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This is “Us.”
The series finale of This Is Us, titled “Us” and written by show creator Dan Fogelman, ended just as the writer promised it would: Nostalgic while hopeful about the future — and satisfying.
Fogelman had said there would be a “simplicity” to the ending. That promise was fulfilled in the show’s final scene, in the form of an unspoken life lesson hanging in the air between an all-knowing Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and a young Randall (Sterling K. Brown’s character, played by Lonnie Chavis).
The father-son moment came in a flashback, as the final episode of the Emmy-winning NBC family drama jumped back and forth between two timelines: The adult Big Three (Brown, Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley) laying to rest mother Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore), who was given a poetic sendoff in the penultimate episode, and the pre-teen Big Three (Chavis, Mackenzie Hancsicsak and Parker Bates) spending a lazy Saturday with their parents.
The flashback to the Pearson family day was actually filmed three years ago, during production on season four, in order to capture the child actors at a specific age. Fogelman recently explained that he wanted the scenes to “feel nostalgic to us and to the audience,” like watching a home video. And the “simple day in the life” provided an opportunity for Jack to impart some wisdom to his children, particularly to his two sons, about what truly matters.
“When you’re young, you’re always trying to be older. And when you get old, always trying to go back. Be back. You’re trying to appreciate the moments. That’s what we’re doing, is collecting these little moments. We don’t recognize them when we’re in them because we’re too busy looking forward. Then we spend the rest of our lives looking back, trying to remember. Trying to be back inside them,” he told his sons, while walking them through their first face-shave. “One day, you’ll get it.”
Brown was tasked with bringing this realization into focus for Randall, who struggles with saying goodbye to his mother on the day of her funeral until receiving the happy news that daughter Deja (La Trice Harper) is pregnant with his first grandchild, a boy among his family of women. “He recognizes the dichotomy: old life, new life. Something is going out, something is coming in,” Brown tells The Hollywood Reporter of where This Is Us leaves Randall. “This whole thing resonates with me in a very, very powerful way. It’s just an honor and a wonderful reminder that, as there is decay and there is loss, there’s also a cause for celebration.”
Below, Brown speaks to THR about that touching final message and why it’s personal, reflects on the “butterfly effect” of the entire series, and shares his thoughts on a presidential Randall spinoff.
The Big Three trilogy of episodes that kicked off the back-half of the final season first gave closure for Kate (Chrissy Metz), followed by Kevin (Justin Hartley) and now, it’s Randall’s turn. What were your talks with Dan Fogelman and the writers about how they wanted to wrap the sibling stories, and why end with Randall?
That’s interesting. Randall usually goes third because in terms of the Big Three, “First came Kev, Dad and Mom said this, and Dad and Mom said that.” Randall was the third person there. The order usually goes Kev, Kate, Randall in all seasons. So I think it’s just in keeping with that. [The Big Three story, which they recited in the finale, goes as follows: “First came me [Kevin], and dad said ‘gee,’ then came me [Kate], and mom said ‘wee’, then came me [Randall], and we said ‘that’s three.'”]
If you ask each one of us, we’d probably say we’re all Mom’s favorite! We’d probably each have different reasons for believing that, which is a testimony to why Rebecca Pearson is such a wonderful mom. But I think it also re-cements the connection that Randall and Rebecca have with one another as she’s moving into this last section of her life. And how it can be problematic when you have siblings and power of attorney and that sort of thing, of who gets the say in how it all goes down. Randall is fully anticipating and wanting that for himself, and having to make peace with the fact that that’s not how Mom wanted it, but for very specific and understandable reasons. That’s something he had to swallow.
He has historically been such a control freak that being given permission to be something else and recognize that things won’t fall apart is a lesson that he’s now learning anew. Even his wife [says it], in [the third-to-last episode, “Family Meeting”], when he says, “I’m going to have to do it, [Kate’s] overwhelmed.” Beth says, “Randall, the people you are talking about are not the people who are in your life right now. So you need to take a second and realize that we’ve all grown up. Folks are capable of more than you are giving them credit for.”
Since Randall is the third to go — and it’s the series finale — did you feel the weight of helping to stick the landing?
I read the script and I knew we stuck the landing. So my job is just not to F it up. Fogelman, I love that dude so much. I sent him a text the other day saying, “Bro, you’re not a writer. You’re a fucking magician. Writing just happens to be your magic.” The way he ties stories in where, in the penultimate episode, you see this Black family who has been touched by the Pearsons in a way that they’re not all fully conscious of; the fact of, “Oh shit, my Dad had a conversation with Jack Pearson,” and that started this other [family saying] and then that kid grows up and discovers something to treat Alzheimer’s. I said to Dan, “How do you come up with this stuff?” But, it’s the ripple. Every person sort of effects every other person, and it’s just this gorgeous butterfly effect. The show is a big old butterfly, just batting its wings.
