Randall, wringer. Wringer, Randall.
These two have certainly gotten to know each other over the last few episodes of This Is Us, though it appears that Randall is coming out the other side intact. The family man extraordinaire, played by Sterling K. Brown, saw things come crashing down in “Jack Pearson’s Son” as the stresses of whatever he does at his job (wind-trading?), caring for a terminally ill father, and trying to keep up with his commitments as a husband and father left him quivering on his office floor, where he’d find unlikely comfort from his play-skipping brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley). “Memphis” opened several days after Randall was hospitalized and treated for his anxiety, and wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) reluctantly allowed him to hop in a car with William (Ron Cephas Jones), so a father with extremely limited time left on this planet could show his son where he grew up. Their memory-stuffed tour ended in the hospital, where William died, his head cradled in Randall’s hands.
And then, in Tuesday’s installment of the NBC dramedy, titled “What Now?” — which also saw an inebriated Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) hop into a car to fix his marriage and Kate (Chrissy Metz) reveal that she’s the reason that Jack is dead — Randall was back home, grieving the loss of a father, cruelly for the second time in his life. At the end of the memorial service — to which “The Team” at work sent a perfunctory if not downright lethal basket of pears — Randall and the guilt-soaked Rebecca (Mandy Moore) had a loaded, yet healing conversation, one in which Randall issued true forgiveness, or something close to it, to his mother for hiding William’s identity from him for three and a half decades. The emotional Olympics didn’t end there, though: Learning of all the people that William touched — from the Vicodin-addicted athlete with whom he pretended to enjoy football to the mailman that he chatted up on his morning walks — Randall finally realized the way to honor his fallen father’s legacy and to roll down the windows of his life: He dropped by the office after Kevin’s Opening Night, Take 2 (which went so well, by the way, now Ron Howard wants him to act in his new movie), explained to his boss how disappointing the firm proved to be in his time of need, and then just plain quit his job. (Not quite as viral as Kevin’s adios, but an impressive statement nonetheless.) This, whatever this was, would be the new start to a life that his father would want him to live. “No hard feelings,” Randall told Tyler (John Pollono). “I walk out of here in triumph.”
On that high note, let’s speak to the man who came, who saw, and who conquered these last few episodes: Sterling K. Brown.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you feeling like you yourself went through some sort of massive emotional gauntlet? That’s quite a one-two-three punch of episodes.
STERLING K. BROWN: It really is. I would say “Yes.” I remember going from shooting Randall’s breakdown, where Kevin finds him in the corner of his office on one day, and then the next day, if I’m not mistaken, I had to shoot the goodbye scene between Randall and William. And it was just — I don’t know who schedules this — but it was so painful, and so taxing. And then ultimately it turned out to be a good thing for Ron and I because we were like, “All right. Well, at least we got that over with. Now we can just enjoy each other’s company,” because that’s what we’re doing for the majority of the rest of the episode.
And then [in this episode] I am so proud of my brother, recognizing that he came to me on his important day and made a tremendous sacrifice to be present, and that he was able to get the play back up and that we were able to go and witness him do what it is that he loves. It was a combination of the mailman telling me about his experiences with William — seeing how he’s affected our family at large — and there was a scene that got cut where every day William takes a nap, so the girls had us all lay blankets out in the living room and take a nap. And Kevin has this wonderful scene where he’s talking about, “Well, William would help me with my lines,” and talked about how much he enjoyed Brando from The Godfather, and I said, “When did William help you with your lines?” He said, “You know, sometimes we would both be up at night, and he couldn’t sleep and I’d just go and run lines with him, or I’d just wake him up because I couldn’t sleep, just to get his advice on something.”
It’s just another example of the many ways in which this man was present for people. I think Randall came to recognize through the course of the day, and then watching his brother’s play, that there was more to life, and that certainly he had been rushing through things to get to the end result of something, rather than purely enjoying the process and the journey of being. And it made sense then. It was a wonderful release because you would think you go in to quit a job, and it’s going to be something that’s fraught with tension and anxiety, but this was one of the most anxiety-free moments that I think Randall has had, because… it just didn’t make sense anymore.
Randall has weathered so much in these last few episodes. He suffered the breakdown, was hospitalized, went to Memphis, suffered the loss of his father and quit his job. Is part of you nervous for him? Is too much happening?
I feel like in [episodes] 15 and 16, I was very nervous for him. People would tweet and they’d be like, “I’m worried about Randall,” and I’d be like, ‘Girl, I’m worried about Randall, too!’ (Laughs) In 17, I feel like he is getting to a place of awareness to recognize that he actually has to slow down, and I feel most at ease with him right now moving into the end of the season, because he’s giving himself the time necessary to reflect on what’s transpired, rather than trying to barrel forward and just try to make everything normal. He recognizes that what’s transpired is not normal, and he needs a little bit of time to absorb what the new normal is going to be. So, I’m in a good place with where Randall is left off at the end of the season.
