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‘This Is Us’: Sterling K. Brown Breaks Down the Road to ‘Memphis’ (SPOILERS)

Variety logo Variety 2/22/2017 Debra Birnbaum
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Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 116 of “This Is Us,” titled “Memphis.”

Well, we knew it was coming. Ever since that tiny, heartbreaking flashforward in episode five when we saw Randall (Sterling K. Brown) quietly packing up William’s things, including his hat, we knew that William (Ron Cephas Jones) was going to lose his battle with terminal cancer. But we hoped. We hoped against hope that we had more time. Just like Randall.

So he embarked on a road trip with his father to Memphis, to his hometown to learn more about his father’s roots. And what a trip it was. They ate barbecue. They got haircuts. They visited his childhood home. And after a quick visit to Jack’s ashes (cue the waterworks), William gave his son the ultimate gift. More than just a book of poetry, he left his son with a connection to his biological family — the thing he’s so desperately been seeking. For as much as he loves the Pearsons, Randall has always needed more.

Here, Brown reveals how Randall will be affected by his father’s death, how William will be honored, and what’s in store for season 2.

When did you find out William would be dying?

I’ve known for a while. I talk to (showrunner) Dan Fogelman a lot. And Dan would always say, “Do you want to know?” And I would always say, “If it was a play, we would know the beginning, middle and end. So if you know, let us know.” So he said, “Everybody loves Ron and he’s incredible and I don’t want to lose him. But I don’t feel as if I would be telling the story authentically if we didn’t follow through on someone who’s been terminally diagnosed.” So I said I understand. And he said it’s going be episode 116. And I think they knew that as early as October or November.

What was your reaction when you read the script?

I asked who’s writing it. and Dan was like, “I’ll do it. I got you.” (When I read it) I bawled. I love Ron so much. You go on Twitter and people say stuff like, “I’m not ready for your bio dad to go. they’ve got to find a miracle cure for this cancer so he can be around for 5, 6 years.” That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Ron’s not on Twitter, so every once in a while I take a screen shot that talks about how much they love him and just forward it to him so he knows how much his work and his spirit is being appreciated. So when we read the episode, it hit us. This has been the best role of his career. It has been a real joy and a journey to share this arc with our viewers and with each other. I thought it was beautiful. What I love about Dan and our producers is that they have us all contracted for all episodes produced, but he’s not afraid to say in this particular episode, this is the story I want to tell and I don’t need you guys for this one. Sterling and Ron, take it over. And it’s so cool, because we get a chance to focus and concentrate and not feel like everyone has to say something to say something. This is the story I want to tell. This story is a homecoming. It’s a homecoming for William. It’s a homecoming for Randall. It’s a home that he didn’t even know he had. It’s a beautiful gift that his father leaves him with in his last days, connecting him with his heritage. It touches me on so many levels. It’s pretty much all African-American (actors) with the exception of our two doctors. I found that really powerful.

As heartbreaking as the episode is, there are also moments of humor when Randall gets so excited about meeting his cousins. How do you find that right balance?

That cracked me up, too. I remember reading it on the page and Dan even says in the stage direction, “a la Oprah Winfrey.” The thing you always have to remember from my perspective is you can’t play the end. You have to be in the moment. Beth more than anyone saw the writing on the wall and was preparing her children for this eventuality. But Randall was trying to find the best oncologist that money could afford and do whatever he could to prolong William’s life. Not wanting this to be the end. Saying, “I want you to meet my dad but we’ll do it on another trip.” In his mind, there was going to be another trip. It left space for me as an actor to enjoy the moments that were to be enjoyed. To meet cousin Ricky and his other cousins. To listen to the music. To eat the food. They came up with a wonderful improv, directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, where we’re in the convenience store and we see the two drinking fountains. They were probably segregated. And the store probably just chose to keep them to remember. Not to hide or run away from the past but to remember. And Ron started talking and I started talking, and we came up with this lovely moment that made it into the show. Life has to be everything. It can’t be all sad. It can’t be all peaches and cream. Because the lows have you appreciate the highs. And the highs give you perspective on the lows. If it’s not everything, it becomes flat or mundane. I’m so happy that we get the chance to go through all of it.

The episode was a real tribute to Memphis. Did you enjoy filming there?

