see together.

 “You get a chance over the course of this movie to see a parent evolve and recognize it’s a game of give and take – you have to be able to trust your children to a certain extent, because if you suffocate them, they will rebel or escape.”

“Waves” made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in August to positive reviews from critics who praised the performances, cinematography and Shults’ direction. It was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best films of the year. 

“Waves” wraps up a run at the Malco Paradiso on Thursday, Dec. 12. Catch it if you can!

Sterling K. Brown on his time in Memphis

Viewers of “This Is Us” then you may be familiar with episode 116, titled “Memphis.” In it, Brown’s character Randall takes a road trip with his estranged biological father to rediscover his Bluff City roots and reconnect with his terminally ill dad. 

Brown spent a few days in Memphis shooting that episode, so of course I asked him about his time here.

“I had an absolutely wonderful time in Memphis. The people were very happy to see us and welcomed us with open arms. I ate tremendous amounts of barbecue – which I don’t normally eat. I try to stay away from pork as much as possible. But I had a little bit of pig, I’m not going to lie!

“(Memphis) is so culturally rich. It has such a wonderful musical history,” Brown added. “To see the Stax building, to go into the different barbecue shops, to interact with the people there. I’m looking forward to visiting Memphis again.”