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Let’s back up to the eulogy/toast at William’s memorial/”fun-eral,” where Randall starts his speech but instead passes the mic to someone whom he says was truly “in it” with William every day. It’s a moment that comes after Beth — who has been so protective of Randall and ultimately of William, too — tearfully tells her husband that she loved William too and that everyone else had their chance to say goodbye to him. A lot is made of how Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca are the model romance on the show, but do we still not talk enough about the Randall/Beth relationship? Because the love and support, and loyalty and good humor runneth over there, too.
It really does. [Series creator Dan] Fogelman will be one of the first to say, “I know you guys don’t get the same screen time as a couple, but I am such a fan of the relationship of Randall and Beth, and the way that you and Susan can bring this couple to life.” I think it’s a lovely, lovely relationship. I’ve had somebody tell me, “You guys have a really great relationship. At what point in time do you have the affair?” and I was like, “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.” He’s like, “Well, you can’t stay perfect forever!” I was like, “It’s not perfect.” The thing that’s beautiful about it is that they love one another through their imperfections and the way that Beth is Randall’s rock. He would not be able to go out into the world and be successful at what he does if he didn’t know that this woman was here to provide a loving and caring environment for their children, for the father that he brought into his home, and she just doesn’t let him fall. And if he does fall, she picks him right back up and loves him into wholeness. I love Susan, and I love the fact that we get a chance to show this journey of this African-American couple who love each other through thick and thin. I’m sure our marriage will have its highs and lows, but in my mind, it’s never in danger of not being a marriage that’s meant to last forever.
NEXT PAGE: Brown on the Randall-Rebecca moment: “I feel like the healing is… complete.”
At the end of the memorial service, Randall takes the next step toward forgiveness with Rebecca when they’re recreating William’s neighborhood walk. At Christmas, there were signs that Randall was willing to move toward repair, but the relationship was still strained. When we talked then, you said there was a moment in the fall finale when Randall forgave Rebecca in the spirit of Christmas, but it didn’t feel earned, so it was cut. What felt right about now? Are you glad they waited this long to start rebuilding that bridge?
I’m glad they waited. I feel like there’s a larger emotional payoff. I feel like for a while, too, I’ve witnessed some statements on Twitter, like, “Look, when are these people going to forgive each other? It’s been long enough.” It caused a little bit of angst amongst the fans, and I think that’s a good thing that it wasn’t too easy; people were on two very different sides of the fence. Some of them were like, “Why doesn’t this boy forgive his mom?’ and then, “Yo, his mom kept a very pertinent piece of information away from him for 36 years. She can go through the wringer a little bit.” (Laughs.) So I think ultimately both sides will be satisfied. He’s been looking for a reason to forgive his mom and to come back together, and the loss of life is all the perspective you need to recognize just how fleeting everything is. And [it’s not worth it] to hold onto a grudge with the person who is most important to you — at least in your childhood — and is as important to you as your brothers and sisters, and wife and children. She needs to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is loved by her son, and he, just having lost a father for the second time, is all too willing and wanting to give her that assurance.
Did Rebecca need to say those things to Randall to get him over that hump of forgiveness, or had those last few days with William already changed him and moved him to a place where he was ready? Little of both?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s interesting because you lose somebody, but you’re able to move forward because he was able to spend his last moments with him. He was able to find out where William was from and to be introduced to a new family, so William left him with a lot. And he left him with a surplus of love. So I think that helped him move closer to her, but it is only right. Randall even tried to silence Rebecca and say like, “Mom, you don’t have to do this. It’s okay,” and she’s like, “No, I do. You deserve this.” So I think they were both taking steps towards one another, and to the writers’ credit, it was a perfect symbiosis of people meeting each other right in the middle.
When she says it was her fault that he didn’t have more time with William, Randall says, “I got enough. It was enough time to know that I loved him and I know that he loved me.” That was incredibly gracious and devastating stuff coming fro him. What resonates to you about that exchange, and what do you remember about filming it?
It’s a pretty personal moment. I’ve spoken about this openly throughout, that I lost my dad when I was 10. People would always say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and I would say, “Thank you,” but the thing that allows me to deal with that loss is knowing that he loved me. At no point in time did I ever doubt that he loved me unconditionally, and the reservoir that he left within inside of me is something that I still get to carry throughout the rest of my life. People can have their parents for a much longer time than I had my father and still have questions as to whether or not they are loved for who they are, and that has never been in doubt for me. So when I am able to say the lines like, “I had enough. It was enough to know that I loved him and he loved me,” I feel like that was a perfect synthesis of Sterling and Randall speaking as one.
Do you think Randall and Rebecca still have some more healing to do? How does this conversation impact him moving forward?
