Entertainment

Sterling K. Brown on the Weight of 'Waves' and the Responsibility of Black Actors

The 'This Is Us' star spoke to VICE about the added labor Black actors face in choosing the stories they're part of, and how 'Waves' is a cautionary tale to parents everywhere.
December 3, 2019, 12:00pm
Waves
Credit: A24

Families are a delicate ecosystem, and all it takes is a single event or mistake to shatter that peace. Waves deals with the causes and consequences of a horrible tragedy that levels one family to its most broken foundation.

Written and directed by 31-year-old indie filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, Waves (in theaters now) revolves around an affluent Black family in Florida, whose patriarch Ronald (played by Sterling K. Brown) intensely and incessantly pressures his athlete son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to excel at wrestling to secure a collegiate future, and he accepts nothing but the best out of him. As that pressure builds, Tyler suffers a devastating injury, and finds himself secretly relying on painkillers to cope. His girlfriend (Alexa Demie) gets pregnant, chooses to keep the baby, and Tyler's once promising future feels like it's slipping through his fingers. He snaps, going an alcohol-and-drug fueled breakdown that ends with the accidental murder of his girlfriend, and his family is reduced to rubble when he's sentenced to life in prison. What follows is the arduous and agonizing story of a family trying to rebuild after a painful loss, learning to work past guilt, grief, and regret, and live and love in a more open, vulnerable, and compassionate way.

Shults initially wrote this film as a semi-autobiographical story (his earlier films like It Comes at Night and Krisha have also pulled from his personal life), centering on a white family like his own. However, when he sent the script to Harrison, whom he'd worked with on the 2017 horror It Comes at Night, Harrison said he wanted to play Tyler. So the two friends worked together to shift the script to authentically tell the story of a young Black man and his family dealing with grief, pressure, and healing.

Making that shift changed the whole nature of the story. The themes and events seen in Waves affect the Black community, but they also speak to how Black people are often perceived and depicted. Telling the story in a way that didn't perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes was a delicate endeavor.

"I was questioning whether or not I wanted to be a part of a movie where a young Black man takes a young woman's life," Sterling K. Brown told VICE. "I didn't know if it was going to be reinforcing an already negative stereotype of Black male youth, or if it was going to be humanizing a young man who makes a terrible mistake, but that mistake doesn't define who he is."

Speaking to VICE, the This Is Us star addressed these concerns, the added labor that Black and POC actors must contend with in choosing the stories they're part of, and how Waves is a cautionary tale to parents everywhere. The interview contains spoilers.

***

VICE: Some parts [of Waves ] are hard to watch, but it was also so powerful and impactful. What drew you to this film?
Sterling K. Brown: What drew me to it was originally what terrified me of it. I read the script by Trey Edward Shults and I found it incredibly powerful, and I had conversations with Trey, and I told him what my concerns were and he shared them. He said, "I want to make sure that people will stay with the film all the way through to the end because if I lose them at the halfway point, then there's no point in making the film." And then he told me to talk to Kelvin [Harrison Jr.].

I told [Kelvin], "Hey, man. Listen. This is not the kind of film that people will leave like, oh that was a nice night at the theater. It's very powerful in its imagery, and what's transpiring in it, and I want you to know that once you do it, it doesn't belong to you anymore. It belongs to the audience, and they're allowed to experience it however they want to, and I have fears that when this character was originally white it would be experienced very differently now that you are Black and inhabiting the role of Tyler."

He said, "No, I understand. I talked to my dad about it and he felt the same way about it as you do. But it's a good part, right?" And I said, "Yeah, man, it's a good part." He said, "Should I not do it just because I'm Black?" He turned it on its head. He said, "I'm being offered something that has enormous potential to express humanity. We're not being vilified. [Tyler] is a human being, with all of the goodness and all of the messiness. But they're ultimately still a good human being." When he said that, I said "Ok, you've got a point, first and foremost, young brotha. Thank you for schooling me."

That thing that I was afraid of is exactly why I needed to do the movie, because my fears for him as a performer were akin to this father's fears for his son. I wanted to make sure it was done right and I wanted to make sure that he was seen as fully three-dimensional and beautiful and lost, and made tragic choices because of his being lost. But that didn't make him evil; that didn't make him a stereotype and it wasn't adding to a negative depiction of Black male youth. I'm happy with how it turned out, but I'll admit I was originally quite scared.

The concern for perpetuating a stereotype in the type of work that you do, that's simply a question that Black people and people of color have to ask themselves more than their white counterparts and colleagues.
Absolutely.

The fact that you have to ask that, and think about that, and think of the effects, is systematic of larger issues. This must be at the forethought of your mind always.
As a kid, I loved Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Loved Jim Carrey, loved him on In Living Color. Ace Ventura comes out and I was like, this shit is hilarious! And at the same time I thought, if I were to do Ace Ventura exactly the way Jim Carrey just did it, I think people would say I was cooning. I have to think through my choices, and the conduit to which my comedy flows has to have a level of intelligence to it. I can't just do slapstick, because it could be perceived in a way that I don't want it to be perceived. You can't please everybody all the time, but if there's a degree of consciousness to your choices that you make, because as a performer you also know what it's like to be a consumer. If you see a depiction of the Black experience that you find detrimental it saddens you. It saddens me, and I don't want to contribute to a landscape of sadness. I want to contribute to a landscape of uplift if and when I can. You look at each project, you see what the role is, you ask "is it challenging? Is it offering me something different? Is it something that if I were just a consumer I would be happy and proud to see it up there?" I ask myself those questions with every role, and I try to do right by the people that have supported me to this point in time in my career.

There's also the concern that you're only addressing stories of trauma and pain, instead of also elevating our joy.
That's a big one. A lot of the African American experience has been our stories of overcoming. A lot of immigrant experiences are stories of overcoming and achieving in spite of rather than because of. It's not like everything just magically came together. It usually has to do with overcoming huge obstacles. But it's OK to laugh. It's OK to smile. It's OK to see the beauty of that struggle and how it's not all struggle all the time.

These communities of color that we represent can be painted with a swath that seems monolithic, but we're so much more complex than that and so much more multifaceted. I'm happy that different facets of our stories are finally getting to be told.

The film deals with so many themes that affect Black men, like the pressure to succeed, to be twice as good, to live up to toxic ideal of masculinity, to show no emotions. What are your experiences with these themes, and how do you feel this film tackles them?
I know that the strength of vulnerability is as strong, if not stronger, than the façade of protection we surround ourselves in and don't allow our feelings to flow freely. You cut yourself off from people when you don't fully expose. I know that's not always the safest thing to do. You can't fully expose yourself to everyone, because not everyone has your best interest at heart. But hopefully there are people that are close enough to you who have your best interest at heart that you are comfortable enough to say when things are not well, when you don't feel whole, and you don't know how to move forward, that you can say, "This is what's happening in my life and I need help."

I think in the course of Waves you see Ronald become a different kind of parent, someone who feels he has to be hard and very austere, and lay the groundwork in an unquestionable way for his son so that he doesn't deviate from the path. There's safety in the path. I know there's so many pitfalls for young people; I know there's so many pitfalls for Black people; I know there's so many pitfalls for people who don't have direction, so let me give you direction. Let me set you on a course and hopefully there will be safety. Ideally, that would be true. But if you don't give space for that young person to share with you authentically what's going on in their life, when things start to fall apart they're going to act by themselves; they're gonna do the best they can to fix things, and they're going to be ill-equipped to handle all that life can throw at them. Unfortunately, that's what happens in the course of Waves.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.