I’ve talked a lot about how I told Dan after I watched Game of Thrones, “Bro, we gotta do better than this.” And he said, “We’ll do better than this.” I think we did. I think, I hope, our fans will find the end as satisfying as we did shooting.
The final scene shows an all-knowing Jack meeting eyes with a younger Randall; a moment that adult Randall only realizes the meaning of later in life after laying his mother to rest. How did you react when you read the ending?
Kate, Kevin and Randall all have kids now. But Randall has had kids for the longest time, as evidenced by the fact that he’s going to become the first to become a grandfather. It’s this recognition that life is this collection of moments, hopefully shared with the people you love that, when you look back on, it’s not about your accomplishments like what you’ve done in your career, per se — that can be part of it — but it’s time spent with the people you love. And to see Lonnie watching Milo as young Randall, checking out his dad and being like, “What are you looking at, Dad?” And Dad was just satisfied. And [young Randall] was like, “I think I get it.” And then to have Randall later on, as he’s looking at his daughter and she’s looking at him, he recognizes the dichotomy. Old life, new life. Something is going out, something is coming in.
As somebody who has an aging parent who is not 100 percent well right now, this whole thing resonates with me in a very, very powerful way. It’s just an honor and a wonderful reminder that, as there is decay and there is loss, there’s also a cause for celebration. There is something that is coming in to continue this beautiful painting that Kevin made in the first season. The imprint of that person on your life is with you forever. And a new imprint is coming forth. Shit is poetic.
Have you watched the finale yet?
Rebecca squeezed Randall’s hand before she passed. In the finale, that is revealed to be a message from Jack that everything is going to be OK and that they are still present; hitting home the cycle-of-life message you just spoke about. How did you feel when you found out what the hand squeeze meant?
I thought that was pretty beautiful. The whole conversation starting at the end of the penultimate episode and continuing into the finale that Rebecca and Jack have with each other [on the train], just the reassurance that he’s able to give her. I’ve never had the conversation with Dan about if he believes in God. Maybe one day I will. But every time I read one of his scripts, I think, “You believe in something. You believe in something beautiful.” I read it and I see God in a very beautiful, magnanimous, all-encompassing, all-accepting way.
Rebecca squeezes Randall’s hand and he says, “Tell him, Hey.” And she [sees Jack and] says “Hey” and Jack says “Hey” back. And I’m like, “Oh, my God.” But that was the beginning of the conversation. Then she says, “I’m not ready.” And he says, “That’s OK. You’ll still be here.” She says she doesn’t want to see all the nasty stuff, and he says, “You’ll see the stuff that you want to see.” Dan has lost his mom; I lost my dad. Even though we haven’t had this conversation, I know he feels the presence of his mom. I know I feel the presence of [my father] with me, even though it’s been 35, almost 36, years that he’s been gone. I know he’s still here. So, that’s what I thought.
So much of this show has been about Randall’s relationship with Rebecca, which is why it’s touching to see Randall and Jack’s relationship come into focus in the end. Randall learns from his father to be present, live in the moment and cherish it all. When you look back and think about how great, or not great, of a job Randall has done so far in terms of being present, how much do you think he will change when you imagine where he goes from here?
That’s a wonderful question. It’s been a really cool evolution for him, and even with not having power of attorney, recognizing and learning to empower, and believe and have faith in his siblings to be of support and health. Choosing to enter into this journey for candidacy, for his mom. Anxiety tends to come when the way in which you expect the world to show up and the way it actually shows up are dissonant, like there’s something askew. I would like to think that Randall has now accepted the fact that there is no controlling the outcome. And that his preconceived notions of how things should be are just that. They’re preconceived notions, and they have no bearing on what reality actually is. And that he will actually be able to accept each moment as it is without judging. I’m sure there’s still a learning curve to go through, but I think he’s on that path. And that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
What was it like filming that final Big Three scene with Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley?
It’s interesting because that last day was the last day for the three of us. I think Justin had to shoot something else later and then I had to shoot my scene with my three girls after that, but they wrapped all three of us at the same time so that we could say our goodbyes and appreciations. As we were shooting the scene, I was like, “This is the last Big Three scene. Damn, that’s some shit. This is it. This is the last time the three of us will be on camera, together, relating to each other as brother and sister.” So I was starting to feel a little something. Even when [Kate] says, “What if we drift?” I was like, “I don’t want to hear that shit! We’re not going to drift. That’s not going to happen.” So I started to feel it, and then they wrapped us. And Chrissy started to say her goodbyes; her swan song, as you will. And I couldn’t even talk. I just closed my eyes and rubbed her back as she spoke. And we all stood next to each other as we said our goodbyes to the crew — this wonderful team of producers and writers. People had already wrapped before that: Sue [Kelechi Watson] and Sully [Chris Sullivan] and Chris Geere and Griffin Dunne and Caitlin [Thompson]; Mandy [Moore] and Milo [Ventimiglia] had wrapped as well. So we were the last three of the main group to wrap.