The more time that they spend with each other, and the more they’re able to share the experience of William in his life so that she can know what it was like — because she has one perspective of William and Randall has another — I think it’s going to be a mother and a son moving forward together. I feel like the healing is… complete. There will be a little bit of thawing of ice or whatnot, but I feel like the healing is complete.
I want to go back to what you were saying about the mailman. So after you hear the mailman talk of William’s kindness and Jesse (Denis O’Hare) explaining how William connected with the Vicodin-addicted athlete by pretending to like football, Randall seemed very activated. When you got to that part in the script about the mailman, did you wonder if he was going to have all these other people whose lives were touched by William speak at the memorial?
That’s interesting. Jesse did have a larger scope that was going to be within the course of the episode, but Denis, being the brilliant actor that he is, was unavailable and was doing another project, so the writers had to sort of scramble around a little bit and make it fit with our story. So he had definitely planned on being there because Jesse was the love of his life, in his twilight.
When the mailman came in, I kind of had the sense that that was going to be a one-scene sort of thing…. But having that one scene where he’s able just to illuminate to Randall the impact that this man had on him and on the neighborhood, in general, was just one of the ways in which he was able to open Randall’s eyes to the effects that William had on everybody that he encountered. At one point in time I think other people in the neighborhood were going to join us on our walk, but for time constraints or what not, that didn’t happen.
Randall decides the best way to honor William’s legacy is live right, and that means quitting the job that did not treat him so well — a job that he bled for — when he was going through a really difficult time. What was your first thought?
I was very surprised, and just to be honest, I’m still like, “What is Randall going to do now???” (laughs) I’m sure he’s saved quite a bit so he can handle himself for a couple of years. If he wants to go through a period of self-discovery, I’m sure Beth will get quite tired of him if he’s just around the house crocheting all the time, so he’s got to find something to do. I was surprised when I found out, but when I found out the way and the reasons for why he quit his job, I said, “Oh. Now that makes sense.”
There’s another thing that got cut from the scene where we were taking the nap, and Tyler sent him a text message saying, “We need the account number for something.” Recognizing again this was on the day of his father’s memorial and they keep sending him these text messages for things that they could probably take care of on their own — it was just a certain level of inconsideration. Tyler and Sanjay? Not bad people. His job? Not a bad place, but it was keeping him from the fullness of life that William was experiencing. It was keeping him from making authentic connections with the people around him. Or at least not to the extent in which he wanted to, now that he had lost this man who was connecting with everybody.
I found it incredibly gracious. He didn’t want to shame anybody, but he did want to say, “Look, man, this was the day of my father’s memorial, and you sent me something that I’m allergic to. These things could kill me. There’s a level of thoughtlessness that’s occurring right now that I’ve been swept up into, and I need to extricate myself from it in order to be present. I just have to be present in this moment; I can’t worry about Sanjay taking my job or outperforming me.” I think Randall’s inherent sense of competitiveness was driving him in a way that led him to a breakdown that almost led him to missing the most important moment in his father’s life — the end. It was too much. So I don’t know if it’s going to be forever or not, but at this time, he needs to be available to experiencing all of life, and I applaud the writers and the character for taking such a bold step, because not everybody would be or could be willing to do something like that.
NEXT PAGE: Brown on what Randall does now: ‘No more 20-hour days. I think that’s a thing of the past’
You touched on this briefly, but when the euphoria relief washes away from this cathartic moment where he quits his job, what is Randall left with? Is he at a career crossroads? What do you want to see him do?
Well, you know, he has been taking piano lessons with the woman down the street. (Laughs) And he’s recently gone to Memphis to meet his family and his cousin Ricky [Brian Tyree Henry], so maybe he can take William’s place in the band — and by that I mean not at all. (Laughs) He has an affinity for what he was doing. I think if he goes back to his job or to his career field, it would probably be on a smaller scale that allows him to spend more time with his children as they’re growing up. No more 20-hour days. I think that’s a thing of the past.
I do worry that when he said maybe he’ll turn his morning run into a morning walk, the first morning he’s going to come rushing back into the house all excited and say, “Beth! I have an idea! Have you heard of competitive walking? I think I could be really good at this!”
(laughs) That would be perfect for him! I will say there is one more thing that he has in his mind that he wants to give serious contemplation to, and it’s the one scene that we have in our finale. Episode 18 focuses pretty firmly on the beginning and the current state of Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] and Rebecca’s relationship. By current, I mean the past current, with the kids being 15, 16 years old. You see a little vignette from Kevin and Kate, and Randall also, so you know where we leave off at the end of the season. What he wants to do next he articulates to Beth — and it really takes her off guard.
This episode also gave us another Randall dream/hallucination moment, though this one didn’t involve a mushroom smoothie. What was going through your head watching Jack and William laughing it up like old friends while talking about Randall? Did part of you just want to run into the scene and jump on their lap?
