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Sterling K. Brown on That ‘No-Holds-Barred’ This Is Us Finale Confrontation

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Randall and Kevin Pearson really went there in the This Is Us season-four finale. We knew nothing good was going to come from Randall going behind the backs of his siblings to pressure his mother into doing what he wanted, but jeez, did it have to be that awful?

Randall’s extraordinary fourth-season journey not only revealed the extent of his anxiety issues, but also showed us he’s not so perfect after all. Vulture wanted to talk about that journey, so we reached out to actor Sterling K. Brown, who had just finished homeschooling his 8-year-old son, a new routine in these stay-at-home days. (“We’re all in a very good place,” Brown reports of his family. “Everyone is asymptomatic and as happy as we know them to be.”) Brown was in good spirits, but also found himself in an introspective mood about the state of the world, the fissure in Randall and Kevin’s bond, and how he personally connects to Randall’s mental health journey.

A lot of people are very aware of their mental health in this moment, and that is something that was central to Randall’s storyline this season. I know you’ve done work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. What interested you in that organization?
I have several people in my family who are diagnosed with different mental disorders from anxiety to bipolar to schizophrenia, so it’s is near and dear to my heart because people who I love very dearly live with it on a daily basis. Dan Fogelman gave me this character that has his own particular issues with anxiety as well, so it’s art and life coming together in a way that puts it very much in the forefront of my consciousness.

And now we’re in the midst of a very anxiety-filled moment in the history of the world. People’s routines are being disrupted and jobs are being lost and you’re wondering how long can you make it through until your standard of living becomes shifted in a way that you can’t get it back, right? There’s this true need for connection in a time where we’re also being told to socially distance ourselves. I’m blessed in that I have two children and a wife that I get a chance to share my home with. I’ve reached out to my friends who are by themselves because I feel a little stir crazy myself in the house, and I have people that I can talk to and hug and kiss. But how is everybody doing that who doesn’t have that at their disposal?

Can you imagine going through this 15 years ago without so much tech?
This is a saving grace. We bemoan all sorts of things about our devices and screen time and how they take away from things, but this is a moment when it can be utilized for the benefit of society. I do go to a therapist and my therapist graciously said we can set up a FaceTime chat. My dear friends and I have a Marco Polo chat because it’s one thing to chat with each other on the text thread and get your laughs in, but it’s another thing to be able to see people’s faces and know that they’re doing well. You try to find ways to connect so that you don’t get into this place of feeling that you are completely and totally by yourself. Loneliness is a terrible thing to deal with, especially when you’re dealing with a mental illness on top of it.

You just very casually mentioned that you go to therapy, but that is something that in my community and in yours is often frowned upon. There’s a stigma to admitting you need help.
My wife and I are in a good place in terms of how our minds work. Even for people who are healthy — mind, body, and soul — that is something incredibly invaluable to the both of us, being able to seek out therapy as individuals and as a couple, because sometimes you can’t see your own blind spots. I think it’s a necessity for anybody who’s dealing with any sort of ailment of the mind. A lot of these things for minority communities are anathema, because we’re told from the beginning that life is hard. Nobody will hear you talk about your problems. Just figure out how to get through that shit and make it work, right? And it’s like, okay, fair enough, there is some tough skin that needs to be developed. But that “bull through it” mentality does not necessarily work for people who are dealing with different mental illnesses. There are chemical things that are happening in the mind that allow certain individuals to perceive things in a very different way, and they may need more.

On our show, Randall’s journey is trying to say that. Here’s a very highly accomplished individual who was trading weather futures and now is a city councilman, who has a necessity for therapy in his life. And it doesn’t keep him from living his full life. He can live an even fuller life when he finds a way to deal with these blind spots. I encourage everyone who has the resources and the desire to push that stigma to the side and recognize that nothing is more important than your own well-being. People will actually gravitate to you in a really wonderful way when you share your truth without fear of judgment.

In season four, you got an opportunity to explore in depth what’s been touched on before — that Randall has a profound problem with anxiety. How was playing him this season different from previous ones?
It was a joy, and it’s interesting because the genesis of it comes from conversations between my real-life brother and me. As our mother gets older, we’re dealing with how best to care for her, how best to honor her wishes in terms of what she wants for her own well-being and how both of us can see that and be at odds. Nobody’s right or wrong, but we have different interpretations of what we think can be best. I would share that with the writers and they incorporated into the season in a way which has my family calling up, “Do they know what’s going on at home?” [Laughs.] I was like, “Ah, they know a little something.”

