Neil Brown Jr. gets to play pretend for the rest of his life. His words, not mine. But if you really sit back and think about it, he's absolutely right.
Fans of Insecure and most recently SEAL Team might also be able to attest to this statement as well, as they watch him so effortlessly portray DJ Yella, Chad and Ray respectively. And whether that's due to his on-point comedic timing or striking ability to connect with his character and viewers, it's obvious that pretend or not: Brown was indeed made for these roles.
What's also obvious about the Florida native is that he's madly in love with his craft, his life, and most importantly his wife. He emphatically gushes about her as we chat over the phone in the early hours of the day. He tells xoNecole that not only does his wife Catrina play a pivotal role in his professional evolution, but his personal one as well.
"Her love abounds," he explains. "You know, it turned me into a man, a father, a good friend, a faithful husband, and a faithful Christian in a certain way. She's a cold piece of work. That's my soulmate. I knew we were always going to be together, but we had to learn to be together and how to interpret the dream that was our marriage."
We got the chance to talk to Neil about his new role, why compromise is central to maintaining a long relationship, and why having the capacity to love and endure is so important.
xoNecole: You and your wife have been very open about the formative years of you all's relationship as we saw on ‘Black Love’ doc and various interviews. What made you decide to share that part of your lives?
Neil Brown Jr: With the Black Love doc, we never knew that it was going to be as big as it was. At that point, we had been together for about 18, 20 years and we just saw so many couples with this false sense of what it takes to make a relationship or a marriage work. And no matter what they said, as soon as it got a little rough, they're like, 'Well I don't have to stand for this.'
Throughout our walk in faith, in God and with each other, no matter how rough it got--we had to go back to the core value which was that we wanted to make it work. Outside of someone being abusive towards you, if you made a commitment to each other, then you made a commitment to work things out, not just to be cool when things are all good.
Love is nothing but hard work, compromise, and a lot of laughs in between. We were hoping that when we did that documentary that we would be open and honest, although I am a very private person. We knew we had a responsibility to be honest with [their audience] and let them know that you don't marry [someone] because of how nice and beautiful they are--you marry them because no one can piss you off the way that person can and you still want to be with them.
Photo by Leslie Alejandro
"Throughout our walk in faith, in God and with each other, no matter how rough it got--we had to go back to the core value which was that we wanted to make it work... Love is nothing but hard work, compromise, and a lot of laughs in between."
You two also recently renewed your vows in a beautiful ceremony back in May. What was that experience like and why was that important?
It was a beautiful. But to be honest, I don't remember. From the moment she walked down the aisle--I was done. I was stuck the whole time. I just remember a lot of flowers, a lot of people. It was the most beautiful thing ever, it was everything we had thought of from when I first asked her to marry me when I was 15. The wedding colors and everything we came up, we decided on at 16-17 years old. It took 19 years of marriage [and] 25 years of being together to finally get it done through God's good grace.
Planning it took a whole village. It was so much work. It took 10 years to get the proposal right. Then, it took another year of planning. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. But it was magical. She was a goddess. She walked down the aisle and I'm not going to lie--I couldn't hold it together. Everything was just perfect, she was the belle of the ball. This and the honeymoon have been the greatest experiences thus far, besides the first day that I met her.
What are some of the biggest things you've learned about yourself in your marriage?
Ultimately, that I'm a good person. I never really knew that. I kept wondering what was wrong with me and why it was that I kept messing up. But I realized I'm not a horrible person, I'm just a human being. And when you can accept that and you know that you're human and that you will fall--it's all good as long as you get back up. I also learned that the things that I wanted out of life, I had the willpower to get them done. I learned that I loved her more than I even knew. But I realized that all of the things I wished [for] and dreamed and hoped--I could make those things happen if I had enough faith and that my faith was strong. And that more times than not, I would make the right decision for us.
What's the biggest difference you've found between the Neil at the beginning of your relationship and the Neil you are now?
Patience. I have a lot more patience and I'm slow to anger. Early on I was quick to anger, always ready and looking for a fight, never wanted to lose. I was always trying to win the argument, sometimes at the expense of hurting those I love. But I learned it's okay to lose an argument. As I got older, I became more apt to compromise and with that, I also feel I have a greater capacity for love and what it takes to love.
Speaking of love, how has hers affected you?
Her capacity to love me taught me how to grow up and stop being a little boy and selfish. She taught me to be unselfish and how to compromise. It's funny because my family is the touchy-feely family whereas hers isn't. But they knew how to do things that I didn't--like sharing! I didn't know how to share. My sister is nine years older than me so I was basically home alone. My wife taught me the other side of what I thought love was: how to share, compromise, and give.
