This Is Us star Ron Cephas Jones on William's 'wonderfully sad' road trip
[Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Memphis.”]
You knew it was coming. (Borrowed time has to be returned at one point.)
You knew how it was coming. (This cancer had loudly announced its intentions.)
You just didn’t know when. (It’s got to be in the season finale, right? Maybe the episode before that? Or the season 2 premiere?)
When turned out to be now. The day that had been forecasted (and even flash-foreshadowed) finally arrived on Tuesday, as This Is Us walloped viewers with a deeply moving, uplifting, heart-rending episode that included the long-feared, full-teared death of the terminally ill William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones), the biological father of Randall (Sterling K. Brown). Just a few months ago, the son knocked on the father’s door with a mixture of anger and curiosity about being abandoned at a fire station 36 years ago, and the pair found a fast, awkward, amusing, poignant reconnection (or is that just “connection”?) as the father moved in with the son and his family while he battled stage 4 stomach cancer. Down to his waning wisps of time, the weakened, nasal cannula-wearing William took the fragile Randall (still recovering from a breakdown the week before) on a road trip to Memphis to learn about William’s past, and along the way, they pit-stopped to pay their respects to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and soaked up every minute of quality time. William showed Randall how to roll down the metaphorical windows of life, took him to his childhood home, which still contained a hidden toy or two, drank from the white side of a segregated drinking fountain, savored some BBQ pork, and hit the club for a reconciliation and impromptu gig with William’s cousin, Ricky (Brian Tyree Henry).
And in flashbacks, we saw William as a little baby, raised by a mother when his father was killed in military action. Soon came the ’70s, when we saw his promising musical connection with Ricky in a blues band severed after our young poet William (Jermel Nakia) journeyed back to Pittsburgh to take care of his ailing mother like she did hers. Her death sent him spiraling into grief, and (after previously resisting temptation) into a life of drugs, leading to Randall’s firehouse abandonment.
Now back in his old stomping ground on his goodbye tour, William made peace with his life, and with Ricky, even sharing a stage with him one more time. There would be no encore. The next morning, reality — and the Grim Reaper — came knocking. Randall checked him into a hospital and was forced to accept the fact that William was going to die in this hospital. Lying in bed, William was finally able to give Randall his collection, “Poems for My Son,” something that sent Rebecca (Mandy Moore) running scared from William’s apartment three and a half decades earlier. He admitted that he was a little scared to died, and Randall held William’s head in his hands and soothingly encouraged him to “just breathe,” just like his father had taught him a long time ago when he was overwhelmed. And then William passed — no, not in Randall’s home, but home in Memphis, and into the arms of his mother in the afterlife.
Let us take a deep breath and pay our respects to the dearly departed — or at least the man who has played him to eloquent excellence — Ron Cephas Jones.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: William is dead. How does it feel when you hear those words?
RON CEPHAS JONES: [Laughs.] That’s interesting, man. There’s just so many feelings. It’s an amalgamation — so many different feelings from the work that we did, to the character study, to being so close to the character, and like a fan, and many of the fans, not wanting him to die, you know? All through the process, I was hoping they might find a cure, but he actually does go away. And we found that out sometime in the middle of shooting. It really said a lot about where I was with the character because I was actually living with that every day, not sure of when my demise was going to happen, but it ended up being at the end of episode 16. So, yeah, it feels wonderfully sad, I guess. It has the top of the top and the bottom of the bottom, and everything in between.
Earlier this season, when we were talking about the flash-forward moment with Randall packing up William’s things, you said you didn’t really want to know when it was going to happen because you thought it was best to play it out like your character. So you really did end up doing that?
I did. It was all the way up until right up until the last minute when we first got the script; that’s when I realized that it was happening. That happened all the way up until the week before the episode.
What was the first thing that struck you when you read this script?
“Is there a way for him to still be in the story, in season 2, after we found that out?” As an actor, that was the first thing that I was thinking and hoping and praying for, which ended up being the case. Then it was the matter of, again, not knowing how or when or what, but I do know that he’s going to carry over into season 2 in some way, just as well as Jack was in all of season 1. The whole story was there; it’s just the way they’re doing their writing. It’s so beautiful and interesting, and it leaves it open for so many possibilities.
NEXT PAGE: Jones on filming the death bed scene with Brown: “It was just so beautifully done”
What was the most memorable moment from shooting in Memphis?
