Sterling K. Brown on Randall's 'This Is Us' Race Reckoning

This is Us - Sterling K Brown - Publicity Still - H 2020
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The actor discusses his character's journey learning about his birth mother, the lessons of COVID-19, and being a Black child raised in a white family.

When This Is Us first dove into Randall Pearson's back story in the Emmy-winning episode "Memphis," the Los Angeles-based production packed up and headed to Tennessee as Sterling K. Brown's character explored the city where his dying birth father, played by Ron Cephas Jones, grew up. But as Randall learned more about his birth mother in season five, the COVID-19 pandemic didn't allow for travel to her hometown of New Orleans.

"In years past, This Is Us goes on location," Brown tells The Hollywood Reporter. "If we say we're going to a city, we'll oftentimes go to that city. For a network television show, we have been in Philadelphia. We have been in Memphis. We have been in Washington, DC. We have been in Las Vegas. We have been in Vietnam. So at one point in time, we were going to go to New Orleans. But because of COVID and just trying to do things as safely as possible, we weren't actually able to go this time."

Instead, the episode, written by Kay Oyegun and Eboni Freeman (and directed by Oyegun in her directorial debut), is an intimate look at the life of Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes), from her well-to-do upbringing, to the tragic loss of her older brother in Vietnam, to the star-crossed love with her refugee neighbor Hai (Vien Hong), to the already-established drug habit and birth of Randall. While Randall's birth father, William (Cephas Jones) legitimately thought Laurel died in childbirth, she didn't — she survived, went to prison for a few years, and started over back in her hometown ashamed of the way her son was taken from her and afraid to try to make contact.

Laurel reconnected with that young love in her final years, the man who wound up contacting Randall, who informed Randall that the Louisiana farmhouse they visited actually belonged to him. In an emotional moment at the end of the episode, Randall disrobed and swam in the lake where his birth mother did as a girl, and had a cathartic, emotional conversation with the woman he was never able to meet that inspired him to bury the hatchet and reconcile with brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), from whom he's been estranged for many months after a particularly brutal fight.

The episode was also closure of sorts for Randall, who's been struggling with his identity as a Black man raised in a white household — and his white siblings have been confronting the fact that they never before considered the way that their brother's race shaped his life experience in a way that they'll never understand.

Below, Brown discusses Randall's biggest revelations of the season, how the pandemic has impacted his character's arc, and the way Randall is grappling with his identity in season five.

When the show introduced the possibility of Randall's mother being alive, it seemed like another made-for-TV shocking twist that This Is Us has been known for. How much did you know about how Laurel would play into Randall's journey this season?

I knew it was something that we were going to start exploring towards the end of last year. If you remember in one of the therapy sessions that he has with Pamela's character [his old therapist, played by Pamela Adlon], she mentions, "It's interesting that you orient your life around these two men, your two fathers, but you give very little thought about these two women who brought you into existence as well." And [Randall] was like, I know all there is to know about my mom's story. She died in childbirth and that's all there is to that. I made peace with it a long time ago. And as far as Rebecca is concerned, I love her. I'm frustrated in part by the things that she kept from me, but that doesn't mean that I love her any less.

So the seed was planted toward the end of last year to explore the possibility that maybe this woman's impact on your life is greater than what you have come to know. At the beginning of the season, [creator Dan Fogelman] would talk us through some of the big steps that we're going to be going through throughout the course of the season. And I was like, "So she's alive?" And he's like, "Yes." "She did not die in childbirth. Right?" "No." And so, as Sterling and Randall are sort of fusing into one, I was like, "Then how come she didn't make herself known?" Why didn't she show up? How could she be alive and have had a child and not want to be a part of that child's life? So then you get to the episode, written beautifully by Eboni Freeman and Kay Oyegun, and you realize the shame that Laurel carried, and whether or not she felt that she had the right to be a mother after overdosing shortly after the birth of her child, the shame of being arrested, or being imprisoned for five years, shipped across the other side of the country. And then coming out, after being institutionalized and wondering, "what next?" Having nothing and having to start over again. Is that the space to introduce yourself to your son?

One of the most important parts of this story for Randall is that she is not just a bit player in his life. She has a story, and her story is important in and of itself, not just how it relates to him. And I think that's really the only way that he thought about her. If we take a step back, oftentimes that's the way most of us relate to everybody else in our life — that you are a bit player in my story. You have to take a step back and have a little bit of perspective to recognize, appreciate that each story, each person is important, not just how they relate to you, but because they exist. I think that's something that the show does in a really lovely way. It introduces you to people in a way that seems like this person shouldn't be important, whether it's William and Laurel being drug addicts, being African-American, thinking that that is the sum total of who they are. And then we peel it back little by little, and we see the beauty of their humanity, the richness of the connections that they have in their own life, the sacrifices that they've made, the mistakes that they've made and that doesn't negate their humanity. I think that's what I love about the show.

Randall started therapy last season, and this year he's switched his therapist and is doing more interrogation into his identity, particularly as a Black man raised in a white family. How does this piece of the puzzle fit into his overall journey? Is this something that's finally going to give him some sort of closure, or some sort of peace, or some sort of key to helping him realize his identity?

