How 'This Is Us' Is Exploring Anxiety With Sterling K. Brown

The actor discusses the tense episode that kicks off a trilogy of installments focusing on each Pearson sibling.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[This story contains spoilers from the Jan. 21 episode of NBC's This Is Us.]

At the end of Tuesday's This Is Us' midseason premiere, Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) headed downstairs to grab a glass of water in the middle of the night and encountered an armed burglar in his home. The traumatic event fanned the flame of Randall's ever-percolating anxiety, causing the newly inaugurated Philadelphia councilman to spiral over a few days and eventually break down over the phone with his brother. The episode was the first in a so-called "trilogy" that will focus on each Pearson sibling during the same time period (up next is Justin Hartley's Kevin, followed by Chrissy Metz's Kate).

Although the intruder run-in was resolved quickly, it served to illuminate how much weight Randall carries on his shoulders at all times, and how he doesn't necessarily have it quite as together as he likes to think he does.

"It's a quieter episode," Brown told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's very illuminating in terms of — we know that Randall has anxiety. And then we see that it's just been in his DNA since he was a child; that there's a baseline level of fear that this young man lived with and then became exacerbated by the loss of his father and that fire. And then you see him as an adult and his ultimate sanctuary being violated with the home invasion. You think he's progressing and he's doing well and that he's taking care of himself, and then something happens and it's almost like you have to learn how to walk all over again."

But will the latest breakdown cause Randall to seek professional therapeutic help once and for all? Not necessarily, Brown said. He spoke with THR about dealing with Randall's stress, exploring episodic form and what to expect from the rest of the season.

This episode was very stressful to watch.

It is exhausting and the playing of it is exhausting! I think for the majority of the episode I felt scared all the time. I asked myself the question, what is it like to live with fear just under the surface of not being able to control your environment, or thinking that there is a way to actually control your environment? And then when that illusion is taken away from you, how do you see yourself in relation to the world, right?

Every day after shooting I'd just go home and take a bath. I needed to relax because there's tension in my body that I'm looking to release. With Randall over the course of four years there are times in which there's a goofy charm that he gets to enjoy and relax into, and then there's moments of great trauma and grief, and trying to figure out how to keep it all together. This episode is definitely falls into the latter category.

The episode showed that Randall has been averse to therapy since college, despite the fact that different people have suggested he try it. Has he finally realized it might be a useful tool for him?

Kev and Beth have been the people that he's leaned on throughout his life. So there's a level of comfort, even though he and his brother have had an up-and-down relationship, love/hate. But when push comes to shove, when the rubber hits the road, Kevin's had his back, whether it's him wearing Jordans when he was in elementary school or middle school and about to get written up and him coming to fake his mom's signature, to the breakdown that he had in season one where [Kevin] actually left his play so that he could go and be there for his brother. Kevin is a caretaker. Beth is a caretaker.

Those two people in particular are people that he feels comfortable sharing his problems with. The idea of going to speak to a total stranger who doesn't know him from Adam, who could possibly have greater insight into his mental well being than himself, is something that I don't think he quite grasps as of yet.

That's particularly interesting because Randall seems like the kind of guy who would go around extolling the virtues of therapy.

He does. I am with you 110 percent, to the point where I actually went in and I had a conversation with [creator Dan Fogelman] to that point. I was like, 'he doesn't try to hide his emotions. He allows himself to feel things.' When talking to Dan about it, there's also the recognition that I think a lot of Randall comes from Dan. So in my conversations with him, he'll astutely say, 'but a lot of his sharing of his emotion has been on terms in which he's comfortable with. And he also gets to dictate those terms to a certain extent.' But what is it like when someone else is driving the train, and he's no longer in control, and you may be forced to explore things that you haven't fully explored that you don't even know about?

We all have blind spots, and we don't know what those spots are because we are blind to them. [Randall] is a hyper-intelligent human being. There's the idea that 'I don't know if someone is smart enough, or smarter than me to help me with me.' I think a lot of intellectuals may find themselves thinking similar thoughts.

I've talked to many friends of mine that I've gone to school with — it's like, if my therapist isn't smarter than me, then how are they actually going to help me? Because there's such a leaning on IQ and a lack of recognition that there's an emotional intelligence, that there's different ways of being intelligent, that you find yourself being sort of snobby. 'I don't know if this person can actually help me because what did they get on their SAT?' Do those two things necessarily relate to one another? Not at all, but in their minds? In Randall's mind, it's like, 'Nah. I don't know. I don't know.' And we haven't seen him go into therapy, so we don't know what that is.

