'This Is Us' Star Ron Cephas Jones on William's Heartbreaking Ending: 'That Was the Most Difficult'
By Philiana Ng
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you haven’t watched Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us. If you have and want to relive the tears, read our recap here. Then mosey on back!
William’s story may now have an endpoint, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.
On Tuesday’s gut-wrenching episode of This Is Us, titled “Memphis,” William’s battle with Stage 4 cancer abruptly came to an end when he died in a Memphis hospital with his son, Randall, by his side after the two embarked on a father-son road trip to William’s hometown.
“It was an open mouth moment,” Ron Cephas Jones told a small group of reporters of William’s gut-wrenching death scene, following a private screening of Tuesday’s episode. “I can’t believe what I’m reading. It affected me that way. All of us -- me, Sterling [K. Brown] and Susan [Kelechi Watson] -- walking out of the building after the first table read and each of us were waiting for the other to confirm what we just read.”
“It was like, ‘Did you see what I just saw?’ It was that feeling of there’s something special here and I’m not sure if this is real or not. It was that moment of frightening horror and extreme excitement all in one,” he continued.
As Jones tells it, he was deeply satisfied with the way in which William’s story ended, saying “it worked out beautifully.”
“Up until a certain episode, there was still the question of whether he was going to die, whether there was going to be a cure for him,” he said. “Up to a certain point, I realized from [creator] Dan [Fogelman] that [William] definitely was going to pass away -- we just got to get there and we’ll see how we get there. I was living with that through the second half of filming, going in as William was the same feeling -- ‘I know I’m going to die.’”
This Is Us executive producer Glenn Ficarra shares that William’s death was always going to be something that would take place in the first season. “We had talked about it from the very beginning when we read the pilot. We had pretty much fleshed out the character,” he said.
Fellow executive producer John Requa echoed Ficarra’s sentiments, saying, “We felt like it was the right thing to do. We had all these ambitions and that was one of the primary ones, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great?’ for Randall’s character. Ultimately we had to respect those impulses.”
Jones pointed to William’s death scene in the hospital bed as being the most challenging moment for him as an actor.
“That was difficult because, like most people, you have someone in your family -- several people in my family died from cancer and I have a good friend who’s struggling with it at the moment,” Jones exclusively tells ET. “That was the most difficult moment for both of us, Sterling and myself. But we had such comfortability with each other, we took care of each other and it made the scene even better. As actors, we can open ourselves up and feel safe, and that’s what we did and it resonated.”
After the episode aired, Fogelman tweeted out a note that he wrote to the This Is Us cast and crew ("and particularly to Mr. Ron Cephas Jones") at the end of the script for the gut-wrenching hour.
"It's never easy writing the death scene of one of your favorite characters (and actors)," the note read. "I hope we've done you proud -- you certainly always deliver for us."
Though it’s unclear if and how Jones will continue on This Is Us (“They haven’t talked to me!”), there are avenues in which he could continue on in the foreseeable future, thanks in part to the show’s elastic relationship with time.
“There’s going to be a lot of stuff that’s going to be coming up in the rest of this season and in season two. I think everything was what it was supposed to be for now. It’s like the only way you can look at it. Anything else that was missed you hope may be captured coming up ahead,” Jones tells ET, who acknowledges that many questions about his character still remain.
“Maybe you want to hear more about the mother [Laurel], how he felt about her -- he talked about how beautiful she was, but not enough. Little things like that. It’s not until this episode you get to see William’s history,” he says. “There were little spaces where I wanted to know more about the [initial] connection [with Randall]. How did he find me? How did he do that? What made him decide to do that? What made him decide to let me stay? What was [William’s] drug addiction about? How long did it last? How did it feel to get off the drugs? How did he do it? Did someone help him? I think a lot of it will be addressed.”
As for what this means for Randall moving forward, expect some dramatic changes. “This is a change in direction for Randall,” Requa says. We tried to make it not just a sad episode, but an episode that had a little hope in it in the sense that life is about transitions and death is just one of them.”
“It’s closing one chapter and reopening another, or setting the stage for it. At least in the present day, absorbing this death and what its effect on the family is, Randall in particular,” Ficarra tells ET. “It’s a big launching point for him into next season.”
Not surprisingly, William’s death and its aftermath play a part in the ongoing mystery surrounding Jack’s demise. “Some of this will come to a head before the season’s over,” Requa assures.