They met in NYU graduate school, reconnected on This Is Us, and now prove each week that Jack and Rebecca aren’t the only compelling love story on the emotionally turbocharged NBC family drama. Sterling K. Brown (recent winner of both an Emmy and a Golden Globe) and Susan Kelechi Watson shine as perfectionist Randall and protective Beth, the goofy-meets-cool, still-crazy-about-you-after-all-these-years couple that weathers all storms, which have included but are not limited to Randall’s nervous breakdown, the end of a too-short reunion with a biological father, and a farewell to a foster child. Let’s ring up the scene-swiping pair, whose work in 2017 earned them a Great Performance honor in EW’s Entertainers of the Year issue.
We should start at the beginning, which was the two of you meeting at NYU. What were those very first impressions of each other?
SUSAN KELECHI WATSON: We didn’t really know each other that well. I remember… so little. [Laughs.] You know what I remember a lot of, Sterling? You and Ryan!
STERLING K. BROWN: Of course. Sterling and Ryan [Michelle Bathe, his wife and This Is Us guest star] has been a continuing saga for as long as the history of the world. Ryan and I were in the same class together at NYU and we caused quite a bit of a commotion. So that makes sense to me. I remember Sue before she even got to school was dating a guy in the class above my class. And so I’m all, “Who’s this little cute girl who Dre is going out with?” They’re like, “Yeah, that’s Susan Kelechi Watson.” I was like, “Oh. She’s cool.” I saw you do A Lie of the Mind. I remember going to rehearsals, you guys were rehearsing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I just remember watching you in your process do incredibly beautiful and nuanced work, and just being a fan of your talent.
Susan, you better step up right now.
WATSON: I know! What I remember of Sterling is seeing him outside of school, ironically. And on stage. I remember going specifically to see Father Comes Home from the Wars at the Public and fangirling out because there is this specific work that can happen on film and television that the camera catches, but sometimes it’s harder to do that same type of intimate specific work in a theater space. Sterling was capturing all of that in Father Comes Home from the Wars, and I remember in that moment thinking, “Oh, yeah, he’s NYU.” First of all, I just think very highly of NYU actors.
BROWN: Me too.
WATSON: Secondly, I thought, “This brother has been on television and doing his thing, and can come back to theater and still kill it. He’s doing very specific, nuanced work, you know?”
What resonates with you two about Susan’s audition for This Is Us and how helpful was it that you had that little bit of shared history?
WATSON: I felt relief. I was like, “Oh, good! Somebody who reads from the same handbook.” I know his technique is similar to mine, so I know that it’s about just dropping in and being authentic. He was already in that space of being very dropped into the character. I could just meet him where he was. And so it was a relief, you know? He was very relaxed, and it felt good. [To Brown] How did it feel for you?
BROWN: I know how nerve-wracking it can be and I already had the job, so I was like, “I need to be there for these ladies.” And I knew the three women that were testing for Beth. But with Sue, in particular, there’s a sense of play. And I think that’s something that’s drilled into us at NYU as well: Don’t be so sincere or so precious that you lose that sense of play, that bit of effervescence that makes things alive and in the moment. So from then and throughout the process of Randall and Beth together through season 1 and season 2, we have so much fun with each other. Whether it’s a serious or sincere scene, there’s still this sense of play that underscores everything that we do that I have appreciated. It’s always a joy. I come home and I tell Ryan, “I love me some Susan Kelechi Watson! We have so much fun.” It makes work a joy.
WATSON: It does. Nothing is ever written in stone when working with Sterling. It’s never like he’s this way, and now we have to stick to it. One little thing can change and it’s like, “Oh wait, we’re going in this direction now. Let’s just do it and see what happens.”
What’s unique or interesting about your rehearsal process together?
WATSON: What rehearsal? [They laugh.]
BROWN: When we have a big scene, we’ll go over it just for the lines so that we get the rhythm, going together. What I like about it is we’ll bounce ideas off of each other and be like, “Yeah, yeah! That’s good, that’s good! Do that!” We had a scene and she knows exactly what I’m talking about—
WATSON: I know what you’re talking about.
BROWN: [Randall and Beth] were having an argument in the Paramount lot while Kevin was shooting The Manny. And she came up with this improv. She said, “You got me out here sweating like Biggie Smalls! Why are we talking about this?” After she did it one time, I was like, “You got to keep it Biggie Smalls, please. Don’t ever change it. Don’t give them an alt. Just keep it at Biggie.” [They laugh.]
WATSON: We cracked up every single time. We thought it was hysterical. And that was something I felt was a collaboration between us, because I remember us rehearsing it and being like, “Sterling, I feel like I need a beat there. I feel like I should be sweating like somebody.” So we were brainstorming, “Who sweats a lot?” And then I was so nervous that Biggie Smalls’ estate was going to come after me because I talked about how sweaty he was.
NEXT: Their thoughts on how Randall and Beth compare to Jack and Rebecca