Having recently wrapped its fourth season, NBC’s This is Us continues to engage Emmy voters with its nuanced vision of family life in contemporary America, bagging an impressive five nominations for this year’s awards.
Created by Dan Fogelman, the decades-spanning series follows several generations of the Pearson family. To discuss the appeal of the show, three of its most famous faces joined the Disney Television Studios panel at Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees all-day event: Sterling K Brown, who has already earned an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his performance as Randall Pearson; Phylicia Rashad, now on her second Emmy nomination for the role of Randall’s mother-in-law, Carol Clarke; and Ron Cephas Jones, who won an Emmy in 2018 for the role of William Hill, Randall’s biological father.
The most recent fourth season ended with a big fight between Brown’s Randall and his adoptive brother Kevin (Justin Hartley).
The two actors initially did an iteration of the scene that was “more bombastic,” with him and Hartley shouting at each other. Fogelman and director/EP Ken Olin suggested a different approach.
“We did it again, and It was almost like the words pierced even more,” Brown said of the more subdued take that made it to the screen.
In the flash-forward Season 4 finale cliffhanger, Kevin and Randall share a tender moment by their mom Rebecca’s bedside. Are the brothers going to reconcile?
Sterling was coy on spilling details about This Is Us storylines but provided clues about what is to come for Randall and Kevin.
“The relationship has been complicated from the beginning,” he said. “They will continue like a yo-yo — will come apart and together, apart and together. I think by the time we reach that point in the future, there are other things on their minds that they are able to focus on to put aside whatever differences they have. But for the next two or however many seasons we’re around, I think you’ll continue to see these brothers fray and then resolve, fray and resolve.”
Rashad explained that it was the mysterious depths of her character that attracted her to the part. “I wanted to bring credibility to Carol,” she said. “I wanted her to have a certain quality, or understatement, because she’s not a person who’s given to overt expressions and she’s very reserved. And yet she carries so much feeling, she carries so much emotion. It’s just that in her life, from early on, she has been reared and developed to hold that in as opposed to letting it out. So what happens inside a person when that happens? How do you live with that, and how do you channel that? And if it seeps out—and it would have to seep out—how does that feel? There’s just [so many] layers [to her].”
For Cephas Jones, the show brought out many layers of his own self. “The first thing I thought of when I read the role of William was [playwright] August Wilson,” he recalled. “There are many men in my life [that I saw in August Wilson’s dramas]: my dad, my uncles, men from the record shop, the barber shop… So it wasn’t just about me having to create a character, but going back and remembering all those men that I grew up with and [reliving those memories]—some painful, some happy, some tragic. A lot of things hit home for me with this role.
“These are the things that we grab onto as actors, when you go inside and find things that you don’t have to make up, because they’re just there. You’ve just got to be able to be fearless enough to go back there and confront those things.”
Although four years doesn’t seem a long time to stay on air, the span has been a turbulent one—and yet the show has effortlessly maintained its relevance. Is this a deliberate policy, to keep abreast of the zeitgeist?
“I would say so,” said Brown. “I go into the writers’ room all the time and listen to the level of thoughtfulness that they put into all of these characters. And I know Dan [Fogelman] desires for the world to see itself in our show, and for people to see themselves in characters that may not look like them in real life.”
Check out the video above, and click here to watch all of Sunday’s Contenders TV panels.