Executive producer/director Ken Olin also discusses Randall's viral video and where Kevin is headed after "Honestly."

By Dan Snierson
November 17, 2020 at 10:01 PM EST
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Credit: NBC
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  • TV Show
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  • NBC

In the last This Is Us episode of 2020, Kate opened up to Toby, Kevin struggled to open up himself to new challenges, and Randall? Well, he opened his shirt.

Sure, we can start with that latter event: A bare-chested Randall (Sterling K. Brown) always serves as an eye-popper for many fans, but what that shirt-shedding led to in "Honestly" — the fourth episode of the fifth season — was even more enticing: another piece of puzzle about Randall's biological mother. Earlier this season, viewers learned that Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes) didn't die the day of Randall's birth, and this episode offered up the next clue as to how Randall might come to learn this fact — and much more about her. Here was Councilman Pearson recording his daily Zoom update for his constituents with the help of Malik (Asante Blackk), wrapping up with a reminder of how he perseveres in challenging times ("I'm doing this for William Hill"). But Malik missed his cue to stop recording, and an unknowing Randall took off his shirt with a little song and dance to get ready for his run, giving rise to a viral video. Among those who would watch: the Vietnamese grandfather (Vien Hong) at the end of last week's episode, who perked up when he heard William's name — and gazed at an old photo of himself with Laurel.

Speaking of birth mothers: Kate (Chrissy Metz) accompanied Ellie (Annie Funke) to an OB-GYN appointment and startled her by calling the ultrasound image Chloe, which happened to be the name of Ellie's old adversary. After Ellie shared that she had decided to abort this unplanned baby from a one-night stand before changing her mind, Kate uncapped something that she had bottled up for 22 years. She revealed to Toby (Chris Sullivan) that when she was 18, she was in "a really bad relationship" — that'd be Marc (Austin Abrams) — and wound up pregnant.

As for that other member of the Big Three, Kevin (Justin Hartley) struggled in not one but three time periods: Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) employed differing parenting styles when it came to sleep-training the incessantly crying infant Kevin, teen Kevin (Parker Bates) couldn't master the QB playbook for his football coach, and adult Kevin had difficulty connecting with Foster (Stephen Friedrich), the director of his new legal thriller (also starring Jamie Chung!) who cryptically pushed his actor to pursue greatness, not pretty-goodness.

Is Kevin positioned for growth? How soon will Randall learn about another hidden chapter of his family history? What does Kate's confession mean? Let's shake off those two hours of sleep, pledge allegiance to the rainbow system, and fold it left then right before asking This Is Us exec producer Ken Olin about several key moments in "Honestly," which he directed.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In processing her conversation with Randall at the cabin, Kate is realizing that she and Kevin didn't talk to Randall enough about his struggles of growing up Black in a white family and attending a white school. Kevin is defensive when Kate brings it up, believing it to be something of a referendum on Jack and Rebecca's parenting. He's matured recently, so it was disheartening to see his lack of self-reflection. What will it take for this privileged actor to open up his worldview? That would seem to be a key step in paving the way for him to repair his fractured relationship with Randall.

KEN OLIN: That's exactly right. He's done some things that I think in a less well-realized, character-driven show would be almost irredeemable. He's done a couple of things that you just go, "Wow, this guy can be really callous!" And one of the things that was illuminated is this is a kid who, when things got tough or when he was challenged or criticized or where real rigor was demanded on any level, he bails. He quits.

Even though we've done things to see how it is a way of deflecting insecurity, there's still aspects where you go, "Okay, but it's a little tough to excuse someone who looks like this, who has so much going for him, that you're just going to dismiss something that somebody says." And that's what he does [with Kate]. Yet what we're setting up, and it will be realized — in fact, the next episode that I'm directing, which is the eighth episode — when Kevin comes around to something, the better angels definitely speak to him. It takes him longer than it should, but they do. What we'll find out is he takes this journey. He begins to take more responsibility for the things that mean the most to him. And even though his initial reaction is to dismiss things — to be cavalier or make light of them, or just be defensive — what she says to him in that scene not only in terms of the way just simply he begins to work harder as an actor, it also affects him in terms of really what he wants from his relationship with Randall and his responsibilities in terms of his brother… You'll see from this episode through the eighth episode and further on, this is somebody that's really going to grow in a very beautiful way.

Kate's conversation with Ellie opened up a door for her that she had wished to keep closed. She then opened up to Toby about her toxic relationship with Marc and pregnancy when she was 18. Given that she hid this from the family, are we to assume that the show will tell a story of how Kate came to have an abortion and/or explore the fallout from the pregnancy?

I don't want to give away what the story is, but we certainly address the fallout.

Did Marc know about this pregnancy? Also, how much more of Austin will we see as you tell more of that story?

He'll be back to tell more of the story. But that's all I'll tell you.

How might Kate's resurfacing of these feelings, which she's kept locked up for decades, impact her as well as Toby?

That goes into the realm of our storytelling, but the exploration of that and how she deals with it and her relationship with Toby, that is something that we really investigate right away. It's a big thing in their lives, and it's really a big thing for her to deal with.

What adjectives would you use to sum up that journey that Kate is about to go on?

I think it's more treacherous than she thought it was going to be. It's unpredictable. And ultimately, it's cathartic.

Kevin faced challenges in three different eras, including the present day, where the director shows him some tough love. When he sends Kevin an "attaboy" gift basket, how should we interpret that gesture — as an olive branch, a playful taunt, or both?

