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This Is Us: Sterling K. Brown on Toby and William twists in winter finale

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Ron Batzdorff/NBC (2)

For those who wanted the Christmas episode of This Is Us to end with the family gathered together for a nice, peaceful evening that didn’t involve the hospital, we issue our heartfelt condolences.

And speaking of condolences, will those need to soon be issued in regards to Toby? (Read a Q&A with Chris Sullivan about Toby’s fate here.)

The winter finale of the NBC dramedy (directed by Helen Hunt) ended with a “wow” wrapped around an “ow” on Christmas Eve. Toby (Chris Sullivan) was in surgery, clinging to life after having dramatically collapsed in Randall’s living room. This after Toby boldly jetted across the country to win back Kate (Chrissy Metz), assured her that he could make the dietary changes necessary to repair their relationship, and then had reconciliatory sex.

Toby wasn’t the only This Is Us surprised. We also William’s friend Jessie (Denis O’Hare) from Narcotics Anonymous, who helped Randall’s biological father get his life back on track — and was also William’s lover (one he left without saying goodbye). After an overdue apology, William brought Jessie back to Randall’s house, where they met up with Kevin (Justin Hartley) and playwright/underdog love interest Sloane (Milana Vayntrub), Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Miguel (Jon Huertas), Kate and Toby, Beth (Susan Kelechi), Tess (Eris Baker), Annie (Faithe Herman), and, of course, our host Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who seemed a bit flummoxed by the William revelation. (Daughter Tess was the one who eventually clued Randall in on the William-Jessie relationship.) This proved to be quite an eventful day for Randall, who bought a boat, tried to return it, and talked suicidal colleague Andy (Jimmi Simpson) off a literal ledge — all before showing a small reindeer-based kindness to his mother, whom Randall was just starting to forgive for hiding William’s identity for 36 years.

Also saved from death: Dr. K (Gerald McRaney). Back on Christmas Eve 1989, young Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) was taken to the hospital, where, before undergoing an appendectomy, she was reassured by Rebecca that “nothing bad ever happens on Christmas Eve.” It was the very same hospital where Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and his family would reunite with the fill-in doctor/wise man who delivered the twins and led them to adopt Randall, and who was now given a grim prognosis for the slow hemorrhage between his heart and lung. In a bit of Christmas magic, Dr. K managed to successfully pull through his surgery — a moment juxtaposed with an unconscious Toby hanging on the precipice of life and death.

It’s been an intense first half of the first season — with plenty to process, including that traumatic if melodramatic cliffhanger — but here to offer his perspective is the always-illuminating, never-obfuscating, Sterling K. Brown — the Emmy winner who was just named one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year. On Wednesday, he took you behind the scenes of that Toby twist and riffed on his fate: “If Chris Sullivan does not make it beyond episode 10,” he says, “I think people will be quite distraught — Chrissy Metz probably being at the top of that list, but not far behind will be Sterling K. Brown and all the rest of the cast.” Now, Brown breaks down a few other key moments from the winter finale, “Last Christmas,” as well as the revelation that threw Randall and Rebecca’s relationship into disrepair.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY:  I’d like to say thank you for showing grace and understanding for your mother. She really did raise you right.

STERLING K. BROWN: [Laughs] What’s interesting is that for a lot of people, it was either too much or too little. A lot of people wanted a full-scale forgive — a forgive, hug, embrace, the come-to-Jesus moment — and other people would tell me, “It’s been 36 years and she didn’t tell you who your father was? Are you supposed to, like, just all of a sudden, be okay with that?” So it’s been really interesting to see just how visceral a moment that was for many people on opposite sides of the spectrum.

In your opinion — as the man who plays him — how mad should Randall be? On one hand, he was lied to about his birth father, someone he’d been trying to locate for decades, for 36 years. Then again, he was given every opportunity by his parents, who, in an effort to make him feel accepted, perhaps even showed him some favoritism. He himself has said how amazing his parents were.

Because Sterling has the perspective of seeing it from Rebecca and Randall’s points of view, I can see both points of view very clearly and understand the kind of threat that Rebecca perceives in terms of someone breaking her family apart. The steps she took to bond herself with this child, and now she couldn’t imagine life without him, so the idea of Randall wanting to be with someone else more than the Pearsons was an idea that she couldn’t stand to take or pursue. So, she’s like, “You know what? I’m going to do what’s necessary — everything that I can — to try to help in his social development as an African-American man in this country, short of introducing him to this person.”

I understand. I have empathy for that. This is slightly different, but from Randall’s perspective, if my mother or father told me the person who I thought was my father was indeed not my father, that somebody else was, and I didn’t find that out until adulthood — especially given the fact that we see young Randall questioning where he came from — knowing that she had the answer and chose not to give it to him, that’s a hard pill to swallow. So, I guess I see it both ways — as Sterling. I got to play it as Randall, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] So, Randall’s going to be a little upset! He’s going to feel a little upset.

How intense was it to film that Thanksgiving scene with Mandy, in which Randall confronted Rebecca about the letter?

