After last night’s episode of This Is Us, Jermel Nakia’s Twitter mentions have been filled with fans surprised to realize that he and Ron Cephas Jones are actually two different actors. (The 60-year-old Jones is a veteran, whereas Nakia is a relative newcomer.) “That’s been going on actually since the beginning,” he told Vulture during a phone interview. “It still seems like there are a lot of people that are confused about that. But [last night’s episode] made it completely clear for all those that still were sitting with that confusion.”
In This Is Us, Nakia and Jones play the same character, William Hill, at very different points in his life. We first meet William when he’s played by Jones as an older, reflective man suffering from stage 4 stomach cancer, looking to connect with his son, Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), while he still has the chance. Nakia plays the younger William, a talented writer and poet whose life eventually sinks into a heroin addiction.
In last night’s episode, “Memphis,” we see William’s life from birth to death, and Nakia plays the character as someone filled with potential energy, a life of what could have been. A devoted and loving son, William moves to Memphis to make music with his cousin Ricky (played by the delightful Brian Tyree Henry), penning the song, “We Can Always Come Back to This” for him. “Okay, so I do not play the piano,” Nakia admitted. “But that was actually some of the funnest parts of it all, because I really feel like that’s the soul of Memphis and that’s the soul of who William is. As a rule, I think young William is definitely very introverted, but it kind of goes by the wayside when the music comes on. The sky opens, and then it goes back.”
To play the younger William, Nakia had to refer to the version of the character everyone already knew: the sage, philosophical version played by Jones. “I watched every episode religiously because I felt like it was definitely a part of my job,” Nakia said. “I’m able to utilize what he’s doing, but also be able to bring my own life to the table because of who William would be younger on, before experiencing so much.” He got a sliver of a moment to connect with Jones when he was going to hair and makeup on his second day on set. “The first thing that I said was, ‘I’m so happy that you’re you, so that I can be you.’ And we laughed a little bit and had a light tears situation because we both knew the impact of what this role would be, or believed it would be,” Nakia explained. “He has an old soul, so that was something I’m very familiar with, because I like to believe that I have one. So it was, to me, it was quite an easy situation to pull that.”
Nakia watched “Memphis” with some friends, and even though he had read the script, the episode got him plenty emotional. “This entire experience, going to Memphis and really living in the soul of William added so many layers for me to bring in. I think it was nice to see it all come together in the end. For me, it was one of the most powerful episodes.”