I had the touchy-feely stuff down but I didn't know the other part. And my love taught her how to voice it and say it. Her endless capacity to love has taught me more about myself than what I ever knew I could learn. She saw this me in me before I saw it in myself and before I knew he even existed. You know, we're not without our faults but as long as you and your partner have open ears to listen and learn: your love will wither and bloom. But it's always new, it's constantly growing and evolving.
Photo by Leslie Alejandro
"My wife taught me the other side of what I thought love was: how to share, compromise, and give. I had the touchy-feely stuff down but I didn't know the other part. And my love taught her how to voice it and say it.
I’m sure you’ve seen the growing conversation here lately about the importance of love languages. You know, learning how to effectively communicate with your partner. What has that journey been like for you and your wife?
First of all, it's been so much fun. I love to learn, me and my wife both love to learn. And it's interesting that you ask me about love languages because I've actually never read that book. But I always pray to speak to my wife in the love language that she understands and for her to speak to me in a language that we understand.That journey has been so magical because you get little breakthroughs.
Especially when you realize you two just had a debate over something and you realize it wasn't an argument anymore but more like, "I need you to understand me about this." And you both get it and understand. You get to learn new things about your partner and after 25 years, I'm still excited to just wake up and talk to her every morning.
You've been able to successfully maintain a beautiful relationship. What would you say are the major do's and don'ts for someone looking to do the same?
I'd say don't bring other people into your relationship. And that's not to say you can't learn things from other people, but don't judge your relationship based off somebody else's relationship. Just because people are smiling doesn't mean they're happy and just because people are frowning doesn't mean they're necessarily sad. Just because people aren't arguing, it doesn't mean things are great and just because people are arguing, it doesn't mean their relationship is bad. So you really can't look to others or what you need to learn about each other. Because a lot of times the only taste of happiness and joy that some people will ever get in a relationship is when they take a bite out of yours. So you don't want other people influencing your process of loving the one you're with.
Do not shut off, always talk, always be willing to compromise. And don't let your ego write a check that your butt can't cash. You don't want to get to a point in your relationship where you don't have the character to sustain it.
Keeping people out of your relationship, [and checking] your ego and pride are three of the things that I would say would help a couple learn how to love. You have to be willing and wanting to be happy and learn things from each other and listen. Talk to each other, never shut off because that's the quickest way to build resentment and anger. You have to take a step back and be in sight of: do you guys want this to work?
Photo by Leslie Alejandro
"Do not shut off, always talk, always be willing to compromise. And don't let your ego write a check that your butt can't cash. You don't want to get to a point in your relationship where you don't have the character to sustain it."
Before you go, let’s switch gears and talk 'SEAL Team.' It's been renewed for season 3 and you're a fan favorite on that show as Ray, congratulations.
Thank you, thank you.
What has that experience been like?
I am increasingly humbled each and every day by the love that's thrown at all of us. My Dad used to fight in Vietnam so I'm essentially playing my Dad on this show. He's my hero. But I grew up with two forces in my house: my mom was Martin Luther King and my Dad was Malcom X. So I put both of them into portraying Ray. But the fans are so engaged and then I keep running into military personnel from all branches and they really feel it. You know, we're trying to portray the pain and the pitfalls of not just the Special Operators, but their families as well.
But they all dig the show and that's the most heartwarming thing. I actually wanted to be a Navy Seal when I was a kid but I just didn't want to join the Navy (laughs). But now I get to play one on TV which is far more lucrative and way less dangerous. The cast is awesome, our writers are awesome, most of the crew and stuntmen are veterans. It's just humbling all around.
If I’m honest, I feel like you have a track record of being a fan fave on whatever show you’re on. ‘Insecure’ being another example.
You know what? People love to hate Chad and I don't know why! He's just an honest dude, but Prentice Penny and Issa [Rae] and Melina [Matsoukas]--they've been so great. The writers on that show are crazy. People think I'm ad-libbing a lot but I'm not.
I AM NOT. I only ad-lib like 10-15%, but they write Chad that way. Fast-talking, all of that. But the funny thing is, I think everybody at some point in their life knows a person like Chad. But I'm humbled by it, the love is real, it's another dream come true. I couldn't thank HBO and Issa enough. Plus I get to play off Jay Ellis, we have a good time. I wish you guys could see what doesn't make the show. But when we start back up again, I hope I get to do something even more crazy.
We hope you do too. And what's next on the horizon for you?
Fortunately, my hilarious wife is also a writer. She has scripts that I want to go produce, like tomorrow. But it's all about timing. Me and my boy Cory Hardrict have a buddy cop film we're working on. Of course more SEAL Team, more Insecure. And I'm still waiting for Marvel to call. I'll play whoever whenever whatever (laughs). But all in all, I'm trying to continue to work and grow as an actor and just put great things out there.
For more of Neil, follow him on Instagram. Catch him starring in SEAL Team when it returns this fall.
*Some answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.