Just the other day, when I watched the finale, I called Dan and asked him how he felt. I was like, “It’s done. It’s all done.” He was a little wistful. He gets more smiley than he does wistful, because I think he gets embarrassed. But Cait (who plays Madison) said, “I’ve never seen my husband cry more in our 10 years of marriage than I have in these past few days and weeks as things come to an end.” And I get it. It’s over. And I’m sad. [But also] I’m happy. I’m happy in that I feel like we did something special. I think we touched people’s lives in a meaningful way. As a long-term fan of the medium of television, I think we came up with something where people will be like, “Now that’s the way you finish a fucking show. That’s how you do it.”
The show leaves the Big Three in a solid place — both individually, and then, as they say, drifting together. Beth and Randall also go off into TV heaven as an iconic couple. Throughout all of the series’ ups and downs, they were aspirational and solid, but also so specific. When you look back and think about their marriage, as an iconic Black TV couple as well, what do you hope their legacy is, and do you hope they open more storytelling doors?
Hell yes, I do. Shout-out to the incomparable Susan Kelechi Watson. There is no “R” without that “B.” I’m so happy the way that she got to function in this season. Randall and Beth weren’t at the center, we were right there commenting on things. And she had this wonderful way of cracking through the melancholy, the sincerity of the Pearson family, and bringing light and perspective. Even in the finale, when we play the last game of “worst-case scenario” — that was fucking awesome! (Laughs.) It was brilliant.
Throughout the series, I think you saw two people who leaned on one another and when one person was a little bit weaker, the other person was able to be strong. It went back and forth. And it was a lot of Beth being the rock for this man who feels everything so intensely and deep, and then recognizing, “You know what? I have to take up my space, too. And you have to allow for me to be big when I need to be big.” And I’m happy for season three, in that they had to go through something. Because, as someone who has been married for 16 years, I don’t think that until you go through something do you earn what being together really means. They earned what being together really means, and I hope that other couples — Black couples, all couples — can be like, “You know what, what you see as ‘goals’ takes fucking work.” It took work. And that’s the legacy that I would love to leave for all married people: It’s not peaches and cream all the time. There has to be a love and baseline friendship that can endure the tough times. Once you find that person, it’s about, “Nothing is a dealbreaker. It’s just, what do we need to work through in this case?” And I’m saying that for Beth and Randall, I’m not talking about Katoby. I’m just talking about R and B.
In these final episodes, was there anything you had input on or anything from your own life that was written into, or helped shape, Randall’s story?
They know I have two boys in real life, and I have three girls in television. When [Randall and Beth] adopted Deja, there was talk about how Deja could have possibly been a boy. But the research says that if you’re bringing in an older child, it’s usually an easier transition if they’re all the same sex. Dan [Fogelman] had a boy, Mandy had a boy, Sully had a boy. And so the idea of a boy being there, I don’t know if I had direct input [with Randall getting a grandson], but I think it’s in the ether of the show. My mom is ill. And I would talk to the writers before COVID happened about what that process was like in terms of dealing with her care and the friction that it could bring about amongst siblings; and I have a brother and sister. So, that’s sort of in the sauce as well. And my marriage. I love my wife very much. I love our children. So I think that’s probably baked into the sauce a little bit, too.
You said a family member once called this show church and therapy wrapped into one. How has playing Randall changed your life — how has it been church and therapy for you?
In particular, getting to say goodbye to William [Ron Cephas Jones] was big. Because as a young boy, almost 11, I didn’t get a chance to be at the hospital when my dad went. So that was a really beautiful and cathartic moment to just help somebody transition. Also, shout-out to Ron. At the end of “The Train” episode — shit was tasty! It was tasty. (Laughs.) On a logistical level, I got the chance to do incredibly gratifying work. I got the chance to pay a lot of bills. I got a chance to be at home and to have that level of satisfaction with the thing that you’re doing; to be present in the lives of your children and wife. I don’t take that for granted. That doesn’t happen most of the time. So I’m incredibly grateful for that. And then just in terms of the wellspring of love. Even in Halifax where I am right now, people will see me, but they’ll see Randall. And they will just flip the fuck out! They are very enthusiastic. That kind of love; I don’t think most characters and shows receive that in the way that I have, and I’m eternally grateful.
