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Exclusive Interview with This Is Us’ Susan Kelechi Watson

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In a strong fall television season there are plenty of new hits but none that tug at our hearts and make us belly laugh like the new NBC hit This is Us. On a network heavy with cops, doctors, and bad guys, This is Us fills that genuine, family drama void left by the departure of Parenthood. Each storyline, each character, and every single scene is perfect and already viewers feel like we’ve known these guys forever.

Susan Kelechi Watson plays Beth, mom to two daughters, who is married to Randall played by recent Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. Their story so far follows Randall’s journey to find his biological father and how that trajectory effects their lives. I had a chance to chat with Susan recently and ask her about her own personal journey, what she thinks about her cast and where she thinks this ride will take us.

You studied Shakespeare at Oxford. Tell me about that. What was that like and how did it come about?

I was in school at the time, and we actually had to audition for that. What Phylicia (Rashad) did was she sponsored a bunch of us, her and Denzel Washington actually, paid for us to go because we were so broke. (Laughs) So it was like we had a scholarship to go study Shakespeare at Oxford for a summer. I got to study Shakespeare and go to Stratford Upon Avon. I guess nine schoolmates and I went, and we reached out to Phylicia because she did a lot of work with students and she was one of our master teachers at the time. She said, don’t worry about it, I got you guys. (Laughts) Next thing we know she, I guess called up Denzel and then we were all going.

I love Shakespeare, I love the classics but mostly Shakespeare. I was really in love with him in my teens and stuff so that sort of inspired me going on that trip. I studied him abroad; I studied him in New York, so this trip was like my first time crossing the Atlantic, and it was amazing. It was really, really special and something that I won’t forget. I think a lot of what we learned there I still take with me.

Is live theater something you would like to end up doing?

I continue to do it! Just last year I was in a musical, I sing as well, called Marley-The Musical and it’s actually going to London next year, and they’re looking to get an even a bigger run. I’ve done a lot of theater in my life. I started on stage. I continue to do stage. I was in Italy this summer and did a one-woman show based on a Shakespeare play, and we performed it at NYU Florence Campus. I’ve done stuff at the Public, and I actually had a show at the Public before I did this pilot, and I couldn’t do it because I was doing the pilot. I’ve done Broadway, and I’ve done off-Broadway so it’s definitely something that will always be there. I love it.

Did you know when you auditioned for This is Us that it was something special?

I think I said this might be something. I didn’t have a full understanding of what it was going to be. I felt in my spirit, before I did the audition, that something big was coming up, but in a way I knew it. I expressed it to my agents and managers; I was like even if this isn’t it, my spirit is hearing that something big is going to happen. So I think when I read the script I knew that I was all in. I hadn’t been surprised by a script like that in a long time. I haven’t laughed out loud and sort of rode the journey of a pilot script like that, especially not this season.

So I don’t know that I thought too much, it’s odd. There have been so many other projects where I think to the end of the project like, if I get this then x,y,z then I can paint the whole picture. With this I just kind of went step-by-step with it for whatever reason. I was just like let’s do this audition, let’s do this test. Oh, I got it? Well, let’s get to LA. I don’t think I’ve thought much further than that so at the end of the day for me it’s been this really pleasant surprise.

How is the cast chemistry? Everything is already so natural. What is that like or how is that working?

It’s odd because nobody likes each other. (Laughs) Again it’s part of the whole experience. Even that has been tremendous for a group of people, most of whom didn’t know each other before this, now get along so well and are so about nurturing the relationship with each other, giving each other their props on great work and great scenes. Visiting the set even when you’re not working just to be amongst everybody and feel the vibes and keep that connection going. The chemistry, I think, is on and off set delicious. It makes it so we love doing the work, and we love coming to work. I know that sounds like, meh, but I’m so grateful for it.

Who, in the cast, were you really looking forward to working with?

I was excited to work with Sterling. He and I had known each other before we got on set and I am a fan of Sterling’s work. We have the same background in terms of theater and our training. I felt really safe with Sterling. I just felt like we can get in there and go to work and really do something powerful together.

You were on Louie and had success there and a lot of fans I’m sure. Do people recognize you as Beth yet?