It was up there. [Including] episode 10 with my man Jimmi [Simpson, who played Randall’s colleague Andy], those are probably the two most intense scenes that I’ve had this season. I’m a pretty low-key, mellow fellow for the most part. Don’t ask my wife, but I remember at one point I was really trying to maintain my focus and concentration, and everybody else in the scene, they’re spectators, and the crew is spectating, and so sometimes I put on my headphones and walk away. Or if I wanted to play it safe, I would simply ask if everybody in the dining room could please maintain their volume to a certain level, it’d be greatly appreciated. And I tried to do it as graciously as possible, but still trying to keep the space where I needed to be in order to maintain that mindset. So, it was intense, and it was a lot of takes. I mean, we did it over and over again. You got to get coverage for everybody at the table, and I don’t want anyone to be watching something that’s not at its pinnacle because hopefully, they’re going to get a chance to react to what I’m actually doing, rather than trying to react to a bad facsimile of it. I was relatively happy with how the scenes came together. I mean, it’s hard to be objective when you’re watching your stuff.

NEXT: Brown reveals his thoughts on Randall’s “See you at Christmas” doorway speech to Rebecca[pagebreak]

You mentioned that people felt it was a little too much or too little when he was at her door. The idea that he would react that way at the door and show her that much compassion after spending much of that episode devising his list— which I guess he did read to her, on some hallucinatory level — was that something you read and thought, “That was not what I was expecting”? You must have had it in your head about how you thought he was going to process that hurt.

Vera [Herbert], by the way, just got a nomination by the WGA for her episode, which was very well-deserved…. I felt like it was right. I felt like his vision quest if you will (laughs), by virtue of his consumed shroomage, left him in a place of understanding, or of empathizing in a way which he did not before. So, while he was ready to read the list, he kind of got a chance to do it in the trip, and so, it almost sort of alleviated the desire to do it again. When he saw just how much he had to fight for, just how different her children are, and all that she had to do in order to make her family function, I think there was a softening that took place. It’s not complete forgiveness because the fact of the matter remains: She did keep a very crucial, crucial piece of information about where he came from his entire life.

So, I felt like it was just right. It’s almost an echo of when he goes to visit William in the pilot and he has all these things that he wants to say to William, but at the end of the day, he winds up bringing him home. He wanted to tell her off. He wanted to name all 22 things of how she’s ruined his life, and at the end of that, he actually winds up expressing a level of understanding. I think that’s what’s beautiful about this dude. There is a striving to do the right thing, you know? There is a constant desire that even though he wants to be petulant and he wants to just say all of the bad things that he has on his heart, and sort of purge himself, at the end of the day, he loves his mother. And so, while he can’t hug her — he can’t allow himself to be quite that close — he can tell her “That must have been incredibly lonely.”

There’s sort of an opposite sibling scene to that in the pilot, where he goes to William’s apartment with lots of angry stuff to say to him; it’s almost like he has a list. Then William says, “Do you want to come in?” and he’s like, “Okay.” Here, he doesn’t say the thing that you think he came to say, and she’s basically like, “Come in.” He’s like, “No, I’m not coming in. Not yet.” It’s interesting that way.

Very interesting. But I do think that he was very harsh with William, and then that harshness turned into — there’s almost like a heightened vulnerability. He has to close himself off a little bit with Mom after recognizing just how it’s a betrayal, you know? It’s a betrayal of trust. 

What was it like to finally get to act with Milo? That seemed to be the big limitation of the show’s premise, with the story being set in different eras and him as your dad. Were you worried that it was never going to happen? And had you guys been lobbying for a particular type of scene, whether it was a dream or a hallucination?

I remember early on in this process, I said to Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator], and maybe to a few other writers in the writers’ room, I was like, “Dude. I’m never going to get a scene with Milo!” And they’re like, “Yeah,” and I guess I said it early enough that they started churning and just thinking, like, “Hmmm. What could we possibly do?” And so they came up with an idea that worked. I’m happy that it worked because there’s always a fear of jumping the shark and taking things in a direction in which people just don’t seem plausible. But it was the right device, and it functioned well within our story.

I was worried that that would never happen, and it may not happen again. I don’t know how many times you can do it effectively and have people stick with you. But I’m glad at least it worked that one time, because he’s a wonderful actor, he’s a wonderful human being, and I really enjoyed having a chance to play with him. It was cool.

And between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we had the family together for the first time, and then we’re finally getting to see The Big Three together. Is that something you guys have just been waiting for, getting more time together?

I have been waiting, and in particular, I still feel like I get shorted on my Kate time, and I keep pushing it. I was like, “I really need to know more about and witness the relationship between Randall and Kate. Because I know the twins have their bond, and I don’t wish to come in between that, but that’s my sister, and I would like to explore that.” Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to touch more on that in the future.

Dan said it’s going to be a “slow thaw” between Rebecca and Randall. Now, we saw him in this Christmas episode include her in a moment with his kids, naming all the reindeer. What can you tease about their reconciliation? How slow is this thaw?

