Looking at the set of nominations for this year’s Emmys, a few themes prevail. A breakthrough year for women—with a bevy of nods for actresses of all ages, in so many finely crafted performances—2017 is owned in equal part by the vets.
Earning his first Emmy nod this year at age 60, for his turn in This Is Us—as Randall’s long lost father William, who arrived late in his life and left far too soon—Ron Cephas Jones joined the ranks of Ann Dowd, Bill Camp, and several other hardworking thesps who earned their due recognition after decades of great work.
Ubiquitous in television these days—between Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, The Get Down and the aforementioned Dan Fogelman drama—Jones below discusses the first role that ever gave him a proper arc.
With all the TV roles that have come your way in recent years, what was it about This Is Us that was compelling as a project?
I think it was the script, man. As always, everything starts with the script. When I read the pilot—like Susan [Kelechi Watson] and Sterling [K. Brown]—we all walked out together that day and felt we had something special.
I think how they wrote an African American character was even more special, in the layers. He wasn’t one-dimensional. I was very attracted to that and very honored to be able to give some light to this character. I felt he was very close to characters that August Wilson wrote. I felt like he was like James Baldwin, or Bayard Rustin, or Billy Strayhorn, especially in lieu of the fact that you find out he has a gay lover.
Where do all those elements come from? Well, they come from the African American experience, also—in Memphis with the music, and Beale Street. There’s a famous song, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” in the jazz and the blues that comes from there.
It was all a part of the character.
What was your feeling seeing the unique family that was chosen for exploration in the series, and the singular way in which they’re depicted?
Well, there’s different family elements. As we speak about the family element with Randall and Beth, with Jack and Rebecca, it’s just interesting how it’s all tied in. You have these little pockets of stories that are all tied, between the number 36—the birthday, which started the series out—and all these tentacles just started to branch out.
That’s what’s going to be interesting about Season 2, because those branches just keep branching out, from Chrissy [Metz] and Toby’s relationship, and the singing that’s related to her mother’s singing. And then Beth…You could go on and on. It’s just amazing—we’re able to bring our craft and our art to those words.
How did you come around to William’s unique emotional space, as a father who had to make such a difficult decision and live with the consequences?
I just trusted the writers. I trusted that Dan [Fogelman] was going to take that character in a direction that was going to be layered, and deeper than what’s on the surface of it.
I also knew that as an actor, I could bring something that was deeper and layered, and I think it worked both ways. When they saw that, they realized they could also be deeper and have more layers, because I understood how to carry those layers, and where they came from.
There are nuances in the character of William that are directly pulled from my life, and my life experience. They’re very subtle and small little moments—detail-y things that happen—but there was room for that, so I didn’t have to worry about that.
It wasn’t a cliché role, right from the beginning. You might think it would be, but it turned out that it was fuller than I could even imagine.
Your daughter, Jasmine Cephas Jones, originated several roles in Broadway’s Hamilton. Are there elements of William’s musicality that stem from your life?
The musical element is all her mother. I love jazz, she grew up with jazz—I’m an aficionado. I studied in college, I played, but then I switched my major to theater. I’ve never applied myself to music since then, but I’ve been a big fan and a big historian of jazz.
Jazz, and the history of jazz, is the history of America. I learned a lot about American history though jazz, and that’s why I loved American history when I was in high school. I could hear different stories—the story that they would tell in school, and then the story that I would hear in the music.
My daughter gets a lot of her natural music ability from her mother because she’s a world-class singer, also. My daughter traveled a lot with me in my early days, when I was a young, struggling actor. She was always there with me at the auditions, and then she decided to become an actor, and went through the process of being involved with my theater company in New York, Labyrinth Theater Company, where Philip Seymour Hoffman, at one time, was Artistic Director—going to auditions and doing plays, and ending up doing Broadway, and Of Mice and Men, with James Franco.
So, yeah: That’s where she gets that musical and theater background, from her parents.
Having worked across the spectrum of television, what stands out as unique about the experience with This Is Us?
