'This Is Us' Star Susan Kelechi Watson and Producers on Showcasing the Brilliance of Beth
By Philiana Ng
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday's Beth-centric episode of This Is Us.
So this is how Beth and Randall met.
This Is Us gave its secret weapon, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson), her very own episode on Tuesday, where her childhood contextualized her present-day (and eventual destination) with a clarity that had been mere questions up until this point. Titled "Our Little Island Girl," referencing a phrase Beth's late father (guest star Carl Lumbly) endearingly called his daughter, the latest hour offered a glimpse into how Beth became Beth as we've known her -- from her father's unexpected death from lung cancer to her dashed dreams of becoming a ballerina to her decision to change her name from Bethany to experiencing Beth and Randall's first meeting. It was also the first time Beth's oft-mentioned-but-never-before-seen mother, Carol (guest star Phylicia Rashad), was introduced; their hot-and-cold dynamic a huge part of Beth's path from once-promising dancer to urban designer to having an a-ha moment of revisiting her true love.
"What interested us the most was the Beth we’ve been seeing the past two seasons, she’s a strong woman. She’s funny, she’s witty and it was this idea that in her childhood she was a bit of a different person -- a quieter person, that she came from this ballet world that was mostly white," writer and producer Eboni Freeman said following a recent screening of Tuesday's episode. "When coming up with who her mother would be and who Phylicia would be, it was very interesting that we kept talking about this whole idea of the strong black woman and where that would have came from and how [Beth] would have gotten that from Carol."
It was a revelatory episode in charting Beth's story, as it answered long-held questions about her father (his unexpected death during her teen years forced her to give up dance), how her mother raised her (and cousin Zoe) and showed for the first time teen Beth and Randall's chance meeting at college. Speaking to the latter, co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger revealed that that poignant scene, which would change Beth and Randall's lives for the better, came with a lot of discussion, as it set a firm timeline for their eventual romance.
"Whenever there’s something big like that, we give it a lot of discussion and we are going to be revisiting that moment and we’re going to be revisiting other moments of their college experience coming up really soon," Berger hinted. "Those are huge discussions because once it’s on-screen, we’re really locked into it and we try to be really truthful to our mythology."
But prior to their encounter, Beth -- then going by her given name, Bethany -- was met with a decision: Would she go down the path her mother set her on after having her give up her love of ballet following her dad's passing, or would she start anew? Beth, as we know, chose the latter, in a scene depicted in this episode where she chose to go simply by Beth as she began her college journey.
"We were really interested in showing that point of change and when her mom told her, 'That’s it, you’re not dancing anymore,' something in her really did switch and something in her really did become different at that point, even though obviously she still had this artistic soul buried deep within her," Berger explained. "We were looking for physical representations of that. Her hair is different and she’s got her dad’s sweater and we wanted to see her claim this new identity, like, 'OK, this is the path you’ve put me on, but I’m still going to make it my own.' It’s this triumphant moment of 'Now I’m going to be Beth.' It’s magical that she becomes that person right before she turns around and meets Randall for the first time."
"What I’ve loved about Beth and Randall, they’re what each other needs. They’re the part that the other doesn’t have. Randall is very meticulous, he wants to be perfect. There’s so much thought that goes into what he does, that when he doesn’t get it right, there’s an extreme anxiety, where Beth feels to me more like somebody who takes it as it comes and is open to whatever the next moment brings and feels like, 'We can handle it.' She’s looser when he’s tight, but he has her when she needs it," Watson said. "She’s not so strong that she can’t be vulnerable with him.
"I find that that’s a lot of the reason for me why they work," she continued. "They’re able to be objective for each other in certain moments because they’re not the same, but they fill in each other’s blanks. They kind of come together in this easy puzzle piece way that makes their love so enduring. There’s something, I find, really lovely that they are there for one another and they truly give their all to give their all for each other."
The episode featured younger versions of Beth, played brilliantly by Rachel Naomi Hilson (teen Beth) and Akira Akbar (young Beth), whose performances Watson and producers praised.
"We found our youngest version pretty quickly. The search for teen Beth, [played by Hilson,] was really hard," Berger said. "At that point, we wanted her to have elements of Susan -- and Susan gives such an incredible performance -- but also bring her own stuff to the table. It was really tricky and we went through seeing a lot of people. Our wonderful casting guy, Josh, sent us an email. It was called, 'Sometimes She Just Walks Through the Door,' and immediately sold. We met her and we watched her read with Niles [Fitch]. She had a little bit of Susan’s swagger; we were so impressed that we saw shades of her and we all fell in love with her."
"Rachel, who plays teen Beth, said she studied the show to study Beth because I was watching her and I was like, 'Whaaat? I do that?' It was things that looked familiar to me but I didn’t realize that I do [as me] and as the character," recalled Watson, whose dance past was showcased here. "What Rachel did, I just thought she was amazing and beautiful. Hair and makeup is amazing because I have a mole in my eye, which is a very specific thing and they found that and stuck [a contact] in her eye. She helped to contextualize Beth for me, aside from the beauty that was written for me on the page. It informed me to actually step outside of Beth and watch her, so I can be a bit objective because I’m so close to her, and gave me clues to who Beth was as well."
As Watson told it, being able to spend time with Beth and her family for an entire episode was meaningful, some of which she credits Rashad's storied legacy for paving the way in film and television for black actors like her.
"The scene that touched me was beyond the Beth-Carol thing. There was this part where Beth says, 'I’m strong because of you,' and I thought of the legacy of Phylicia Rashad and what she has left us all with and continues to do," Watson reflected. "Obviously with her work on The Cosby Show as Clair Huxtable and on and on and on. She was my example of representation back in the day and when I sat with her and said [in the scene], 'I’m strong because of you,' there was this ancestral, spiritual exchange in that moment of Beth is here because of you. Because people like you have walked through the door and made a path that now people look at a show like This Is Us on NBC and it’s not a strange thing to see a black woman roll through with box braids and a suit on, talking about 'I’m going to work' and holding down my husband and my family and my kids and this is not going to be strange."
In the episode's closing scene, Beth appears to have finally found her true calling, going back to her first love -- dance -- and declaring that she wants to follow through with her new career. But with Randall about to embark on a new path as a local politician, producers warned "there will be a fork in the road" where they will be forced to "answer those challenges" soon.
"This is a really beautiful moment for them. That being said, life goes on and we’re on the verge of Randall launching into this new political career where he’s going to be councilman. We’re on the verge of her having finally figured what she wants to do and her schedule is going to be changing," Berger teased. "You’ve got three girls in the house. As exciting it is for them, real life is going to continue and there are still going to be challenges that come up along the way."