Tuesday’s edition of This Is Us solved the #WhereIsJack mystery — or at least some of it — with a rather sweet-yet-bitter revelation: He is actually in an urn on Kate’s mantelpiece, and Kate (Chrissy Metz) watches the Steelers with him every Sunday. The death of Pearson patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimigilia) may help to explain — but not fully — why Rebecca (Mandy Moore) showed up at the house of Randall (Sterling K. Brown) not with Jack but with Jack’s friend, Miguel (Jon Huertas), as “Grandpa” in the present day. But you could argue that there was another death in the family, or there will be: In seemingly the show’s first flashforward — seen while Kevin (Justin Hartley) dropped a beautiful speech on his nieces about the messy, sprawling, long-after-we’re gone resonance of life — William (Ron Cephas Jones) appeared to have passed away, as Randall (Sterling K. Brown) packed up his belongings before sitting down, William’s hat in hand, to mourn the thoughtful biological father who only recently came into his life.
William’s death, whenever it comes to pass, cannot be classified as a shock, given that he told Randall in the series premiere that he was terminally ill, a diagnosis that was confirmed in episode 3. Nonetheless, we weren’t expecting to get a peek at this eventuality at all, especially so early in the season. And its heart-rending quotient was further ratched up by the fact that William and Randall had that breakthrough father-son moment at the end of “The Pool” last week. But hold your tearful goodbyes for the time being: Creator Dan Fogelman has plenty of stories about William and Randall (and the rest of the family) in store for the present day.
Whether you’re a wise owl or dopey labrador, you’ll be very interested in read what Jones has to say about this latest development for a character already living on borrowed time. In fact, if you scroll down and keep reading, he will probably put his hand on your knee and gently tell you, “You are doing everything right.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, we seemed to jump ahead in time and saw a peek of Randall mourning William. Yet we don’t know how soon that moment is—
RON CEPHAS JONES: I don’t either. I don’t know if the writers know, either. That’s another way of holding on to say, “Well, when are we going to have William’s demise?” When I read it, that’s exactly what I thought. But the way it’s written, you don’t know if it’s near future or the far future. It’s through Kevin’s eyes so as far as Kevin is concerned, William could be dead tomorrow. (Laughs) It’s like the scene where he tells the kids, “Well, I wouldn’t get too attached…” He thinks it’s funny, but it’s actually kind of horrifying to say that to the kids, but that’s how Kevin talks, you know? The monologue is based through Kevin’s story about the kids and the fact that sooner or later, things happen. So you don’t really know if that’s five years down the road.
What did you think of the way that moment was presented? Even though we know it’s going to happen eventually, did that hit you hard, too?
Yeah, it hit me in a lot of ways. First of all, as an actor, it was like, “Man, am I going to have to find another job?” (Laughs) And the other thing was, of course, wanting to know, just like you, when that’s going to happen. That was the overriding feeling. But I thought it was written beautifully, and it is a matter of letting the audience know that sooner or later this is going to happen. If the character becomes very likable and people get attached to the character, then it could be very devastating, so it could be a part of [the writers] wanting to write that in just to prepare the audience for the future of what’s coming down. And you do get attached to these characters. It’s shocking when one of your characters is eliminated from the series that you love, so I kind of felt that also as a fan of the show as well. I thought, “Oh wow, I wonder when that’s going to happen. And how is that going to happen?” But I know eventually, inevitably, it’s going to happen. And William may still exist in flashbacks or dream sequences or things like that, so there’s still a life for the character but maybe not in the present day.
Also in this episode, the audience for the first time realizes that Jack’s dead, and obviously he’s going to be part of the series. So that bodes well for you.
That’s right. And that’s what gave me some light and some understanding that okay, even if William passes away — which he will — there’s still some story line that I can play that will keep me involved in the series. It’s such a great series. As every actor knows, it’s once in a lifetime, or maybe twice if you’re lucky, to get a role in a series like this, so you want to be with it as long as you can, you know what I mean? That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do also, is to make the character so memorable and play the moments so well, and do the best work that I can do, so that I can draw the sentiment of the audience so that even though he’s not there, you can still feel him. That’s my job as an actor — to go on and try to do the work so subtle and so fine and specific that the memories will linger for a long time…. I thought [the Jack revelation] was brilliant.
