February 19, 2019
SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Our Little Island Girl,” the 13th episode of Season 3 of “This Is Us.”
‘This Is Us’: Susan Kelechi Watson on Beth’s Past, Grief and Working With Phylicia Rashad (SPOILERS)
It took until the middle of the third season of NBC family drama “This Is Us” to explore Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) backstory, and it turned out she also lost her father as a teenager.
In “Our Little Island Girl,” Beth and her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd) visited Beth’s mom Carol (Phylicia Rashad) after she bruised her hip. Being back in her childhood home made Beth recall her youthful love of dance, the rigorous training she went through to be able to be considered for solos in the school (as well as professional jobs with a company upon graduation), and how her father (Carl Lumbly) worked overtime to pay for it all. Her father ended up getting lung cancer and passed away around the time her eventual husband Randall (Sterling K. Brown) lost his own father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia).
“This was a script where I really had to just dig deeper,” Watson tells Variety.
Here, Watson talks about the dance training she embarked upon for the end of episode sequence in which Beth re-finds her childhood passion, working with Rashad, what she learned about Beth from watching Rachel Naomi Hilson play the teenage version of the character and the difference in how Beth grieved the loss of her father from how Randall grieved his.
“This Is Us” has spent the better part of three seasons focusing on the Pearson kids’ grief over the death of Jack, but as it turns out Beth has just as much pain in her past. How much do you feel her grief defined decisions she made off-screen the way we have seen grief define the Pearsons?
I think the way that this family grieved was just very different and Beth sort of had to get herself together and keep moving. … Beth’s mom handled it how her family had to handle it and you understand why Beth had to mourn very differently from the Big Three, who mourned very openly and sort of sat in it for awhile. And also you saw with Beth there was a fear that it was because of her that he was working too hard. So there was a part of her that was dealing with that. … Her mother encouraged her just to keep going forward, so that was the attitude, and you see when Beth is talking to the empty chair of her father she still has that pain of “I was never the same because you weren’t here.” And now this is a part of her that wants to reclaim the dreamer that she was when her father was alive. Comparatively speaking I think their grieving processes were just very different…so it gave Beth a different perspective about how she should press forward in her life.
Did you feel like the scene in which Beth talks to the empty chair was her finally getting closure?
I think that Beth has had her closure with her father to the extent that you can have closure with a death like that. It’s always going to be an open wound, but I don’t think it was a fresh grieving. It was the reminder, especially because of everything she has been going through and now trying to be happy, that this was a person in her life who never would have let her forget that — but because he wasn’t there she forgot.
How did watching the younger actresses who portrayed Beth affect how you thought of the character you’ve been playing for three years?
Rachel, who plays teen Beth, there was a quiet sort of stillness but presence … soft but there was a strength to it, what she was doing. She wasn’t saying anything — there’s a scene where she’s sitting on the bed with Phylicia and “You’re going to be college in a year so look at this book instead of dance,” and it was the way she looked down at the book and then back up at Phylicia. It was small, but it just taught me so much. I thought, “Oh wow, that’s a beautiful thing. Beth may not be very animated at times, but there’s so much going on on in the inside of her and sometimes it just manifests itself in these quiet statements.” I thought she did such a beautiful performance.
So much of Carol and Beth’s relationship was depicted through Rachel’s scenes. What did you and Phylicia do to create the adult version of mother and daughter?
With Phylicia, it really was about letting go. It was almost like I had to let go to go deeper — to dig into what was really vulnerable for this character, the things she hasn’t really been saying but what’s been holding her back and on her heart. And I had to say them to the person she finds it the hardest to communicate with, and that was difficult because Beth prides herself on the fact that she is a communicator and doesn’t like to keep secrets, but we find out it’s hard for her to talk to her mother. Her mom’s a different breed — a different generation — and so the challenge was to find that part of her. … To be honest it took me a minute because I had to adjust to the fact that I was acting with her, and my actor brain was on, and it was like, “Whoa, let me get this right.” You’re trying to do your best. But I even had to let go of that. Once she’s in the scene, she’s now my peer…and we have to be these characters to the best of our ability, so we have to leave the rest behind. Once we ran it a few times I got to that place of “Now it’s just Beth and Mom.”
Was there anything she did in the confrontation in the dining room that greatly changed what you wanted to do or get out of the scene?
I personally don’t lock in a performance because I do leave room for things to happen so I just make sure I’m very intimate with what I’m saying and why I’m saying it, so that no matter what happens we can do whatever we want to do and leave space for play. So I wasn’t necessarily thrown by anything. … You do the work and then you let it go, that’s sort of the practice. You know it’s all there, but then you let it go because you never know the variables in the moment that can be so great. My variable was what Phylicia was going to bring. I know what she’s going to bring is dope…but I don’t know the specificity.
What went into nailing the dance sequence at the end of the episode?
I trained for two months. We had a full choreographed dance, so it was about…reminding my body about ballet. I’ve trained in dance for most of my life, but ballet was the thing I left behind the earliest because they felt like I didn’t have the right body for it, and I didn’t like that and never felt like I could be a part of that dance structure. I learned I don’t like to dance with that sort of structure, so I gravitated towards other dance styles. So this was going back to the discipline of ballet and finding the real beauty in it. I trained with Nia Brantly, and I found that she was so beautiful in her training, and it made me feel like ballet fit me — and that was the first time I felt that way.
How did you come to terms with why Beth would stop dancing, even when she loved it so much and had already pushed through so many obstacles?
She was a teenager when her mom said to her she can’t do this, so you just kind of listen. I don’t know that there is anything you can say to that; you just have to do it; it was her time to just obey her parents. And then college is a chance for her to rediscover herself and find the Beth in Bethany and sort of find her own path and who she is.
But in college she was free to do what she wanted and she still didn’t choose to go back to dancing.
At that point I think dance was shrouded by the fact that she didn’t succeed as a lead dancer, her father died working hard for her to have this career. She very much had a love for it, but I just think she found something else to love.
What does the future hold for Beth after this experience with her mother?
She will really make her dreams a priority, and I think that’s going to be the huge change.
“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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