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
What do you guys love the most about this “perfectly imperfect” marriage?
WATSON: I keep loving that they choose each other. I’m a romantic that way. I like that they are where they want to be, and whether it’s good or bad, they choose to do it with this person.
BROWN: Amen. It never occurs to Beth and Randall that anything is a deal-breaker, especially from Beth’s part. She’s had a lot of stuff sprung on her by her husband in terms of bio dad and brothers up in the crib. It’s just something that we need to work through and figure out. You have two people who genuinely choose each other day in and day out, and say, “I do.” That is lovely. And as an African-American couple, in the middle of this little TV show that we’ve created in This Is Us, I don’t think of image first and foremost, I usually think of art and the character arc, et cetera. But I am proud to represent this couple on this show in the world today because oftentimes people don’t think that it exists or only exists in very small pockets. We enjoy each other’s company. We’re 17 years into the relationship. But it never occurs as if we’re just enduring one another. It feels as if we are always enjoying each other’s company. I love that about our relationship.
To your point, Sterling, don’t you feel that the couple is reflective as opposed to just aspirational?
BROWN: I think it is both. I feel like both Sue and I are parts of couples that are emblematic of this. Beth and Randall are pretty awesome because there’s some times in which my wife is like, “You need to get out of my face,” and I’m like, “I know. You’re right. I’m getting on your nerves.” But still, we choose each other day in and day out. People will cite us on social media and say, “You guys are goals.” And I will even say this: When we were putting up the Christmas tree with our son and I wasn’t as engaged as she would have liked me to have been, my wife says, “In this moment I need you to do what Randall would do.” [Watson laughs.] And I was like, “You know what? I’m on it. I need to get this star, I need to figure it out, and put this tree together.”
WATSON: I was speaking with some international press, and they were asking me about what we represent as a couple. And I asked them, I said, “For you, does this feel foreign to see a black couple like this?” And across the board they all said, “Sadly and admittedly, yes.” Because where they were from, there aren’t a lot of black people so they only get what’s perpetuated through television, through film, through music and all that kind of stuff. That made me so sad. I just feel like this is not shocking to black people. Most black people are just so happy that we’re seeing it on a drama where it’s not a funny thing or it’s not something taken lightly. But thanks for showing up. I get a lot of people saying that Beth is like me, and I appreciate this, somebody just regular, you know? So there’s a great thing about it, and then there’s a part of me that goes, “Wow, like, really? As a whole, people really don’t think that’s a regular thing? It’s really that foreign?” So it’s this dual thing that happens. But I feel so thankful that we get to portray this couple. Because I think it’s a big deal.
Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) are positioned as the romantic heart of the show but they are rivaled by Randall and Beth in many ways. I’m curious what you hear about fans on the street about that.
BROWN: I know from talking to Mandy and Milo, there’s no sense of competition with regards to that. They definitely have some crests and troughs and ups and downs to deal with, but the fact that they are sticking it out too is a testimony to just a different marriage. And no two marriages are the same, and they are all what those two individuals make of them. I think what we have with each other, in terms of just the joy of it all, Randall is such a doofus sometimes, and sometimes she may be annoyed but simultaneously [she’s] like, “That’s my doofus.” When Sue deals with Brown as Randall, I know I’m being dumb, but I feel loved anyway. I think for every corny husband out there, they all want a Beth. Is it sexy in the same way? Maybe not. But I think it’s sexy in the fact that these people are so into each other that nothing can come between them. You get this sense of invincibility with this couple, that whatever the world deals them, they are going to figure it out.
When you think of them, it’s about rock-solid stability. We know what happens with Jack and Rebecca — their marriage has rocky points and they even had that split.
WATSON: There’s something about unconditional love that’s attractive. Because it’s what we all want — to watch a space where there’s love without condition and that people can act a damn fool and bring every family member in and through the house and do whatever they need to do, and somebody still says, “Okay, boo, we’ll figure it out,” but has their moment of either getting angry or whatever it is, frustrated. We think everything else is sexy — the cheating and the breaking-up and the coming back and the this and that — but it’s interesting for us to find this new area of what’s sexy, which is something that’s more settled, it’s more unconditional, it’s more stable. I was telling Sterling there was a bit of press that I was sent where somebody said, “Who would have thought that a married couple with two kids living in suburbia was sexy and hot?” And I was so tickled by that because I was like, “Yeah, who would have thought?” [Brown laughs.] And that’s really cool. So I echo what Sterling said. They’re just two different couples and their experience, [Rebecca and Jack] made Randall who he is and now we’re carrying on our own tradition.
BROWN: May I also just throw Toby and Kate into the mix? I think they are lovely. Some of the gestures that Toby will do — I’m relating to it as my sister. I am so happy to have Toby for a future brother-in-law, because he holds her down in the most beautiful way possible. Man, when they went through the miscarriage — he shows the romance in terms of the proposal and whatnot, and then he just shows you that I’m not all show; I’m here for real, for real.
Who do you consider the gold standard of TV couples? Sterling, I know you gave a shout-out to Martin and Gina in your Emmy speech.
BROWN: I’ll go old-school: Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show. I thought they were the most adorable thing on earth — handsome and sophisticated and attractive but playful. I love that sense of play. I know that’s a comedy so it’s built into it, but I love people enjoying each other’s company. People have [compared us with] Coach T and his wife from Friday Night Lights. That’s as high a compliment as you can get because Connie [Britton] and Kyle [Chandler] were phenomenal.
