The actor opens up to ET about the sophomore season and the on-set photo over the summer that caused a tizzy over Jack’s death.
There’s more to Chris Sullivan than meets the eye. On the surface, the This Is Us star -- who plays the easygoing and lovable Toby, Kate’s fiance -- is carefree, playful and often the life of the party. But spend some time with him and the layers start to be peeled back, revealing a more nuanced, introspective man underneath.
“The word of our modern times is vulnerability and the show speaks a language of vulnerability -- whether that means putting yourself out there, whether that means being honest, whether that means telling someone the truth that they might not want to hear,” Sullivan tells ET. “In the past, I have assumed the word ‘vulnerability’ equates with the word ‘weakness’ and This Is Us shows us that it is in fact the opposite.”
As Toby, who, like Kate, deals with issues of weight and learned he had a hole in his heart in the first season, Sullivan has a knack for making seamlessly ends where his character begins. But it’s others’ storylines on the show, namely Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), that strike the biggest emotional chord for Sullivan -- the latter, the 37-year-old actor explains, because he identifies with “striving for perfection and dealing with anxiety.”
Before This Is Us, Sullivan cut his teeth with memorable arcs on Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick and the Duffer brothers’ Netflix phenomenon, Stranger Things, where he played Irish ambulance driver Tom Cleary and fast food shop owner Benny, respectively. Both jobs were eye-opening and transformative for the actor, who also moonlights as a musician through his band, Sully and the Benevolent Folk.
“The experience with The Knick is a singular experience. That experience taught me a lot about acting and about being on camera for extended periods of time to try to create a character arc that travels,” Sullivan reflects, adding that he couldn’t “imagine the level of success” Stranger Things -- in which he suffered a spectacular death in the series’ second episode -- would have in the zeitgeist. “Same with This Is Us,” he connects.
Surprisingly, it was Sullivan’s dramatic turn as Cleary on The Knick that brought him to This Is Us. Executive producers and directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra caught Sullivan on the turn-of-the-century medical drama (“How they saw Toby in Cleary, I couldn’t [tell you]”), liked his performance and brought him in for an audition. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I certainly like to swing the pendulum and try new things and to do things that are different from the last thing that I did,” Sullivan says of the eclectic credits that make up his resume. “I try to make sure the projects that I choose are something that will teach me something new, either about myself or about my art.”
The rookie season of This Is Us focused on the core members of the Pearson family, but the sophomore episodes promise to zero in on the people closest to them. While bits and pieces of information were doled out about Toby’s upbringing and family history, Sullivan notes that Kate and Toby’s engagement will lend itself to Toby becoming a more regular presence amongst the Pearson clan -- especially with Kevin and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). “You’re definitely going to see Toby engage more with [the family],” Sullivan hints, joking that he and Hartley have been filming so much together that they’re “attempting to get a buddy-cop spinoff.”
As for Kate and Toby’s romantic future, Sullivan was coy about where the lovebirds are headed, though offered this warning of sorts. “If they can deactivate their defense mechanisms for a while, then there’s a definite possibility of achieving a long-lasting foundation for a relationship,” he teases.
That’s not to say there aren’t things Toby can work on. As Sullivan sees it,Toby uses his sense of humor -- which lines up with his own comedic leanings in real life -- as a figurative wall and he’s hopeful his character will “let his comic guard down a little bit.” Another weakness? “He can be a little tantrum-oriented at times, but I do admire his straightforwardness and putting everything out there,” Sullivan observes. “That’s something I can personally work on better: being honest, vulnerable and in the moment as it’s happening.”
In August, Sullivan posted a curious photo of Ficarra fist-pumping in the air in video village on the This Is Us set. Innocent enough, to be sure, but it was the caption that accompanied it that caused a bit of a Twitter frenzy: “Watching them film the scene where they explain how Jack dies,” he cheekily wrote. Sullivan laughs when the photo is brought up, done in response to the fans’ line of questioning when it comes to the death of the beloved Pearson patriarch. (For the record, Sullivan wasn’t watching “anything involving Jack’s death” when the snap was taken.) Over the weekend, Sullivan stoked the fire even more with a tongue-in-cheek pic at a fan convention that featured him kneeling over co-star Milo Ventimiglia’s (Jack) faux-dead body with the caption: “WHYYYYYYYYYY?!.”
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“I have a weird sociological interest in the culture of people wanting to spoil things for themselves. I don’t know why people want to do it. I know why people want to do it for others when they’re trolling, but when people are just trying to get the information, as opposed to interacting with the story and the art, it fascinates me,” Sullivan explains. “If I told you right now how Jack dies and you put it in this article, no one would be happy to have that information. I’m just obsessed with people’s obsession with it. It’s also kind of ridiculous imagining someone cheering that scene.”
When it comes down to it, there is a bit of a love-hate that comes with navigating the Jack mystery for Sullivan and his castmates. “When it comes to engaging over the storyline, the most important thing about this [is] not how this show makes you feel, but why does this show make you feel?” he says. “There’s a difference between having feelings and taking a minute to wonder why you’re having these feelings, because feelings are information, they’re data. It’s information about what people are connecting with, about why they are connecting with it, about what they want to see right now, what they want to feel right now that they can’t feel in other places and exploring all of that is not only fascinating, but important.”
What sets This Is Us apart from other family dramas is its fearlessness in shifting the conversation when it comes to handling difficult subject matter like anxiety, adoption and overcoming loss. Asked what Toby’s journey sheds light on that hasn’t previously been a prime focus on TV, Sullivan points to his character’s attempt at “processing depression,” which was briefly touched upon in season one.
“I don’t think it’s about battling depression. I don’t think it’s about avoiding negative feelings or not being sad, it’s about acknowledging those feelings and recognizing them and moving through them,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll see a little more of his backstory and you’ll see a character who navigates that with differing levels of success at different points in his life.”
“We have a perception of being alone in those feelings or being the only person who knows what it is to feel that or the only person who knows what it is to experience that, and This Is Us is saying to everyone who watches: You are alone in nothing and we are all experiencing this life together.”
This Is Us premieres season two on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.