Susan Kelechi Watson on Designing Her Own Hairstyles on This Is Us and Sparring With Her TV Husband

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After Susan Kelechi Watson’s first audition for This Is Us, she tried out for a play written by her friend, Danai Gurira, that went so badly she started googling how to start a new life in Montreal, working in a coffee shop and living in a $500-a-month apartment. The actress, now known for playing Beth Pearson on the NBC hit, can’t explain exactly what went wrong with her audition for Familiar.

“I gradually just felt it fall to the floor; it just was not good,” she told Vulture. “There was this point where the character removes her underwear and throws it at the other character and by the time I did it, it just looked like I was in a room throwing some panties at people — none of it was working.”

Watson was discouraged, but Gurira’s support, along with the encouragement of other friends, made her refocus. “I went in for a second audition with the executive producers of This Is Us and I decided I was just going to enjoy sharing the thing I love to do and let that be enough,” she recalled. “So I started going to more auditions and chatting up casting directors and enjoying everything so much more with this new approach.”

Then the call came. On the same morning she tried out for the role of Nova Bordelon on Queen Sugar (a role she also would have loved), This Is Us offered her the role as the wife of Randall Pearson (Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown). “Rutina Wesley plays that so perfectly [on Queen Sugar],” she said, “so that was definitely hers and this was definitely mine.”

In an interview with Vulture, Watson discussed how she’s helped shape Beth as a character, why Beth and Randall are such a great couple, and how much she loved sparring with her TV husband in Tuesday night’s episode.

As viewers, we’re really just now starting to get to know Beth. Did you know as little as we did in the beginning? What were you working with?
I knew as little as you did. I wasn’t working with a lot. I think that, as a whole, we were all figuring Beth out, and it becomes collaborative that way. The writers will introduce a character, and there’s this process of watching what the actor does with it to be inspired as much as I’m inspired by what they write. So it was all of us figuring it out, and we just went back and forth like that. But in the very beginning, I had those two scenes that were in the pilot and that was it. I didn’t know anything else about her. Then in the second episode, I had that confrontation with William (Ron Cephas Jones) in the kitchen and that gave me more clues to who she is and how she responds and what type of person she is beyond just what type of wife she is. Because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t seeing her as just the wife and mother. I wanted her to be an individual as well.

So how do you view her now?
In a way, it’s almost like trying to explain who I am because it’s hard to describe her. But she’s honest, she’s loyal, and she’s true, but not just for the sake of being right. I feel like she’s always trying to figure things out as she goes. She’s not judgmental, you know? And I feel she’s a realist in a lot of ways. I think she stays very present. She stays very much present and open to what’s happening in the now and then trying to figure things out from there. That’s the best lead-in I have to her at this time.

You were talking about how collaborative it is between the writers and actors. They gave her your Jamaican-American background. What else do you have a say in? Hair? Wardrobe?
Wardrobe is so cool. We talk about it. I got in there, I say what I like, what I don’t like. I stress who I think she is as a character and they take notice. I expressed that I wanted her to reflect some of the African culture in her clothing, and you know what? The next week there was this material that they got from Mali and they created a poncho out of it so she could wear it. I don’t feel like she’s as buttoned-up as Sterling’s character. She’s more creative in how she dresses and in how she is.

My hair, I probably have the most freedom with because I design most of my styles. Renee, who does my hair for the show is so, so good at just making that a reality and making it look even better than what I see in my head. But I always have an idea of what I want her to be like for every episode. I’m not like that with every character, but with Beth it just always kinda comes to me before an episode and then we get it done.

No matter what the style is, her hair is always very natural. Was that your choice, too?
Yeah. It’s something that I already had in my life. It’s funny, I showed up at our first table read looking very differently from the way I did when I first auditioned. I had my hair up in this curly ponytail when we first auditioned and then I came to the table read with these long twists in my head, and I just looked like a total hippy. It was a very earthy look, you know? And they looked at me and they were like, “Huh!” The executives were like, “That’s different,” and then they’re like, “We think you look really pretty.” And I was like, “Well, thank you.” And then from that point on nobody said anything to me so I just kept doing what I wanted to do, and god bless NBC. They all just really kinda love it. And it’s my shout-out to black women, because for so long we’ve been told we have to look a certain way, or our hair has to be a certain way just to even be accepted or as a part of what is considered to be the American standard of beauty. But you know for all this, we just have a different texture hair, and there are beautiful things we could do with our hair, you know? I’m just so happy that I have the opportunity to put that on NBC. It’s right in the forefront of the television diaspora and it gives a lot of people pride to see. You have no idea what it does for the consciousness and the self-esteem of so many people in this country who are beautiful but for so long have been told their differences don’t allow them to be.

