This Is Us fans had to bid an extremely emotional, terrifically tearful farewell to William toward the end of last season. But the memory of Randall’s gentle, regret-scarred, terminally ill biological father will more than just live on this season; he himself will play a significant part in season 2, whether through flashbacks or conversations with him that another character imagines. This was all welcome news to Ron Cephas Jones, who nabbed an Emmy nomination for his nuanced portrayal of the poet/musician who fell victim to addiction and abandoned his infant son at a fire station (and who, much to his son’s initial surprise, was also bisexual). As we’ve learned on this show, death doesn’t mean goodbye, and This Is Us, much like its fans, just can’t quit Ron Cephas Jones. Here, the actor discusses the challenges of playing a deathly sick character without knowing when he would pass away, filming that powerhouse deathbed scene, what’s in store for season 2, and, well, the nonstop barrage of hugs he has been getting.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, when [creator] Dan Fogelman finally tells you that he’s planning to have the terminally ill William die toward the end of season 1, what was that first reaction? Denial? Anger? Acceptance? Did you start sending him articles about stomach cancer miracle cures?
RON CEPHAS JONES: That’s funny, man. I guess all of the above. It was never any anger; it was always more about anticipation and excitement as to what’s gonna happen, how it’s gonna happen. Each day coming to work, each episode, not really knowing if William was going to be there or not — it was the anticipation of waiting on it, and just like the character, each day waking up not knowing if he was going to make it through the day. But I also had some hints that Dan would periodically throw out, and he would remind me of Milo’s character. He was like, “Remember, he’s been dead and he’s been on the show, so just keep that in mind.”
You went through last season 1 with a feeling of uncertainty, not knowing when William would die. You could have pestered Dan with questions, but instead, you embraced it. Did you feel that it was more in the spirit of the character not to know?
Exactly. It helped with the anticipation of it. I absorbed that into the character. Each time I would go to work, it would just immediately put me into that feeling of uncertainty, and that carried me through most of the season until we got up to “Memphis.” That’s why it felt so organic working with Sterling [K. Brown, who plays Randall] at that point because we just had clicked so well and we knew each other so well from the work… The other thing is that my best friend since grammar school was going through stage 4 cancer. And I was on the phone with him quite a bit. He came to visit me, and I would him. We stayed up and talked a lot together. I was hoping he was going to be around up until Emmy night, and he passed away maybe a month ago. That was the other thing that held me together each episode, because he was going through that in his actual life. Every day it was a blessing to be able to talk to him on the phone, until he got weaker and weaker and then he passed away. So that was a large part of carrying me through that season also.
We know how hard it was to watch William’s deathbed scene in “Memphis” — there was uplift in the episode until that sweet heartbreak at the end — so what was it like to film it? What was the biggest challenge in pulling off that moment?
The challenge was not to overplay it. You just kind of let it happen and feel the real feelings. That’s why you notice he didn’t break out with all these heavy tears. I found that middle place between death and life, where you feel the fear but you embrace the moving on. He laid his hands around my cheeks, as his father had done him, that’s when the transition started to happen. If you noticed in the face, he started to have a little smile from the fear. It went from fear to resignation to comfort all in that moment, and that’s what I was trying to capture — the fear, the acceptance, and then the idea of embracing moving on. I thought about my friend. I thought about what it would be like to be there with him, so it chokes me up even talking about it. It was such a special moment that Sterling and I captured together.
We have the template with Jack, so we know that deceased characters can live on. But here it’s a little more challenging, because Jack was there with the family for so many years. So you have to be more creative in the ways that you find pockets for William to enter and inform the story organically, right?
That’s right. But it has to coincide with what has happened already in season 1. That’s the thing about William — most of the references will be about season 1. So it’s almost like you go back to season 1 and you see little pockets of conversations that he might have had with the family that you didn’t see in season 1. So maybe Randall was reflecting on a moment that he and William had [during the time period of] season 1 that the audience didn’t see. I think that’s what’s going to happen. I think the challenge for the writers this season is what and how to weave William into the story and create his own story.
One scene that Dan mentioned was a conversation between William and Beth right before he left with Randall on the road trip. How would you characterize that moment?
I don’t want to say anything about what the scene is about, but it’s reflective. That’s probably the safest answer I can give right now… That’s going to be the template or model of the season. When you see it, you go, “Oh, okay, so that’s what’s going to happen.” When we shot it, that’s the feeling I got. Once you see that first episode, you’ll get a better understanding of what exactly they’re going to try to do.
