This Is Us: Susan Kelechi Watson breaks down Beth's past — and future — in dance
Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Our Little Island Girl.”
Three seasons into This Is Us, viewers finally got what they’ve wanted (short of a literal resurrection of Jack Pearson): an episode that brings the backstory of Beth Pearson to light.
Tuesday’s installment of the NBC family drama drilled down on Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) big-hearted, calls-it-as-she-sees-it wife, giving Susan Kelechi Watson a much deserved time to shine. “Our Little Island Girl” not only filled in some big blanks on Beth’s semi-wounded past but also gave viewers the foundation for the mysterious flash-forward in the season 3 fall finale, which offered up a glimpse of Beth as an older woman, overseeing a dance studio. The episode introduced us to Bethany, the girl who could dance before she walked, and who kept her head in the clouds while pursuing dreams of becoming a professional ballerina. Her joyful Jamaican father, Abe (Carl Lumbly), encouraged his daughter’s passion, while her hard-lining, perfectionist mother (Phylicia Rashad) fretted about the long odds and the toll it would exact. Abe would pass away several years later after a battle with lung cancer, and Bethany’s balance was thrown off-kilter: Her mother pushed her to continue with the plan, but when signs eventually pointed to her daughter not reaching the top echelon, she handed Bethany a guidebook to colleges and told that she needed to recalibrate. She clearly did that — and it all began with the changing of her name to Beth during freshman orientation. (Plus: a run-in with Randall!)
In present day, still smarting and directionless after being laid off from her 12-year job in urban planning, Beth and her cousin, Zoe (Melanie Liburd), road-tripped to D.C. to visit Beth’s aging mother, who had suffered an injured hip on the job as school principal. Their goal was to persuade Carol to retire, but Beth entered the mission tentatively, as she had her own occupational woes; she had yet to tell her mother that she lost her job. When Beth finally blurted it out, her mother chose action over reaction, meddling in the form of a job search. Beth lashed out for the years of emotional austerity — “no room for weakness” was Mom’s M.O. —and revealed that she hadn’t been able to lift her head in the clouds for years, unlike her husband, and that her mother removed the air around Beth and her siblings, who kept their distance from their mother. The following morning’s chat proved more conciliatory. Beth explained, “I don’t regret the path you put me on — it brought me to Randall and my girls and a job that I loved for 12 years,” while Carol apologized for taking away dance too quickly. Returning home and full of new air, Beth told Randall, “I’m ready to tell you what I want to do next,” and ventured into the place that was once her second home: the dance studio. One emotional, restorative solo dance later, she was approached by the impressed studio owner, who encouraged her to take an advanced class. Beth had more ambitious plans, however: “I want to teach.”
Let’s step through a portal to 1998, heat up some curried chicken, maybe grab a little something from behind that family photo by the staircase, and ring up Watson, who didn’t dance around our questions while taking us behind the scenes of “Our Little Island Girl.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It was high time to explore Beth’s backstory. How long had you been waiting to do a deeper dive into her, or was the process of gradual layer-peeling satisfying in its own right?
SUSAN KELECHI WATSON: Both things. Once I discovered that it was a layered, peeling-back type of role — which I called it from the beginning because of how the story unfolds; you never know when you’re going to get the next piece of information about a character, which I think is so beautiful — that became a great thing for me. At the beginning, in a lot of roles, you want everything up front, you want to know. But you adapt, and each role is different. When I discovered that Beth was more of a slow-peeling onion, that became a beautiful thing to me, because first of all, you become even more interested. You’re like, “What is her background?” And I became more curious. But also, there was a sense of: I don’t know everything up front, so it stays exciting for me as an actor. I never know what I’m going to learn today about her. It’s always kind of fresh, and when you don’t know everything, you can fill in your own blanks, so I have had a lot of fun doing that with her and kind of trying to carve out someone who doesn’t handle things necessarily the way that I would. I wanted to make her her own thing, her own character. And that has been a really fun and challenging, interesting process as well.
What do you think you brought to the role, that maybe wasn’t there in its original version?
