Sterling K. Brown on Making a Movie About Black Masculinity With a White Filmmaker

The actor was worried about Waves. Talking to writer-director Trey Edward Shults changed that.

Sterling K. Brown in Waves
Sterling K. Brown in Waves. A24

The acclaimed new movie Waves comes in two parts. The first half focuses on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school student and wrestling star struggling to balance a potentially career-ending shoulder injury with the burden of expectations placed on him by his father (Sterling K. Brown). The second revolves around Tyler’s sister (Taylor Russell) and the troubled relationships that she and her boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) both have with their respective fathers.

Following Krisha and It Comes at Night, the drama is the third feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, and though all three concern complicated families, Waves is his most autobiographical movie to date. In an interview with Jezebel, he said there are some elements “I don’t think other people would want me to talk about,” but he was a wrestler in high school and suffered a similar injury to Tyler and has said that “the parents were first inspired by my parents.” Much has been made of his decision to cast a black family as a stand-in for his own, and critics haven’t all agreed about the effectiveness of that choice. “I wanted it to feel real and authentic,” Shults told me in describing how he built the role of Tyler around Harrison. “In my first movie, I noticed the more specific and nuanced something was, the more universal it can be. I felt like if I heard and listened to Kel and translated that, and combined that with personal things from my life, we would get to a place.”

Still, critics have noted the dichotomy between the rage simmering beneath Harrison’s character, who is black, and the soft openness of Hedges’ character, who is white. Brown himself has said that he had hesitations about the script when he first read it. I talked to him about how he overcame those concerns and the lessons the movie has to teach about fatherhood.

Along with your roles in This Is Us and Black Panther, Waves marks your third turn as a father in the past couple of years. What’s drawing you to these roles?

My dad passed away when I was 10. I am 43 right now, and my dad was 45 when he passed away. Playing those roles and being a father myself with two young sons, I carry him with me all the time and with every role that I play, but in particular in these different expressions of fatherhood, I can feel him sort of just very present in my soul, and it feels good to feel that closeness, to feel that connection. And then probably after 45, you know, it may relax a little bit, and the chief identifier won’t necessarily be that of dad, but I’m happy—it’s just sort of a calling right now. I can feel Sterling Brown Jr. just sort of flowing through me and with me right now.

I’m curious as to what you think Waves is saying about our conceptions of what masculinity has to be.

I think that a lot of black folks, myself included, feel as if we have to arm ourselves. There’s so much stimuli, there’s so many aggressions, micro- and macro-. You can feel under attack. An encounter with law enforcement can have a different level of post-traumatic stress than the average individual, because you just don’t know. You really don’t know what’s about to happen and it can be terrifying, right? And so you build up these defenses as a way to make it through to the next day.

I would say that a lot of black folks can’t just allow [themselves] to feel all this stuff. It can be overwhelming. I would put Ronald in that category. I would also say that there is learning that transpires in the course of the film because of the tragedy that transpires. He sees that his family is falling apart. His connection with his wife is very tenuous and he really doesn’t know what’s happening with his daughter, but he knows if things are as complicated as they are for him, that they have to be somewhere similar for her and born out of necessity more than anything else—the desire to connect, the desire to share what’s going on in his life allows her the space to share with him what’s going on in her life.

But the lesson, I believe, is that there is as much strength if not more in being vulnerable than there is in being walled off. And I would say different things are needed at different times, but especially as a parent, if you really want to know what’s going on with your children, you kind of have to model that for them and show them what it means to share.

I saw in your interview with Deadline that you had some apprehensions about the Waves script. Could you tell me more about that and what led you to continue with the project despite those?

Yeah, I mean, you’re talking about a movie in which a young black man takes a young woman’s life at the midway point. I was wary of the negative stereotype and whether or not it was an image that needs to be put on screen any more than it already has been.

While I saw that there was potential for something more nuanced. I didn’t know if everybody was cognizant of the fact that now that you’re making this character, African American people could receive it differently than if it was a young white actor. I felt very protective and very fearful for Kelvin, who had already signed on to do the film. I just wanted to make sure that he wasn’t being naïve with what he was stepping into, that he was stepping into it with eyes wide open. To Trey as well, there is something that I applaud about the open-minded–ness of a young white writer-director who’s writing a story that’s partly autobiographical, partly narrative fiction and who says: “I want the best actor for the part. And I believe that the best actor is Kelvin Harrison Jr., who doesn’t look like me, but I recognize in his journey and his experience something of myself.”

It becomes something that’s not just a plug and play where you’re just like, “Oh, I’m going to take everybody white out and make them all black,” but that it also reflects a black experience within it. I give them all the kudos in the world. And when I addressed Kelvin, when I addressed Trey, and told them about my concerns, they were like, “How do we make it better?”