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What words come to mind to describe the season premiere?
It puts you right back in the seat where you left off. That’s the feeling I got when I read it. You didn’t miss a beat. Again, it’s the writing, man. The writing is just so good that you feel like you just were gently placed right back in the seat where you left off. Everything feels so comfortable and so right, like sitting in an easy chair. Everything feels right.
NEXT PAGE: Jones on how William will pop up in season 2 — and exploring his relationship with Jessie
What aspect of William’s life are you most interested in exploring in season 2? Perhaps his relationship with his boyfriend, Jessie [Denis O’Hare]?
That’s the one that’s up there in everybody’s mind — and mine too. Those are some of the questions that still are looming that we really didn’t get to in season 1. Hopefully we’re going to go back and see how they actually met and what brought William’s heart to the man. And how that came about — especially after seeing him with a woman and a child.
William will be used in different ways this season, and there’s a voiceover by you to begin the season premiere, while we see young William (Jermel Nakia). What will we learn about William in season 2, now that he’s gone?
He’ll be woven into the season in flashbacks, but also through dreamlike sequences whether it be through the kids or Randall or Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). They’re going to explore story lines introduced in season 1 — his relationship with Jessie. A lot of the fans were like, “Wow, that came out of the blue — where did that come from?” They’re going to go explore how William came to that point in recovery where he found this man that was so important in his life. They may explore some of the artistic parts of his life… I don’t know a lot, which is kind of exciting — it’s very similar to last year.
Many fans were as surprised as Randall to learn that William was bisexual. Did that catch you off-guard too?
Dan is so gracious. He approached me before the idea had already been written to see how I would feel about it. I was very proud and honored that he pulled me aside after one of the reads and said, “Listen, we’re thinking about taking this direction. How did you feel?” And by that point, I’ll be honest with you, whatever they was writing I was into, so I got very excited because I felt like it was another challenge that he put upon me that he thought I could handle as an actor and that’s how he came out. I was like, “I embrace that as an actor, because I know you cats are going to write something extraordinary. So, yeah, let’s do it, let’s go, let’s make that happen.” And then I found out who I was working with — Denis O’Hare, who I was a big fan of. I know Dennis from working on the boards back in New York. I had just seen a play called An Iliad, where he did a one-man performance of the whole Iliad, brought down into a hour and a half at the New York theatre workshop. And I also saw him in his Tony-winning performance in Take Me Out. So it was an honor to be able to work with Denis O’Hare… It didn’t throw me in that way, it was exciting and a challenge that it was another layer that I could put on this guy. I was overjoyed. Every actor wants that — to have a great character and then continue to add more into the depth of his life.
Between Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, The Get Down, and This Is Us, you’ve recently been busy in the TV world. You’ve had a rewarding stage career, too, but what does it mean to you finding success like this later in life?
It’s one for the boys, man. It’s one for all the actors that are out there, that are putting the boots on the ground and driving, that all supported me and showed me so much love. It’s still very close — the idea that just keep your nose down, focus on the work, and understand that it’s a journey. And getting to this place at 60, it’s so much sweeter. The things that I thought would come up didn’t and I continued to struggle, raise my daughter, have odd jobs here and there. And the love and the passion for the craft kept me here, and that’s what gave me the success… I don’t think I would’ve appreciated it as much 20 years ago as I do now. It’s like fine wine, it tastes so much sweeter now.
What was the best reaction that you’ve gotten to this character from someone on the street? Do fans ask for hugs a lot?
You hit it on the head. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I go to the supermarket that a woman doesn’t come up and want to give me a hug. It’s a crazy thing when you’re in the freezer department and some woman comes up behind you and says, “Can I just hug you, please?” When it first happened, it really blew my mind. From little girls to grandmothers, it’s beautiful. Even the hardcore guys — construction workers, night-shift men, and security guards — they all were like, “I just want to hug you, brother. You were phenomenal. You remind me of my father.” I didn’t realize how universally loved William was, and I think it really is that attachment to family and death and wanting to be present in life while you have it — enjoy the moments, all that stuff that we always talk about. It was all spread through William — that feeling of loving people and telling them while you can. People will come up to me and say, “Oh, I love you so much,” as if to say, “I’m letting you know now, I don’t have to wait anymore.”
Do you have an open-door policy on hugs?
Oh, I’m open. How could you not be? It’s the sharing that makes it special.