Originally, in the Christmas episode, there is a moment of forgiveness that Dan chose to cut out. He said it just felt too easy. There’s this moment when Randall is watching the whole family in the living room, enjoying life, enjoying Christmas. His mom comes up behind him, and he turns to her and says, “I forgive you.” And she says, “Excuse me?” He says, “You know, it’s Christmas Eve, and I just want you to know that I forgive you.” And she hugs him, and they hug each other, and they continue with their Christmas Eve.

But [Dan] was like, “After 36 years, I don’t know if I did that moment quite right.” And I think that it’s going to frustrate a lot of people because they know how much Randall and Rebecca love each other. So to not see them fully on the same page will probably be frustrating for quite a few, but also I think it is the reality of the situation. It doesn’t just happen. It’s going to take a little bit of time.” So, after having that conversation with him, and recognizing that we have eight more episodes, it may not be until late into the season where you actually get a chance to see them fully reconnected once again.

NEXT: Brown on the William revelation: “I’m curious to see how our fans respond to this storyline”[pagebreak]

Randall almost lost his colleague, Andy, over the side of the building as he was planning a suicide jump. Did Randall’s desperate speech to him about how his daughter will always forgive him and love him, no matter what, help Randall himself to get to a slightly better place with Rebecca back at the house later?

I absolutely believe so, because it was one of those moments when it actually caught him off-guard. When he was telling him about, like, “You’re not the only person, you don’t have a monopoly on pain. Everybody goes through things that they have to endure, but if you’re not here anymore, you don’t give everybody else the opportunity to give back to you.” So, in saying that to Andy, and recognizing within himself, like, “Hey, my mother and I have tough times, but these tough times don’t mean that it’s time for me to check out, or that it’s time for her to check out, because there’s always the hope and the possibility of things getting better. I definitely would say that’s the case.

Is Andy’s storyline something we’ll be returning to sooner or later this season?

As of now, no.

The look on Randall’s face was pretty great after his daughter, Tess [Eris Baker] tells him that William is gay, or bisexual. And it’s a really nice, off-handed comment and moment that is not played up, and it’s indicative of the inclusiveness of the show. What did you think of that twist, and did it catch you as off-guard as a lot of people probably were?

I remember Dan and a couple other producers came up to me early on, and they were working on [episode] 10, and they had this idea for William’s character. And they said that it turns out he has been in a relationship with a man, and it’s not so much just a purely physical attraction, but that these two people were there for one another in very low times, and just found a way to be together. And he’s like, “What do you think? How do you think that’ll go over?” I said, “I think it sounds really, really lovely.” I think I may have even found out before Ron, actually. And so, Ron found out, and he was great with it, too. And then when he found out that he was going to get a chance to act with Denis O’Hare, he was like, “Okay, yeah, I’m good. This is going to be solid.”

I’m curious to see how our fans respond to this storyline because I think it’s told very deftly. It’s not beating you over the head with something… I feel like the show is a show for everyone, and I guess there is a certain responsibility when you’re having a show for everyone to be inclusive of everyone, but to not be pandering. You don’t want to do something where you all of a sudden have a show that is diverse, but it makes it a point of highlighting, “Look at how diverse we are!” You want to do it because life is diverse, and because we have so many people who we encounter in existence of so many different walks. How can we do that as organically as possible?

I think the writers came up with a really wonderful way of organically introducing that this man who has been an artist his entire life, who had gone through NA, who’s been fighting cancer for quite some time, was able to make a soul connection with someone. And the reason why it sort of speaks to me in that way is that any time you get a chance to introduce someone to someone that they already love who may be different than what they anticipated them being, do they rescind their love, or do they now have an eye-opening experience of saying, “Oh, man, I love this man. I didn’t see that as being a part of him. But now that I know that it’s part of him, I love him. I love him.” So, I’m hoping that it’s a situation like that, where people who are very much enamored with William, when they find out this new aspect of his humanity, will stay right there in the midst of that love.

When shooting that scene, did you try slightly different reactions to receiving the news?

I had a couple of different thoughts with regards to it. [Laughs] I can remember thinking when a friend of mine told me he was gay. We were just out of high school, and he was breaking it down for me, right? And I was like, “Wow. Wow.” I started to go back over in my mind, and I was like, “How did I miss this? Was I just not picking up on this?” And so there were things that I could’ve seen, and I was like, “Oh, yeah!” I remember having this very real sense-memory moment of, like, “I’ve had this experience before,” and how do I do it being respectful and open, but still very much inside of the moment?” That’s the look I was trying to capture.

Fans now have to wait five weeks for the new episode. (Episode 11 airs Jan. 10.) What advice do you have for them while they’re waiting, or maybe even some questions they should be asking themselves, over and over?

There’s a lot of good movies coming out this holiday season. Get out to your local cinema, and enjoy yourself. [Laughs] The holidays are coming. There’s going to be plenty of things to occupy your time. We will be back, and we look forward to being reunited with you.