This one, I got a chance to have a real arc. Mr. Robot or Luke Cage, I didn’t quite have an arc. I’m hoping that we get an arc in Season 2 of Luke Cage, but that’s what the difference is.
This gig is probably the best I’ve ever had in film and television, and I’m starting at a very high bar. So, where do you go from here, as far as television is concerned? I don’t know if it gets any better than this. I’m just enjoying it and staying in the now, and trying not to think too far ahead of myself.
What do you think about the different avenues for distribution in television these days? This Is Us seems to represent a new burst of potential in network TV.
I’m a fan of television, and I got caught up in the streaming thing, but I also am 60, and I remember the times when you had to wait another week to watch a show. It didn’t really affect me in that way—it was sort of comfortable, and it felt like I didn’t have to rush to watch it all at one time. That pace worked for me because that’s the pace I grew up in.
Pacing things out seems to work well for a show like This Is Us.
Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of This Is Us. That’s why I’m so glad it’s on network television, because it makes you wait, it makes you think. There’s a lot you have to feel, and to watch the whole thing all the way through, I don’t know if people could handle that. The emotional content and the way that people talk about how they cry—it just involves all this different information about loved ones and stuff—I think they need that week to recuperate. So I love it.
It works best for me that way, anyway. It slows me down, and then I don’t mind waiting a week, and I get excited about that day coming—as opposed to sitting down and bingeing, and I’ve done that, too. Then, it’s done, and you start bingeing on another show. With this, it slows you down a little bit, and that’s a good thing. We need that.
What do you feel sets Dan Fogelman apart from the bunch as a writer and show creator? This Is Us is certainly ambitious in its storytelling.
You’ve just answered the question. The only thing I can add to that is that Dan is gracious and he’s all-inclusive, so he was able to bring us in on the story and talk to us, and his office is always open anytime we want to come in and talk about something.
We’re always able to watch the episode after we finish it, before it airs, if we want to go by the office and take a look at it, and he’s very personable—it’s not like he’s in a tower somewhere. That’s the thing that I would add to what you just said, but you kind of took the words out of my mouth.
It’s just unique—that’s what makes him special. He stumbled on something very unique and very different and very hard to do. It’s not easy to do what they’re doing, and people that watch television started to realize that this is something special.
The way he’s caught on to the framing of it, and the cinematography, the way they shoot it, they can hold on monologues a little longer than most television shows do because they trust that the audience will have a longer attention span, and be involved in the characters enough to be able to watch a whole monologue without the frame shifting.
What has been most memorable about working so closely with Sterling K. Brown?
We had a special time in Memphis, man. It was a special bond that wasn’t talked about a lot, just walking around together, being together on the set, being in the car that long together, bonding with him as a friend, feeling him as a son. That was probably one of the most special times that I had on the show.
Your character’s Season 1 arc is wrapped up with such a simple, beautiful device—the postcard.
That made me cry, especially when Beth gets the card. And actually, it’s my writing—I had to write that card, as well as the other stuff that he read to the kids. so all that was just really special. I was glad what they did was, they let the audience down very softly and comfortably, as comfortably and gently as you can when it comes to death.
It just made sense, that it’s essential to life to understand that there is death. You understood, also, that the man had a life, and that at the end of that life, he found redemption and he found love, so that he was okay when he went. It would have been different if his life was in turmoil and he died, but he gets everything smoothed out. He went back home like he wanted to, and he died the way he wanted to die. That was the deal.
As life-affirming as the series is, was it challenging to sit with those emotions and this contemplation of mortality?
That was the biggest challenge, dealing with the emotion and not making it too melodramatic—letting the real emotion out, and trusting your partner that they’re going to care for it.
When you see it in the eyes, then you can let it happen. You know what it is—you read the script, you know what the lines are, and you also know what the emotion is. The emotion’s there, so you don’t have to act it. What you have to do is just let it out, and that’s what we, as humans, don’t do.
We spend more time covering up: “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m fine. I’m okay.” “How you doing?” “Oh, I’m okay.” But really, there’s stuff going on, so you open up and you let it out. Then the other actor, when you have that trust, you know that they’re going to care for it, and it just happens.