This Is Us Stars Milo Ventimiglia and Susan Kelechi Watson on Authentically Tackling Race With a Diverse Writers’ Room
Before the show even aired, viewers couldn’t get enough of This Is Us. I was among the 50 million who curiously watched the trailer for a show I didn’t know much about. All I knew was that it was going to sappy and beautiful, and that was enough. Now, the ridiculously popular series (which has been renewed for a second and third season) is among the most watched and talked about shows on TV, proving that a diverse cast and writers’ room really goes a long way.
One of the prominent storylines involves Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), the black baby adopted by Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and raised as one of their own. A number of issues arise from this, including the accusation of special treatment over his siblings Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), struggling with his black identity, and a nonexistent relationship with his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones).
Each week, I’m impressed with how the show seamlessly navigates these heavy topics while presenting complex characters of color that many who watch the show can relate to. After speaking with Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack, and Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Beth, we learned that this can be attributed to a diverse writer’s room.
TMS: Your relationship with Randall is very important on the show. Is there ever a concern about how you’re tackling race?
Milo Ventimiglia: Not at all. Me as an individual, I look at people, human beings…Male, female, black, white…Any ethnicity, any sexual preference…We’re all people. Life is hard enough. Why look at someone differently just because of the color of their skin or their preference or their socioeconomic standing? If they have money or don’t have money? It does not matter. We all bleed the same. We’re all deserving of a happy life so I think when it comes down to it, I don’t personally tiptoe around issues that come up on the show…and I know that the writers don’t tiptoe as well. They’re looking at it from a place of inclusion as opposed to a difference than comes up in maybe other circles.
TMS: Are we gonna see more of Beth’s backstory anytime soon?
Susan Kelechi Watson: Yeah. I think we started to talk about what was gonna happen in season 2…and in terms of revealing more about Beth and where her career is now and her family and all those things. So the great thing about having two more seasons is we got the opportunity to plan ahead. Now we can explore those things so I’m excited to reveal them. I can tell you what I know about her family now: They are of Jamaican descent. She comes from a large family, about 14 people she grew up with. Her father has since died of lung cancer. She has a mother who lives in D.C. and she has a lot of siblings. And she grew up around her culture, which is very different from how Randall grew up because he grew up around white people and is used to being the only black person around. Hers is the opposite experience so there is that kind of play that will happen. That’s what we know so far and we’ll see in season 2.
TMS: This show is great at portraying black characters in such a fulfilling way. How do you feel about being a part of that?
Susan Kelechi Watson: Honestly, mostly I feel like I’m trying to do my job to the best of my ability, which means to play the truth of the scene every time. And thankfully, I’m doing that with very good writing and very good scene support in terms of my scene partners. The result has been really amazing in terms of how people have been receiving them. But are we going into it with a certain intention? The intention is just to be honest. The truth of it is that there is this rich powerfulness that is steeped in our culture. There’s this richness, this beauty, this light and so I get the opportunity to be some sort of symbol of that and for us, it’s a new thing in a lot of ways to see that on TV…to see that being portrayed. It’s few and far between. Maybe the last time we saw it was in the ’80s and ’90s with The Cosby Show and things like that…few and far between. But honestly, for us, it’s about coming in and playing the love of a scene between these two characters. And I think that in itself is a powerful thing. To get to see that between two black characters is something that’s really a powerful symbol for us.
TMS: What is your relationship with the writers? How diverse in the writers room?
Susan Kelechi Watson: It’s all over the place. There’s women, there’s men, there’s black, there’s white. Dan Fogelman’s idea was to get a really diverse writers room so that we could get all these voices authentically…So that we could hear what that experience really sounds like so that people invest in these lives in a way that isn’t surface, that everything is three dimensional. And the way that they research things, they don’t play around with it…They have people who are considered experts in their field come in and talk about things like interracial adoption. They have people who have been through it come in and talk to them about it. I mean, they’re not playing around so I think their work shows in the scripts and then we do our part. We go home and do our homework as the actors and then we come back and collaborate and try to do something every week that’s honest.
TMS: Can you say anything about the season finale?
Susan Kelechi Watson: I think it explores some topics that have already been lingering there. So now we get to really delve into some resolution to questions that we’ve had…and then those questions open up more questions.
This Is Us airs Tuesday nights on NBC.
(image via screencap)
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