It was a bit of a blank slate in the beginning. We weren’t sure where she was going to go. I look back and I’m not even sure what it was; all I know is that I wanted her to feel whole. I wanted her to be an every woman, someone that represented the average woman in our country, across the world. Just someone who felt like very tangible. Somebody you could run into in a grocery store, somebody you may go to work with, somebody who might be your friend. Or you. I didn’t want her to seem like she wasn’t someone we see every day. It meant a lot to represent all these women that are working and striving. What they do day to day isn’t necessarily labeled as “extraordinary,” but it is an extraordinary thing to raise a family, to be a supportive wife. Those are things that we should really, as Jamaicans would say, “big up” women for. Praise women for the everyday of it. That is really tough to do in a good and healthy way.
Why do you think people respond so strongly to Beth? There’s a strength to her that resonates with people.
People feel like they know her. They feel like they’re akin to her, they feel like maybe she’s a friend they would have or a best buddy they would have. I heard somebody say to me at the SAG Awards that they feel that she’s a type of parent they would want to be, or wife. That type of thing where there’s a goal, or aspiration that they aspire to that Beth portrays. But the thing that I enjoy the most is how much people feel like they know her and that she’s someone they would want to hang out with. That’s always really cool to me.Phylicia Rashad plays your onscreen mom in this episode. How did you respond when they ran that casting by you?
I responded by kind of screaming a little bit. I was going, like, “Ahhhh!” But it was never like, “Who do you think should play your mom?” They came back and told me that it was Phylicia and it’s perfect. It’s just perfect.
Who had you pictured in your head? Was it Phylicia or even Debbie Allen, given the dance studio angle in the future? I’m sure you had a couple of ideas.
No, actually I didn’t. I wasn’t thinking about it because I didn’t know exactly what the story line was going to be. Beth is part Jamaican, and my main concern was whomever we cast as a Jamaican relative, parent, is authentically Jamaican. Because I’ve grown up not hearing an authentic Jamaican accent on television. Now that I have an opportunity to be that voice, I definitely wanted authenticity in that character, and that was something that I felt strongly about championing — and they were very receptive…. If it’s a Jamaican character, a real Jamaican, let’s get that voice in America’s ears so they can hear what that actually sounds like, and what those traditions are and what that culture is about, and let’s discover our differences and celebrate them in the same way that this show is so good about pointing out our similarities.
Things come full circle because Phylicia and Denzel Washington had helped to send you to Oxford for a summer to study Shakespeare years before. What was your attitude entering this episode? Were you a little intimidated by the legend of her?
I remember thinking, “You better act like your life depends on it.” [Laughs.] I think it was an opportunity both to really dig in and then to really also learn. When you are blessed with the opportunity to work with someone who is as good as she is, there’s nothing more exciting, and there are things that come along that shake you up a bit, but that’s good. You should never get too comfortable doing this. It’s always about wanting to go deeper. Outside of the learning, it’s the wonderful opportunity to work with them as a peer, and to really get in there and grapple with the circumstances these characters are going through. And then to create this history between these two characters was wonderful since we already have that sense of a background and knowing one another. That made it something very easy to jump into. But it was really great to look her in the eye in a scene and go back and forth with her. Not for nothing, but I don’t know any other actress that I’d rather call “Mom” in a scene than her.
Carol gave the toughest of loves to Beth. And as strict as she was, she gave what she thought each child needed, going a little easier on Zoe, given what she had been through. Carol didn’t see the results in the dance studio with Beth, so she Simon Cowell’d her in a way. Is there an argument for that — or do you let your kids continue to chase dreams they may not achieve? Where did your feelings on Carol land?
I landed on: you do the best that you can, at the time with the knowledge that you have. That’s all that parents do, right? They just do the best they can with what they know how, and with the knowledge that they have. A lot of people end up looking back with regrets about certain things, and it’s because they didn’t have the information, they didn’t have the knowledge, they didn’t have the understanding. I have a lot of grace toward that. I think it’s a difficult job that I hope to do one day, but just looking at my own parents and looking at friends and family, it’s just not easy. For Carol, she just wanted her kids to be okay, and she was trying to make that happen in the best way that she knows how.
Beth is built differently than Randall, but this episode brought into focus that they both share that pressure of perfection. Hers was imparted to her, while his was self-generated.
Yep. I kind of feel like she spent a lot of time moving away from that. And Randall still climbs toward it. They’re good for each other, and it’s good to have somebody who’s strong when you’re weak and vice versa.
