Starring Rob Brown ’08E as Ernie Davis. Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 2008 (in theaters), 2009 (on DVD). 129 minutes.
Rob Brown '08E (right, in The Express) is a self-proclaimed "script
snob."Article by Neely Steinberg ’99
Shortly before my phone interview with actor Rob Brown, I decided to peruse his Facebook page. Expecting to be bombarded by a long list of his Hollywood bona fides, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the exact opposite: aside from his friend count, currently at 1,300-plus, Brown’s page is quite plain; unlike most actors’ social networking profiles, it doesn’t scream “This is what I do! This is who I know!” There are no publicity shots with Sean Connery, with whom Brown starred in the award-winning Finding Forrester in 2000. There are no movie stills of Brown’s verbal spars with Samuel Jackson from 2005’s Coach Carter. There are no candids of him next to the A-listers he worked with in Stop-Loss, Take the Lead and The Orphan King. Instead, there are a slew of ordinary pictures: Brown in the stands at sporting events, out on the town with buddies, goofing around at Amherst parties. These images are a long way from the world in which the Brooklyn native has cautiously immersed himself for the past eight years.
It all started when Brown ran up a $300 cell phone bill. One angry mom later, the then-16-year-old attended an open casting call for extras in the hopes that a few days in the background of Gus Van Sant’s latest picture, Finding Forrester, would earn him enough money to pay down the bill. Miraculously, Van Sant chose Brown to play the lead role, a 16-year-old prodigy whose basketball prowess earns him a prep-school scholarship. “For some reason,” Brown says, “Gus just liked me.”
Finding Forrester was Brown’s first acting role, and despite having no formal training, he received rave reviews and was awarded the 2000 Las Vegas Critics Award for Best Male Newcomer as well as the Golden Satellite Award for Outstanding New Talent. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called Brown “a remarkable find.”
Precious few actors who receive such praise for their first film choose to pursue a college education, taking a more linear road to stardom instead. But Brown was determined to get a degree. “I wanted to go to school just like every other normal kid,” he says. In 2002, he enrolled at Amherst, where he majored in psychology, served as a wide receiver on the football team and took intermittent leaves to do various movies.
Brown’s time on Pratt Field served him well in his latest film, The Express, in which he stars (opposite Dennis Quaid) as the real-life college football hero Ernie Davis, who in 1961 became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. “I understand what it’s like to be a black man playing football,” Brown says. “It’s one of the reasons I got the part.”
When I talked with Brown, the actor was en route to a pre-screening of The Express at the 100 Black Men Convention in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where he was honored with a Rising Leader award. “It’s not every day that people make films like this,” he told me. “Granted, there are a lot of sports films out there, but it’s hard to get them made. The people who worked on this movie worked so hard, and I’m proud of the way it turned out.”
Press interviews and publicity stints for The Express kept Brown busy for a while, but eventually he returned to a more prosaic reality: everyday life in Brooklyn. He feels strongly about remaining in New York City, which, unlike Hollywood, seems a good place for a young actor to keep his ego in check. “I just want to chill and stay under the radar,” Brown says. “If I can maintain my career living in New York, why not? If it comes to a point where I have to make a decision to move to L.A., I’ll figure it out. But I have my degree, so if don’t feel like moving, I’ll figure something else out.”
For now, the self-proclaimed “script snob” is content to wait for the right role for his next picture. While the offers have started to roll in, nothing’s on the immediate horizon, and Brown says he refuses to “come with some nonsense after a film like [The Express].”
A few days before our interview, I came across Coach Carter on TV. Brown is a natural; he exudes a disciplined, stealthy sensuality, his soulful eyes emoting like a seasoned veteran’s. It’s hard to see the ordinary guy in someone with such impressive chops. But that’s exactly how Brown sees himself—as a normal kid. If you don’t believe him, just go to Facebook.com.
Steinberg is a freelance writer living in Boston.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.