The first-time Emmy nominee opens up to ET about his character, William, resonating with viewers on a visceral level and why ‘Memphis’ marked the peak of his kinship with Sterling K. Brown.
When Ron Cephas Jones signed up to play Randall’s estranged birth father, William, on This Is Us, he knew he was on the cusp of something special. What he didn’t know at the time was that his long-overdue moment in the spotlight was about to come.
Now nominated for his first Emmy in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category (opposite the likes of John Lithgow, "pal" Jeffrey Wright and David Harbour) for his overwhelmingly soulful performance in William’s bittersweet farewell episode, “Memphis,” it’s taken the 60-year-old theater vet a longer, more circuitous road than most to reach this achievement. And maybe because of it, Jones -- laid-back, soft-spoken, a man of few but wise words -- has a humble perspective on his newfound Emmy success that he admits “hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
“I don’t feel more successful or anything like that,” Jones says of his first nomination in his signature baritone drawl during a July sit-down with ET in Beverly Hills, downplaying his career-defining accomplishment. “But I feel like, in this particular situation, it’s really about the work, and I’m glad that the work’s been recognized on this show because it all starts with the writing and the directing. I’m glad that I can share it with all the elements that got me here.”
In the first season of This Is Us, viewers quickly fell in love with Jones’ arresting portrayal of William, a man dying from stage 4 cancer and, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, forging a relationship with Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown, also an Emmy nominee), the biological son he left behind as a baby on a fire station’s steps 36 years earlier. By the time “Memphis” came around, William and Randall’s father-son bond -- albeit imperfect -- was nearly unshakable, which made William’s death at a Tennessee hospital during their first and only road trip to his hometown all the more poignant in its devastation.
“It was a big episode for William and Randall. It was their episode and it had the most gravitas,” Jones recalls of the season’s highly emotional 16th episode, which many have pointed to as the show’s most powerful hour. “You see [William’s] life from when he was a baby and the little stuff that Jermel [Nakia] did playing younger William, which was brilliant. It was so all-inclusive in William’s life and you got a chance to see when he was a baby all the way up to arriving in heaven and embracing his mother, as we would maybe imagine heaven would be.”
Much as “Memphis” represented the peak of William and Randall’s connection, the same could be said for Jones and Brown’s real-life kinship. Brown has spoken candidly about the catharsis he felt grieving for his late father, who died when he was 10 years old, while filming William’s death scene, often crediting Jones for his poetic performance.
For Jones, who shares most of his screen time with Brown, William’s final scene in the hospital bed was the most meaningful for two main reasons. “No. 1, you don’t want the character to die, but No. 2, playing the emotion [of the moment] with Sterling,” he shares. “By the time we got to that episode, Sterling and I were so connected, it was like a symbiosis. We didn’t even have to talk to each other a lot about any of the scenes. We just got there and we just knew what we were feeling and where we wanted to go.”
Jones acknowledges the frequent challenges that come with doing a death scene right, and was relieved when the execution matched what he felt the day of filming. “It was gratifying that they got it, because you’re doing it and you’re imagining it in your head, but you’re not imagining that they’re able to capture what you’re feeling,” he admits of his initial trepidation. “Then, you watch and you go, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
Though viewers have come to associate the Paterson, New Jersey, native with the character of William, prior to This Is Us, Jones cut his teeth starring in notable stage plays (Broadway’s Of Mice and Men, Public Theater’s Richard III), films (Half Nelson) and TV dramas (Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, The Get Down). Ask Jones, whose first screen credits came in his late 30s, to reflect on the significance of an Emmy decades into his professional career and he expresses his appreciation for creator Dan Fogelman’s knack for recognizing an actor’s actor.
“It’s rewarding to get to this point and to be able to get this kind of role based on my work right from the audition, where the director and the writer know that this is the guy they want because he’s capturing the role exactly like they wrote it without any other questions -- Is he Hollywood? Do we know his name? There was none of that. None of us in the cast had to deal with that.
Adding to Jones’ highlight of a year is the rare opportunity to share in the glory with his 28-year-old daughter, Jasmine Cephas Jones, who originated the role of Peggy Schuyler in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hugely popular musical Hamilton. “It’s incredible, man. She’s happy and that’s the main thing. As a parent, that’s all that’s important to me,” Jones proudly says of his daughter’s phenomenal ride. “Life after Hamilton has been good.”
Within a blink of an eye, Jones is in full-on “Dad” mode, marveling at how closely his daughter’s New York life is mimicking the one he led when he was younger. “She took my name on, Cephas Jones, and that keeps us very close -- anything that we can do to help bring us together as much as possible,” he reminisces, jokingly adding, “I don’t see her as much as I’d like. Just like any other kid, she doesn’t call her parents back!”
While William may be gone in the present day (a la Jack Pearson), death on This Is Us rarely means an end to a character’s story. Sure, there may be a finite ending, but there lie an infinite number of possibilities in the blank spaces that still remain. Jones notes that William’s return in season two is “mostly in flashbacks or dream sequences,” revealing that his contract calls for appearances in about “10 out of the 18 episodes.”
So far, Jones has filmed two flashback scenes for the sophomore season premiere, and he hints that William’s moments “are going to be very familiar” to viewers. “It’s going to be like, ‘Oh, that looks like a scene from last season that we didn’t see. Or, did we forget to see that?’ When you see William, you’ll see him in season two in the context of season one,” he further elaborates. Of revisiting the same moments with a new eye, Jones says it’s been a unique experience: “It’s like going back. You fall right back into place. It’s like you never left.”