This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown demystifies Randall's spiritual moment and Laurel's past
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, "Birth Mother."
Randall Pearson just had the mother of all spiritual experiences.
Randall was in for a surprise from the moment of his arrival, learning that he's now the owner of the New Orleans farmhouse on the banks of the lake. With the house came a history lesson, one that was extremely personal, following Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes) from her struggles with her well-to-do family to the young love she shared with Hai (Kane Lieu) after they met while Laurel exorcised her demons by wading into the water and screaming at the sky. (The revelatory episode, by the way, was directed and co-written by Kay Oyegun.)
We know the next part of the story: She ended up in Pittsburgh, got mixed up in drugs, met William (Jermel Nakia), fell in love, had a baby, and was presumed dead. Although Laurel hand't actually died, she did become a victim of the system, sentenced to prison for five years for drug possession. When she returned to New Orleans, she was crushed by guilt and regret, choosing to live out her days with her Aunt Mae (LisaGay Hamilton) and waving at the now-married Hai from afar. In her last years, Laurel (Angela Gibbs) and Hai reconnected before she died from breast cancer.
Sitting with the new knowledge of his birth mother's tragic life, Randall left his hotel in the middle of the night to try her healing technique, wading into the lake. There he encountered his mother's spirit, they told each other "I love you," and she taught him to let his pain go. Feeling like a new man the next morning, Randall called up Kevin (Justin Hartley) to finally make amends, only to find his brother panicking over Madison (Caitlin Thompson) going in to early labor.
Now that Randall knows his birth story, let's call up the five, er, six-hour man himself, Sterling K. Brown, to scream it out together and get him to let go of all the bad stuff when it comes to unpacking the secrets of "Birth Mother."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We've already traveled to Memphis to learn William's story; now we go to New Orleans to learn Laurel's. How would you compare those two trips for Randall? Are they equally meaningful for him?
STERLING K. BROWN: They are. One of them is kind of saying goodbye, "Memphis." And one of them is saying hello. Because he just saw the first picture of Laurel that Hai sent him over his website in Philadelphia, and that's the beginning of a relationship. He didn't know that there was a relationship to even pursue because William didn't know that she was still alive. There is a sense of peace that comes from Memphis. And that he was able to be present to say goodbye. I think that was such a big thing; he wasn't at the hospital to say goodbye to Jack. He was at the hospital to say goodbye to William. There's peace in that. There is a different kind of peace, maybe even more profound, in this New Orleans trip in meeting Laurel. Because in my mind, it's Randall's first real brush with the supernatural.
That scene in the lake, you can easily say that it's him working something out in his own mind. And that's one take. But I, as an actor, choose to think that it's an actual encounter. Going out into that lake, he was in search of a connection to this woman that he didn't know but just got introduced to her through a beautiful life story. Maybe there's something out here in this water for me, the same way that there was something out there in that water for her, in the stories that I was just told. In actually having that be something that's real, rather than imagined — real on a supernatural, spiritual level. He gets the opportunity to hear from his mother and to say to her, "I love you." That is probably something that he's waited for his whole life. And the reason why in the next scene you see him with a certain sort of joy that we rarely see him with outside of Thanksgiving or his birthday.
Randall is eager to know Laurel's story, but then he breaks at a certain point wanting to know why she didn't try to find him. It's complicated, but ultimately the explanation rests in Laurel felt she had forfeited the right to be Randall's mother. Is that enough for him, or will he still wrestle with those decades in which she could've sought him out?
I think it makes sense. Because there's so much time between his birth and the possibility of her being able to see him. The fact that she got arrested. The fact that she went to jail for five years on the other side of the country, and wondering what kind of rights she had to the title of mother at that point in time, when she had been absent for all of that crucial development. She punished herself by not giving herself access to her parents. By not even allowing herself a relationship with Hai, besides just waving to each other from afar. In terms of Randall holding on to something of "unforgiveness" from that story, he recognizes the importance of being able to forgive and accept the ills of the past, in order to be able to have a relationship in the present. I feel like the story now is: I can't allow the bad stuff to keep me having a relationship with my family, with my brother, and I need to use this lesson in order to apply it, so that we can have something of substance and not just hold on to the bitterness of the words that we shared at the end of last season.
This show has always been invested in telling frank stories about race and Randall's questions about his identity being raised by a white family. But so much of William and Laurel's story and the tragedy of their lives is shaped by what it means to be Black in America. Laurel, in particular, loses five years of her life to prison for drug possession when what she really needed was rehabilitation and not incarceration. How much will Randall's journey this season and his relationship to his identity as a Black man be impacted by discovering his mother was a victim of the American industrial prison complex?
I think we've been seeing Randall sort of step into and own his blackness in a way in which we haven't seen in previous seasons. Moving to Philadelphia, becoming a councilman, living in a primarily Black neighborhood, and then witnessing the ramifications of COVID on the Black community, and Black Lives Matter. The question of, "Am I enough?" in terms of blackness is beginning to abate. In an overarching way, knowing that he had two Black parents that had societal conditions conspire against them to allow others to negate their humanity.