You know it’s funny because the day when that happens is when it’s like – Oh man, I can’t just look any way I want to go to the grocery store anymore. I can’t just put my hair up. (Laughs) You’ve got to be camera ready. (Laughs) I had a lot of that with Louie, when I was on NCIS, I had that. I’ve had it before but with this, not quite yet for this, and I’m enjoying it. I can get out and get around, but when it switches up then, it will be something different, and I’ll enjoy that as well. I don’t think you can want to do a project like this, or do projects like this, and avoid that. It’s a sign that it’s successful so I have no problems with it. (Laughs) But for now, I can still wear my beat-up jeans and shoes and still get around, so I’m good. (Laughs)

What kind of storyline would you like to see for Beth? Or, without giving too much away, what are we going to learn about Beth this season?

We are finishing up episode seven, and we’re going into episode eight and Beth is great. The great thing about Beth and working with Dan Fogelman, Donald Todd and Jess Rosenthal is that they are so open to my feedback, open to my input and so I feel like Beth, in a lot of ways, has been co-created. They have been so great about that.

So we’re going to see more of Beth and where she comes from. What’s her background? What’s her family’s dynamic? How much family does she actually have? Actually the background she comes from is very different from where Sterling/Randall has come from so we get a chance to see that. We’ll see her family, how they come into play and how Randall sort of fits in with them. We’ll see her try to get back to work and sort of stabilize a work life more and make major family decisions and things like that. We’ll see her and Sterling’s dynamic, of course, develop and how they continue to have each other’s back but yet go through some trials. I think that’s me saying it without saying too much. Because at this point you guys do know a few things, but I’ll give you just enough to keep watching it and enjoying it. (Laughs)

From Twitter, a fan would like to know what has been your favorite scene?

I would say, there is one that I’m about to shoot the rest of, that’s been really fun to play, but I don’t think I can say what it is.

I guess we have only seen three episodes at this point, but I loved the scene with Ron Cephas Jones.

From what people have seen, I love that one. That’s great. I’ll go with that. I think anything else I would name would be from the other episodes so that one was a great one. I love working with Ron; Ron is so fantastic. He just brings it every single time.

Another question from Twitter: Do you think William will come between Beth and Randall?

You know what, I think that’s a possibility. I think he remains the variable. The sort of thing that wasn’t there and now is there, and everything was working sort of smoothly, and now everything has to adjust. So, I think it’s going to be really great to see how, because there is going to be a definite development of the relationship between Beth and William and that’s going to have it’s ups and downs, and we’ll continue to watch that. So yeah, I think that’s something that’s going to play into the dynamic.

You were cast as Louie CK’s wife as a black woman, and that was pretty groundbreaking in the way that Louie cast you for your chemistry with the cast, ignoring the color of your skin. You’re now a part of a really diverse cast of people that doesn’t feel forced or overtly stereotypical. Do you feel like this is the new direction of Hollywood?

I think it has to be because I think so many different people are creating now and there are so many different voices chiming in. Before I believe, the limitation was due to the fact that there was no real changing of the guard. I think now we’re at a place in time where that guard is changing and people with more innovative ideas and more forward ways of seeing humanity now have a place at the table. So I think now there’s going to be a lot more of that and I think if “Hollywood” doesn’t necessarily shift fast enough then people will just start creating new avenues as they have for their work to be seen or their ideas to be seen. So I think in a way the hand is being forced, whether on board or not, you sort of get in where you fit in at this stage because if not, people are going to start doing their own thing anyway.

As far as Louie, that was some Maverick stuff that he did. In 2012 nobody was doing that. He was on his own with that, and even I never expected that I would be cast. I went in thinking it was for a different role. I didn’t find out it was for the role of his ex-wife until I booked it. Even I was like – I don’t think that’s possible because, did you see the kids? They were trying to find out who he felt fit the role, and that ended up being me and he didn’t let my ethnicity come between that decision, and that was a big deal. It didn’t make any sense, but it made sense because everybody played along. It let people know that audiences are smart and they’re imaginative and if you say – hey, let’s pretend this is the situation, and then people stay in character, they stay true to the circumstances, they play a scene and invest in it, people are going to come along and say cool, I’ll buy it. And if you guys buy it, we’ll buy it. So he proved how smart everybody is in a lot of ways, you know audiences are really smart and will follow and there’s no reason to underestimate that at any point.

 

Susan did hint, as we closed, that her favorite scene will air during episode seven so be on the lookout for that! I can’t wait!

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