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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday’s midseason finale of This Is Us, “Last Christmas.”]
If audiences were expecting This Is Us’s midseason finale to wrap up with a neat and tidy little bow, they had another thing coming. Tuesday’s episode ended with a giant cliff-hanger as Toby (Chris Sullivan) lay on the operating table.
Toby’s fate wasn’t the only cliff-hanger of the evening. William (Ron Cephas Jones) also reconnected with his former partner Jessie (Denis O’Hare) when they ran into each other at a meeting, revealing a new twist in that character’s sexuality. A bisexual character was something no one saw coming, especially Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who is still just getting to know his biological father.
THR caught up with Cephas Jones to dig a little deeper into the reveal and find out what kind of impact it will have on the characters when the show returns in January. Here, he also discusses working with O’Hare, William’s limited timeline and whether he could become the next Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in terms of flashbacks.
When did you know about William’s sexuality?
I found out maybe two episodes before; [creator] Dan [Fogelman] pulled me aside at one of the cast readings and asked me how I felt about it. I didn’t quite know what was written at the time, but I thought it was a brilliant idea. I knew he would do it in such an intense and delicate way that I didn’t think about it much after that until I got the script. And then I just played it along with the way William is. I had maybe two episodes to put it in my psyche.
Did you or Dan have any conversations with GLAAD in telling the story?
Not to my knowledge, but I’m not sure about Dan. It came from the writers. I don’t have any power of it at that point. Once it’s established, my job as an actor is to make it work and make it play. I don’t see why there would have been any conversations unless Dan had some connections with that or had taken the story to a certain place with it yet. But I don’t know that yet because we haven’t gotten any further with that storyline.
Is this an important story for you to tell?
Oh absolutely. Not only as a social character, but as an actor. One of the joys and excitement in being able to book this role was when I read the pilot, it just felt like there was something special about it. This is my first time playing a television character that actually has a throughline. I’ve done recurring roles, but this is my first where I’m a lead in an ensemble. It was a wonderful thing to get as an actor and also to have this kind of character portrayed on network television is very important. Especially since it’s so connected to the story, to human emotions. It opens up a lot of good things as far as cancer research, the gay-lesbian-bi-transexual community, older people, family. It just opened up another avenue for me to put into the pot of jambalaya that is William.
Will this be a later-in-life coming-out storyline moving forward?
As far as I know. That’s the other question mark that my character has — they don’t give that away for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen in regards to his cancer and what’s going to happen with this. That’s the other thing I play as an actor. Every time I come on set, not only do I not know as a character but I don’t know as an actor, which helps me play the unknown as a character. Each time I go on, I play it as though it’s the last episode of my life. That’s the big question; at this point the character is becoming so beloved, no one wants him to die. But there’s also the idea, the way the show is written, there are so many stories in the flashbacks. So that’s an idea I can put out. Whatever you might think, the character could still survive based on flashbacks. Sort of like what they’re doing in the first story with Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore.
So you could see William being the next Jack in terms of flashbacks?
That’s right. That’s a big possibility. There’s so much of his life in the prior that people are curious about: How did he become addicted, what did he do between those years, was he a musician, was he a painter, was he a writer? How did he survive, when did he meet the girl? There’s a lot of life. That’s why you see the flashbacks already of him as a younger man. So that story could get picked up in season two if for some reason William dies in season one.
What kinds of conversations have you and Denis had about playing this storyline together?
We stayed in the now, that’s all we had. It’s not like you can really have a conversation about what you want to do or where you want to go; you can only speculate that. What we did was the back work — where we met, which was in a meeting. And some of the things we might have talked about when we met and why I might have chosen to let Jessie into my life. Those were some of the conversations and those were based around the fact that he was sick and Jessie had dealt with this before. And also Jessie was in recovery with William. Those were the conversations.
Not to mention I know Denis from theater in New York; both of us had been theater actors for so many years so our paths had crossed so many times, but we had never worked together before. I was very excited to work with him because he’s such a brilliant actor.
Did you have any say in the casting or were you asked your opinion?
No, no. When they told me who was cast I thought it was brilliant because I know him. They happened to cast a New York actor again from the theater. I know Sterling [K. Brown] and Susan [Kelechi Watson] both from New York and the theater, too. The first time I met Sterling I saw him in a play and then we did a workshop together. I knew of Denis so I was pretty happy when they told me they had cast Denis O’Hare.
Physically when you tackle the role, does anything change week to week as the cancer progresses?
It’s up and down. He’s in stage four, so he’s taking these chemotherapies and meds, so each episode you see him, sometimes he looks like he feels a little better and then you find out in those episodes sometimes he doesn’t feel too good. If he needs to sit down, or he doesn’t feel like eating anything so he has some marijuana brownies. He’s maintaining the illness. I did some research on stage four cancer and what happens when you’re maintaining. It just so happens that my best friend who I grew up with since high school has stage four cancer also. He happens to live in Los Angeles and I talk to him almost every other day in regards to that. He’s been sort of my go-to person to talk about what’s going on, how his stomach feels, how his chest might feel. Hopefully some of that comes off in the character when you see William.
Do you feel out those things based on the script or is that direction you’re given?
It’s a bit of both. They give me room to underplay that beneath the dialogue. So even when it’s not spoken, I see what the day looks like, what he’s doing, and then I measure the time that he’s been there and where he’s at in chemo and then I go from there. That gives me an idea of how he might feel from day to day.
Randall finally forgives Rebecca in this episode, so what does that mean for William and Rebecca going forward?
I don’t think they ever really left each other’s lives. Eventually Randall is going to have to confront Rebecca, he’s just not ready right now. Once the forgiveness happens they go on as they do…as far as I know. I don’t know if Randall will hold resentments. William knew all along, but he felt embarrassed and hurt that he wasn’t able to tell Randall because he gave his word. He was finally able to tell him why, but William feels like it was the right thing to do. Especially after coming to the house and seeing how well Randall turned out. He may have feelings of wanting to be there, but he feels very proud and happy that he made the choice he made. He says to Rebecca, “We made the right choice.” He really believes that.
Will his sexuality have any kind of impact on Randall?
I’m waiting to find that out too as William. William is at the point now where he’s comfortable enough with Randall to expose him to it. That is a conversation to be had, whether it be the next episode or the one after that, but I’m sure eventually they’re going to have that conversation. I would hope so, anyway.
Is there anything else you’re excited to explore with that storyline?
All of it. I’m hoping to explore all of these questions, which I live with every day as a character. Wondering what’s going to happen, how does this information impact the family. What about the kids…are they going to react to me differently? It’s a cliff-hanger for me as well. It’s an exciting time for this show. Something about this show has given the audiences something they need. This show is really about the human condition as opposed to cops and robbers and gunfights and things blowing up. I’m very excited about the future of the show and where the characters are going.
This Is Us returns Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 9 p.m. on NBC.
What did you think about William’s character twist? Sound off in the comments below.
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