When They See Us Emmy nominee explains what attracted him to the NBC family drama.

By Dan Snierson
November 06, 2019 at 03:32 PM EST
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This Is Us added a flurry of new faces in its fourth season, but right now, you’re probably most focused on the youthful, captivating one belonging to Asante Blackk. Fresh off his Emmy-nominated turn as the wrongly accused Kevin Richardson in Netflix’s Central Park Five miniseries When They See Us, the 18-year-old Blackk is shining again as Malik, a thoughtful straight A-student who also just happens to be a teenage father. The last part of that sentence has certainly thrown Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) for a loop and into (over)protective mode as they settle into Philadelphia with their adopted daughter, Deja (Lyric Ross), who is tentatively embarking on a relationship with him.

In Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “The Dinner and the Date,” Malik persuaded Deja to skip school so he could show her the Philadelphia that he loves. She initially tried to keep her emotional armor on, questioning whether he played the role of expert charmer/listener with other girls. And then it was his turn to be vulnerable, explaining that he’d previously had only one girlfriend, and this — whatever this was — was new to him, too. While their day of delinquency turned out to be the best day that Deja ever had, it did lead to a tense and loaded meeting of their parents: class issues divided Randall and Beth and Darnell (Omar Epps) and Kelly (Marsha Stephanie Blake); in addition, both sets of parents were blinded by their overprotectiveness of their own child. A terse-yet-sweet speech by Deja ultimately seemed to turn the tide toward acceptance — or at least toward supervised visits moving forward. (And there’s a sense of hope around this newly forming Pearson couple, as opposed to the dread that surrounds this one.)

What attracted Blackk to the role? Which This Is Us actor made him do a double take? Does Blackk feel that Randall is justified in his concern for his daughter? And what might be in store for Malik and Deja? Read on to see what Blackk had to say about the show’s captivating new character as well as the fallout from “The Dinner and the Date.”

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first reaction when you find out that [creator] Dan Fogelman had a role for you on This is Us?
ASANTE BLACKK:
I was kind of skeptical. I’ve been watching This Is Us since the first season. I didn’t know much about the character, so I was like, “Wait, who wants me to do what?” I mean, it’s an amazing show; I’m such a fan of it. Of course, I said that I’d love to audition, and I auditioned. The first audition was a self-tape, and I did a chemistry read with Lyric Ross. And it’s so crazy because when she was added to the show in season 2, me and one of my other actor friends, doing what actors do, analyzing other actors performances, we saw her in the show, and we’re like, “Yo, who is this girl? She can act!” Like, she’s amazing. And I get to do a character test with her, which was amazing. But I was just in complete shock that This Is Us was adding these three new storylines with this already established world and that the were expanding it in this way — and that I would get to be a part of it.

Kevin and Malik are both misjudged in a way. But was one of the appeals of this role that Malik is in the opposite of Kevin, where it’s all about Kevin’s childlike innocence and fragility, yet Malik seems wise and mature beyond his years?
Definitely, yes. It’s something that I strive for. It’s such a privilege that I’m able to do that at this young age. But yeah, it’s very much something that attracted me to the role… I can add a little bit of that Asante swag to him. [Laughs] But like you said, he’s such a mature young man for his age and under the circumstances that he’s put in, that made him have to grow up and have to become that wiser, more mature 16-year-old than other 16-year-olds.

But as was the case with Kevin, were you also intrigued by idea that this kid was misunderstood and was being judged wrongly by a bunch of people, including Randall and Beth? Everyone puts him in a box, given that he had a baby at a young age, but he’s a straight-A student, he’s got this incredibly mature outlook on life. He’s not who you think you might think he is at first glance.
The nuances of human life are so interesting to me. What isn’t always present when you take your first glance and look past those first judgments is so interesting to me, because it really shows that everybody’s life is so much more complicated than we may think it is. Every single person living on this Earth is living a life that’s just as complex as our own. Of course you see a young black single father, you think, “Oh, he’s made a mistake. Oh, he’s doing bad things out here, he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing.” But the reality is, yes, he did make a mistake — but he does not see his daughter as a mistake. He takes responsibility for her. He’s proud to be her father. He’s doing everything that he can to give her the best life that she can possibly have. And we explored a little bit of that, in terms of how Randall and Beth see Malik and how his parents get defensive. And it’s really interesting how it plays on socioeconomic backgrounds.