Oh, there were so many, man. I mean, the one that comes to my mind was the one by the segregated water fountain at the Schwab’s store. That moment was funny, but it also was so touching, and it said a lot about the history and the awareness and the importance of Memphis and where he’s really from and all the things that go along with Memphis, so that choked me up, really. It brought [back] a lot of memories of my parents and living through a lot of those segregated times, so there was a lot of reflection for me in that moment, of being in that store. And the people in there were so beautiful and gracious. After we finished, the woman who owned the place offered me this hat that I happened to be admiring. I stopped to look at this hat, and she overheard me say, “Man, this is a really beautiful piece. I would wear it.” And so hours later, after we finished filming it, she had put it in a box and gave it to me as a gift. It was a moment I’ll never forget. It had a lot of meaning to me — and just the whole history of this country and the things that we’re going through at the moment. It was one of those really incredible moments. She gave me this big hug, and there were people in the store passing by that loved the show. It was just a beautiful day that day.
What were the moments that you guys found while you were shooting? Stuff that wasn’t in the script that you decided to take advantage of while in Memphis?
We found a lot of moments that weren’t in [the script]. There were a lot of improvisational moments, like the barber shop. When we got to the barber shop, we weren’t quite sure exactly what was scripted, because nothing was really there. It was going to be P.O.V., but they ended up putting in just the conversation that we had, because Sterling and I both know what it’s like being in a barber’s shop on a Saturday afternoon, and that just kind of kicked in, and the other guys that were there were guys from Memphis. So it just worked. He said “Action!” and then we just start talking barber shop talk, you know? The water fountain moment was also a moment that just happened. We just kind of improvised around it, Sterling and I. We looked at the fountain, looked at each other, and then dialogue just started to happen, and they kept a little bit of that, also.
What moments elsewhere in the episode choked you up?
We started off with the scene in the hospital, so I guess from there you can pretty much just count every other moment after that. There were some excellent moments there, and some difficult times for Sterling and I going through that scene, but we were so connected by that point that we knew exactly what each other needed, and what those characters needed in that moment. And that was something I’ll remember, too, not only from a performance end, but as an actor, when you’re working with another actor, and you have this trust, and you just know that they’re going to give you just enough, and they know that you’re going to give them just enough. It was a really beautiful working bond that I had developed with Sterling; we just had a language that we both understood. And a lot of that maybe had to do with the fact that we both were in the theater for some time. So, that was another moment. I mean, I could go on and on, you know?
I’m glad you brought up Sterling. What were your conversations with him while filming this episode? Was there a vibe of melancholy or reflection during the shoot? How did it feel different, if at all?
No, it never got too deep. Sterling has two little boys, so we talk a lot about being parents. I have a daughter; she’s here visiting me now, and she’s all grown up. But for me, it’s usually when cats have kids, we usually talk a lot about kids and growing up, and what they’re doing, things like that. We talk a lot about New York and our friends back in New York and meeting up for lunch. So I just think there was a bond that we had. We both know a lot of the same people who are actors, so the circles start to get smaller and smaller, and they’re all connected, so it’s always fun when you’ve been around for a while, like I have.
And what was it like to film that deathbed scene, where William confessed he was a little scared, and Randall held William’s head in his hands and was showing him how to breathe, just like Jack taught him? In that final moment, it came full circle, though the roles were reversed with father and son. Do you feel like he truly became part of the Pearson family in the way that moment interconnected them all?
Yes, I do. It was beautiful. It reflected all those moments that you were already familiar with, and a lot of the fans will remember that moment when Jack put his hands around young Randall’s face, and then you see the mother who does it to young baby William, and then Randall’s doing it to the older William before he goes into the next life. I thought it was just so beautifully done, the editing, and the way John and Glenn [Requa and Ficarra, the episode’s directors] filmed it. It was very touching.
NEXT PAGE: Jones on returning to the show: “There’s a chunk of his life that we haven’t explored”
What was the most challenging moment of this episode to film?
The whole episode was challenging. Just getting through that feeling of having cancer or feeling like you’re going to die. Any of those moments that are played out with a wonderful script are always difficult emotionally. Not overplaying and being melodramatic, and sustaining those emotions through five, six, seven, eight, nine takes, that can be difficult. … The whole episode, going from there to driving in the car, a lot of your emotional stuff gets opened up, and you have to make sure that it’s in a good place.