It was awesome. The people of Memphis were very happy to see us and welcomed us with open arms. I ate tremendous amounts of barbecue which I don’t normally eat. I try to stay away from pork as much as possible. But I had a little bit of pig, I’m not going to lie! It’s so culturally rich. It has such a wonderful musical history. When you spend most of your time on set at the studio it infuses new energy into you as an actor to be in the actual surroundings of something. To see the Stax building. To go into the different barbecue shops. To interact with the people there. They would let the cameras just roll. This episode could be 70 minutes long and it wouldn’t feel long. We’ll talk to the network about trying to run a 70 minute version during the hiatus just to give the fans something to snack on until we come back in the fall. We had so much fun riffing off each other, Ron and I. As happy as I am with the episode, when I watched it, I was like, oh, that didn’t make it in? Hopefully that 70 minute version will come out and people will get a chance to enjoy that as well.

Would you want to see future episodes set in Memphis, with Randall spending time with his newfound family?

I hope so. We just found all of this family (for Randall). That would be a really wonderful thing to explore in the future and maintaining those ties. I don’t know what the intentions are but I certainly hope so. I think the other thing that’s on the backburner is shooting in Pittsburgh. We’ll see which one is first up come season 2.

When the episode begins, Randall’s in a fragile state. He’s recovering from a nervous breakdown. How is his father’s death going to affect him? Where does it leave him? 

It leaves him wondering how to properly honor his father’s memory. That’s the question he finds himself deliberating at the beginning of 117. How do I honor his legacy? Because he came in and taught him some things. What are the specific lessons? He’s left with a feeling of love and compassion but there are specific lessons that this man has come into my life to teach me. I have to consciously reflect on what they are and figure out how to move forward because he transformed me. He changed my life. It reminds me of “Wicked.” (Brown breaks into song.) “I’ve heard it said, that people come into our lives for a reason.” I think about that. That resonates with me in terms of how William’s life affects Randall. He’s changed him for good. We’ll figure out exactly how in the next episode.

How will William be honored?

William left specific instructions that he didn’t want his memorial service to be something that was sad. He wanted it to be a joyous occasion. So he leaves the girls in charge of planning it. They take the reins. They run with it. and they come up with all kinds of festivities for the family to do together in order to remember their Grandpa. Different facets of his life that they incorporate into it, some that are quite charming and lovely.

How are Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and the girls affected by his death?

It affects everybody differently. The girls lost their Grandpa. But they’re emboldened by the fact that they get to play an active role in saying goodbye to him. They appreciate that gesture. Beth has a tough time as one could expect with losing William. And she has one of the most beautiful scenes of the whole season as regards to that loss.

There are so many wonderful callbacks in the episode.

I’ve got to give credit to the casting of young William. Jermel does a hell of a job maintaining that continuity of character of what Ron has already established. To see how seamlessly it flows together. My man Brian Tyree Henry comes in and slays it as cousin Ricky. Slays it! I remember jumping out of my seat when William writes the song and Ricky sings it in rehearsal and they sing it in front of a small, then a medium, then a large audience. It grows in intensity as they sing the song. I thought it was brilliant.

I know the two of you are good friends. Did you have a hand in his casting?

I made a strong recommendation! (Laughs.) I can say that much. But I think he got cast off his merits because he’s a beast. But I did say if you’re looking for a cousin Ricky, he’s a strong candidate.

You’ve also got fantastic chemistry with Ron. 

We speak a very similar language. We work in a similar way. But that goes for probably everybody on set. The most fundamental important thing for me as an actor is maintaining a sense of play. It’s so important. You can take your play seriously as long as you seriously play. If it becomes “work” vs play it loses a sense of spontaneity and vivaciousness which I find fundamental to making a connection. And Ron will give you different looks and expressions and add a different laugh here or there, and it makes it just alive in the moment. Ron is gifted. There’s something about his soul. He has a beautiful soul. All of us are right around the same age, with the exception of Ron. Mandy’s a little younger. Everyone else is somewhere between 36 and 40. So we collectively have an appreciation for this moment, experiencing “This is Us.” And Ron feels it more acutely than anybody else. To have been hustling in NYC as a stage actor. To have now recently had some roles – “Mr. Robot,” “The Get Down,” “Luke Cage” – and to all of a sudden have this character arc, that’s beautiful. My admiration for him as an actor is equal to Randall’s admiration for him as a human being. It’s synchronicity.

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