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It might not have been shocking, but the death in Tuesday’s episode of NBC’s This Is Us was certainly devastating — for the audience and for the actors involved as well. “Memphis” saw Sterling K. Brown’s Randall and Ron Cephas Jones’ William take a father-son road trip to Tennessee so Randall could learn more about his biological father’s life and hometown. But the trip also served as a final goodbye for the cancer-stricken William, who succumbed to his disease in the final moments of the episode.
Cephas Jones told The Hollywood Reporter that he’s known about his character’s death since he signed on — and the moment was hard for him, too. “I’ve been mourning this character for so long and started to fall in love with him myself, so I’m going to have some time to mourn him too. I feel sad just even saying that,” he said.
The actor and Brown knew of one another from the New York theater world, but only became friends while working on Dan Fogelman’s freshman phenom This Is Us. They’re not actually family, “but when we’re working together, when we’re on the set, it feels like that,” Cephas Jones told THR. “It’s a trust thing and when you open up and you’re able to trust in that way, it resonates in a hurry. So yes, I’ve been able to build a really wonderful relationship with Sterling off the set. We’ve become pretty good friends and only can get better.”
For the record, Brown feels the same way about his onscreen father. “He is a beautiful soul. I’m so happy that our viewers got a chance to witness his beauty and I got a chance to witness it firsthand,” Brown told THR. “I know in the realm of This Is Us there’s always the possibility for him to be featured, and I look forward to him being on set any and every time that he is because I love him.”
If the emotional punch of following up “Jack Pearson’s Son” with “Memphis” upped the tissue count exponentially, just imagine how it must have felt for Brown, who filmed Randall’s emotional breakdown and William’s death scene over two harrowing days. “[I] literally went from the breakdown with Kevin to the next day shooting the news of William’s death and receiving that news from the doctor and William dying in the hospital bed,” he said. “Like, those two days in a row happened and I felt like Dan was trying to kill me. I can’t believe these two days are back to back!”
Luckily, the death scene was followed by the fun father-son bonding moments that preceded it. “Once we got finished with that part, actually, we got a chance to breathe knowing that the end was there but that we’d now get a chance to just enjoy a father and a son spending time with one another,” Brown said. “I guess it had its benefit.”
The duo spent much of that time together filming in Memphis for several days. “That was all Beale Street,” Cephas Jones said. “The coffee shop, the restaurant, the street signs. All of that was Memphis. We went down there for two and a half, three days and we filmed a lot of the car stuff and we filmed the outside scene where he goes into the club.” The scene where Randall and William get their hair cut was entirely improvised, as was the discussion about the segregated water fountains in A. Schwab’s on Beale Street — something they noticed while filming and decided to include.
“The colored and the white signs are gone, but it’s the original two water fountains from when the store was segregated,” Cephas Jones explained. “And Schwab’s is probably one of the most famous — it’s like a Woolworth-type store. A five and dime type of thing, from clothes to trinkets to cards to T-shirts. So that was wonderful. In that place you could feel the history. It was a beautiful history lesson. It was a jumping-off point for a conversation, which I think is great.”
While Randall was able to honor his father’s life by visiting where he grew up, the next episode will see the rest of the characters pay tribute to William. “There’s a memorial of sorts,” teased Brown. “There’s a gathering at Randall’s house — most gatherings seem to take place at Randall’s house. William leaves specific directions on how he wants to be memorialized, and he leaves specific directions that he doesn’t want it to be a sad event. So we take that mantle up and try to honor his wishes in the best way possible.”
Plus, like Brown mentioned, this is not the last anyone will see of William. Producers and Cephas Jones himself have confirmed that the actor will return in season two. There’s a lot more of William’s life to cover, and Cephas Jones hopes to explore more of the decades between giving Randall up for adoption and reconnecting years later.
“During the course of his addiction and how he met Jesse — there’s a whole big chunk that I would love to explore as an actor,” he told THR. “Whether or not they do that is another story. It was the same way going into the first season as I am going into the second season: You have no idea what’s going to happen.”
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. For more on the episode, check out THR‘s postmortem with Fogelman here.
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