I wanted to ask you about the scene in which William tells Randall that he wants to meet his father, and he says “your father.” William never overstepped his boundaries with that. And then hearing him thank Jack so earnestly for doing something that he couldn’t is very beautiful and heartbreaking. I’m wondering: How did you always play that dynamic in your head, when he would say “your father” and be referring to Jack? There’s a bittersweetness to that.
I think William always had that in his heart that he was always trying to prove himself and not overstepping his boundaries. I guess he knows that he would lose Randall, and he doesn’t want to lose this again, so he’s very respectful of that. He’s very proud of what Randall became, truly, and it’s like he was forgiven, and to be forgiven like that, everything else is a blessing. So I think he saw Jack as a blessing. And that’s what tried to come across in the scene with the tree and the bench, talking with Jack — it was just a way another guy would say to another guy that you respect them. Even though you don’t know them, you know that you respect them, just from him saying, “I would have liked to have met my son’s father.” And he kind of smiled at that, the irony of it. And the goodness of it. When otherwise it would just feel like a weird statement, but in some way or fashion, in this life, it makes so much sense for him to say that.
What resonated with you about the scene in which William told Randall that his life was full of bad breaks and choices and heartbreak, but it wasn’t a life that he considered sad? He said the two best things in his life were the person in the beginning and the person at the end, and therefore, it was a life worth living…
I thought it was very profound. I mean, it’s William, you know? It’s something that William would say. And in the end, the truth of the matter is that’s the reality. If everything is about the end, the journey never ends, even in people’s careers. Even when you think you’ve got success, there’s something else you want to do, you know? So, it’s the journey, and in the end, if you’re happy, then that’s what matters. It’s a thing that we actually tell and teach our children, and to hear it from a grown-up, it just makes it even more profound.
What did [series creator] Dan Fogelman tell you about your role in the show moving forward? Obviously, there’s precedent here with Jack.
To be honest with you, we haven’t even gotten that far. I haven’t had any conversations with Dan at this point about what would transpire next season. But at this point, I’m just totally satisfied at the moment with knowing that the character’s going to be back for season 2, so I still don’t know what capacity, how many episodes, things like that, so we just have to wait a little longer before I can even get close to answering that question.
But you’d want to be in as many episodes as possible?
Sure. I mean, I have all the scenarios that all the fans have, or you might imagine. It could go so many different ways. There’s a chunk of his life that we haven’t explored. There’s those moments where Randall has dreams. There are moments where they just do raw flashbacks to build story. They’ve been so creative over there, the writers and Dan have been so ingenious, there’s no telling what he’s been cooking up in the lab this time around, you know? [Laughs.] But I imagine and I’m sure it’s going to be more of that and even better, so I’m excited about it. Very excited about it.
Even when your life ends on This Is Us, there’s more life for you.
That’s right. That’s the idea. That’s what we’re all happy about, that we’ll be seeing each other again. And the excitement of not knowing — and the surprises that come along with that.
Have you talked to Milo about this since you filmed episode 16? Have the other cast members said anything to you?
We text each other a lot, because everybody’s so busy and doing such different things, and also personal time people are taking after the season. But a lot of the texts have been great. We talk a lot via text and group text. Everybody that has seen it feels the same way, and they’re excited about it being aired. It’s going to be crazy, man. [Laughs]… It’s going to shake things up a lot.
Do they joke with you about how they’re not letting you go anywhere?
Yeah, man, all the time. From the fans to the crew…. [The fans say, “Tell the writers] that there’s a cure!” “Tell them that people get cured!” People want to change the whole situation, and that’s happened a lot, and it’s beautiful. He’s become a very beloved character, so one way or another, he’s going to be around. And he’s been in the consciousness of the fans. This season, there are so many different references that will be made, so even in spirit, he lives on. And I feel proud of that, the work that I’ve put into it, and the bonds that I’ve made, the friendships. I’m very proud of that and blessed.
If you were to put an epitaph on William’s grave, how do you think it should read?
Hmm. Wow. That’s pretty deep… Something to do with family and blood. Something that’s connected to the richness of life… “Lived a rich life, died a rich man.”
To see what series creator Dan Fogelman had to say about this episode — and the next time you will see William on the show — click here.
For more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson on Twitter.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.