Sterling K. Brown admits it: He was starstruck on his first day of shooting scenes opposite Sarah Paulson for FX's American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. As Chris Darden — the prosecutor who serves as both counterpart and confidant to Paulson's Marcia Clark — he was going to be spending a lot of time with Paulson. So he came clean, telling Paulson he was a huge fan of her in pretty much everything.
"And she said, 'Thank you. I'm a fan of yours too'," said Brown in an interview with The Week. "I was like, 'Come on, man! What have you seen me in?'"
With that confession out of the way, Brown and Paulson quickly developed a loving and supportive friendship that closely resembled the famously close bond between the real-life Darden and Clark. They sat together during script reads and compared notes on their real-life counterparts. Paulson is "an open book," says Brown. "There's no questions that are off-limits for her. Because of her openness and my curiosity, we just naturally fell in love with each other. And I mean that platonically."
That chemistry was on vivid display in last week's buzzy episode of The People vs. O.J., which delved into the callous sexism that Marcia Clark faced from the American public during the Simpson trial. As Darden, Brown spent much of the episode alternating between a cheesy grin and a sympathetic furrowed brow, trying to take his friend's mind off the case, and hinting ever-so-slightly — and then not-so-slightly — at his interest in an outright romance.
Brown was particularly jazzed by the scene in which Darden serenades Marcia Clark with the Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady." Director Ryan Murphy let the pair "play around" before shooting, then asked them to re-create their natural warmth and intimacy for the cameras. As shot, the song is absolutely integral to the tone and pacing of the scene — but Murphy shot it a few different ways, in case the show's staff couldn't clear the music rights in time. "I was like, come on, it's Ryan Murphy. We're going to get the rights. Let's sing the friggin' song!" Brown recalls.
The scene was a rare moment of levity for Brown's Darden, a soft-spoken and serious-minded lawyer who was vilified during the 1995 trial by those who supported O.J. Simpson's defense — many of whom were black. Brown was in high school when Simpson was arrested, and was in his freshman year at Stanford University during much of the trial. He was one of many who criticized Darden at the time — but after spending so much time exploring Darden's side of the trial, he's much more sympathetic now.
"I think the biggest difference for me — being a young man at the time, and now being a little bit older and a little bit wiser — the longer you live, and the more you learn, the more you realize just how little you know," Brown says. Today, he thinks his distaste for Darden's side came from a misguided desire to put black people into categories, as he feels young people often do: "You're only black if you can dance. Or you're only black if you like hip-hop. Or you're only black if you like soul. […] Johnnie Cochran was a hero, and he was the one black man in the trial on the side people were rooting for. And you have another black man on the other side, so he necessarily has to be the enemy. That's the way I had viewed him at that time."
Though Brown is eager to find out what his real-life counterpart thinks of the show and his interpretation, he's not holding his breath for a call or text from Darden, who is embroiled in a court trial of his own. "I think that he's got a lot of other things on his plate at the moment that probably preclude him from reaching out to me, which is perfectly alright," Brown says.
And in a case of seriously bizarre timing, the LAPD announced last week that a knife found on property once owned by Simpson has been turned over to the Los Angeles Police Department for forensic examination. The knife was reportedly kept, in secret, by an LAPD officer for years, and Brown finds its sudden reemergence questionable.
"It kind of strikes me as obstruction of justice. You're trying to capitalize now that there's a TV show out about a double homicide?" said Brown. "You should have [given] up the knife a long time ago. If the DNA is on that knife, come on man, shame on you. And if it's not, shame on you! Be quiet and go back to work."
But while the O.J. Simpson story has been unusually busy this month, Brown has been even busier. He has a minor role — "a lighter side of Brown," he jokes — in the Tina Fey comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, though he hasn't had time to see it yet. Last week, he started rehearsals to play a slave offered a military role in the Confederacy in Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3), set to open at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles next month. And the past few episodes of The People vs. O.J. have been his biggest TV showcases to date. It's an enormous leap forward for Brown's career, and for now, he's taking it all in.
"Everybody else has been around for quite some time, and has some name recognition," Brown says. "The fact that I got to be on the same playground with Travolta and Sarah and Courtney and [Schwimmer and Nathan Lane] — I got to be there," Brown says. "I'm a little kid from St. Louis, Missouri, on the inside. I'm just giddy the whole time."