Trey said from the beginning: “I don’t want anybody to drop out of my film at the halfway point. They have to go through the whole story in order to receive the totality of what I’m trying to communicate. So what do you think?” And he’s like, “You should talk to Kel.” So Kelvin and I talked, and I said: “Man, I just want you to know what you’re doing. This is big. And once you do it, it’s not about you anymore. It’s how the audience receives it and they’re allowed to interpret it however they want to.” And Kel said: “I get it. I know it’s hard, but should I not do it just because I’m black?” And then there was this thing that went off in my mind of, “Oh, there’s so many great roles that I may at one point in my life have turned away from, because I was worried about how the community might receive it at large.”

And I still think that’s something that I will never shake. But I love that there was a care and attention to make sure that that Tyler, Kelvin’s character in the movie, was a fully realized human being, a beautiful young man who lost his way and made a tragic mistake. But that mistake does not define who he is. And so ultimately what happened was the fear that I had for him was akin to the fear that this father would have for his son, and I recognized this is exactly why I should do the movie and not why I should step away.

One of the things that comes up in discussions around diversity and inclusion is who can tell whose story, and I’m curious as to how you think Waves fits into that conversation.

I think one thing that prepared me for the kind of collaboration that I had with Trey was these past few years working with [This Is Us creator] Dan Fogelman. He’s a brilliant storyteller, and he knows the structure of the story that he wants to tell, and he knows humanity beautifully, and he also knows what he doesn’t know and [how] to fill that gap. He’s not afraid to solicit advice from the cast. He always has three black writers in our writers room so that there’s diversity behind the camera as well as in front of the camera.

And I’ve been able to recognize from these past few years that, yes, something authentic can come of a black experience with someone who’s not black at the helm, if they are willing to listen. And Trey from the beginning was willing to listen, and he didn’t set out to necessarily tell the story of an African American family. But once he knew that this family was going to be African American, he knew that he had to be able to receive the input of his actors in order to get it to be as authentic as possible. And so when you have a voice, when you know that you’re not being hired just to show up and say lines, but you’re being hired for your perspective, for your opinions, for your experience, then you feel that much more comfortable entering into the collaboration and knowing that you are seen and that you’re being taken care of.

How much were you involved in shaping the role of Ronald?

Kel had the most influence. A lot of Ronald is based on his dad, even though his dad says, “That dude’s not me.” It was really funny to hear him talk about [that]. I think that what I was allowed to do was sort of interpret the character. I didn’t have to play Kelvin’s dad per se, but I’ve had similar experiences of men in my life who were tough, who were hard, who were well-meaning, who were present first and foremost, and wanted the best for their children, but the conduit through which they expressed love was very particular.

I think Kelvin and I did a really cool job of taking advantage of that. I can remember one scene in particular with Kelvin and I at the diner when we started to arm-wrestle. That wasn’t in the script. It was just a little bit of testosterone at a dining table and Renée [Elise Goldsberry, who plays the mother] and Taylor looking at us like “What are you two jokers doing?” It established this really interesting dynamic between father and son, where the son has a tremendous amount of admiration for the father, but he’s also looking forward to that day when he gets to best him.

I could tell in Kelvin’s eyes when we decided to do it, he had been training for wrestling. He gained a lot of weight, put on a lot of muscle, really put in the work, and he’s like: “You know what? Today is the day that Tyler takes out Ronald and that Kelvin Harrison Jr. takes Sterling K. Brown.” And in my mind I was like, “You can try all you want to, young buck, but I ain’t going down today.”

One of the lines that really stood out to me was a variation of the “twice as good for half as much” line, which is something that I grew up hearing. As a father, do you think that kind of messaging interacts with the inability that we see to express emotions?

No. I think they are two separate things. I have a son who is 8 and one who is 4, and so we haven’t hit the 4-year-old with this kind of stuff, but I have talked to my 8-year-old about the kind of conduct that I would like to see him execute at school and that teachers may have implicit bias against him and that they may see, when a little white boy’s playing around, it’s “just boys being boys,” and then when he’s doing it, they may say he’s an embarrassment or something like that. And I said, “I know you’re not an embarrassment, and I know you like to play as much as everybody else, but it’s important for me to let you know how the world can see you from time to time.” I think these are important things. We are not in a post-racial society. You need to give your children the equipment to know how they can be experienced in the world so it doesn’t come as a shock.

I think the failing of Ronald was that he didn’t create an environment where he could have an authentic conversation that went both ways with his son. While he was telling his son just how grateful he should be, how many opportunities he’s getting access to that he never had access to, and his expectation from the son was that he should say, “You’re right, I should just be thankful,” but his son is allowed to tell him: “Things are still tough. I’m still experiencing hardship. I still have questions.”

I think if you’re able to cultivate an environment where your children can say anything to you, regardless as to whether or not it’s going to be disappointing or not, but they know that they’re going to be loved unconditionally, I think all of these other conversations will actually have greater access into their soul, because they know that they’re being heard and seen and appreciated for who they are.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.