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In the first season of This Is Us, Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson went on a road trip with his newly discovered birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), to learn more about his roots. The episode, “Memphis,” won Brown his first lead actor Emmy. In the seasons since, Randall has struggled with his identity as a father, as a son and as a Black man raised in a white family. But he was always missing a piece of the puzzle: What about his birth mother, Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes), whom he thought died during his childbirth?
He finally got the answers he was seeking — and some closure — in the season five episode “Birth Mother,” written by Kay Oyegun and Eboni Freeman and helmed by Oyegun in her directorial debut. It told the story of Laurel’s life: Raised in a well-off Louisiana family, she had a star-crossed teenage love and lost her brother in Vietnam, leading to a drug habit that put her in prison after Randall’s birth. Ashamed and afraid to make contact with her son after her release, she moved back to Louisiana instead. By the time Randall learned of her existence, it was too late.
Oyegun and Brown spoke to THR about the emotional episode, which ended with a cathartic imagined conversation between Randall and the woman he never got to meet.
KAY OYEGUN In [season one episode] “The Big Day,” where we go back to the birth of the Big Three with Rebecca and Jack, we had conversations early on about seeing the birth of Randall also. We were going to parallel those two birthing experiences. I’ll be very candid about it: I remember the early conversations of that. The version that was discussed was really not ideal. It was an exercise in what’s the battle, what’s the hill, all that kind of stuff. I was just sort of like, “I think this is tragedy porn in a way that we don’t need to do.” So it was kiboshed then because it wasn’t humanizing the experience. We knew so little about anyone in that space and, frankly, we didn’t have anyone on the show at that point to be able to tackle that storyline with an element of grace.
As we were fleshing out what [Randall’s] journey was going to be [in season five], this one organically came out and then we built out the stories from there. So it was always a desire in our hearts to do, but we wanted to do it two-pronged: We wanted to honor the human being that Laurel is, and we wanted to make sure that it answered a question that Randall was having.
STERLING K. BROWN What’s it called when Dan [Fogelman, This Is Us creator] comes in with a crazy pitch? You have a specific word, you told me this in season one.
OYEGUN We’ve done Dan-ism, we’ve done Fogelmans. He does this a lot! Sometimes it’s fully formed and he knows all of it, but there are times when it’s not fully formed and it’s just a moment. Those are some of my favorites because then we can build on top of that. One of them was that Jack had a brother.
BROWN I remember when you guys pitched it to me, but when was the decision made that Laurel lived? Because the original lore was that she had passed in childbirth.
OYEGUN There was a conversation about, “What if William had a narrative of that period that was actually wrong?” That’s all we were thinking, but it was one [idea] that we just wrote on a notecard and put on the board. It was understanding the realities of what he was experiencing at that time. Could he have known everything? Is there a world where there was something he didn’t know? Our lens, the way we look at the show and the way we talk about the show and craft it, is that everyone’s narrative is their own. A lot of times you can be in a room with someone and they’re having an entirely different experience than you. That’s where that came from in season three.
We finished season four a little bit early as far as writing, and then we were talking about Laurel deeper. I had watched the HBO show Watchmen, and I made Dan watch Watchmen, Dan made you watch Watchmen, Eboni and I watched Watchmen again together, and we were obsessed. The episode that walked through Regina King’s father’s life was something that we were so amazed by and so thrilled by and so inspired by that it kind of married to the things that we had been thinking about in season three, where we were trying to figure out what if William didn’t know what he thought he knew. It was a season four final decision, but it had been a season three birthing of an idea and a notion.
BROWN Normally I get a chance to be in the writers room. I come as much as I can. I love seeing how the sausage gets made. So this is the first time where I’ve been out of the writers room because we had COVID and you guys were meeting virtually on Zoom. I’m popping in to the Zoom like, “What’s up, talk to me about the season. What’s going on this year?” And then you were like, “Randall’s mother is alive,” and I’m like, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis? We’ve made four solid seasons where there’s no sharks to be jumped. Talk to me about how this works.” I was about to be like no, she can’t be alive, because if she is, that fucks up everything for me. What really cemented it for me is that this is the first time Randall got a chance to think of her as an individual and not just as his mother.
OYEGUN One of the things I so love about you guys as the extension of what we do in our little room together is that you guys not only inspire us, you own your characters so beautifully, but you also trust us.
BROWN What’s easy about it is that Dan from the beginning has established an open door policy. Some actors like to know the trajectory of the season and the series, some people just like to be surprised in the moment. He’s like, “What do you guys like?” I’m coming from the theater. Television is the only medium where that question is even asked because if you’re doing a movie or play, you know the beginning, middle and end. So it’s like, why not know, and then we can all help each other together?
Because of the structure of the show from the beginning and Dan’s desire to tell the story in six seasons, there’s always been a beginning, middle and end to what you guys have been crafting. You’ve been building to something. That gives me a sense of comfort that we’re going to come in and land this joint. I talked to Dan after I finished watching Game of Thrones and I was like, “This is bullshit. I have spent I don’t know how many years of my life loving something for it to end like this?” I finished it and I texted him immediately and said, “We better not end like GoT.” And he said, “Trust me, we won’t.”
Let me ask you: Was there any sort of debate as to whether our show was going to be set in the reality of the world or whether it was going to be an alternate reality in which COVID or Black Lives Matter didn’t exist?
OYEGUN Sterling, I can tell you that this season the writers room was shooketh. We never, ever, ever shy away from anything. However, the fact that what was going on in the world was now affecting the individual people in the room in a way that their eyes were opening, it was just sort of like, “We cannot not address what you are going through.” We had some of the most difficult months that I’ve ever experienced in this writers room. It pushed people. There were tears, there were shorter days. It was delicate, it was complicated, it was difficult, it was fun, but it was also necessary.
What did you think was going to happen when you came back into the season knowing that you had heard that we were going to tackle these things?
BROWN I had a conversation with Dan, and he said, “Our show is one of the few that’s uniquely equipped to deal with what’s going on in the world, and we’ve got some really big things coming up.” I was comfortable. I’m comfortable when Dan’s comfortable. I knew it was going to be difficult. That’s why it’s always so much fun to go into the room because I know how painstakingly detailed and thoughtful you are about everyone’s trajectory. So I was feeling nothing but good about the whole thing.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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