You can see why she also might have a visceral concerned reaction to his perfection. It sets off something in her from her past.
With Randall, she is very mindful of it because the pressure that he can put on himself can affect him physically and bring on panic attacks. She’s protective of him in that way.
After Beth finally stands up to Carol, they have that morning-after conversation, in which Carol says, “I shouldn’t have taken dance away so quickly, I’m sorry,” Beth says, “Thank you,” which was an emotionally powerful moment. She seems clear of purpose after that. How healing was that — and will that be — for Beth to hear that from her mother?
That moment is everything to me. Really. That moment is everything to me in that scene, because… I don’t know… I’m getting emotional talking about it now… I don’t think people recognize the power of admitting you did something wrong to someone. You don’t lose strength in that. There’s so much power and reconciliation that can happen in that moment. There’s such a freedom there. It’s almost like that moment gave Beth the freedom to then go and dance. It just freed her up for anything in her past because she recognized that it wasn’t because she wasn’t good or it wasn’t because she couldn’t. It’s because her mother was afraid she wouldn’t be okay and that didn’t have anything to do with her.
As an adult, Beth finishes the conversation she had with her dad as a teenager, by saying to his empty chair, “I want you to know that I’ll be happy, I’ll find great love with a man that reminds me so much of you. It’s scary, but I can’t be me without you. How could I be?” Was young Beth worried about losing that head-in-the-clouds side that her dad fostered in her, and that it would just be impossible to recapture with him gone?
Yeah, I think the person who championed it the most was gone, and she was still a girl. And it happened so early that it maybe died with him a little bit. She felt he was the one who was able to be her voice and her champion in that way, and then he was gone. And also, a latent guilt of the fact that maybe he’s gone because she was that way. He worked himself so hard and got sick. There’s a lot in there. That was a very deep, deep scene.
NEXT PAGE: Watson on pulling off the final dance scene, what’s next for Beth
What was the plot point or emotional nuance in Beth’s back story that was most surprising to you?
That she was not the one who spoke up. I understand that with parents. They bring out the sides of us that are different than we are around anyone else, but Beth has become known for speaking her mind. So when you watch her and she’s not quite able to do that with her mother until a very integral point in the episode, that’s surprising and it was something really interesting and challenging to play with a character that’s usually at ease with that type of thing.
By the way, earlier in the series, Beth eats pot brownies with William (Ron Cephas Jones), and now she smokes the joint with Zoe and reaches a higher plane—
What are you trying to say? Trying to say she has a problem? What are you trying to say? [Laughs]
What I’m trying to say is you act those scenes really well! What are three tips to playing high?
[Laughs] I’m not going to name names but I’m going to tip my hat to some people in my life that I’ve been able to be around and observe. I’ve seen it a lot. Look, I’m from New York. It’s something that I am intimate with in a lot of ways. And also, in acting, I kind of study when people are under the influence of anything. It’s never about playing the influence. It’s always going deeper into whatever the emotion is that you’re talking about, because whenever you’re under the influence of something, it makes everything that much bigger or that much more focused. So the focus is there but it’s just maybe the physical that’s off a little bit. It’s this dual thing that happens — I’ve definitely been under the influence of things, so I know that feeling and it’s not this big overreactive moment. I think people actually try to focus more when they are, so that they don’t look like they’re under the influence of anything.
Let’s talk about that final scene in the dance studio. I understand that you turned down a stunt dancer they offered you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wow, who told you that? [Laughs] I didn’t want to use a stunt double because I trained so hard for it and I felt confident about it, so I didn’t feel the need for it. And I’m also trained in dance so it wasn’t something that felt beyond me. I really wanted it to be Beth. I think that was the main thing in my heart. I wanted it to be her. I wanted who you saw to be her and where she was at right now. It didn’t have to be the Bolshoi, it just needed to be this woman telling her heart through dance. To me, dance is probably my favorite form of communication, so there was a heart and there was an energy that I wanted to travel through the dance, and I wanted it to be Beth. I didn’t care if the kicks were perfect; I didn’t care if the leaps were perfect. I wanted the energy to be hers in every part of the dance.
