This Is Us: Susan Kelechi Watson on Deja's return and how 'ish hits the fan' in the finale
When Beth and Randall flew to Las Vegas last week to partake in some fun and frivolity to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Kate and Toby, a jackpot of emotions came rushing to the surface.
At a Magic Mike Live-set bachelorette party, of all places, the happily married couple clashed nastily over lingering concern for the well-being of Deja (Lyric Ross), the guarded foster child who bid farewell to Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) to return to her birth mother, Shauna (Joy Brunson). That was a move that not only crushed Randall, a.k.a. the heart, but, as we learned in this episode, also Beth, a.k.a. the head. Finally allowing herself to commune with her heart side, Beth instructed the driver of their car home from the airport to pit-stop at Shauna’s apartment, where she and Randall discovered something grim: Mother and daughter had been evicted and were now living out of a car.
Much like last season’s episode that drilled down on two characters who you didn’t know that well — Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) and the fireman who found baby Randall — Tuesday’s installment, titled “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” boldly gave us fuller Deja view; it built off that cliffhanger and delved deeply into the poignant past of Deja (while weaving in similar life moments experienced by all Pearsons via bursts of flashbacks). Viewers discovered that she was born to a 16-year-old mother who was plainly not ready to be a parent, and who was supported by a grandmother who passed away when Deja was 3, truly descending their lives into paycheck-to-paycheck uncertainty. When her mother was battling issues of addiction and responsibility, Deja was dispatched to an unsavory foster home where she witnessed abuse. And when she was finally able to return home, Deja was soon sent back into the system again, as Shauna went to jail for possession of a firearm that wasn’t hers. This is when Deja, whose hair had been falling out from stress, briefly entered the orbit of the Pearsons before, as mentioned above, she returned home to Shauna. But as the bills piled up — and her mother used the money that Randall gave her to pay the heating bill on bailing her boyfriend out of jail — eviction was inevitable, sending them to sleep on the streets.
Near the end of “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” we returned to the cliffhanger of “Vegas, Baby,” as Randall and Beth decided to take Deja and Shauna to their house. Shauna, who’d previously fought territory/custody wars with Beth and Randall, now was resigned to reality, and seeing Deja happy and acting like the kid she should be — surrounded by stability and love in the Pearson home— brought her to a painful realization. She tearfully told Beth and Randall that she couldn’t spend the night — and that she couldn’t take Deja with her, leaving the Pearsons seemingly charged with caring for this lovely, guarded, traumatized foster child once again.
How will Deja process the disappearance of her mother (again)? What lies ahead for the Pearsons? Water that hibiscus droopus, grab your nearest copy of Goodnight Moon, and read on as This Is Us standout Susan Kelechi Watson breaks down the Deja drama over the last few weeks — and what’s to come.
To see what Jack looks like as an old man in the season finale, click here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In last week’s episode, Beth revealed to Kate that her concern for Deja was taking its toll, saying, “I’ve been trying not to think about her but I can’t. I just keep wondering: Is she okay? Is she cold? Is she stressed? Does her science teacher no how smart she is?’” And yet she butted heads with Randall over his concern for Deja. Why had Beth been sublimating so much of her worry for Deja? Why didn’t she open up to Randall? Did she feel she had to balance his heart with her head — and that it was just too painful to acknowledge those feelings?
SUSAN KELECHI WATSON: I felt like they had agreed to let Deja be in the care of Linda [Deba Jo Rupp], the woman who looks after her in the foster care. We had agreed that she was going to be with her mom, and so that was hard for Beth to do. So it was painful for him to keep bringing it up, and she’s trying to use this vacation as a moment to let go, and just have some fun — to take a break from it all. She’s been on a ride with this family from William [Ron Cephas Jones] on, you know what I mean? And this is the first step away that they’ve been able to get, and so she just really wanted to live in that for a little bit — a world where none of that exists and I can put it somewhere on the back burner and I can just let go and enjoy myself because of the pain of it. But the whole time she’s really wiling out because she can’t forget, so she keeps trying to do things to make herself forget, but it’s always there.
Which I loved, because I feel like we do that so often in our own lives. I have been around people at the heart of their party, and they’re trying to run away from something. And that was the moment that Beth was in. In the very beginning, when she and Randall are talking about it when they’re packing, and she’s saying to him, “We’ve said that Linda would handle it and if she needed us, she would call. She hasn’t, we haven’t heard anything, it is what is.” It’s a way not to be cold, but to say, “Hey, we agreed this is what we were going to do and she’s going to live her life.” Because it’s very hard to have one foot in each place.
Her business partnership with Randall, by the way, has clearly has been more stressful on her than he knew — and it’s been taking its toll on her. What can you say about their business moving forward?
