"This show is going bigger than it's gone before — and it's going in a direction no one expects," says the actor.
Toby Damon is no stranger to heartbreak, literal (heart attack) and figurative (break-up with Kate). And in the distant future — previewed once again in the season 3 finale of This Is Us — the over-demonstrative, ultra-devoted husband of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and father of their child, Jack (not Milo Ventimiglia), seems to be battling new trials, tribulations, and trauma.
Chris Sullivan’s character factored into the many mysteries of the sequence that were power-packed into the final minutes of the forward-looking episode: Battling depression again, a wedding ring-less Toby had willed himself out of bed after Randall (Sterling K. Brown) called and urged him to attend a family event. Wizard’s beard in tow, he showed up at Kevin’s (Justin Hartley) house, much to Randall’s relief, carrying a bag of sidewalk chalk, as requested. We should also mention that he showed up alone, and he told Randall that he had spoken to Jack and “they” were on the way, leading fans to wonder who the “they” are, if Kate and Toby are together in the future, and even (to the most alarmist of fans) if Kate is even alive. So, how worried should viewers be that Toby might not be married to Kate anymore?
“Depends on what you want to worry about,” Sullivan quips to EW. “I’ve learned a lot of emotional lessons from [creator] Dan Fogelman’s writing staff about how to handle certain things so even through whatever they go through, we’ll learn something. I mean, it’s not going to be easy…. I know that the writers — more than any show I’ve heard of — they’ve had the end game of this show in mind for years, and have plotted out the next three seasons in great detail. But they haven’t shared [everything] with us because stuff will change and stuff will shift — and we all have big mouths on red carpets.”
Did Fogelman hint to Sullivan about the resolution of this story? “There have been several hints,” he says. “There were different options, actually. When Dan said it to me, he’s like, ‘We could do this or we could do this.’ He asked my opinion and I gave it. But either way it should be a cathartic ending…. As this show has proven time and time again, it takes those difficult moments in life and prints out a roadmap on how to navigate them — at least for these characters.”
Given that we’re asking questions and he’s artfully dodging them, let’s try a few more. What is the purpose of the sidewalk chalk? “I have no idea what that is,” he insists. “And I am not 100-percent certain anyone knows. It’s like, ‘Let’s have him bring it in and we’ll figure it out.’ When I asked Dan about it, he was like, ‘It could be a couple things.’ And then he left.” Why was Toby the one tasked with bringing the chalk to Kevin’s house? “Somebody asked him to bring it, so he just brought it,” Sullivan says with a smile. “It seems to be what he’s good at.”
Back in the present day, the season 3 finale brought some closure to the drama surrounding Baby Katoby: Toby and Kate returned home from the hospital — the neonatal intensive care unit, to be specific — with a healthy Jack, who was prevailing after the premature birth. “Everyone seems happy he’s out of the NICU, so that’s good news,” Sullivan says. “Baby Jack presents challenges in the relationship just as any new baby, new parents are trying to figure it out. They’re trying to navigate all kinds of new things. Obviously, the ghost of Jack is in the room now via the name for the rest of the series, and that will bring stuff up for Kate.”
The NICU story line, by the way, proved to contain Sullivan’s favorite scenes from season 3. “My wife and I had 13 babies brought into our life just last year through friends and family, five of those — two sets of twins and my nephew — were all in the NICU for an extended period of time,” says Sullivan, whose work this past season earned him his first Emmy nomination. “It was nice to be able to take those things that I’ve learned from friends and family and translate them to the screen. That type of thing is a hard conversation to have if you don’t have an episode of television to start that conversation.”
The conversation starts up again when This Is Us returns on Sept. 24, and cast members have been buzzing about an unconventional season premiere. (Brown uses words like “subversive” and disruptive.”) “This show is going bigger than it’s gone before — and it’s going in a direction that no one expects,” declares Sullivan. “When I read episode 1, I was like, ‘Wait! What is happening?’ The opening of season 4 is going to be very surprising.”
And here’s a final cryptic clue from Sullivan about Toby in the episodes to follow: “Well, I guess it had to come down to this.”
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