By Olivia Popp
On Friday night, Stanford alumni Sterling K. Brown and Ryan Michelle Bathe spoke at CEMEX Auditorium, moderated by Vice President for the Arts Harry Elam. Brown and Bathe met at Stanford, and both were born in St. Louis, Missouri, lived in the same freshman dorm at Stanford — Ujamaa — and attended New York University for graduate school. Now married with two children, both are actors on the NBC show “This is Us,” for which Brown has won an Emmy, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe — the first black actor to do so with his Golden Globe. Brown first gained national recognition for his work on “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” — for which he won his first Golden Globe nomination and win.
Before the discussion at a reception at the Black Community Services Center, Brown greeted a group of invited guests. After a student performance, Brown and Bathe took the stage to speak, and Brown’s eyes lit up as he spotted Professor John Rickford, exclaiming with delight — “Oh my God, I know you! You taught me [African American Vernacular English]!” The couple expressed their delight at being welcomed back to the campus and space that they made their home — and that so many more students have done the same. Greeting students, faculty and guests, Brown and Bathe talked warmly in conversation with everyone about their experiences at Stanford.
At CEMEX later in the evening, University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne began by announcing that Brown would be the 2018 commencement speaker, to the audience’s delight. Prompted by Elam, Brown and Bathe then first spoke about their initial experiences of getting accepted to Stanford and what drew them to the University. Brown explained that he had visited an acquaintance before enrolling and attending, discovering the tight-knit black community on campus that he so loved on the level of acceptance and diversity of the student population that he experienced on campus. “You can be real black at Stanford!” Brown joked. “Ain’t nobody touching us!” Bathe, on the other hand, reveled in the unknown. “I didn’t know who I was going to be when I went to Stanford. It scared me and excited me,” she said.
Brown and Bathe met early on, but neither remembered the exact moment that they met. Nevertheless, they do remember biking together to rehearsal for August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a play that they were cast in by Elam. Ryan admitted that she had somehow snuck into Brown’s audition to watch, awestruck by his abilities to transform into various characters back and forth as Elam asked him to try new things. Their familiarity with each other and with Elam was apparent during their discussion — even if Bathe’s mother disapproved of Brown at first. Both Brown and Bathe credit Elam for bringing them together and bringing them into the arts. Brown closes his eyes as he described his experience with “Come and Gone” — “I thought, ‘Now, I’m here. I get to be all of me. If ‘Come and Gone’ wasn’t my first show, I would’ve done the econ thing and gone into investment banking.”
To break up the talkback, Elam brought the couple into August Wilson’s play “Two Trains Running,” set in 1969 — they prepared themselves for an impromptu staged reading as Brown shook out his legs and Bathe grinned. A hush rolled over the crowd as they performed a relatively lighthearted scene quickly contrasted by an excerpt later in the discussion.
Elam then moved on to the actors’ experience in graduate school. The crowd begins to laugh at Bathe’s resistance to the topic — at the time, they were dating, but Bathe didn’t tell Brown that she was applying for graduate school in acting. On the other hand, Brown only applied to New York University, which he attributed to being half-confident, half-naive about being able to get in — the program is one of the most competitive in the country. However, hindsight didn’t need to be 20/20 — Brown and Bathe both applied and got in. Nevertheless, after three years at NYU, they exited their schooling and were no longer dating, yet life pulled them both back in as their first professional role was as on the soap opera “Guiding Light” as a couple in a Lamaze class — at this, Brown pulled his hood over his head as Bathe laughed good-naturedly.
Brown and Bathe then performed an excerpt from August Wilson’s “Fences,” recently popularized by the film of the same name starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Brown’s character, Troy, admits that he has been cheating on his wife, Rose — the scene never reached a fever pitch, yet the emotional fervor of both performers silenced the audience.
Elam moved the conversation to the recent issue of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry, asking Bathe of her opinion and her experience. “Is the #MeToo movement going to be a revolution?” Bathe asked, speaking of how Halle Berry’s manager, who was accused of sexual harassment, was formerly her manager, and nothing about him surprised her. She continued with stories of many instances when many in the film industry treated her extremely poorly, expressing the attitude, “You’re going to have to learn to put out, so you might as well start with me.” She admitted to feeling frustrated at times that she somehow felt guilty for not giving into this sentiment, even though she knew it was wrong — her manager told her to take Stanford off of her resume and avoid being the “smart girl.” Bathe lamented that she battled between the mentality of “No, I earned this. This is who I am,” and “No, I need to play the game.”
Brown expressed how he was grateful that the longest he went without work was four months. “All I want to do is what I came to school to do,” Brown stated, noting that he saw this as the greatest gift he had received. He chose to leave the 2007 Lifetime series “Army Wives” — a show that Bathe was also in — without any backup plan, which he explained was one of the first influential times he chose art and personal expression over needing a job. Yet, this choice still had consequences — he once smelled a dead body in his New York apartment complex, jokingly describing himself as a “frugally-minded cat” — it was fine if he didn’t have money — “You just gotta make it work.”
Elam noted that he remembered how much empathy Brown had as an artist at Stanford, citing his performance in “O.J. Simpson” as an example of this. Brown played Christopher Darden, the lawyer prosecuting Simpson — Elam saw how much empathy he breathed into the role, even though Darden was largely disliked. Brown stated that he remembered the euphoria of black students on campus when the results of the O.J. Simpson trial were announced, and to prepare for the role, Brown watched footage and videos of the trial. Even though Darden knew the trials and tribulations of his role in the trial and the hardships he had to go through, he still persevered and went through with his job. “You can’t play someone and judge them at the same time,” Brown said, recounting a memorable moment when he once found the phone number of Darden’s private law practice and texted him, but never received a text back. “Maybe it was for the best.”
During a brief question and answer session, Brown and Bathe spoke about their craft and their art as well on needing to immerse themselves in painful, emotional stories in order to give the best performances. Both noted that through being able to experience these stories, they found it more cathartic for their own lives than the characters might have, being reminded that they’re not in it by themselves. “That pain is how you know you’re doing it right. Put your art first and expand your definition of self. Learn as much as you can in your craft. It’s all about the craft, craft, craft, craft, craft,” Bathe said as Brown nodded. Brown said that he developed an informal motto at Stanford that he still carries with him today: entertain, educate, edify. “I deal with the business so I can get to the art,” Brown said. But playing Randall Pearson on “This is Us”?
“I got the best job on TV.”
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.