I think it’s going to be good. She knows the ins and outs of that type of business more than he does, being an urban planner, knowing what goes into those types of contracts and investing in those types of buildings and communities. And as we saw a couple weeks ago, he was trying to get ahead of the game before he knew how to play it. We’ve also invested in a building that’s not necessarily going to make money. We did it to invest in a community, and it’s a building that has a lot of problems. So it’s going to take some getting used to because she has a partner who that’s not necessarily his field but is learning, but also she’s now out on her own, not under another moniker. She’s not working for somebody, so there’s the pressure of that. Anytime anyone starts a new business, it’s really difficult. It’s all new, and there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that has to go into it, so doing that at the same time as fostering on the heels of losing William is just a lot to take on. So, you know, a relaxing weekend in Vegas would have been nice. [Laughs]
Speaking of Vegas, not everything that happens there has to stay there. What was it like for you to film at Magic Mike Live? You were on the stage, a half-naked guy suspended on cables above you. Any observations you’d like to share?
Ummm … yes. [Laughs] What I’d like to share from my point of view, the view was amazing. We had such a good time. Those guys are so talented. That show is not just, you know, men stripping in a Vegas strip club. No, they are playing instruments, they’re doing songs, they’re doing dances, full-on choreography, there’s humor. It’s like a really great show. Of course, we went back and saw it for ourselves. We had to kind of do the research, you know what I mean? What good actor doesn’t?
There’s stuff that you didn’t see it that was actually cut. He actually took me into the air with him, and we did this whole aerial thing that made its way to the cutting room floor. But what did you see was the beginning of that, was him descending upon me to then pick me up and take me into the air with him. Unfortunately, I was the one who got picked to do all this stuff, but sometimes there are work days that are harder than others, and you just have to roll with the punches.
Will that footage surface one day on a DVD extra?
Maybe. [Laughs] Can you imagine? This Is Us: The R-rated version.
When Beth told Randall, “I think I’m going to be the heart today,” and had the car from the airport stop at Deja’s house and they knocked on Shauna’s door, what was the plan exactly? Was it just a “friendly check-in”? Were they possibly bracing for a confrontation with Shauna, given how fraught their relationship with Shauna was?
It’s something that happens in the moment, and for her, because of what Randall said earlier when they had their whole argument at Magic Mike, is to just check in and see if she does actually need anything, if she is okay. The thing about being the heart is that the repercussions aren’t there in the same was as when you’re the head. When you’re the head, you’re thinking it all out. When you’re the heart, you’re like, “All right, we’ll just do it.” And so I think in that moment she took the thinking cap off and just thought, “All right, let’s check in for peace of mind, to see that everything’s okay. She already asked us for money. Let’s just be clear that everything is all right, and take it from there.” I don’t think she knew what was going to come afterward, but just the thought of extending themselves in that way was her best effort at being the heart… And knowing what it meant to Randall as well.
Staying in hypothetical land: Randall and Beth ultimately took Shauna and Deja back to their place for the night. And there was an inherent tension with Shauna being there. Of course, she was leaving by the end of the episode, and obviously Deja was certainly welcome in the Pearson home, but how would Randall and Beth have accommodated Shauna beyond that night?
I remember this scene so well — and I haven’t seen the episode yet, but I know there was a moment that we shot where [Shauna] goes upstairs to refresh herself, wash up and everything, and we look at each other and it’s like, “What the hell do we do now?” That is the thought. “What did we just do? We are getting so deep into this thing now. We’re just breaking rules and violating all types of agreements by bringing people into the house. And now it’s not just Deja, it’s her mother. I just remember being in that moment and looking at him like, “What did we just do? What are we about to do?” And not having an answer. Did not know. And honestly, I don’t think she knows. And this is what I love about Beth as a character, is that she does take things moment to moment. She really is that person that goes, “Okay, this is what we’re dealing with right now. So let’s just deal with it right now.” And her answer is: “You know what? Take a shower. Sleep here tonight. Let’s think about something in the morning.” That truly is the space that she’s in. She just did not know on their way home in the Lyft that she was going to make a left, so now here we are.
They didn’t call Linda — they took Deja and Shauna into their home. So will there be repercussions for that with Linda, or will Linda be understanding about the nuances of this situation?
Oh, boy. I’m sure there are. I’m sure we weren’t supposed to do that. I am so positive because if anything dangerous, if anything happens between Shauna and myself — there’s been tension and all this kind of stuff — but again, when you’re deciding to act with your heart, it’s not about making sense. It’s just, “Let’s do what feels right in the moment. Let’s work out of compassion. Let’s work out of sympathy, empathy. Let’s work from that place.” And who knows what they plan to tell Linda?
One of the things that I remember working with the director in both episodes. I remember saying, “There’s just a feeling of I just don’t have the answer yet. Everything is happening so fast. There’s no way to catch up to it. It was like you’re spinning in one direction and then you’re spinning in the other direction.” And I felt that way as the actor, so I think I got that from Beth. I don’t think she knew what to do — except for what she felt was the right thing in the moment.