It was interesting on that day when Justin and I were working on that, in terms of, "Okay, so what exactly does this mean?" I think what Elan [Mastai], the writer, intended is these kinds of people, this director, they are so intentionally manipulative in terms of their treatment of actors. That's why I loved doing that scene, because I thought was so funny. I know directors like that. And having been an actor, that approach to actors I find that really funny because it's so abusive, in such a bulls--- way. But that way of mindf---ing actors is a technique.

Justin's reaction doesn't tell you how you're supposed to react, because this director doesn't want you to know how to react. It's a very deliberate form of a power move. I've worked with a director whose favorite book was The Art of War. That's how you see it, and maybe that's what you need to do to be that kind of a director. But Kevin's reaction to it, which is so almost inscrutable, is exactly right… And if anything, what we're supposed to take from that is, Kevin has to figure it out for himself. Because this guy is not going to tell him. Kevin needs to find where he stands, he needs to find his moral compass.

What can you hint about these two colliding personalities in future episodes? Does the director play a key role?

Yes. It will be a key role in terms of part of Kevin's story and whatever Kevin's journey going forward is going to be with his relationship to this movie and his career and his relationship to Madison [Caitlin Thompson], and where he will be in terms of having kids. That will be a major part of the story in the first half of the season.

The episode showcased the different parenting styles of Jack and Rebecca, with Jack pushing his kids to be great and Rebecca instinctively coddling them. Somehow balance was achieved with these opposite forces. One has to wonder: How much more accountable or responsible would Kevin be if Jack had lived?

That's a really good question, because it's so obvious how important that was [to Kevin], being pushed as young boy. And then he lost him at such a young age, and he had a long time to deal with his injury and where he wanted to be. In some ways, after his father died, Kevin was more adrift emotionally. And in terms of his responsibilities. He was literally adrift. Rather than staying connected to his mom, he was selfish.

With Randall's unlikely viral video moment, events have been set into motion that connect him to the Vietnamese grandfather who seems to be romantically linked to Laurel. How might Randall react to this discovery — besides having 1,000 questions?

We're going to deal with this in the next few episodes. I don't want to give it away because it's so beautifully done and it's so complicated emotionally for him, but Randall has certain assumptions that he makes, because he has such a limited amount of information to go on. He has what his father told him. And then he [will have] this discovery. But he doesn't know the whole story. And the thing that's so brilliant about what the writers did is it's only because of this really weird, serendipitous accident that you get information that is so important and so complicated. It's just a stupid video, and because somebody else's kid was crying and they didn't turn off the feed, he's going to be able to make a connection, which will then open up an entire story about his life that he never would have known otherwise. And in this beautiful episode coming up, we'll find out her story. That's going to lead Randall to find out a lot of things that he wouldn't have known otherwise.

Sterling has described the special episode coming up as being in the vein of "Memphis" — not in terms of place, but in terms of discovery. How would you hint at this episode in which we learn more about Laurel?

I don't want to give it away, but it has to do with this video and this connection that's made with this man who is so completely removed from Randall's life. Randall begins to go on this journey. He goes to another city, and from there begins to put together this story that he never knew. And he makes certain assumptions about William, about [Laurel], that he begins to discover that there are other truths that he didn't know. Like "Memphis," he takes a journey to a different place, to put together some of his history, which is beautiful, because it puts together the history of this African-American character who is connected to a white family, and his roots are very different. As much as he is a Pearson, he's also an orphan, and he's also from a very, very different American history than theirs.

One would think that the show would have shown Laurel watching the video, not the grandfather, if she were still alive. I'm sure you want to keep that part a mystery, but when will we have clarity on her status?

I think that a lot of stuff will be clarified in the sixth episode.

The grandfather has a charming relationship with his granddaughter in what we've seen so far. Dan Fogelman said last week that this character will play a significant role. How would you describe him?

It's a very significant role, and that role has a longer history than anything right now that you could extrapolate from what you see. It's a longer and more complicated history. And it's a history of its own, his history, and how it relates to Laurel is very much of its own story. It's very much of its own place. And that's all I can tell you.

The show seems to be setting up a dynamic-duo relationship with Randall and Malik that will drive Deja [Lyric Ross] crazy. Will that be something you lean into, now that Randall is getting Malik that City Hall internship?

Yes. We love Asante. Asante had a small but really significant role last season. I mean, this kid is brilliant. And that's a resource we're definitely going to tap in a big way.

As the director of this episode, can you tell us how carefully choreographed that Sterling's song-and-dance strip number was, or did you just let him run wild with his own ideas?

He's so brilliant as an actor and he is so skilled as an actor, it takes so much of the burden off anything. Anything I would've done would've been less than what he did. There were certain things of laying out, "Okay, I'm going to put the chair here, so you know that that's there." And I could say to him, "Oh, let's go further with the dance." But he did all of that. That was just his choice. And then we made sure that Susan [Kelechi Watson] was able to see it so she could do a little imitation before she saw him. But that was all Sterling. He's amazing.

At this point, you've shown Milo, Justin, and Sterling shirtless. Is Jon Huertas ready for his close-up?

You know what? That's a great point. And when we hang up, I'm going to call Huertas and tell him that he's going to have his shirt off — but he can have his shirt off when he's the character in the '60s.

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This Is Us

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

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  • 5
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  • Tuesdays at 09:00 PM
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  • Dan Fogelman
network
  • NBC
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