Rob Brown Scores In Biopic About America’s First Black Heisman Winner
His life seems like any young actor’s dream. The setup sounds like the beginning of an underdog story about the triumph of the working class: a kid from Brooklyn, only 16, is looking for extra money to pay a few bills. He responds to an ad for what should have been an easy day’s work. Instead, he finds himself starring alongside one of the century’s most accomplished international actors, releasing a talent for screen acting he never knew he had. This story should sound familiar; it’s the true tale of Finding Forrester’s Rob Brown, the 24-year-old Brooklyn native, and headliner of this weekend’s Ernie Davis football biopic The Express.
This Friday, audiences worldwide will be introduced to the short, but influential life of Cleveland Browns running back Ernie Davis. One of the few Black footballers of the Civil Rights Era to play college ball, Syracuse University running back Davis was the first Black athlete to win the Heisman trophy, his skill paving the way for modern-day hero athletes like Ricky Williams, Reggie Bush, and Eddie George. Sadly, Davis’ life was cut short at 23 by leukemia, but not before being drafted to the Browns. Without ever playing a down in a pro game, Ernie Davis’ jersey was retired, in memoriam of the fallen hero.
Only a year older than Davis was when he passed, Rob Brown’s own career express train is steadily picking up speed. His acting life began with Finding Forester, the 2000 story of a young, urban writer finding an unlikely mentor in a secluded literary genius (Brown still keeps in touch with co-star Sean Connery). Forrester was sure to be Rob’s ticket to Hollywood fame, but then, unexpectedly for some, the young star disappeared from the spotlight. Rob had been accepted to Amherst College in Massachusetts, and summarily placed his acting life on hold to grow before a different kind of spotlight: the front row of a lecture hall. In balancing his acting career, class, and a spot on the Amherst football team, the actor owes a debt of gratitude to learning how to compartmentalize the vastly different life arenas. In a bit of advice to others, he warns that “you can’t let one interfere with the other; focus on them individually.”
Still in school, Rob returned to acting in 2005 with back-to-back supporting roles in The Orphan King and Coach Carter, followed by Take the Lead, and the mocumentary about network TV Live!. We last saw him as Isaac “Eyeball” Butler in Kimberly Pierce’s war-at-home drama Stop Loss.
In describing what motivates his performances, Brown cites real-world inspiration from those around him, both friends and strangers. “Life in general,” he says, and “just interacting with people and learning about them” provides substance to many of his performances. He proudly claims the observatory skills are a byproduct of personal growth spurred through his college experience. For Brown, “if you know who you are as a person, then you can figure out other characters.”
In bringing Ernie Davis to life, director Gary Fleder had similar advice. Their goal was to capture Davis essence as a person, not just a collection of broken records and awe-inspiring game statistics. In his words, “it was cool that I didn’t have that blueprint. I didn’t have someone watching over me to make sure my impersonation was correct. It was more about just capturing his essence and his spirit in a believable matter.”
Rob may be too young to describe as a “veteran actor,” but judging from the caliber of roles the Brooklyn, New York native and recent college graduate (May 2008) chooses, he’s definitely on his way to becoming one of the premiere talents of the young generation.
For better or worse, screen actors are often seen as voices of the populace. In stepping up to the leadership position, Brown says he had some growing to do first. What was his greatest off-screen lesson? Learning how to play within the Hollywood system: navigating the waters of filmmaking. In this case, playing Ernie Davis was just the grounding Rob needed. For him, “just getting to know Ernie put things in perspective. What Ernie went through was serious.” If Ernie Davis could shine in a time when all the odds were stacked against him, then Rob Brown can handle making a name of his own - carving out his own space in the Hollywood spotlight.
The Express opens Friday, October 10th.