Phylicia Rashad won’t say exactly when she met Susan Kelechi Watson because, well, she just knows her. Rashad knows her in that way that actors know their co-stars through the heightened intimacy of their job, but she also knows her as an admirer — a fan, even.
“I know this woman,” Rashad said with a laugh, sitting next to a smiling Watson after their panel discussion at the ATX Television Festival. When asked when they met, Rashad said, “I just know her. And I enjoy her. As I’m watching episodes of ‘This Is Us’ — so effortless, so unaffected, she is.”
It’s endearing to think Rashad got to know Watson the same way many Americans did — by watching her become the oft-exasperated, ever-charming, and most compelling family member of the hit NBC drama — but it’s not true. Not exactly. Phylicia Rashad isn’t like the rest of America. Her wide-ranging resume spans the Tony-winning revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” to The Lonely Island’s HBO cycling mockumentary, “Tour de Pharmacy” — she’s at a higher tier than most anyone, and, as such, she knew Watson’s ability long before she broke out as Beth Pearson.
Rashad, an active acting instructor, was teaching master classes at Howard University while Watson was studying there, which could be why the two actors share not only immense talent, but similar attributes, habits, and a belief in each other. They share one episode out of the 18 in “This Is Us” Season 3, and yet, much like how viewers quickly fell for Beth, it was just as easy to invest in Rashad’s Carol, and then their mother-daughter team.
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“I’ve known her for a number of years, you see,” Rashad said. “I’ve watched her as she ascends these levels — as her ascent continues — and it’s really something to be in the presence of that, and to look at that in the face and work with it.”
Watson studied dance, then acting, and it’s both that bring them together again. In “Our Lonely Island Girl,” Beth goes home to visit her injured mother, Carol, and it’s there she rediscovers her love of ballet. Watson does much of her own dancing in this and future episodes, adding to an impressive season that saw Beth get the spotlight and Watson own it.
Rashad is there in support of Beth’s story, just as Beth was there in support of so many others, but both actors share a skill for inviting — at times, commanding — attention as soon as they appear onscreen. They forge bonds quickly and honestly, by listening to one another and respecting their co-stars. So, really, it’s no surprise they know each other as well as the audience knows their characters.
Just look at their initial meeting in “This Is Us.” Beth and her sister Zoe (Melanie Liburd) are on their mother’s front porch, looking for a key to get in, when Carol opens the door and asks why they made such a long trip down to see her when she’d only bruised her hip.
Watson can’t even start explaining the scene without laughing.
“When Melanie’s character tries to chime in, Phylicia’s character says, ‘Now listen‘ — checks us both,” Watson said. “And Melanie and I were like, ‘OK, nope, that’s how that’s gonna go.’ Immediately, we were there. Immediately, we had the dynamic of who Beth was, who Zoe was, and who Mama C was in this relationship. It just took those two words: ‘Now listen.’ OK, Phylicia’s in the building, let’s go.”
In return, Rashad is deferential. “I’m just responding to whatever’s happening in the moment,” she said, before shifting the focus back to Watson. “I said yes [to the part] because I’m playing Susan’s character’s mother. I didn’t see a script or anything yet. They just said, ‘We have a role we’d like to offer you, and it’s Bethany’s– Beth’s mother’ — I’m the only one who calls her Bethany — and I said yes.”
“When the other actor is present, open, and available — and is committed to telling the truth of their character — it’s always so easy for me to just be,” Watson said. “They really do half the work for you. It was a reminder of how it can be easy to enter into the [scene’s] reality when you have someone who’s ready to stand for their character and their character’s point of view, which is what I get when I act with Phylicia.”
As an example, Watson revealed that she doesn’t come into a scene with set choices of how she’ll deliver a line, or what look she’ll give her scene partner. “You need to leave [yourself] open to what the other person is going to bring, and you don’t want to force something onto the situation that’s not there,” she said. “But you come with ideas. I just want to know what I’m saying. I don’t want to break up my thoughts [in the moment] because I’m concentrating on what’s next.”
Her former instructor agrees. “Some things you feel like you have to push, and if you ever have to feel that way, it’s not a good feeling — it’s a wrong feeling, I think,” Rashad said. “There was not that feeling here at all. Just be present. That’s it.”
This kind of openness could be why Watson has earned a bigger and bigger spotlight on “This Is Us” as the writers, producers, and fans have become more and more curious about her artistry. Rather than be overshadowed by Randall (played by Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown), everyone sees Beth — and wants to see more of her.
“When ‘Our Little Island Girl’ came around, for some it felt like, ‘Finally!'” Watson said. “But I think for us, it was part of the story unfolding.”
Watson said it was important for the audience to get to know the core family members before delving into Beth’s backstory, a humble, story-first point of view that made “Our Little Island Girl” all the more special. By the time that script came in, Watson had built a backstory for the character on her own, only to see it change when her childhood love for dance was revealed.
“It was an opportunity and a challenge, because there was a lot about Beth I didn’t know going into the ‘Little Island Girl’ episode,” Watson said. “I got to incorporate what I had already [created] — the backstory I self-created — and then include this wonderful backstory I didn’t know about. […] But that was great for me because now I have all this other stuff to wrestle with that she’s wrestling with that I didn’t even realize.”
No one watching could’ve ever guessed Watson’s lack of intel — from the start, Beth has felt like a fully formed person, even as she supported her husband and the rest of the Pearsons for the first two-and-a-half seasons. Whether it was returning whatever Randall threw at her with a little extra zip or giving him an enlightened nod of understanding when he needed one, the audience connects with Beth because of Watson’s attentive work. Now, we all know Beth better than ever, even if we may never know her as well as Rashad.