Sterling K. Brown ditches ‘This Is Us’ character to play funny in genre film

Regina Hall (left) and Sterling K. Brown in “Honk for Jesus.” Save your soul.” Photo: focus features

When Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall recently sat down at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton to discuss their new movie “Honk for Jesus.” Save your soul,” Brown looked like he really enjoyed putting serious, buttoned-up Randall Pearson behind him.

Dressed in a bright pink open-necked shirt and sporting longer hair than he’s had in years, Brown looked much more relaxed than the serious-minded family man he won an Emmy Award for starring in the famous NBC drama series “This Is Us”.

As Randall, Brown’s on-screen gravitas regularly brought audiences to tears on Tuesday nights until the series finale aired in May after six seasons. But the Stanford graduate practically jumped into the boardroom, eager to discuss his bold new satire of the megachurch.

The actor, also known for his roles in “Black Panther” and “The People v. OJ Simpson,” said he enjoyed working with comedy veteran Hall (“Girls Trip”) for the first time and ” make people laugh, not cry” in her first post-“This Is Us” role. (“Honk for Jesus” opens Friday, September 2.)

“This one was a Randall shedder for sure,” he told The Chronicle with a laugh.

Sterling K. Brown as Lee-Curtis Childs in “Honk for Jesus.” Save your soul.” Photo: Steve Swisher / Pinky Promise LLC

“We had a great time,” agreed Hall, who is also in the new Netflix movie “Me Time.” “I know we had a lot of fun because it was hot and humid ‘while filming in Atlanta,’ and we were out there in the heat, and our green room was under a tree, and we were still laughing.”

Hall remembers meeting Brown on a video call to start prepping their “Honk for Jesus” characters. “I was a fan of Sterling’s work, but like many people I had no idea how funny he was. I immediately understood how light he is as a person, that he is not of all that he is capable of portraying,” like the narrowly wounded father in the acclaimed 2019 film “Waves” or the man falsely accused of rape in “Marshall.”

In “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” the feature debut of Nigerian American twin sister filmmakers Adamma and Adanne Ebo, Brown and Hall play disgraced Atlanta megachurch pastor Lee-Curtis Childs and his wife, Trinitie Their congregation once grew to 26,000 worshipers but is now down to a handful following an undisclosed scandal.

Sterling K. Brown as Lee-Curtis Childs (left) and Regina Hall as Trinitie Childs in “Honk for Jesus.” Save your soul.” Photo: Steve Swisher / Pinky Promise LLC

Brown plays Lee-Curtis with swagger and an amplified, manic drive to succeed. He preaches the gospel of prosperity, speaks out against the “gay agenda” and sees – without irony – his fleet of Italian sports cars and his closet full of Prada suits as signs of God’s favor. As part of an ill-conceived ploy to resurrect their reputation, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie hire a documentary crew to film what they expect to be their return to prominence.

“Honk for Jesus” is tonally adventurous — part mockumentary, part broad comedy, and an incisive commentary on the commodification of organized religion throughout. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and then sold to Jordan Peele’s MonkeyPaw Productions, with Daniel Kaluuya also serving as producer.

But before the big backers backed the Ebo sisters’ vision, Brown said, “I think Reg and I thought we were signing up for ‘Best in Show 2’.”

Hall nodded next to him at the reference to the classic dog show mockumentary.

“But we quickly saw that there was something deeper going on here, and that even the institutions you love deserve criticism,” Brown added. “I grew up in the church and had a real respect for pastors, but it’s easy to lose sight of the pure thing that was your North Star when you’re caught in the trappings of fame, fortune , prestige.”

Regina Hall as Trinitie Childs in ‘Honk for Jesus’. Save your soul.” Photo: Steve Swisher / Pinky Promise LLC

He said his personal connection to the subject of the film “is the people in my family who identify as gay and love God, and yet they’ve been told they can’t be who they are and have a real relationship with God. I’ve seen them struggle with that and wonder, “Why are others legislating my spirituality?”

Hall, whose character faces the complicated question of whether, and why, to stay married to a man as flawed as Lee-Curtis, agreed. “There are so many ways to worship and believe, and telling a human being that there is only one way or you are doomed to hell is like the opposite of God “, she said. “There is so much power in the black church. It’s normal to say that he can do better with us.

The Ebo sisters, visiting San Francisco on the same publicity trip, explained that growing up during the explosion of South Atlanta’s Baptist megachurch culture, they witnessed so much wrongdoing that “it was difficult to cite a single incident as the inspiration” for their story.

“Church was our whole life – we didn’t know anyone who didn’t go to church,” director and writer Adamma Ebo said.

Actor Sterling K. Brown (left), director Adamma Ebo, producer Adanne Ebo and actor Regina Hall at the AMC Kabuki Theater for a screening of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

They were both disillusioned at a young age and turned away from organized religion altogether, only realizing later that there should be room to embrace the positive aspects of religious life, such as “music and healing, while continuing to talk about what we think we can do better.

While studying filmmaking in UCLA’s Masters in Directing program, Adamma made a short film in 2018 “as a kind of proof of concept”, comparing it to Damien Chazelle’s strategy with his short film ” Whiplash”. The 15-minute short “Honk for Jesus” caught immediate attention for its inventive blend of cinematic styles, and Issa Rae championed it on her YouTube channel.

Adamma met Kaluuya during a screenwriting crash course at Sundance in 2019, when he asked her which actors she was considering in lead roles.

“I said to him, ‘We need a guy from Regina Hall. Let’s go audition someone who can relate to what she does, who has her skills and reach. I thought we couldn’t have Regina Hall.

Sterling K. Brown and writer-director Adamma Ebo on the set of “Honk for Jesus.” Save your soul.” Photo: Steve Swisher / Pinky Promise LLC

“And when Sterling’s name came up, we were like, ‘Is he funny? Because we’re so used to crying with grief when we see it on screen, no laughing. But then we found out he was actually nominated for an Emmy for starring in an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” He plays a narcissistic murderous dentist, and we watched the episode and were on the floor. His deadpan comedy is phenomenal.

Still savoring their luck to have found such a talented acting duo for their debut film, producer Adanne said, “Their chemistry was instant from the moment they connected on the first Zoom. When they finally met in person at our table, read right before we shot, we were like, Oh yeah, that feels real. Without a doubt. That’s it.”

“Honk for Jesus. Save your soul.” (R) opens in theaters and is available to stream on Peacock beginning Friday, September 2.