This Is Us signed off until 2018 with “Number Three,” the emotionally resonant third chapter of its midseason finale. The episode, which aired Tuesday night, focuses on Randall Pearson as a teenager visiting Howard University with his dad, and as an adult having to let go of the foster daughter he’s grown to love.
During a break from filming the show’s upcoming post–Super Bowl episode, Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown spoke with Vulture about working with Ron Cephas Jones again, why he likes hanging out in the writer’s room, how much he’ll miss working with Lyric Ross, and that cute little boy who made a cameo in “Number Three.”
The show feels sadder in season two. Has it felt different as you’ve worked on it?
Completely different. I would say my chief scene partner last year, besides my wife, was my dad. It was William. I miss Ron. I love Ron. I don’t know, our souls just communicated with each other. They gave us words that worked in conjunction with how we felt about one another and it just flowed in such a beautiful way. I have a wonderful connection with everybody that I get a chance to play with, but that man is special and I miss working with him. That’s the biggest difference for me, personally, but professionally speaking, I feel like the show is really doing some wonderful things, and also making sure that everyone gets their shine. I personally herald my brother Justin Hartley and the tremendous work that he is doing this season with Kevin facing addiction and fighting through what that is all about.
I feel like people have tended to shortchange his level of performance, and hopefully, after “Number One,” they won’t do that anymore because he’s just phenomenal. I feel like we get to see more of our teenagers this season. We saw more of our 10-year-old selves last year. We see more of our teenage selves this year, and those three kids are bringing the pain from Logan [Shroyer] to Hannah [Zeile] to Niles [Fitch]. It’s probably a little bit darker. We’re dealing with addiction for Jack and Kevin. We’re dealing with losing a baby. We’re dealing with some of the dark parts of Jack and Rebecca’s marriage. It doesn’t always have a feel-good moment at the end, per se. But it still illuminates the human condition in the realest way that we can.
You brought up how much you enjoy working with Ron Cephas Jones. “Number Three” has a beautifully written scene where William tells Randall about wanting to have a relationship with him as a boy. What was it like working together again?
It was awesome. When I greeted him I said, “This is my first time working with Emmy-nominated Ron Cephas Jones! Thank you so much for gracing us with your presence, dear sir.” And he’s like, “Aww man! Come on now!” He starts laughing. “Aww son, you need to stop that!” And then, he just waxes poetically. His voice is magical. His soul is gorgeous. I truly adore him, as a person and as an actor, so any chance I get to spend quality time with RCJ is time well spent. And you’re right about the writing. I go hang out in the writers’ room probably more than anyone else on the show, just because I’m fascinated with how the sausage gets made. I’m fascinated by the level of conversation that goes into each story arc and the combatting perspectives that we have in our writers’ room and how they ultimately come to a consensus. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes real time and real conversation, but they always come up with something that is just so rich and so full. I’m so proud to help bring their words to life, because they’re already so vivacious to begin with.
Are there a lot of tears in that writers’ room?
You know, they’re more cerebral. They’ll get emotional from time to time, but they lead with their intellect. I feel like that’s where we come in. They’re able to think things through, and then we’re able to take their thoughts and transform them and emotionalize because nothing precedes a thought. Everything comes from that, so you’re not playing things in general. You’re not sad in general, you’re not angry in general — you’re sad or angry because of something specific. They give you that exactitude with their language that elicits these feelings.
What did you think of the three-story structure for the midseason finale?
I loved it. Originally, we had a whole Thanksgiving episode that was going to transpire in Memphis. [Creator] Dan Fogelman wanted to go back to Memphis. As they were breaking the story, they were coming up with some really interesting things, but they didn’t exactly know how Memphis tied into it because we wanted to have the whole family go. But ultimately, as they were discussing who was being paired with who and whatnot, they realized they’d need to be paired with someone from Memphis and they wanted to focus the story mostly on the Pearson family. So they ultimately scrapped the whole Memphis idea and said they were gonna come up with something that focuses on the kids. It was originally going to be one episode focused on the kids and their college visits in the past. But as they were coming up with stories, they had enough here to focus on them individually.
They came up with this really ambitious idea of shooting three different episodes focusing on each one of the children, but having the past story lines overlap and happen chronologically and simultaneously. And so, I got excited for a few reasons. I felt Kevin, and Justin as Kevin, got a chance to shine. The exploration of miscarriage is not something that you see a great deal of and it happens with great frequency. And now you have Randall dealing with fostering and what exactly that means. Taking someone into your life knowing they can be gone again at any point in time. Him wrestling with what is the right decision, having an ability to emphasize both with the biological parent because of his experience with William and with the adoptive/fostering parents because of his relationship being raised by Jack and Rebecca. But that conversation with William when he says, “Who am I to stand in the way of a mother and her child? Who am I?” Randall had to take a step back and say, “This woman is sound of mind, body, and soul and willing and wanting to be with her child. We have to give them that chance.”
It’s sad because the viewer is losing Lyric Ross too. We will miss Deja, she’s a fine actress.
She’s wonderful. Believe me, shooting that scene, it was like, “I don’t want to say good-bye to this little girl.” She is so pure, I just want to be around her all the time. She’ll go to craft services and she’s like, “Y’all got real popcorn here? Wow!” I remember that feeling and I get a chance to experience this business from fresh eyes. You know, she gives you both this newness and this old soulness simultaneously. It’s like, “How are you able to do both of those things?” I’m hopeful that something might transpire in the future because she’s so good. She’s so talented and Susan and myself and our two daughters, Eris [Baker] and Faithe [Herman], you know, we all got along like peas in a pod. So, there’s always hope.
