When Susan Kelechi Watson heard from creator Dan Fogelman last summer that this would be the year Beth Pearson was getting a dedicated episode on This Is Us, she didn’t understand just how life-affirming it would be. Up until that point, Watson’s captivating, oft-underrated, portrayal of Beth -- the series’ “unsung hero,” Oprah magazine called her -- began sneaking into viewers’ hearts on a profound level, perhaps even more so than the tears shed over Jack’s death or the uncertainty felt over Rebecca’s future well-being, despite finite screen time and the rare spotlight.
Largely a credit to Watson’s dynamic performance, over the course of the series, Beth has carved out a place as one of television’s most cherished characters, often without hoopla. To many, she has come to represent a modern woman approaching life’s surprises with a quiet confidence, dropping revelatory gems of wisdom and sharp-witted quips at the most opportune times, and keeping everyone, including her husband, Randall (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown), from veering off course. A much-needed pillar of strength, if you will, against the backdrop of the chaotic drama that sometimes consumes the Pearson family.
And so, 49 episodes deep into NBC’s top-rated drama, Beth -- and Watson -- finally took center stage in the long-awaited hour, “Our Little Island Girl” (an endearing callback to Beth’s Jamaican ancestry), which unpacked her untapped backstory in an effort to inform yet illuminate where Beth was in her present-day journey: directionless and lost.
“Once we got to the episode about Beth and her origins, and what makes Beth, Beth, I could really feel the wheels start rolling from that point on to the end of the season, in terms of really exploring her story,” Watson, 37, says of the Feb. 19 installment during a May phone interview. “Not only with Randall and her family, but her past and how rich it was. There was a lot of stuff to dive into that I wasn’t completely aware of the depths of it.”
The episode answered two-and-a-half seasons worth of questions about Beth before she met Randall, revealing her childhood passions to become a ballet dancer, the work she put in to manifest that into a career and how it all crumbled when her father’s death during her teen years forced her to give up her dream at the demands of her headstrong mother, Carol (played by Phylicia Rashad). The hour was widely considered the season’s best, with Entertainment Weekly praising Watson as “sensational.”
“I was overwhelmed by the response and had such gratitude for the way people felt like it spoke to them, and in a lot of ways, I was surprised. Because a story about somebody who wanted to be a dancer can feel very polarizing,” Watson admits. (Before acting became her calling, the Brooklyn native, like Beth, aspired to be a professional dancer.) “The larger, more universal theme of, ‘What is it to have something taken away from you at a young age, but you still always want that thing? When do you make this choice to do something for yourself?’ That really spoke and resonated with people.”
Sadness and grief permeate through much of the episode, but Watson zeroes in on the climactic dinner table scene, where a grown-up Beth finally confronts her mother and says everything she’s spent decades holding in, as one of the most meaningful moments. The difficult conversation shared between mother and daughter offered both clarity and closure for Beth.
“That was hard,” Watson acknowledges of Beth’s heart-to-heart with her mom, a scene she struggled “to find a way into” as an actress. “There were chunks of [the conversation] that weren’t in the final cut that were really difficult to grapple with and say, but what was in the final cut captured the sentiment of it: ‘You weren’t there for me as a mother in the way that I needed you to be. I just needed you to support me. I got that from my dad; I didn’t get that from you. I now want to do what I want to do, and I don’t want to feel like I have to owe you some sort of result.’ It was probably the most wrenching.”
Equally emotional was the gut-punch when Beth talks to her late father, Abe’s, empty chair as if he’s still there, desperately seeking his calming guidance years after his death. “I can’t be me without you. How could I be?” Beth tearfully asks her greatest supporter, accepting that she’s lost her way. Says Watson of the scene: “That’s her moment to say, ‘Dad, it hasn’t been all good without you. I don’t know how to figure this out,’ and she has a cathartic moment confronting the memory of her dad.”