I think there's a massive amount of peace that comes through this exploration and from Hai sharing the story of his mother with him, and by that moment of release in the lake. So on a couple of different levels he knows that his mom loved him. In Randall's mind, only people who did not care about you, who do not want you, would wind up dropping you off at a fire station. I think he internalized that for a great deal of his life. [It was] possibly the root of a lot of his anxiety, possibly the root of his overachieving mentality, having to prove his love to people rather than just accepting it as being granted.

A lot of adopted children will echo the statement, especially if they have natural born siblings, that they feel as if they have to work harder to earn the love of their parents. Whether that's true or not, that is their reality. So knowing that he was loved by [Laurel] means the world. But I would say that this is Randall's initial encounter in our show with something that is beyond the five senses, something that is spiritual, in terms of that encounter in the lake. You can look at it one of two ways: You can look at it as something that is transpiring inside of his own mind. That he's acting out in a sacred space, a place of rebirth, of cleanliness, being in the midst of this lake. Or you can choose it as seeing something that is beyond the natural, that he actually had a visit from his mother and his mother was able to tell him that she loves him, and he was able to hear, accept and reciprocate that love for her. I think that it's difficult for anxiety and faith to exist in the same space, and that there is an encounter that may lead him to believe that there's something beyond his five senses that is in itself, although different in quality, real. I'd like to believe that will be something that informs his journey throughout the rest of the show.

This show is from a white creator, and this revelation about his identity is coming in the show's second half after 2020 saw an awakening among white people about the reality of being Black in this country. Do you think this might've been Randall's trajectory anyway, or if the events that have happened in the past 10 months have had an impact on the way Randall's journey is going?

Yes. The answer is all of that. All of what you just said is true. This story was planned. Even when we first did the show, Dan will give you a rough sketch of the story of the Pearsons going to what he says is the end of the story. And then life happens, and he will incorporate life into the story that he wants to tell. I don't think it could help but accelerate a certain sort of acceptance of self for Randall as a Black man in this world, witnessing a pandemic, being a councilman and seeing how it disproportionately affects people of color versus white people. And then simultaneously having to come to terms with the pandemic of racism that has been going on for a much longer period of time and did not press pause while COVID-19 introduced itself.

There's a moment for him that's like, regardless of how I have struggled with feelings of my own identity, am I Black enough? Am I doing too much? Et cetera. This was a moment where it's like, no, I am unequivocally what I am. And the people who look like me are being affected and I can't separate myself from that, even if I wanted to. It's not even an option that I have anymore. So I think that the world definitely happened to Randall, but I think he was in process already. By virtue of therapy, by virtue of taking that job, by moving his family to Philadelphia, he was putting himself in place to be of value, to be reflected in his community, a community in which he saw shades of himself throughout it, of his father. I think the past year just further accelerated that journey.

Going forward, is Randall in healing mode? He called Kevin because he decided he didn't need that rift in his life. What's next for him?

I think there's some healing to be done between him and his brother. I think there are conversations to be had amongst the Big Three in total dealing with race, how their family dealt with race. Statistics bear out that families of color are talking about issues of race at a much earlier age than white families are. Randall's finding him in the midst of that crossroads. There's always — and I can I say this as a child of a parent who's getting older — concerns about their mother's health and how best to deal with her and honor her wishes for whatever time that she has and giving her the best quality of life possible.

He is a man with three children of his own, similar to Jack and Rebecca that have their own lives, that have their own concerns. The pandemic and 2020, I should just say, has impacted them the same way that it has impacted all the rest of us. You have to be attuned to their needs and wants and make sure that they don't have to see a therapist at age 40. Or maybe they're going to see a therapist at age 40 for something, but maybe it's not directly related to you. There is marriage, which never takes a break. You can't press the cruise control button on that. And while Beth and Randall are in a very good place, 2020 — and again, speaking from personal experience — took its toll on every relationship, with your children, with your wife, with your family, et cetera, for good and for bad, but it wasn't the same. You had to adjust. So I'm sure we'll see that as well.

While there is a certain level of peace that has been taken on with regards to his birth story and that line — "I know that I am the product of two imperfect people who loved me," — and that means the world to a man who was adopted, there's still the rest of life. There's still being a councilman in a predominantly Black neighborhood wanting to service your population as best as possible. Maybe Beth's dance studio can recover from the economic hardships of 2020. There's still a whole lot left to explore.

And they still managed to get you shirtless multiple times this season.

You know what? I don't even think about it too much. I think it was more interesting to me that I did not have to take my shirt off all of season four. Like, all of season four Randall was covered from neck to ankle. I was like, "Oh, I appreciate that." I felt like I was just past due.

And on the lighter side of things, honestly, I work hard to try to maintain some level of physical fitness. And I know the sexy won't last forever — gravity will take its toll. Things will shift around or whatnot. And so while I got it, you know what? I'll be able to look back, and my kids will be able to be like, "Yo, pops, he was doing all right."

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.