Emmy Nominees whose lives keep intersecting
By Candice Frederick
Years before they were both nominated for 2020 Emmy Awards,Sterling K. Brown sat in the audience at NYU, where he was an MFA student hanging on to every word of a talk by Andre Braugher — best known then for playing Frank Pembleton on the influential crime drama “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
For Brown, who had been following Braugher’s professional journey closely, it was a privilege to hear the wisdom of an accomplished Black actor in an industry filled with white gatekeepers. A few moments stuck with him.
“Somebody was asking how you cry on screen,” Brown, 44, reminded Braugher, 58, in a recent three-way Zoom interview. Brown smiled. “And you’re like, ‘Well, first of all, you have to hydrate.’ ”
Brown remembered something else Braugher had said: words of insight for a young Black actor who had Hollywood aspirations but was wary of the challenges he might face as a person of color.
“He was also asked a question about, ‘How do you feel, by virtue of the fact that you are Black, about possibly being excluded from opportunities that you see your white counterparts getting?’ ” Brown recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t have a white Andre Braugher to put out into the world to prove the efficacy of that hypothesis. I have these cards I’ve been dealt, and I’m going to make the best out of these cards.’ ”
Braugher remembered. “My feeling always during that period was, you have to do what you can in the moment, with what you have,” he said. “I always felt like, if I was able to look at myself in the mirror then I had done the right thing.”
Two decades later, and with two Emmys apiece, Brown and Braugher are poised to share the Emmys spotlight, and not for the first time. (Both were nominated in 2016.) They’re also each other’s competition. The two have been nominated for supporting roles in a comedy: Brown for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Braugher for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” (Brown was also nominated for his lead role in the NBC drama “This Is Us.”)
The two exchanged advice and admiration this month from their respective home quarantines: Braugher from New Jersey and Brown from Los Angeles, where he wore a black T-shirt bearing the words “Everybody vs. Injustice.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Andre, you were nominated for your first two Emmys in 1996. Do you still get excited about awards season?
BRAUGHER: As time moved forward and my family has become more important — bigger kids, bigger problems — I’m not as anxious for attention as I used to be. My focus is on my family, our health and on our coexisting peacefully. I don’t think I’m ever going to be rushing to the head of the line or exhibit the kind of ambition that Sterling does. I was a little bit surprised when I heard that Sterling had invited me to be a part of this because ideas like this never cross my mind.
BROWN: Andre, you have been such a part of my life without knowing it for such a long time.
Q: How do you contend with the expected responsibility of representation — to portray your characters in some specific way because of who they represent?
BRAUGHER: When I first took the role (of Raymond Holt in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), one of my sons said to me, “You’re playing a gay police captain?” I said, “No, I’m playing a police captain who’s gay.” There you go. I’ve always been interested in the humanity behind my characters because when I grew up, the range of acceptable feelings for Black men was so limited.
This is a conversation that runs back to “Homicide”: I’m very proud of the character and very proud of the work that I’ve done. But now, looking back, I’m saying to myself: “Cop shows are in service to what? And how do I deal with my mixed feelings about that?” My aim was to discover the heart of this brilliant detective who considered himself to be first among equals and follow that journey until he finally became humbled. That was the journey that was important to me because Black exceptional characters are … I won’t say a cliché, but you see a lot of them.
Q: Do you think that speaks to a higher threshold for success placed on Black people — the idea that you have to be exceptional to be valued?
BROWN: Reggie (the character Brown plays in “Maisel”) is reflective of this conversation that a lot of Black folks have with their parents about having to be twice as good, or 10 times as good, to get just as far. You’re talking to two Stanford graduates, one who was on an engineering track, another on an economics track, before something compelled them to make the less reasonable choice. I think I stayed off acting. I did acting in high school and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t practical. You don’t go to Stanford to become a drama major ...
BROWN: ... until it selects you. You fall in love with illuminating the human condition. And you’re like, “I don’t think I can keep this at arm’s length even if I tried.”
Q: Has celebrity added to those expectations?
BROWN: I don’t know exactly how to use it, but the benefit of celebrity is that people want to hear what you have to say, and you can turn your attention toward things that you think deserve the spotlight. So, the idea that ’92 and Rodney King were isolated incidents is something that in this particular moment — after Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd — folks are like, “Oh, no, something’s (expletive) up.” I can bring attention to that because it is of importance to me and my community.
Q: What inspires you today?
BRAUGHER: The search for the next compelling role. I haven’t found the next one yet. I typically only work on one project at a time. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is winding down. Now is the time. All these years of experience as a father, a husband, a peer, a citizen and a man are going to be very helpful to telling this next story. I’m really looking toward to it.
BROWN: The theater. I get a little itchy when I’m away from it for too long. It’s been four years. I’m trying to find the right time, but I have other people who are like: “You can’t do a play right now. There’s an opportunity to be a part of this franchise.” I try to find that balance in terms of my ambition and my sense of artistic fulfillment, and whether I can have those two things peacefully coexist.