Was it as hard for you to say good-bye as it was for Randall and Susan to let go of Deja?
Oh yeah. I don’t know how to engender an emotional response to someone outside of the way in which I authentically feel about them. Most of my job is developing a relationship off-camera and, in doing that, I have something that I can authentically play on-camera. I don’t have to force it or anything. The relationship is there. I just have to say, “Sterling has to say good-bye to Lyric. Sterling doesn’t want to say good-bye to Lyric. Randall doesn’t want to say good-bye to Deja.” That’s how it works for me.
One of the best things about this season is that we’re getting to know Beth more. Randall and Beth have become relationship goals. It reminds me of Coach Taylor and his wife Tami on Friday Night Lights. Did you ever watch that?
[Lots of loud, extended yelling.] That’s the biggest compliment ever!
The Taylors had this beautiful marriage everyone looked up to. It feels like Randall and Beth are taking over for them.
[Screaming laughter.] That’s amazing! That could not have made me any happier. Sue [Kelechi Watson] just got nominated for her first NAACP Image Award, which we celebrated together on set. The Image Awards is something that’s really important to both of us. A lot of the choices that I make on the show — and with regards to how Sue and I interact with one another — we do it on the sly first and foremost for our folks, for our people. If they can recognize certain things and they’re also embraced by the mainstream as well, then we’ve done our job. But we’re trying to rep for the culture, for sure.
We both have what I call a respect for play. If you’re constantly remembering that you are at play, but you take your play seriously, then it never becomes dull. Even in difficult conversations between Randall and Beth, we enjoy being there. And “enjoy” seems like a strange word, but this couple in particular, we know we’re not going anywhere. When we get upset with one another, it’s not a question of whether we’re gonna make it or not. It’s like, “How do we get through this hurdle?” And that’s wonderful. I have to remind myself of that lesson in my marriage. You can make things so big sometimes, but you just make the decision, “We’re not going anywhere.”
There’s also a little surprise in the episode in the form of a very cute little boy.
I need more than that. Is there anything you can say about this little boy?
[Laughs.] He’s very cute. He’s a very cute little boy! And I do know that Randall is eager for the possibility of getting a little bit more testosterone in the crib. So, yeah, we’ll see. That’s pretty much all I can say. I tell you what, the payoff is gonna be worth it. It’s gonna be good. It’s a good payoff.
I know you don’t to get to work with Niles Fitch, but he really delivered with his performance in this episode. What kind of relationship do you have with him? Do you ever talk about how to play Randall? Does he ask for advice?
He never asks for advice. When he went to D.C., I sent him a text and said, “Go ahead and kill it,” and he said, “Yes, sir.” He’s a natural and I don’t think Chrissy [Metz] or Justin or myself have had to say too much of anything to any of the other six actors that play the younger versions of us. The casting director [Tiffany Little Canfield] got it right. She found some wonderfully impressive, soulful people to bring the Pearson three to life at each stage of their lives. So I just watch and marvel. I marvel and enjoy his performance. Sometimes when I catch him doing something, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I can steal that.” And I would like to think maybe he’ll see me do something and it may go back and forth. But I haven’t had to tell him anything except “job well done” and I’m proud of him. I’m proud of Lonnie [Chavis] as well. They made the continuity of the character something fuller and richer than I could ever do by myself, so I’m thankful.
Randall and Jack’s road trip to Howard University is not an average father-son college visit. It sparks a very deep and illuminating conversation.
It’s fantastic. It was a really wonderful idea of introducing the outsider’s perspective. You know, Randall spent most of his life just trying to figure out where he fits in. He is in this family, but he’s not white. He’s black but he’s raised by his family. And so, the need and the desire to go to Howard, to be immersed in a situation where he is the majority and not the minority of something [is what] I think ultimately helps him find Beth. And the possibility of, like, “This feels like home, too.” Like, “This woman feels like home to me.” That’s the beginning of how they find one another.
Jack is just a great dad. He gives everything that he has to his three children. And as somebody who had my dad for almost 11 years, I know just how invaluable that is. When you receive everything that a parent has to offer, you get a chance to carry that around with you for the rest of your life. I have no doubt that is who Jack is for his three children.
When Randall opens up to Jack, it’s very brave for a kid that age.
Well, he’s an incredibly introspective and insightful character. He has wisdom beyond his years. He’s not afraid to express himself. It’s one of the things that I enjoy portraying about him because you don’t see men like that often. I mean, you’re probably more accustomed to seeing men like Kevin, who don’t know exactly where to put all of that emotion. Right? Randall decides, “Well, I’m just gonna let it out.” If he holds stuff in too long, it will physically harm him in a way that is tangible, that he does not want to revisit. So he learns to let it out. I think that’s something that in combination with performance, the writers have done a wonderful job of crafting for Randall.
Speaking of Kevin, he sure screwed things up at the end of the episode.
He kinda did. You thought everything was gonna be all good, but if you mess with Papa Bear’s kids, man, that’s the one thing that you have a harder time coming back from. When we pick back up in 2018, that is a bridge that we will have to cross. Randall is not exactly thrilled with the fact that his brother allowed himself to be inebriated with his child in his car getting pulled over.
Any other teasers for the new year?
I can tell you that we’re shooting our Super Bowl episode right now and I think that it’s one of the best things that Fogelman has ever written. He made something special. He basically wrote a movie for NBC for after the Super Bowl, and folks are going to be blown away by it. I’m blown away just reading it. We don’t have many copies of it. Like, we don’t have sides on set because he wants to keep it pretty hush-hush, but it’s one of the best things that I think he’s written and he’s written a lot of great stuff. This one is right up there, if not top of the heap.