WATSON: I was binge-watching two things before we started the show, and that was Unsung on TV One and Martin. One of the first things I told Sterling when we got to set [was] “Dude, if we could get just part of the chemistry of Martin and Gina, I’ll be so happy.” It was this ride-or-die thing that they had going on. It was this electric thing that they had going on.
Susan, what is Sterling’s greatest strength as an actor? And Sterling, the same about Susan.
WATSON: Fearlessness. He’ll just jump in and do whatever he feels he needs to do to find it and get it. I love that. That’s just being a dope-ass actor.
BROWN: Thank you, Susan.
WATSON: De nada.
BROWN: Everything that Sue does comes from her soul. Whether it is one line that she can give as she’s walking away, it’s going to be for real. It’s going to be investigated and thoughtful. Sue just mines this quality of coming from the earth. Chaka Khan sang a song about Sue back in the day that said, “I’m every woman.” There’s nothing inauthentic about her. So when I bounce something off of truth, I can’t help but get truth reflected back to me.
What was the biggest modification you made to the relationship of Randall and Beth that maybe wasn’t there as initially conceived?
WATSON: I tried to look at Randall and be like, “Okay, he’s kind of the opposite in a lot of ways.” So, in the beginning, I tried to be opposite. If he was super buttoned-up, I tried to be a little looser and a little artsier. I just thought the thing that attracted them the most was probably the things that each other lacked in the other. So that was my modification to Beth. Because nobody knew much about her in the pilot, I think I had a bit to play with and I had a little space to bring something to it that may not have been fully fleshed out yet.
BROWN: I can recall the scene of bringing William back to the house and you just being like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I know, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m losing it and I just need you to, like, be here with me while I’m losing it.” And you’re like, “Okay. You can lose it. We’re going to make it. But this still isn’t cool.” I feel like that’s been there from the beginning.
This was a big year for Randall and Beth, where we saw their relationship get strained for a moment over Randall’s wish to adopt. What were your initial thoughts when you found out that they would experience big tension in their relationship?
BROWN: I think that we both relished the opportunity to see what they can come back from. You’ve got to be able to go through a test in order to have a testimony, because if it’s all easy, then it seems as if there’s no effort being put forth by either of the two people. So I love the fact that we were at odds on how to move forward with that thing, because it showed you how we were able to come back to one another.
WATSON: I was looking forward to it. I thought the lower the low, the better because then it gave us something to fight from, you know? It was a cool thing to show Beth be there for Randall, and Randall have to go through these tests and somebody having his back at that time. But what is it to see them be on two different sides of the fence? I’m always interested in the conflict. Even when you know the outcome, even when you know the end that they’ll be together, it’s still interesting to see how they’ll get there.
BROWN: Yeah, the how is interesting.
It was Randall’s idea to adopt but obviously, Beth ultimately steered the conversation to a foster-child situation. Why was that so important?
WATSON: I explained it by it was her way of also honoring William. Randall actually wasn’t the only one who wanted to honor William, that I felt a relationship with him myself. So I understood what Randall was saying and that didn’t sit well with me, and I was trying to wrap my brain around a way to find a compromise. And then it dawned on me as I’m sitting in this place that William brought me to and what he would reflect on all these kind of things, how can I also pay tribute to him? Maybe this is the compromise. This speaks to what you want to do, and it also speaks to how I want to honor him as well.
What would you hint about the challenges that Randall and Beth face with Tess (Eris Baker), who seems very unhappy at home, which has gone through a lot of upheaval this year?
BROWN: It’s interesting because Jack has this moment in [the fall finale] where he says, “You’re watching two of the kids and you think everything is okay, and then you take your eye off of one and that’s the one that seems to need you.” And I can say as a parent of just two, and they’re four years apart, but they have such different needs, that while you’re giving the one reading for a first grader and then you’re just trying to make sure you’re not letting the other one watch too much PBS or whatnot. You really have to give full focus to each of them, and it’s not always the easiest thing to do. So I think they are conscious of the fact that maybe Tess has been suffering in silence over some stuff, and we just need to be present for her. Both Randall and Beth recognize the need to be present and to be sure that she feels heard and appreciated.
When you look back at what Deja added to Randall and Beth’s life in her time with them, what resonates with you?
BROWN: Sue and I was there when Lyric [Ross] auditioned for the role and we were in awe of what this young lady was bringing to the table from jump street because it’s like she wasn’t acting. You don’t encounter 12, 13-year-old children who know how to just be. She was just so present and easy in her work…. So first there’s just the work that Lyric Ross brought to Deja. But then in terms of just the way in which she sort of “complicated” our lives — and I put that in quotation marks — because she really sort of opened us up to the possibility that it does not have to look the way in which we first anticipate in order to receive our love, right? You may be doing something for that child, but what the child does for you is something that needs to be addressed in equal amounts because she changed our lives.
WATSON: Lyric had a quality to her that was just kind of undeniable. She was, like, in the pocket. And it’s been seamless both of her coming into the picture and of incorporating her into the picture and into the Pearsons’ lives. There’s this freshness mixed with this naïveté because she just has no clue about what it is to like — it’s her first time doing any of this. It just makes for such a great character, an authentic character. I think so many people identify with her, so I think it’s been a really amazing addition.
As we enter the second half of the season, we’re inching closer to a certain mystery resolution on a certain death. How intense are things about to get in this second half of the season emotionally or otherwise?
WATSON: I would just say capital very. V-E-R-Y.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.