What does Shauna’s late-night departure do to Deja? To leave without saying goodbye and on some level abandoning her;,in some way, is she trying to make it easier on Deja by not making Deja feel conflicted about having to leave her mother behind? Does it make her transition easier or harder? Does it make it harder for Beth and Randall to pick up the pieces? Because she could leave Deja with them but still say goodbye, but she’s making a decision not to.
Exactly. I think it makes it much harder for them. Because once we were like the allies. We can become the enemy. Because first of all, we saw when she left, we let her leave. That’s one way to look at it. We’re the bearers now of the awful news, so any anger that she has is going to displaced on us. You don’t know how to handle that. And what were our motives behind that? You just start to question everything. And that’s why when Shauna says at the end that she wants to leave, the first thing is “What are we going to do?” because there is the part of Beth that knows a better life for Deja will be with them. I know it. So how much do you fight it, you know what I mean? How much can I fight — there’s part of me that knows her mom is trying to do the best thing for her. But to do it like that? It leaves Beth and Randall in a really bad position.
Why do you think Shauna has to leave so abruptly? Was seeing Deja happy and acting like a kid, something she couldn’t be with Shauna, and seeing how Beth and Randall could provide for Deja in a way that she couldn’t, just too much to bear in the moment?
Yeah. My take was that she saw her daughter for the first time be able to be a child and not have to take care of her mom, but to be taken care of like a kid. And that struck something in her. Like, “Wow, that’s the thing I can’t give her. Maybe one day I can get an apartment, I can get her some clothes, but man, I can’t give her back her childhood.” And I felt like her mom wanted her to experience that, to have the opportunity to be a kid, and didn’t want to be the person to take that away from her.
What are the emotional ramifications for Beth? She was so wounded by having to give up Deja and putting that behind her. To welcome her back into their life, what kind of emotional whiplash do Beth and Randall have from this rollercoaster of emotion?
Yeah, that’s hard. Because we know the resolution of this episode is Shauna saying that she’s done. So for Beth, the emotion now was, “Oh my God, what do we tell this little girl? What do we tell her — that her mom is now saying, “You take her”? I stood there looking at Randall, as Beth, like, “What are we going to tell her? When we walk up the stairs, what are we going to say? This woman’s going to leave and she’s not going to come back.” And that was the next step of the pain that I felt for this young girl — that her mom is essentially going to leave her. And now that’s the next level of thing that we have to explain. And that was the next level of emotion. I don’t know how much of it at this point is about Beth, for Beth. Now it going to become even more about Deja. What are we going to do for her? How are we going to not just help her with a place to live but emotionally get through this place where her mom now wants to relinquish her parental rights?
How much of the next beat in this story is resolved in next week’s finale? Oh, boy. This ish hits the fan next week. Yeah. You’re going to see how Deja responds to all of this and what we’re in for here. [Makes emotionally distressed sound.] Tired-face emoji. Red-face emoji. [Laughs]
Is Deja best off with the Pearsons or with her birth mother? That’s always been the key question looming for Randall and Beth. Was that question answered about as definitively as it will be with what we just saw? After this week, it felt like the arrow tilted toward Randall and Beth, and even Shauna saw that.
I think Randall and Beth are definitely Team Randall and Beth. But, you know, there’s nothing like your mother’s love, so at the end of the day, they want what’s best for Deja. We’re hoping that her mom can make a turnaround, but to see her and her mom living in that car, just coming off of not being able to pay for [heat], it sends a message to Randall and Beth that you could care for this child and provide for her in ways that her mom can’t. And they just can’t ignore that. That’s just the facts. I think they believe they can do it in a way that her mom can’t. Or is unable to at the moment.
Do we see more of Shauna in the finale?
We’ll be talking about Shauna, definitely. I don’t know that we’ll see her, but we’ll definitely talk about her.
Is Deja’s living situation resolved to some extent by the end of the finale, or is that left open-ended?
At the end of the finale, we’ll know.
This episode is a nice showcase for Lyric, as we learn how hard Deja struggled — and how much pressure she had on her since an early age. You’ve now worked with her in several episodes. What has impressed you most?
She’s so nuanced. I like that she doesn’t try to act it. She really does just speak and feel out a situation and sense a situation. And so it’s this beautiful, nuanced, soft performance that doesn’t feel performative. That’s the thing that I’ve always noticed about her — it’s the thing that stayed the same since they cast her. She’s just a very special young actress.
We’ve got a big Pearson wedding in the finale. It’s supposedly an upbeat episode. What other hints can you drop?
It’s beautiful. It felt like the natural way for this season to end. We built to this moment, so it feels very natural — this is what’s coming next, the wedding. But yet, even in the midst of all that, life for the Pearsons for each individual is still happening. So everybody is still dealing with their own stuff, but now we get to celebrate at this family event that we’ve been anticipating and feel good about. After a hard year — I mean, this was a rough one for the family, going through Jack’s death and the fire, and for slow-cookers [laughs] — it’s a really beautiful way to celebrate.
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