Given your background in dance, was that scene relatively easy for you to pull off?
No, that was two months of training. Let the record show! [This Is Us choregrapher] Nia Brantly, who trained me, she’s fantastic. She led me through two months and a week of training in ballet that I haven’t done since forever. So getting that back in my body was challenging but she made it feel like it belonged to me. I used to feel a little bit on the outside of ballet because as a black woman, my body shape doesn’t conform to the typical ballerina shape. So it was difficult for me in a ballet class. I was being told, “Tuck your butt in,” and my butt didn’t tuck in; that’s just not how it worked. But doing it now with Nia, I could bring the fullness of myself, so I felt like I was a part of that dance style, and it made it a lot easier to learn.
Are William’s words of stop playing bass and start playing trumpet ringing in her ear?
Definitely. Sterling keeps saying it’s time for him to play the tambourine. [Laughs] I think it’s kind of all the voices. It’s the voice of her mom who said to stop. And it’s the voice of William who said to find your place and go. And even the apology from her mom at the end. Just all these different things were ringing in her ear as she now started to physically step into what she’s been longing to do for a long time mentally. For me, that dance is filled with a lot of emotion. A lot of it you don’t get to see because it’s intercut with the younger versions of Beth as a teen, which is really beautiful to see it come full circle. But the original dance as it was choreographed, there was just a lot of beauty, and then these moments of fighting with herself and grasping at something. It was all infused with so much of what she had been longing for and coming to this decision of saying, “No, I’m going to do it.” All of that is in there, and you still see that resonating in the dance. It’s really one of those come-to-Jesus moments where you decide, “Yes, this is actually where I belong.”
How upset should fans be at Randall for not paying attention to his wife? Granted, he was busy with the election, but he didn’t focus on her struggles while she was depressed about her unemployment and life direction, and he continued on with the campaign despite her asking him to drop out?
Look, if I tell it from Beth’s point of view, very mad. [Laughs] But we’re just coming from two different perspectives. Beth’s perspective is, it’s finally her time to fight for her dream of what she wants. And from Randall’s perspective, he might be feeling a little blindsided. Being that I’m portraying Beth, I feel very validated in her stance of not just wanting to be a mom and a wife, and dutiful to having a job that helps the whole family and supports him, but for her also fighting for herself, what is going to make her feel whole and complete. I’m going to be Team Beth on this one, so if people get angry with Randall, I’m going to have to be okay with it. [Laughs]
Are viewers calming down a bit now that Randall and Beth seem to have gotten over at least one part of their rough patch? And are you surprised at how invested people are?
The first part of that question, yes. I feel like after [the winter premiere] episode, once they saw Beth return to the campaign with Randall, people sighed a big breath of relief, you know? I’ve learned how important it is for fans to see this loving relationship [of] a black couple on television, a marriage that works, and people who support each other. Many of us, we’ve grown up without a lot of those images. So having the opportunity to represent that means a lot to people. And people want to see that kept intact.
We leave Beth on this cathartic, happy moment of being back in her old skin, and in the flash-forward, we see her lording over a dance studio. How soon will she open a dance studio?
We start with her working at the dance studio that she practiced in. That will be the next thing that we will see, the excitement of that, but also dealing with how that affects the family and what we have to do now and all the changes that have to be made. It’s very promising for me playing Beth, knowing, “Okay, this is going to work out well,” because we see in the flash-forwards that that studio wasn’t too shabby. We’ll see how she gets there, but for now we just start with her teaching.
What can you hint about her life in the future? As you say, things have worked out pretty well. But obviously there is something challenging going on with her — and possibly with her marriage to Randall.
I can speak pretty clearly to this season, that it remains challenging. It’s important to show the reality of a marriage. And it’s just going to be something that’s relationship goals. People really need to see the ups and the downs — and the challenges. Anything that’s worth it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice. And their marriage is obviously worth it. And so, it’s going to take a lot of work and sacrifice. “Can it withstand it?” is the question. So, it doesn’t get quite wrapped up with a pretty bow; we just have to see them work through it, and go through it. It is going to remain challenging.
This episode was such a great download of information about Beth and her past. Looking ahead to the rest of the season, is there one cryptic hint about Beth that you want to drop?
“Will she or won’t she?”
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.