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He thought the free-spirited drama people were weird—until he became one.

Angeline Herron/Lifetime Television

UNIFORMLY GOOD: Wendy Davis and Brown in Army Wives. The drama has been renewed for a sixth season.

By Laura Shin

Sterling K. Brown's first acting job paid him just over $300 a week. He lived in Harlem in an $85-a-week room. It was the hot, humid summer of 2001 and every morning his sheets bore a perfect sweaty imprint of his body. He rode the 125th Street bus back and forth—just for the air-conditioning.

"I said, 'Yo, I'm pocketing $215-plus a week, I'm doing good.' My manager was like, 'Let's hope it goes up from there,'" he recalls.

The career did go up. After trying out for five television series, Brown, '98, was cast five years ago in Army Wives as psychiatrist Roland Burton, the husband of a lieutenant colonel who, in the first season, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. The show, which ended its fifth season with the Burtons facing a crossroads, has been a rare hit for its network, Lifetime.

Brown also has performed in acclaimed productions at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He plays the parole officer Omar in the film Our Idiot Brother, released in August. The movie, starring Paul Rudd, was a Sundance Film Festival hit, and it got Brown his first interview with Entertainment Weekly.

It's quite a run for someone who dreamed of being a businessman. In his Stanford application essay, Brown said he wanted to own one of every fast food chain in town so he could always be in competition with himself. But he was "bored to tears" during a Federal Reserve Bank internship.

His actor's calling initially came with ambivalence. In his freshman year, he was thrilled to play Herald Loomis in a Stanford production of August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone. ("After four years of acting in high school, to get a chance to be black," he recalls.) But the acting life seemed too avant-garde. "I remember doing my first acting class, and they start beating their chests and shaking their arms, and I'm like, 'Ehhhh, I don't know if this is for me.' "

Fast forward a few years. Brown is at New York University getting an MFA, and his classmates are making fun of him for spouting tongue twisters all day. ("Give me the gift of a grip-top sock," he still loves to enunciate.) He would rehearse lines in the subway or don accents. He would walk around pretending he had Bell's palsy—to the embarrassment of then-girlfriend, actress Ryan Michelle Bathe, '98. (They're now married and the parents of a son born in July. Her recent gig has been the TV Land sitcom Retired at 35.)

Brown's talent for becoming someone entirely different was on display when he performed in the Public Theater's 2009 production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays. In a solo scene, he became two gossiping church ladies—speaking in tongues and upbraiding a young boy—with his hip cocked to the side and voice pitched higher than a church bell.

Brown says theater is his first love, but that television is rewarding because of its reach. People who recognize him from Army Wives walk up to him on the street and say, "You helped me get through my husband's last deployment." And the opportunity to play is why he loves acting. "This isn't like for other people where they have to go to work," he says. "I get to go to work."


Laura Shin, '97, is a writer in New York.

 

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