On NBC’s weepy powerhouse This Is Us, Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth has provided the much-needed anchor to her husband, Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), as he dealt with the sudden appearance of his biological father, overwork, and anxiety attacks. And so it was a relief in the most recent episode,“What Now?”, to finally see that she didn’t always have to be the strong, protective one. While the previous episode, “Memphis,” allowed Sterling K. Brown’s character Randall to say good-bye to his biological father, this one allowed Beth to do the same. Vulture spoke with Watson on the phone to discuss the slow unfolding of her character, singing Hamilton on set with Brown, and the racial dynamics of playing Louis C.K.’s wife on Louie.
I’m really glad we finally got to see Beth as the person who needed emotional support. What is it like to play the other side of that character?
It was fun because I got to just let go in a way. It was like this vulnerable side of her that got to be released and I felt safe, like Sterling would catch me. That I could be that, and he would just instinctively be there. It didn’t feel like she would just be left hanging at all. Their marriage is very much they’re there for each other. This is just a period in their life where she had to be there for him more. But if she ever needs him, he’s right there. But also just as the actor, it felt really good to release that for her. This whole journey has been a process for her, too, so it was really nice to take a moment to really feel what she was feeling and go through it openly. I like that about her. She’s not afraid to experience things in front of people; she doesn’t hide it.
At the beginning of the season, Beth was a little more uptight, but there’s a really subtle progression that happens through this season. How did you calibrate that kind of slow progression?
The way she’s written is to slowly unfold. So, for me, it was more every episode, where is she now? I’m not going to worry about who she necessarily was in the last episode, but I’ll let it inform me in the next episode. But it’s always about “where are they now?” What does she need to do in this moment? Because everything that’s happened to them as a family is all so new. So I have to allow it to be new for her. Also, getting to know William, their dynamic just naturally began to shift. She became someone he trusted, where in the beginning she didn’t so much. She didn’t know who he was, she didn’t know if he was trying to take advantage of them. She just didn’t have enough information. But the more information Beth got, the more she was able to release and be less uptight and be more open to what’s happening.
I really identify with Beth. I feel like she’s honest and she respects people and she’s loyal.
You know, it’s qualities that many people take for granted in others. Because it’s the person that’s always there that gets taken for granted the most, you know what I mean? Because you just assume they’ll be there, so those people who are like that, I’m sure it does feel really good to see that and identify with it and say, “Yeah, I get you. I get that role. I get that sometimes people don’t turn around and say thanks.” That’s how you are, you know what I mean? You feel compelled to be there for people.
I like the counselor was commenting on how adorable Beth and Randall are. Did you and Sterling always have that chemistry from the beginning? Or did you do trust falls or something?
That’s funny because I used to describe being in a scene together like that: “I’m gonna fall back and trust you’re gonna catch me!” I believe it’s something we trusted in each other from the beginning. I said this before and I’ll say it again: I wouldn’t recognize the chemistry if people didn’t point it out, as odd as that may sound. For me it’s about us really finding the truth of the scene, and he does that so beautifully, to play off of each other in that way. It just feels like two people who understand the truth of what’s happening in the scene and are committed to playing that with each other — wherever he goes I’ll go, and wherever I’ll go he’ll go. That translates to an audience as chemistry. So it’s been such a joy to hear that that’s how people see us and that people connect with us in that way. It’s like the cherry on top. We’re just trying to bake the cake; I’ll make the flour and put the sugar in the milk, and then people are talking about how beautifully decorated it is, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m looking at all the ingredients.”
I heard that you and Sterling would sing on set between takes too?
[Laughs.] Yes, sometimes we do! Beautiful harmonizing, beautiful medleys, thank you. Sometimes we don’t harmonize so well, but we try. It’s funny because there are certain songs both of us know so we just start singing, but I remember after he saw Hamilton, he was singing the whole soundtrack all the time. I hadn’t seen it yet, but then when I saw it I came back, so when he sang it I was right there trying to get that harmony with him and trying to sing these songs. I was so excited because now I could sing it with him. He was so into it.
Do you cry when you watch the show?
You know, it’s funny. I’m like the odd bird. There are moments that do get me, but I’m not a crier so much in life. But let me tell you, there are definitely moments — like the moment where Kevin leaves his play to go be with Randall, all those scenes between Milo and Chrissy — that get me. I’ve heard other people say it too: This show even gets to people who don’t cry. It’s coming for you any way you slice it.
Sterling’s wife Ryan Michelle Bath is also on the show as the mother of young Randall’s friend. Was there ever an awkward moment about playing the fictional wife?
No, not at all. It’s funny, Ryan and I are friends too. We all know each other. We know we’re actors. [Laughs.] Their relationship is strong, it’s never weird, and Ryan has been one of the biggest supporters of us as a couple on this show. She’s said beautiful things like, “I really think it was meant to be you two doing this part together, doing these roles together.” And so we have her support as well, which is a great thing. I’m sure Sterling feels really good about that. I’m sure he feels very relaxed and calm because his two wives, fictional and real, get along really well.
Are there any story lines that you’d like to see for Beth going forward?
I would love to see what happens when Beth really tries to tackle a full-time career again. I would love to see what would happen if she just did a girls’ getaway. What would be the things that she wanted to do? I just have this feeling that she would find Kate somewhere and go drink and do karaoke and just talk about where her life is and what her goals and what her dreams are and what she still wants to do. Those are things I think about for her.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your role on Louie. When you were cast as Louis C.K.’s wife, how did he explain the race dynamic? There’s an obvious difference between you and the kids.
[Laughs.] Yes, you can go ahead and say it: They’re very white and I’m very black!
They’re so white!
You know, this is all Louis said to me when I walked on set. We met each other when I came to set to play the role, and he met with me before we started shooting, and he took my hand, looked me in the eye, and he said, “We’ve been looking for you for a long time and we finally found you.” And that just put everything at rest to me, you know? He was looking for someone to play Janet, and he found that in what I was bringing. And so we didn’t ever talk about the race thing at all. We just played it like this is what it is, and this is the truth for us. And he trusts his audience that they will follow along; those who understand what he does and people that are fans of what he does they’ll get it, and they’ll just take the ride. And that’s exactly what they did. I’ve never heard of any backlash about it or people freaking out about it. And then toward the end of an episode, he explained that my parents were biracial so that’s why the kids looked white and I was black. But in the end some people didn’t feel like they needed it at that point. It was just a bold choice on his part. It was just Louis being a maverick and saying this makes sense to me so that’s enough. And that kind of conviction I think is what made it make sense to everyone else.
Do you think of it as color-blind casting?
You know what, I call it color-courageous, because I don’t think people didn’t see that I was black. I think he was bold enough to see it, and be like yup, we should see it and deal with it. And that was really fierce to me, it was a very in-your-face thing. It’s never what I want people not to see, I don’t know if this may be semantic for some people, but I’m never going to want people not to see that I’m black. You can see it. I enjoy it. And we should see what we are. But we just shouldn’t judge each other by it, we should find some way to connect, or be inspired by or learn from. The idea of it being a blind choice, I think it was sort of exactly the opposite. I think he saw it and was like, “I like it.”
People talk about trying to do “color-blind casting” in auditions, as a good thing, which I don’t necessarily agree with because I think ethnicity is part of a character.
I think it’s a way of us saying like, “We don’t even see it.” Because if we don’t see it, then we’re not judging anyone by it. I’m saying that we should see it; we just shouldn’t judge anyone by it. You know? And so, I see the intention, and I think there’s a good intention behind it. I just think we have to be bold enough and fearless enough to see it and still make the same decisions in casting.