Dan has joked about a spinoff idea being, “What would happen if Jack survived?” But now that you’ve ended it, how do you feel about the idea of revisiting This Is Us at some point in the future: Is there an idea you think would be interesting to see, or do you never want to touch this ending?
The first part of that answer is that if Fogelman is involved, I have to consider it. If Fogelman is not involved, I don’t have to consider it. You know where your bread is buttered. You know whose soul infuses everything that you have done. He had this idea after somebody put something on Twitter saying, “Sterling Brown should be the new president on The West Wing.” I was like, “Hey Aaron Sorkin, if you’re thinking about something, let me know!” And everyone was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” And then Dan said, “What if we made Randall president, and then Sorkin took over as the new West Wing?” I was like, “That’s ambitious, bro.”
There does seem to be a seed for a political spinoff. Randall says he’s considering the DNC’s invitation to go to Iowa.
There does seem to be something of that nature. I think variety is the spice of life, so I’m very interested in doing a few different things, just to be known for a body of work and not one particular character; even though I love this character. But a few years down the road, if Dan is around and Sue is like, “Yo, man, whatchu doin?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, whatchu doin?” and if we want to do our own little version of Michelle and Barack, I would have to at least consider it.
That will give viewers some hope, something This Is Us to maybe look forward to.
I’m down for hope!
You came off People vs. O.J. Simpson when you went into This Is Us, two big TV projects. In terms of the medium, are you looking for more TV, or film as well? And what roles are attracting you after Randall?
TV and film. Where one used to be the stepchild to the other, I feel like the level of storytelling in both mediums are on par. And some could argue that the small screen is actually telling some pretty dope stories right now. I want to do it all! I shot a couple of films last hiatus, one with Regina Hall, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, that will come out in September. And I did a nice little independent with Mark Duplass, and we’re still looking for distribution. It’s called Biosphere about two dudes after some nuclear fallout who are the only two people to their knowledge who are alive. So it’s just the two of us in the whole flick.
And right now, I am functioning [as a star and] also as an executive producer on Washington Black that we’re filming in Nova Scotia, about a young slave boy who flees a plantation in the 1830s in Barbados and goes on this globe-trotting adventure. It’s sort of historical fiction about seeing the institution of slavery and life through the eyes of a dreamer and an artist and the people who are around him who protect that vision so it wasn’t beaten out of him, so that he was allowed to dream and create in that way. What else do I want to do? I want to do everything. I have projects in development; action stuff, comedy stuff. People tell me I make them cry all of the time, I would love to give you a laugh or two; work with incredible filmmakers, writers. Anytime someone asks me to do something and I say, “I don’t know if I can pull that off,” that’s probably the thing that I should be looking to see if I can do.
One last thing. Since there are always Easter eggs and little things baked into This Is Us, the eulogies that the Big Three give for Rebecca were muted for the audience. Did you actually speak or write words that you could share?
I knew you weren’t going to hear them, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure because they tell you one thing, but mic you up just in case. I took to writing a eulogy on this pad of paper that I had as a prop. In between setups, I would just write stuff down. I actually delivered about two minutes of the eulogy during that time. I’m saying goodbye to Mandy; Randall is saying goodbye to Rebecca. I have issues in my personal life that are sort of connected to it as well. I thought, “If I had to write my mom’s eulogy, what would I say?” Because that’s what Randall is going through. And it was really interesting what came out of me. You can probably hear little bits of it, but not the whole thing, and I think that’s right because, the time that I have gone through a funeral, even though it was 35 years ago and whatnot, it’s a bit of a fog. You remember people bringing food to the house, you remember standing in the line and everyone shaking your hand and giving you hugs, “Hey little man, hang in there.” But you don’t remember the details of it. That’s what we were trying to capture. Is that you spend all this time thinking and caring about something, and then it all sort of washes over you. What next? And I think [director] Ken Olin did a wonderful job of capturing that essence.
Is there a line from the eulogy that you can leave us on?
It’s important to me, at any funeral that I go to, because they tend to be sad events, that you try to inject some humor. So I took it upon myself to write a very bad joke. I’m prefacing this by saying it’s a very bad joke. I was saying something about, “My brother Kevin teases me about the inappropriate nature of my relationship with my mom. Saying that it borders on something quasi-Oedipal. And I find it very interesting because technically, he’s the only one that’s actually been inside her.” It’s a terrible, terrible joke! Half cracked up. Most of the ladies were like, “Uh, Sterling.” I broke the mood. And that’s what I try to do. Even in real life, when I’m at a funeral. Let us remember in the midst of this loss, that there’s always something to smile or laugh about.
Interview edited for clarity.
For more of THR’s This Is Us final season and finale coverage, read interviews with Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, Jon Huertas, Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan, the ensemble together and more from Fogelman on the finale and the final shot.
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