In addition, his parents are incredibly supportive and loving. Usually in that Hollywood depiction, they’re put-upon or angry that he had a baby at such an early age. Were you surprised — pleasantly — to see that too?
Very much pleasantly so. Because not everything is black and white, you know? It’s so amazing to have these stories be told that haven’t been told yet in Hollywood. You can have a young black father who’s supporting his daughter and loves her. But why not have parents that are fully supportive and love their granddaughter just as much and are happy for him in a sense? Because that’s a real thing too. That happens in real life, it happens in different ways, it happens everywhere. I’m glad to see we’re starting to include every little way that life goes about. It’s good to see that we’re including these stories. These stories that aren’t typically shown in Hollywood, but there’s way more to life than what you just see on TV and movies.

You and Lyric filmed part of this episode in Philadelphia, as Malik takes Deja on his own special tour of the city. What did you take away from that experience?
First of all, the writing of the episode, [This Is Us writer-producer] Kay Oyegun, who is absolutely magnificent, just did an amazing job of picking things for Deja and Malik’s first date. I thought that it was such an incredible idea to have the first date be them skipping school and having her tour Philly. It was really fun. We got to see many, many different, not necessarily Philly landmarks for tourists, but these spots that people that are native to Philly know. We got to see that side of Philly. Lyric made it amazing and the whole crew made it amazing. Philly is such a beautiful city. I wouldn’t mind living there.

Let’s talk a little bit about that awkward dinner scene with the two families. What struck you about it?
Even though I wasn’t in this [part of the] scene, the biggest thing that struck me was when Randall and Darnell get into it, and Randall and Beth overstep or say something that they don’t really mean — when you say something, there’s a little truth to it even if you don’t mean for it to come off a certain way. I think it’s so interesting to see how Randall and Beth don’t even realize that they’re being classist in a way by prejudging Malik. And then you see Darnell, who’s this quiet humble person — opposed to Kelly who’s more vocal about her feelings — kind of come out of his shell and go to a sort of extreme to defend his son, taking off his jacket, explaining his tattoos, showing where he got them from, but also saying, “This is not making me who I am. This is something that was a part of my past. You can either choose to see past that or you can choose to see the beautiful people that we are on the inside.”

I think that’s going to resonate with people because it’s such a huge thing in life. I mean, even wrapping back around to When They See Us, the exonerated Five, what happened in 1989, they were prejudged based on what the media portrayed them to be. But truly there were these sweet, innocent kids who had never gotten in trouble their whole life. So now you see Randall and Beth judging Malik and his family based on what it seems like they’ve gotten into in their past, but they truly do not know this family as well as they should to be even making these judgments. I think this is something that translates to real life beautifully.

And vice versa, with Deja. There’s assumptions being made about her by Kelly.
Exactly. And it all comes together in the end.

The first meeting with Malik and Randall a few weeks ago was fantastic and funny, watching Randall react to Malik. Throughout these episodes, did you understand Randall’s fatherly concern, being protective of Deja after everything that she’s been through — even if it was misguided — or did you feel that Randall was out of line?
No, I completely understood and I did not disagree with Randall at all. [Laughs] I mean, when I’m a father, if my daughter said she was dating a boy with a baby, I’d have the same reaction. But it’s because Randall doesn’t know Malik yet. It’s a very fair reaction to have as a father when you don’t know somebody yet. But that’s why I think that it was so important for this episode to happen, so that they can, in a way, get to know Malik, and kind of see that he’s more than meets the eye. But his reaction was very fair. I’m proud of Randall. [Laughs]

Deja has a trust issue with Malik, based partly on the men in her mother’s life. Will that continue to be a factor in their relationship and as Malik tries to break through to her?
We haven’t gotten that far filming yet, but these writers are super, super amazing. I’m just assuming that it’s going to be a full of complexity, so I think that it’s safe to say yes. This is Deja’s first boyfriend, and he already has had such a complex life, so I think that we’ll start to see some more of those trust issues. But we’ll see how it’s handled very well.

What can we expect from Malik moving forward?
You’ll definitely see Malik and Deja’s relationship grow and hey, it might make a Randall and Beth a little uncomfortable, but you’ll still see it anyways. And you’ll probably start to see a little bit more of Malik and Beth interacting — just having real talk, I guess you could say.

After seeing Deja’s happiness, Randall and Beth try to learn more about Malik from her. They also agree to allow supervised visits in the house. How does that go?
Ummm… very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very awkward. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

To read what else the This Is Us producers revealed about “The Dinner and the Date,” head over here.

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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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