A teacher of mine when I was in grad school at NYU made it very clear to me that a lot of young actors fall into this desire to be liked all the time, and want their characters to be liked, and that the goal of an actor is not for your character to be liked. The goal is for your character to be understood. So it’s been a really interesting phenomenon to play someone and for three years to be in lockstep agreement with the choices that they make.

Except when he left Beth that voicemail last season!
You beat me to the punchline! I remember we had just come off “Our Little Island Girl” and Randall said to Beth, “Maybe we should put a pin in your going to teach.” I was like, aw, man that’s the wrong wording for this particular moment for a woman who has just rediscovered her dream. That was the first thing, and then he left the voicemail. And I was like, yeah, come for me, it’s coming! I’m ready for it.

And then this year, with regards to this triangle of Kevin and Randall and Rebecca and how best to care for her, especially at the end of the last episode, I was like, wow, this is a strong play, Randall Kenneth Pearson, and I don’t know if SKB necessarily agrees with it. But I understand. This clinical trial is gonna maximize the best life possible for her. And so, even though nine months may be taken away from her with her family, it is worth the number of years able to spend with family in total. Is it manipulation? That’s unquestionable. It is unquestionably a manipulative move. Whether or not it’s the right or wrong move is going to be open to interpretation. And I personally, as an actor, love living in that area. That’s where most of us live life, anyway.

When Randall was on the phone asking her to do him this one favor, my heart broke for him. But when they showed Rebecca, the way Mandy Moore played it, the way she’s looking over at Kevin, you realize, Oh man, Randall just totally manipulated her into saying yes. It’s not malicious, but it is wrong. He knows it, too.
He totally does. And so, he’s totally prepared to take this one on the chin. He knows what he did. His wife tells him, “You did what you had to do in order to get what you wanted, but the way you did it was meh.”

I loved that that was her reaction.
Me too! By the way, Susan [Kelechi Watson] was absolutely priceless every time Beth saw shit was about to go down. Absolutely priceless!

Okay, let’s talk Kevin and Randall. What Randall said left me astounded. I thought there was no way Kevin could possibly come back with something worse, but he did. What was it like to film that scene?
I love Justin Hartley so immensely. And so when I say it was a joy, you have to understand that what an actor feels as joy is different. But I have such a complete and total level of trust in him. It was a no-holds-barred sort of thing. It was interesting, ’cause it went through different levels. Is it supposed to be more heated? Is it supposed to be more subdued? Ultimately, there was a take that I would call more subdued, but only in that these people are not speaking out of an impassioned state of being. They thought this through, and therefore the words cut even deeper.

Totally! They weren’t in a crazy rage.
No, they weren’t. So we shot it and each time we’d go back to our neutral corners and do it again. You’re trying to hurt me and I’m trying to hurt you. And I’m a fan of the show. Legitimately, I don’t watch for my performance. I watch it because I like these Pearsons and this shit is real. At the end of the episode, Kevin puts his hand on Randall’s shoulder and you’re like, Ahhhh, I needed that in a real, real way.

But the viewer doesn’t know if that’s the first time they’ve seen each in a very long time. It’s happening in the far future.
We don’t know. It’s something that will get filled in over the course of the next two seasons, so you’ll see how it unfolds.

What we do know is that the trial worked. Rebecca is considerably older when she’s on her deathbed, as they all are.
Whatever happened seems to have been for the good. [Laughs.] Whatever happened seemed to have gotten us some years. And that’s all that R.P. was lookin’ for, some years.

How did you and Justin feel after filming the scene?
Hartley and I have good snapback. We hug each other. We love each other. We’re both fans of the artistry. When I look into his eyes, I’m doing it for real, and I think he feels the same thing when he looks into mine. For Justin and I, we love each other until it’s time for us not to love each other, and then we still love each other even more from that state of unloving. Because we’re doing it together. You can feel it. Also, because it was on our last or second-to-last day of shooting, there’s this nostalgia that gets mixed in, because I may not see you for the next few months.

So who dealt the lowest blow: Randall or Kevin?
[Raises his voice.] “I think that day that they brought you home was the worst day of my life.” [Laughs.] That shit is ice cold!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sterling K. Brown on ‘No-Holds-Barred’ This Is Us Finale