The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, was one of the most topical shows of the season. Beyond being directly correlated to the country's current state of affairs, it was the most suspenseful mini series where everybody watching already knew the end. Yet it was the topic of nearly every Twitter feed, text message chain and Facebook post. Almost as polarizing as the actual events that it was based on, the main character, OJ Simpson, took a backseat to the other big personalities of the actual trial and the big name actors that brought them to life. Travolta and Courtney B. Vance are just a few of the series most accomplished actors to take on the Dream Team.
Yet, at the end of the season one unknown name stood out from all the rest. The now Emmy Award Winning Actor Sterling K. Brown was the definite breakout star. Series writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski called it the hardest role to cast; Chris Darden—a complicated man that Karaszewski says “was both hard and soft at the same time” was played masterfully by Sterling.
I spoke with Sterling K Brown candidly about his callback for the role of Chris Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Tell me about your first audition for Chris Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story?
The first audition was in pilot season 2015. I felt good about it but I knew they already had a lot of names attached to it. Travolta was on board. Cuba was on board. I told my manager they may not look at me, but if they do decide to go with a non-name, I feel like I got a good shot. I didn’t hear anything for 3 months. It wasn’t until April of that year. I was working on this movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I got a call. “They want to bring you back for OJ.”
What happened when you went back in?
So I was supposed to have a chemistry read with Sarah Paulson but she was in New York on personal business. So they decided to bring me back to LA to read with two of our producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. So normally when you go for a test they bring about 3 or 4 people to the network or studio for them to choose from.
So the whole time I’m sitting in the waiting room, waiting [and] looking at every other brother that walks through ‘Like okay that would be an interesting choice.’ Some dude walked through with dreadlocks. I’m thinking they’re really opening up their mind.
It turns out that they were just random Negroes walking through doing their jobs at Fox [laughs.] I was the only person they actually called back for the role of Darden. So I talked to the producers for about a half an hour before we actually go in and do the scene. The whole time I’m talking in my sort of Darden voice because its just easier to kind of stay in it than to jump in and jump out. I do the new scenes that they gave me. I’m being redirected by Brad Simpson.
He’s giving me some things to do differently. I’m taking his direction and Nina Jacobson is just sitting there on the couch the whole time just kind of nodding her head back and forth excited. About an hour or so later, I took my three year old son to his basketball practice and I got a call from my agent and my manager saying that I got the job. Denzel tear down the side. [motions down the side of his face]
One of the writers of the show, Larry Karaszewski said your role was the hardest to cast. He told the New York Times, “No one was getting it right, and we were getting nervous. [Sterling K. Brown] was the only guy who came close, and then we did a test with him and Sarah [Paulson] and it was instantaneous. He nailed it, and obviously we made a great decision because he’s the discovery of the show." How did you approach this character differently.
I think that you can’t play somebody and judge them at the same time. So for me, 20 years ago I thought like most of black America that Darden was on the wrong side. Sell out, Uncle Tom, so to get a chance to step into it 20 years later and see a man who was really just trying to do his job. [He was] put in an incredibly awkward situation—having to be the black face of the prosecution, getting called out by Johnny Cochran the way that he did. To have to battle so many things the way that he did--I knew I didn’t want to do a caricature. I just tried to make him a man in a very complicated situation who was doing the best that he could at that time.
Darden is probably one of the most complicated characters I’ve seen on TV. How did you approach playing that dichotomy that exists within Darden?
I give a lot of credit to the writers and the producers in terms of how they crafted the story. I think they were very empathetic and sympathetic to the prosecution. Marcia and Chris caught a lot of hell 20 years ago. So both of them sort of emerged in a way that people did not see them 20 years ago. So I was very thankful for that. I know Sarah was very thankful for that. But, the dream team was what they were. They had all of these egos and very talented lawyers and then you had two public servants who were trying to do the best that they could—who felt that the evidence led them to believe that OJ Simpson was guilty of a double homicide.
They were just trying to present their case. Maybe to a certain point naively—not recognizing just how severe the climate was of black America two years after the Rodney King beatings and just how polarizing….how differently we saw the world. What law enforcement meant to black people? What law enforcement meant to white people? As we can see right now. Unfortunately our show was too timely. It’s too topical. I wish it was something of the past, but unfortunately it's something very much in the present.