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Actor Sterling K. Brown Plays A Strict, Demanding Father In His New Movie 'Waves'


The new movie "Waves" is about a lot of things - how hard it can be to be a teenager, the complexities of families, the drive to succeed. And at its heart, there's also a deep, complicated story about fatherhood. Sterling K. 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.


STERLING K BROWN: (As Ronald) I'm trying to give you the tools to succeed in this world. It's not easy out there. Everything I do is for you - everything.

CHANG: Sterling K. Brown and I started our conversation by talking about Ronald - that's the name of his character in "Waves."

BROWN: Ronald is the sort of classical patriarch of his family. He's got a wife and two kids. And he's a very sort of stern, authoritative figure. He comes from the world of construction. And he builds things. And there have to be blueprints. And there have to be permits. And so that level of regimentation, he sort of incorporates in the way in which he raises his family...

CHANG: Yeah.

BROWN: ...In particular, his son.

CHANG: I read you said something in an interview where you said, it's like a black family with some white-people problems.

BROWN: No doubt.

CHANG: But there's something inherent to the story about being a black family. There's that moment where Ronald, your character, is telling his son why he pushes him so hard.


BROWN: (As Ronald) We are not afforded the luxury of being average - got to work ten times as hard just to get anywhere. I don't push you because I want to. I push you because I have to. Do you hear what I'm saying, son?

CHANG: That is completely about skin color, right?

BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, and it is a story that has been told to me in my childhood time and time again, the idea that people are watching you, that your going out and just a boy being a boy doesn't have the same sort of implications as an African American as it does if you're white.

CHANG: Right.

BROWN: And so there is a mind from a very young age - if excellence is what's expected in your household, that you have to be twice as good, 10 times as good to get just as far because people are looking for you to fail.

CHANG: Now I read that you lost your own father when you were pretty young. What were you...

BROWN: Ten. I was 10.

CHANG: Ten years old.


CHANG: The years that you had together, how did that shape what you bring to playing a father on screen?

BROWN: Well, I guess it's twofold because there's the time that I have with Sterling Brown Jr., who I love dearly.

CHANG: This is the name of your father. You are...

BROWN: That's my...

CHANG: ...Sterling K. Brown.

BROWN: I am Sterling Kelby Brown. And my dad is Sterling Brown Jr. So yeah, that's the name of my dad. We had a magical 10 years, right? I - am I sad that I didn't get a chance to extend it any longer? Absolutely. But I am so full of joy knowing that I had 10 years that were most excellent. So I get a chance to carry that love with me in perpetuity. And now I'm a parent myself.

CHANG: Right.

BROWN: I have two beautiful boys - Andrew, who is 8, and Amare, who is 4. And I get a chance to take the love that my dad poured into me and pour it back into these beautiful souls that God has blessed me with. I think that - I think you understand all kinds of parents by whatever it is you do. You also understand the opposite. So me, I make it a point to hug and kiss my children as much as possible. That's how I show love.

CHANG: You're very affectionate.

BROWN: I'm very, very affectionate to the point it's like, oh, man, you just going to kiss them as much as you can. I was like...

CHANG: (Laughter) I'm sure they love that all the time. Yeah.

BROWN: ...Until they make me stop - right? - until they make me stop. So that's what I understand about being a dad on a - on the most intimate of levels. But I also understand that the way in which everyone loves is different. And the way in which Ronald loves is by being present, by showing up. He's an incredibly active...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

BROWN: ...Parent, you know?

CHANG: He is so involved.

BROWN: So involved.

CHANG: If anything, he just shows up too presently...

BROWN: If anything...

CHANG: ...All the time.

BROWN: ...Right? If anything. And I think his greatest failing, in the beginning of the film at least, is that he doesn't create the space for a dialogue between parent and child.

CHANG: Ronald is one style of father that you have played compellingly. But I want to talk about your other, perhaps even better known dad role. You are also a very tightly wound, hyper-focused father on the NBC TV series "This Is Us." How do you think these two fathers - Randall versus Ronald - how are they fundamentally different to you?

BROWN: I think that Randall is an inherently sensitive soul. Like, he almost feels things too much. And that there is a certain armoring that Ronald has - this is going to be very confusing for the listener.

CHANG: I know (laughter).

BROWN: Ronald is from the - is from "Waves."

CHANG: The movie "Waves."

BROWN: Randall is from the TV show "This Is Us."

CHANG: Exactly.

BROWN: But bear with us. I think he's sort of an open book, is Randall, to a certain extent. But I feel like people arm themselves sometimes when they don't want to feel everything. And Randall feels so much that it leads to a degree of anxiety that he lives with in his life.

CHANG: I want to talk about that. Like, what I'm really curious about are, are there times where you're actually learning from your onscreen dad self and then bringing those moments home as a parent?

BROWN: I think I learned a lot from Ronald, for sure. When I watch the way in which Ronald and Tyler deal with one another, there's a couple of things that really stand out. Tyler loves his father.

CHANG: Yeah.

BROWN: He looks up to his father. He is sort of the primary role model in his life. And so you forget sometimes the level of influence that you have over your children, and that that level of influence is something not to be taken lightly. And I - you forget that sometimes. Like, honestly, you're like, oh, I'm just doing me. And we're having a relationship, and everything's going to be hunky-dory. Like, they'll probably go to therapy because of something I did at one point in time.

CHANG: It's inevitable.

BROWN: It's inevitable, but at the same time, like, recognizing that this is a really profound responsibility. And either they're going to shape themselves because of you or in spite of you.

CHANG: Are you drawn to taking on even more father roles in the future, or is there a role that you are just waiting to explore that's been different from the work you've done so far?

BROWN: I've always loved playing dads. I think that I'm 43 years old, and my dad passed away when he was 45. So there's a particular calling on my soul to be a dad right now. But there's so many things out there. I love playing bad guys. I'm looking forward to doing some action. I'm looking forward to romantic comedy, buddy comedy. Like, for such a long time people have told me that I've been making them cry. I'm very much interested in giving them a few chuckles here and there.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROWN: Thank you very much for that one. That was impromptu.

CHANG: (Laughter) That was very Randall Pearson of you, by the way.

BROWN: Thank you very much. And I appreciate it. Yeah, and that's good because Randall - I think Randall is as funny as he is heartfelt. But everybody's like, oh, my God. You make me cry every week. And I was like, I appreciate it, but hopefully I'm able to give you a couple of good falls as well.

CHANG: Sterling K. Brown - he stars in the new film "Waves."

It was such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.

BROWN: The pleasure was all mine, Alisa. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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