It was really lovely, because it’s the first time you get a chance to see Milo and Ron together as Jack and William, and it filled me with such joy. NBC had a show back in the day when I was a little kid called My Two Dads, and every once in a while I would think about that show in reference to Randall, and it just brought a big ol’ smile to my face. And to that scene in particular as well, it’s the real first time that my sister and I, just by ourselves, got a chance to share some screen time together, which I thought was lovely and way past due. I’m glad we got a chance to sneak that in season 1, and hopefully we’ll have more opportunities in season 2.
Everything came full circle in “Memphis,” especially at the end. It was reaffirming in many ways — the bond between a parent and child, both with William and his mother, and William with his son. It left us with a feeling similar to the one from Randall’s conversation with Rebecca this week, which is: devastated that there wasn’t more time, grateful for the time that they did get. What was your take from reading the script for that episode?
I cried like a baby because I feel like for Sterling personally, it meant the end of working on a daily basis with Ron, as we have known it. I’m so happy and pleased for him having known him from New York City and us pounding the pavement jointly together. Him, over the past couple of years, having Mr. Robot, and Luke Cage, and The Get Down, and then to finally get to This Is Us where you have a character who has a very strong beginning, middle, and end, I just knew that I was going to miss him. So I was like, “I don’t want to see him go.”
I, Sterling, didn’t want to see him go any more than Randall wanted to see William go. We’d had conversations before, Dan and I, and he’s like, “Look, I feel like I’ve set things up in a certain way that if we tried to do something that was miraculous, it wouldn’t be fitting with the story that we’re trying to tell.” And I said, “I get that. I totally understand.” He said, “The structure of our show is one in which allows for a great deal of fluidity, and he may not be around the same way that he was in season 1, but we’re not saying goodbye to him by any stretch of the imagination.” And that does make it a little bit easier to move forward, knowing that he is a part of the fabric….
That was my first reaction. I wasn’t looking forward to shooting it. I was like, “I don’t want to shoot this. I really don’t want to do it, but I know that I have to.” And I guess that’s exactly the way that you’re supposed to feel. Nobody’s rushing into “I can’t wait for my father to die,” or to shoot that scene. It was difficult, but it made sense. So you tried to live inside of the discomfort, because the discomfort that you as an actor are feeling is very similar to the discomfort that Randall as a character is feeling. It went hand-in-hand.
When you said in “I got enough. It was enough time to know that I loved him and he loved me,” you said that resonated with you, especially having lost your father at an early age. In filming the deathbed scene in “Memphis,” did your father’s death also feel present to you?
Absolutely. You try to take the lemons that life serves you and make lemonade, and try to turn your own personal pain into something that’s beautiful, and if you’re able to share it — if you don’t keep it inside and to yourself — it can lead to a certain sort of catharsis for everyone who’s able to witness it. No one ever hopes for calamity in life, but as an artist you do your best to try to make it into something that is positive for those who behold it. So I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to share that with our audience.
How emotional did the filming of that hospital scene get? Were you able to keep emotions in check?
There are two scenes in particular. Because there’s the scene with the doctor telling me that he’s not leaving the hospital —
Which a great moment, too, because you’re bargaining at first with the doctor, but you have to come to acceptance very fast.
Yeah, that one was very hard. And then the actual goodbye as well. To see William, to see Ron laid up in that bed with his oxygen on and looking so frail, and thinking about when my dad passed away as well… I wasn’t able to be at the hospital because I was just 10 years old and they didn’t want me to be present. But this was sort of an opportunity for me to say goodbye. I was saying goodbye to William, and to Ron, and to Sterling Brown Jr. all at the same time — and it was a good thing. Even though it was uncomfortable, it was a good thing to be able to do that, and the resonance that I’ve heard on social media — there are some people that have said, “Man, that really captured when I was able to say goodbye to my mom, to my dad. I was so thankful for that moment.” So I felt very thankful to be able to say goodbye, to be there. We shot it more than a few times, and I can remember Ron, at one point in time, say through tears, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore!” (laughs) And I was right there with him, because you’re like, “Please God, let it be over. Let it be over.” So, yeah, it was tough for everybody.
How would you tease the finale?
You track Jack and Rebecca before they met one another, and how they came to be a part of one another’s lives, with where they are when the kids are at age 15 and 16, so it’s two very different places, obviously. This couple has come to mean so much to so many people and folks root for them. We will take them with our finale through the highs and lows of what this marriage has to offer. Some things will be incredibly joyous, and some of it will be very, very painful. In classic This Is Us fashion, we give you a nice little rollercoaster to send you off to the end of the season.
Finally, I was going to ask: How do you feel about pears in real life?
(Laughs) Sterling, as an individual, is more of an apple man. I get down with an orange and a banana. Pears are just… all right.
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