“The fact that she had to lose her biggest cheerleader at a time when she needed him the most was a very difficult thing to deal with. An entire chapter closed in her life when her father died. All her dreams, all her goals, it all stopped when her father left and that can leave you feeling stunted and bitter. It’s a hard place to revisit,” she adds. “The question of, ‘How do I move on from here without you?’ Then her finding it by the end of the episode, what she wants to do next” -- opening up a dance studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- “that’s where that beautiful connection is made between reconciling what she couldn’t say while he was here and using the memory of who they were as father and daughter to move her into this next phase of life.”
As Watson tells it, Beth’s close-knit bond with her father was perhaps the most enlightening piece of the puzzle in informing why her character’s path led straight to Randall. As it’s revealed, the future couple has a chance encounter during freshman orientation in college and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Her relationship with her father made me completely understand her relationship with Randall -- why she picked that type of man,” the theater vet says. “Randall’s loving and caring, and a genuine, beautiful person. You see that with her father. You could see why she would want to mimic that somewhere in the world, to find that again.” The parallels of Beth and Randall finding each other so soon after losing their dads, Watson observes, “is so symbolic of them picking up where those relationships left off.”
But Beth and Randall’s marriage suffered its biggest obstacles in the third season, especially amplified when Randall ran for political office, leaving Beth to recalibrate her own priorities -- again -- as a mother, wife and working woman. Viewers were up in arms over Beth’s continued sacrifices for the sake of her husband, but Watson had a different perspective on the couple’s marital rough patches.
“I loved that it reflects relationships and what we do in relationships, the role we play in them and how messy it can become when we’re trying to switch up those roles when everybody has gotten comfortable. The shifting is really messy,” Watson offers, though she understands the predicament audience members felt in seeing them struggle through their marriage. “It seems obvious, like, ‘Why do you keep doing this to Beth? Why does Beth always have to bend?’”
“There’s a way that they’ve been functioning that has been working for them and we choose to see the best in it every time. Now it was time for it to change. That was going to look scary at times. It was going to look like we might not make it, but I loved that the most because it is true relationship tension,” she notes. “I think people identify with it because people can see themselves in it and they understood what that feeling was of always trying to do what’s best for the whole and maybe not for themselves. It’s real, and I like that. How do they figure it out and still be the best couple they can be? Be the best they can be to one another? It’s a hard thing to do, so I understand why people were having all types of feelings.”
Thankfully, the future looks bright for Beth and Randall, whose coupledom remains intact decades down the line. And Beth’s goal of owning her own dance studio comes to fruition, though the how remains a mystery Watson is keen to explore. “I am encouraged by the fact that when we saw her in the future, it looked like everything was going pretty well. Thank god it worked out!” she says with a chuckle. “Whatever work it took, she ended up doing a good job because that studio looked pretty big to me and she had people working for her, so we're going to be all right.”
Jokes aside, Watson is as eager as the viewers are to fill in the blanks on Beth’s new life chapter as she begins to realize her dream. With This Is Us guaranteed three more seasons, there will be plenty of time to answer that question. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of developing that and I like that it’s something creative, which is a whole different turn for Beth, but something that’s closer to me personally. Dance, the arts, I love all of that. That’s something I’ve always done and I’ve always been the furthest thing in the world from somebody who does a 9 to 5 in an office. It’s going to be really fun for me to play.”
While Watson may be at the center of well-earned Emmy buzz for her season three work, contending for a spot in the competitive Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category, she isn’t content. Not by a long shot.
“There’s still room to grow. There’s a tendency when people see you play a certain role, they identify you with that role and that’s the way they want to see you for other parts as well,” says the actress, who next stars opposite Tom Hanks in November’s Fred Rogers film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. “My hope is that Beth is one of many different types of characters that I’ll play because, in my heart, I see myself as a character actress. I hope that doesn’t restrict me to playing a certain type. What I want it to do is open up the treasure chest.”