Beth and Randall have become the show’s definition of relationship goals, maybe even more so than Jack and Rebecca. You and Sterling have such easy chemistry. How do you approach scenes? What’s your process together?
We work on it separately and then come together, and sometimes beforehand we’ll get together and rehearse it. Like the day of, we get together in each other’s trailer or onset and run it together. We’re both alums of NYU grad school and so we’ve been trained in that respect, and it’s like reading out of the same playbook.

And he does the homework. He goes home and he makes sure that he does the work in the full way. We don’t phone it in a lot on this show. Everybody really takes it to heart, so it makes it easier on all of us when the person we’re working with is so deeply invested. It puts you right into that world. It really is about a deep investment in the character and always bringing a fullness to each and every scene we do together. Even when the camera’s on the other person, we’re full-on acting out this scene. Because we know how important it is for the other person to get that so that they can bring what they need to bring to the table.

But Sterling and I trust each other. I trust what he’s gonna do. I feel he trusts what I’m gonna do, and then we just go from there, adding little different things, you know, making sure that we don’t end up leaving any stones unturned.

What do you think is so special about that marriage?
I think they want to be married. It’s just been a long time since we’ve seen people enjoy a marriage. And fight for it and really care about one another and like each other. And what we’re learning is that that’s not boring. You know, marriage is either one of two things: it’s boring or somebody’s trying to get out of it. What we’ve missed for a long time is seeing two people who actually really choose one another and they actually continue to choose one another and that’s where they want to be. No matter what the high or the low is, they choose to be together. And there’s drama that really is interesting and fulfilling in that. I think that’s what’s drawing people to them.

Perfectly imperfect, that’s what Randall says.
Yes, perfectly imperfect. This person may not be perfect, but they’re perfect for me, you know? I think that’s what he was saying because you know it’s not perfect. We’re imperfect, but this is perfect for us, this works for us, and so let’s find a way to make it continue to work for us. And that’s one of the main things I hear people who stay in successful marriages say.

What do you think of the adoption story line and where it’s going? Did it excite you?
I’m so excited by it because I thought Oh, that’s real cool. I think it caught a lot of people by surprise and when I first read it I was like, Oh, that is sort of the way to honor William — adopt someone who, like him, had a hard way to go. Let’s really do this, let’s really make a difference in somebody’s life who thought they would never get a chance, and that to me symbolizes so much of like William and how Randall started. It also just expanded my idea of what compromise is. She had to find a way to take in what her husband was proposing. She had to find a way, and then it was like, Okay, but how do I feel about this? How do I want to honor William? Beth wants to honor William, too. Randall’s not alone in that, she wants to do it, too. So it was kind of a perfect thing that they came up with that.

Tell me about working on episode two. Beth and Randall hilariously fought like we’d never seen them do, and Beth and Kevin had a sweet moment.
There are two scenes I loved doing in that episode: one was Kevin in the trailer. Working with Justin [Hartley] was so great, like we just came out of there like, Dude, that was really fun. It just felt good because Justin and I, of course, love one another off of set, but it felt nice to be in a situation with Kevin where they were kind of expressing their appreciation for one another. Whereas a lot of times the scenes with them, they’re a little bit at odds, but this was one of those scenes where they’re really expressing appreciation. He appreciates who I am in his brother’s life, and I appreciated him for giving me some clarity in that moment — from a source I didn’t expect it to come from.

And Sterling and I had so much fun shooting that scene where we’re arguing and I keep telling him, “Why are you Randalling out so hard?” and he’s like, “Stop using my name as a thing.” It’s funny because that happened at like one o’clock in the morning. We had been working all day long and we ran that scene maybe three times because we worked on it so much throughout the day. We just kept working on it with each other so that by the time we got to it, we just boom-boom-boom ran through it like three times, and they were like, we got it! And we loved it, we just loved the rhythm of them going back and forth and both of them being so strong in their point of view and the reality of what it is, when somebody’s like, Look, I want to stop arguing now, and the other person can’t let it go. And it’s like, I have to get away from you. There was something just so real about that.

Okay, one last thing. Help me bring the perfect Sterling K. Brown down a notch. Tell me something perfectly imperfect about him.
[Laughs.] Oh my god, I don’t think I have anything! I’m just going to let him continue in his perfection.

Susan Kelechi Watson on Designing Her This Is Us Hairstyles