But in talking to Dan, that's one of the main things [about the character]: you have to be really smart. Randall spends time thinking about himself. He knows the things that trigger him. He knows that running soothes him, so he's found a way to self soothe. Why does he need to explore something else?

And [he breaks down] because it doesn't really soothe him this time around. He winds up beating the crap out of somebody. Now, was this man doing a bad thing? Yes. Did Randall do something, ultimately, that was good? Yes. But did he have to keep hitting him? Probably not. But the fact is that he's been scared his whole life, and he had an opportunity to let all that fear out on somebody. That was a recognition in his mind: OK, what I've been doing isn't necessarily giving me the results that I want.

The writers have played with episodic structure and format in the past season or two, and this trilogy of episodes is an example of that. What did this episode allow you to do that you don't necessarily get to do in a typical episode, if there is such a thing?

There are a couple of episodes that I point to that I feel like — that's a classic TIU. 'The Birthday' was an episode in the past where they're all having a birthday party. Kev's like, 'we should do a Princess Bride-themed party.' And they're like, 'Dude, what are you talking about? He's like, 'I just think it's cool movie.' They're like, 'you've never even seen it,' and then you find out that Sophie loves The Princess Bride and it was all just a play to charm her and it sort of plays out in the present day too. And all three of us have a cool storyline in the past, all three of us have a cool storyline in the present. There's wonderful Jack, Rebecca bonding moments with each other and the children — classic TIU. Thanksgiving episodes, there's a lot going on with everybody. So those are what I call classic episodes.

Then there are the episodes that are focused on one character more than the other or where you just see, like, Jack and Rebecca's love story throughout time. Or it focuses on Kate, focuses on Kevin, focuses on Randall. Or episodes that we didn't see them ever, we focus on the fire in the fire station, so those are a little bit different.

What I love about Dan and his desire to play around with structure is that he doesn't start off writing stories by saying, 'Who do I have available?' When you start off writing the story based upon who you have available, then everybody is in every episode, and each scene is about good two pages, and it never gets too deep into one thing. But you also you feel like you're familiar with everybody and no one ever falls off of your radar.

The episode with us being in the waiting room? That was a stand-alone sort of thing, Toby coming out and telling us what was going on with Kate and that she's made it and the baby's small. And then seeing them sit in the NICU. There are things that [Dan] just wants to tell. Dan's sister just had a baby, so he took that part of her life. He's like, 'oh, how can I translate this to my show?'

There's a depth that we're able to achieve when the story dictates what we write and not who's available for it. Because I've been a part of other shows where it's like, 'well, we've got to use so and so. Is there a way to plug so and so on this line?'

That's not the way that our show works. I think that's why we're all so happy to be a part of the show. I know a lot of folks get into season four, they experience fatigue and they're like, 'yeah, it's a paycheck, blah, blah, blah.' Nobody on my cast feels like it's just a paycheck. We're so happy and proud of the story that we're putting out into the world and the way that the audience continues to respond to it. It's the best job on TV. So I don't know if that answers your question, but that's my response.

This episode sets into motion Kevin's story in the next episode and that will set up Kate's after that. But what does it set into motion for Randall in the rest of the season?

We'll see Kev and Kate in the subsequent two episodes, and then there's a lovely [scene that's] I think the first time this season that we get a chance to see the three of them together talking through what's going on in their lives, and how they can be of service to one another. I think that's the beautiful thing about having siblings. Having four siblings myself, it's really nice to be able to connect, to share, to sort of download into each other's lives and see the way that these three people help each other live their best lives. So that you see that.

Obviously, there's this stress on Randall by virtue of him being asked to keep the secret about his mother's health from his brother and sister. We'll see some ramifications of how he deals with that, and how it affects these three siblings.

And then in terms of how his mental health affects those closest to him, I think Randall is able to fool himself into thinking that his mental health is just his problem. But then there's a dawning on him that no, me not taking the best care of myself actually impacts the lives of everyone who is in my immediate sphere. And then it causes him to take a deeper look of possibilities available other than just running.

And there's the rift with Kevin that was set up in in the flash forward at the end of the November episode.

You'll see the root of that in the season finale.

And then I'll just be stressed out all summer.

It's my pleasure to stress you out.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays on NBC.