Sterling K. Brown’s character in “American Fiction,” Cliff Ellison, doesn’t show up on screen until 20 minutes into Cord Jefferson’s acclaimed movie about race and family. But when he does arrive, he makes quite an entrance, chasing a preppy neighbor down the beach while threatening him that he’ll “eat your sweater vest.”
And for the rest of the movie, Cliff appears sparingly, but to maximum effect. The character is a plastic surgeon who lives in Tucson and recently came out of the closet. He’s fed up with his college-professor novelist brother, Thelonious (Jeffrey Wright), but Brown and Jefferson keep revealing fresh sides to Cliff throughout the film.
Brown’s character arc veers wildly throughout Jefferson’s pointed comedy: He’s no fun! He’s too much fun! He’s an uproarious caricature of a gay man rejoicing in his true self! He’s clueless! He’s really insightful! It’s a wild ride, and an exhilarating part of a deeply funny movie with serious things on its mind.
Jefferson is a first-time director who started as a journalist and moved into a TV writing career on shows like “Master of None,” “Watchmen” and “Succession.”
“Everybody had known Cord’s pedigree as a writer of the highest caliber within the industry for a long period of time,” said Brown, He read the “American Fiction” script on a plane, then turned to his wife and said, “This is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.”
The story of a novelist who finds that publishers want him to write stereotypically “urban” books because he’s Black, the film struck a chord with Brown, who received Emmy nominations for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” winning for “This Is Us” and “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
“Coming out of grad school in 2001, I got offered a lot of cops, lawyers and doctors,” he said. “But because I am a brother of a deeper shade of soul, you also get offered criminals. I have been killed on screen more times than I can count — I’ve been shot with semiautomatic weapons, I’ve been beheaded twice, I’ve died by lethal injection on death row. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Me being Black and having died on screen so many times are interconnected.”
In “American Fiction,” Cliff is at a key moment in his life, having recently come out after years in the closet.
“I have quite a few people in my family who are LGBTQ, and my family is also very strongly Christian,” Brown said. “There’s this divide — can you be your full authentic self and be accepted by the family?”
That was one of the reasons why he found the character so intriguing and satisfying. “I think Cliff is someone who had not accepted himself as he was for a long, long time, until his marriage blew up because he finally acted on his truth,” Brown said. “For someone who tried to color inside the lines for a long time, he’s in a period where he’s sort of relishing the idea of not having to color inside them. I’ve seen that with family members who are trying to find a new equilibrium. Cliff is in the midst of finding that new equilibrium.”
But to do that, he said, Cliff needed to isolate himself from his family. “Everybody has a desire to belong,” Brown said, “but I think he felt like a black sheep of the family for a long time, either because he was gay or because he was just sort of wired differently. And so he stayed away.
“This is not an exact parallel, but as an artist, when you come from a family that doesn’t have a lot of artists, you can be seen as a little different, a little strange. And so artists tend to gather in places where other artists are, whether it’s New York City or Los Angeles or whatever theater capitals you have, because you’re around people who are not judging you and you’re feeling free.”
He laughed. “Now, Cliff went to Tucson, which is not necessarily the place where you go to feel liberated. But at least he got the chance to be isolated from the family drama. And I know what that feels like.”
While Brown is best-known for dramas, he’s lately been on something of a comedy tear (albeit ones with twists and higher aspirations), including with “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” “Biosphere” and now “American Fiction.”
“I’m a much sillier person than people give me credit for,” he said. “I guess I fool them into thinking that I am a serious actor. But what I’m most serious about is play. And whether you’re doing it for comedic effect or dramatic effect, it has healing powers when people can laugh at themselves.”
And if you can be funny and also make serious points? “That’s the sweet spot, bro,” he said. “When you can make them laugh and cry at the same time, that’s it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.