When you had those same questions as the audience after you read that scene, did you call [series creator] Dan Fogelman and say, “Hey, I have a couple questions for you…”
No. I mean, I wish I would have. And Dan is really open. There were several times prior to when I got to that moment [that] I thought it best to play it out like the character, you know? Sometimes you want to know things and maybe it’s best that you don’t. I’m trying to incorporate it into the character work, so that if the character doesn’t know quite what day it’s going to be, then I shouldn’t know. So I decided not to specifically ask Dan about it and just let it play out however it plays out, and play every moment like I’m not coming back. And that gives me sort of a sad undertow, of everything he does. If you notice, there’s something quiet and reserved about him, almost like an acceptance, yet each day he has this ritual, he takes his walk and that’s why the whole rose flower thing upsets him. But everything else, it’s almost like he’s accepted this thing and each day, every now and then, he’ll comment on it.
And I don’t overplay the sickness of it. It’d be easy — the cliché of playing him sick all the time — but I know people who are living with cancer. My best friend who lives out here has stage 4 cancer, and I talk with him almost every other day, and go by and visit him, so I listen to him and talk with him about what it feels like and how his days are going, and on what days he feels what. So a lot of that is also the undertow of knowing how someone with stage 4 works every day and walks and moves. Hopefully some of that will permeate. But that’s what I decided to do is to play it out like that, otherwise I’d worry as an actor too much. And that’s always the actor’s dilemma, is the next job, the next thing, and I shouldn’t concern myself with that, and it keeps me focused on the work, you know? Although, man, I would love to know, you know what I mean? When I get home at night, it’s like, “Damn, I wonder what episode!” and every time a page comes in for a new episode, immediately I read it to see what’s going on (laughs). Oh, man! So it does create a little bit of anxiety, but if I stay within the parameter of where William is at, then I’m fine.
NEXT: Jones on William’s relationship with Kevin: “His presence eats right through Kevin’s s–t.” [pagebreak]
Kevin gives a great, moving speech at the end of the episode, which comes right after a hilariously awkward botched moment in which he tries to explain death to his nieces. He says to you, “Clearly I’m not the one who should be talking to them about the intracacies of life and death,” and you persuade him otherwise. What were your thoughts on that speech?
I thought it was beautiful, man, because it comes out of that moment where you see William bond with Kevin. It’s almost like his presence eats right through Kevin’s s–t and he’s able to actually make Kevin be real in that moment, when he says to him, “What did you think about the script when you first read it?” and “When I saw your show, I thought you were really good, but you have a habit of trashing yourself.” It’s like this way of coping. So instantly you see that Kevin likes William and bonds with him, and Kevin sees that William sees through his s–t. Then Kevin goes up and gives this amazing speech, because that comes from the impetus of him feeling the power that William gives him. And knowing that William is going to pass away and that life is short…. It’s life through Kevin’s eyes.
The Randall-in-mourning moment is a peek into the future of an indeterminate time, which means there’s plenty of William to come, including a possible road trip that you two take. What can we expect from this relationship in the coming weeks?
Well, I’m not sure you can expect, but I know that’s going to play out…. There’s an episode that’s just going to be about Randall and his father, so I think a lot of things will be answered for me as well as you and the audience, in regards to that relationship and where it’s going to go.
A question from an earlier episode: When Randall tracked down William at his apartment in the pilot, William said he was so high that he didn’t even remember leaving Randall at the fire station, but he liked fire stations, so it sounded like something he would do. In episode 3, we see him lingering outside the hospital to see who took in Randall and then he had that lucid conversation with Rebecca at the apartment. How truthful was William being with Randall when he told him that fire station story? Is he trying to protect the secret? Is his level of truth somewhere in between?
It’s somewhere in between, the level of truth. Part of him is cognizant of holding on to the secret but also part of him is true — he’s trying to remember exactly what happened because he was under the infleunce. There’s a part of the story that he’s holding on to the secret, but the rest [is] truth, I can’t remember all the details of the moment… A part of that comes out later when he comes into the bedroom and [Randall] asks, “How did you meet my mother?” and then he starts to tell him some of the story then. He still doesn’t say how much he knew him then, he just kind of tells him about his biological mother. I think you hit it right on the head, it’s a little bit of both.
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