Are you watching the crime drama “Hightown” on Starz? If so, you’re seeing a local actress in a major role. If not, you’ve no doubt already seen Crystal Lee Brown in one of the many roles she has played in a number of hit shows and movies.
Daytime Emmy-nominated actress Brown is a proud Philadelphia native who earned a degree in sports journalism and theater from Temple.
She is now playing Janelle, a no-nonsense prison physical therapist who forms a romantic relationship with a patient, on “Hightown.” The series follows a woman’s journey to sobriety that is overshadowed when she is pulled into the middle of a murder investigation.
Brown is no stranger to the small screen. She was nominated for her first Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Digital Drama Series for her role as Tamera in “Giants,” which streams on Issa Rae’s YouTube Channel. In addition, she is known for her three-season run as Sergeant King on the hit CW series “Black Lightning.” Brown also recurred on season 2 of Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” which was executive produced by Charlize Theron and David Fincher. Her memorable role on Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” earned praise from The New York Times and Time Magazine. Brown’s niche as the hip and witty charmer with an east coast flare has also landed her roles on numerous other networks, including HBO, ABC, CBS and TNT.
Brown made her mark on the world of film in the Academy Award-winning “Judas and the Black Messiah” as well as “Uncle Drew.” She also starred as Bernie, one of the mathematicians known as a “human computer” in the award-winning “Hidden Figures” alongside Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.
PW recently caught up with Brown to talk about her career and how the city has impacted her career.
How did you first become interested in acting? Growing up, did you participate in any Philly theater groups?
I became interested in acting as a young child when my mother and I would watch CBS Sunday Matinee movies. This is where I was introduced to classic movies, such as “Imitation of Life,” “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Bad Seed,” “Silkwood” starring Meryl Streep, and “The George McKenna Story” starring Denzel Washington. Watching these films ignited a love of artistic expression. I would watch television and immerse myself in the world of imagination; this was the beginning of learning the craft of acting. My mother started enrolling me in classes at Philadelphia Freedom Theater and community arts programs.
How has Philadelphia, its culture, etc., impacted your career?
The city of Philadelphia and its culture have impacted my career in monumental ways. The city is built on heart, grit, and authenticity. From its diverse communities to our diehard sports fans, it’s all love! And that’s how I approach my craft, my career, and my life – with an openness of love and abundance. If I ever feel disconnected or need a boost of assurance, I remember my fondest memories growing up in Philadelphia and how it shaped me, how it pushed me to go harder. I’m just a girl from Philly who stepped out on faith and chased my dreams.
What’s been your favorite role and why?
My favorite role has been the role of Sibonia in Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” (Episode 2- “A Wicked Plot”) starring Academy Award Nominee Ethan Hawke as the abolitionist John Brown. Sibonia is a wise and courageous enslaved leader organizing a slave insurrection, but remains calm and resolved when confronted with torture and death. Playing Sibonia allowed me to tell the story of one of my beloved ancestors, to give a voice to the voiceless, and authentically portray her grace and humanity. I’m grateful to have been the vessel that brought her story to the screen, she will forever live in my heart.
You’re now playing Janelle on the Starz crime drama “Hightown.” Can you talk a little about the role and the show? Why should people tune in?
On Starz’s “Hightown” I play Janelle, a smart, no-nonsense physical therapist in a correctional facility that gains trust with her patients, one with whom she forms a romantic relationship with (Osito played by Atkins Estimond). Viewers should tune into “Hightown” because it’s gritty and compelling. It’s a contemporary crime drama set against the backdrop of the opioid epidemic following one woman’s journey to sobriety, intertwined with an unfolding murder investigation. The show is centered on fiercely flawed people and explores themes of addiction, recovery, and the possibility of redemption. It’s a story I know viewers will enjoy.
Beyond “Hightown,” what’s ahead for you?
I’m so excited about my future. I’ve been riding the momentum of booking incredible roles these last few years, coupled with working behind the camera as an on-set Dialogue/Acting Coach for multi-cam television shows. My next goal behind the camera is to direct, as I’m often told I’m a director’s actor. I also own and operate ITAPE LA, an audition coaching and self-tape company specializing in in-person or virtual on-camera audition coaching for television, film, and commercial castings. It’s a safe space I created to help actors gain control of their auditions by releasing fear and having fun. I look forward to continuing to give back to my fellow artists in this way.
Any advice for those who want to get into acting?
- Study Your Craft: The craft of acting is essential to approaching the work. Enroll in acting classes, study the greats, perfect your technique. Learn the different acting methods from the likes of Stanislavski, Meisner, and Chekov. Fill your actor toolbelt with skills such as audition technique, character building, emotional prep, and self-taping. Remember preparation is key!
- Learn the Business: This industry is the business of show. In this industry you are a brand, so it’s imperative that you treat yourself as a business. This allows longevity in your career.
- Lead with Confidence Not Fear: Leading with and having confidence in your talent and what you authentically bring to the table, will take you further in this industry. Don’t allow fear and doubt to stop you from living your dreams.
- Surround Yourself with Positive People: Who you choose to share, dream ,and grow with is essential to your well-being as an artist. Surrounding yourself with a core tribe that listens, loves, and supports you – makes all the difference.
- Enjoy The Journey: Go out and live your life! The journey as an artist is only rewarding if you bring your full self to it.
What are the best ways for your fans to stay current with what you’re doing?
Fans can follow my journey across all social media platforms: