‘Hotel Artemis’ star Sterling K. Brown talks dream roles and returning to NYC

Feeling contained to a genre is hardly an unheard of situation for an actor. And while Sterling K. Brown has earned Emmy wins for his performances in TV dramas “This Is Us” and “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” the 42-year-old is taking a proactive approach to broadening his horizons.

“This is sort of [my] first opportunity to be a lead in an action movie, and it’s completely different from Randall Pearson,” Brown told us, citing his “This Is Us” character from NBC’s hit show. “Hopefully, throughout my career, I can try to avoid being placed in one particular box, therefore opening up all the boxes to my disposal.”

The action-thriller box gets checked with “Hotel Artemis,” in which Brown stars alongside Jodie Foster, Jeff Goldblum, Zachary Quinto and Jenny Slate, among others.

Set in near-future Los Angeles, where the privatization of water has led to riots, the unique movie follows a night of drama inside a secret hospital for criminals, named Hotel Artemis. Brown plays Waikiki, a bank robber who winds up at the hospital when his brother and partner-in-crime (played by Brian Tyree Henry) gets shot.

Brown told us he liked the way the movie touched on the issue of California’s very real water crisis, “without beating you over the head about it.”

“There’s a wealth divide in this country between the haves and the have-nots that continues to sort of spread,” Brown said. “California has been dealing with drought for a number of years now, and people wanting to hoard water for themselves while the poor are left at their mercy. So if we don’t do something to right this ship, this sort of future is a real possibility.”

How much did you identify with Waikiki?

You know what? I sort of identify with the guy who has to take care of the guy. You know what I mean? I think that’s a position that I’ve occupied in life on a few different occasions. And it’s similar, I won’t say it’s exactly the same thing, but it’s similar to the relationship that Brian and I have in real life.

Really? How so?

Yeah, we’ve known each other for 11 years now and we have the same manager, we have the same publicist, we’re family. So every once in a while he’ll ask for some advice or I will even sort of give some unsolicited, which I don’t really like to do. But the relationship that we have lends itself to duplication between Waikiki and [Brian’s character] Honolulu. I’ve never been a criminal. That was not a point of entry for me, but I do understand doing something for reasons beyond just money and wealth. When the only family that you have left in life is your brother, you work with what you’ve got, not what you hope.

You’re part of a pretty sensational cast. What was your experience working with the likes of Jodie Foster?

It was magical. Jodie was a consummate professional and that’s not surprising in the least. I would say what was surprising was just how open and accessible she was, how warm she was. I don’t know why in my mind I had this idea that she would be sort of standoffish and aloof, and nothing could have been further from the truth. She was so willing and wanting to engage with all of us and put us all at ease, so that we could get about the business of making this film. And it was purely collaborative and like, I don’t know, I just think about people in the position that she has, where she has all the status in the world and she can do with it what she wishes, but she does not have a diva bone in her body. She’s as grounded and as regular a human being that you could meet who’s been in this business for 50 years. It’s really kind of exceptional that she exists.

Especially when you only need that little taste of success in the industry to have your head inflate a little.

It’s true, especially when it happens when you’re young, you know. She’s been able to deal with success her whole life and has still managed to be a regular human being. That’s astounding.

You’ve checked off drama and action-thriller from your list, and earlier this year you hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Is comedy something you’d like to do more of?

Oh, absolutely. I love to laugh, I love to make people laugh. I feel like it’s one of the things … it is medicine for the soul. I used to have this dream when I was a kid that I would have one of the biggest TV interviews that was the most televised thing in the world, and I would tell a joke, and everybody would be watching it and the whole world would laugh at the same time and you could feel like a little tremor, because everybody was just cracking up. That’s something I can remember from being like six years old. I love laughter, I love the joy that it unleashes inside of people, that it unleashes inside of me. So, if I receive more opportunities to make people laugh, I will most definitely take advantage of them.

What would be your dream movie?

I feel like there has to be some kind of buddy comedy, some sort of like mismatched “Trading Places” type of thing that could happen where there, you know, is the straight guy and the wild card and they’re sort of dealing with each other, with comedic shenanigans ensuing. Whether it’s a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or something of that nature would be fun. A romantic comedy. A Hanks/Ryan type of thing would [also] be really wonderful.

In an “Odd Couple” type of situation, who would you imagine as your co-star?

Oh, wow. Let’s see, I’m probably more of the straight man, so I would need someone like really crazy and kooky, like Josh Gad would be fun, because he’s such a knucklehead and so silly. It would be fun to do a comedy with him. Look, we could take Waikiki and Honolulu on the road and just give you the comedic version of the drama that we witnessed. … Brian has a wicked funny bone and together, the two of us, we have a nice little sideshow that we take on the road that nobody else knows about, so put a camera in front of us and see what we can do.

Before becoming a household name, you spent some time living in NYC and performed with the Public Theater. Can you tell us a little about that time?

I lived in New York from ’98 to 2005. I went to grad school for three years at NYU and then lived for another four or five years in the Village, in Harlem, and in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I worked at the Public Theater three or four times. I’ve done Shakespeare in the Park, I’ve done a couple of productions in the downtown stages and I loved that city. I love the pulse of that city, I love the sense of community that just sort of happens by virtue of being a part of that city. You have to work a little bit harder to cultivate when you’re in Los Angeles. I love being around theater people, I believe that some of the best actors come from the stage. They have a fierceness and intelligence that mandates that you necessarily have to have in order to have the stamina to do eight shows a week. So I go back as much as I possibly can, it gets a little bit harder with two kids and a wife — something that works for the whole family. But New York is where I really sort of found myself as an actor.

Can we expect to see you return to the stage again one day?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, I have never stopped doing theater. I did a play at the Public just a few years ago by Suzan-Lori Parks, that I got a to do out in Los Angeles as well, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).” So when she comes out with the next part of her trilogy, parts four, five and six, hopefully she’ll give me a call and I get a chance to step into that once again.

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