On a macro level, there's no denying his blackness. Regardless of whom he's raised by and who loved him, he doesn't have to question it anymore. By virtue of knowing these two people and knowing their stories, it is concretized in a way that it wasn't to this point in his life. The questions have been filled in, and he doesn't have to act like, maybe I'm not Black. Like, "Nah, bruh, you had two Black people that made love that brought you into existence, and before they had a chance to share their love with you in a way in which you would have felt it in the most direct way possible, circumstances transpired to take you away from them." For good and for bad.
Randall already has roots in New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Now he owns a farmhouse in New Orleans. What will that mean for him, Beth, and his family? Will they maintain a connection with Hai?
I don't have the answer. I haven't been able to get to the writers' room the way that I normally do, because of COVID. Normally, I'm just able to drop in and listen to how the sausage is being made and look at the writers' board and look at the different story lines that they have planned for the future. Now I have to request the Zoom link. I've done it a couple of times, but I can't do it as inconspicuously as I once did. So I can share my hopes: My hope is that maybe the farmhouse can become to the Black Pearsons what the cabin has been for the Pearsons. And they are able to make their own memories for their children in this sort of bucolic space that he shares with his brother and sister and family in the cabin.
What was it like filming that scene in the water? It requires you to be as raw as we've ever seen Randall. I know you had to do it on a soundstage in a pool instead of actually in a Louisiana lake, so how do you get there?
You take your time. I usually listen to some music or something beforehand to get me into a mental space. The goal is to be private publicly. You just try to maintain the sort of meditative state of, "I'm going to meet my mother." It's a really similar situation to when he met William, because he thinks he wants to chastise her. He thinks he wants to make her recognize all the things that he had to go through by virtue of her absence. All he really wants is to be loved by her. And to love her. It's also a reason why as an actor, it becomes somewhat esoteric if you conceive of it as something happening in your mind. It's an easier thing to play if it's happening. If I'm getting a chance to actually say, "I love you."
The spirit of Laurel tells Randall to let his pain go, and he does, screaming it out. Then he tells Beth that he knows his birth story and isn't going to hold on to the bad stuff anymore. In some ways, it feels like this trip was more healing than six months to a year of therapy. Fair to say?
Yeah, it was massive. Truly, truly massive. Because going back to this encounter, I consider it to be his initial brush with spirituality… I feel like Randall is someone who has lived with anxiety for the majority of his life, and shall continue to do so. But I feel like where faith is present, anxiety has a hard time co-existing. I feel like this is the first brush with something that is beyond his five senses that he can recognize as still being real. And still something worth being a part of his life. I think that's definitely worth several years of therapy.
His healing experience makes him feel ready to make amends with Kevin, but they seem to just keep catching each other at a bad time. Is that reunion coming soon, and are they both ready for it? And can they grow past it without still holding the grudge of the truly hurtful things they said to each other?
It's really interesting because both Justin and I have siblings, and we've talked a bit about like, "Man, that's some ice-cold stuff they said to each other." I have my siblings and we've said some things to each other, maybe not quite as intense as what Kevin and Randall said to each other. But there's always space to come back. For any relationship, whether it's a friendship, whether it's romantic, whether it is fraternal, what have you, there's no relationship without forgiveness. We will all fall short of the mark. And if we judge each other by our worst moments, you're not going to be in a relationship with anybody. I think the both of them slowly over the course of this season have been having these moments of like, "Oh man, that was pretty s----y what I did; Maybe we can find the space to start anew." I think they are ready, and fairly soon you'll see them come together in a really lovely way.
Randall is never one to fail to ride in on his noble steed in a crisis. Can we expect him to head to Los Angeles for the birth of the twins?
Originally that was the intention — the Pearsons will jet-set all the way across to the other side of the country in a heartbeat. In this particular moment, [series creator] Dan [Fogelman] is trying to find a way to still accomplish something like that but also addressing the COVID of it, and wanting to be as responsible in the reflection of the world that we're creating. So I don't think he's actually going to do it in person, but maybe some sort of technology, Zoom way, or what have you. He'll try to be present.
Lastly, you've now joined Milo Ventimiglia as one of the This Is Us bare-bottom boys. Do you and him now have a bond that Justin can never truly understand?
Oh my God. [Laughs] Listen, we still have another season and a half. I would never say never. Justin, hey, put Sully [Chris Sullivan], put [Jon Huertas] in there too. You never know, maybe all the men of TIU will come up with a calendar for you. You never know what's going to happen until you see the cut. And I was like, "Man, that's a lot of cake for prime time." Hopefully America and the world can deal.
To read what This Is Us producer Kay Oyegun revealed about the episode, head over here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.