Susan Kelechi Watson on Co-Writing an Episode of ‘This Is Us’

Susan Kelechi Watson portrays Beth Pearson in the award-winning and critically acclaimed drama, This Is Us. The show is currently on its sixth and final season. New episodes of the final chapter premiere Tuesdays at 9 PM ET on NBC. The following interview will contain spoilers for episode 6×06, “Our Little Island Girl: Part Two.”

Everyone has a family. And every family has a story. This Is Us chronicles the Pearson family across the decades: from Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) as young parents in the 1980s to their kids (the big three), Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) searching for love and fulfillment in the present day along with Toby (Chris Sullivan) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). This grounded, life-affirming dramedy reveals how the tiniest events in our lives impact who we become, and how the connections we share with each other can transcend time, distance, and even death.

I had the opportunity to speak with the actress about co-writing and co-producing episode 6×06, her personal favorite moment, how This Is Us brings families together, what she hopes Beth’s legacy is, which storyline she’s most excited for fans to see in the final season, and much more. Keep reading to find out what she shared!

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

This episode really touched me. It was beautiful. I know you co-wrote it, so can you tell me a little bit about that process? Did you know the storyline going into it?
Susan Kelechi Watson: Well, when I first started writing after Dan asked me to write on this episode, I started with Eboni Freeman, who’s my co-writer, and Kay Oyegun was also on that call, who is a writer in the writer’s room as well and one of the producers on the show. They gave me an outline and Eboni walked me through the outline of what the episode was about because they had written the episode in the writer’s room sometime before. It was like, okay, well you’re gonna write this half, Eboni is gonna write the other half and walk away. Then we were going to come back together with our two halves, put them together, and rewrite. So it was about two days that I took. They gave me five, but I wrote out my half in like two days because I could just hear the characters in my head. And look, there was like a hurricane in New York at the time, it was in August and all the strange weather was happening in New York, so there wasn’t anywhere to go. So I literally wrote for like hours straight, five or six hours each day, I wrote straight. That’s really how it started.

It started from the outline, and then I mean, I took it from there. Then we bought our parts together, rewrote together, went through it, touched up lines, and then sent out a draft and people got back to us with notes. After that, it was in the works and it went to the studio and network to read, it goes back into the writer’s room and people do their passes at it. Dan does a pass at it, we add more notes, and we do rewrites. So there’s just so much that goes into it. I thought I was going to be writing for those five days and it turned out I was writing for the next two months, but very, very cool.

It was definitely worth it. I imagine while both filming and writing it, you have this picture in your head of what it looks like. What was it like to see it all come to life and play out?
It was amazing. I got to be in front of the camera and behind the camera because when you’re writing, you end up co-producing on the episode. So it was fantastic being behind the camera because I got to see the cast do amazing work. They were just knocking it out of the park and I so enjoyed that. It just felt… I don’t know, I really took a breath every time I came behind the camera and felt so at ease to just be able to hear it come to life. Then there’s a little part of you like, “Oh my God, does this line even work,” and you hear an actor make it work you’re like, “Oh, yeah, okay, that sounds great.” That’s really cool, too. So yeah, the whole collaboration of it, I thought it was just going to be writing but it actually turns out to be kind of writing and producing it felt like, and I love producing as well. So it was a great opportunity.

Do you have any personal favorite moments from the episode? There are so many great ones.
Wow, that’s a good question. In the end watching it, I think I like, it’s a small moment, when I’m on the phone with Goran, who is my ballet teacher from the past and he is basically asking, “well, what made you call?” I’m talking to him, I’m trying to get the words out, and I kind of take this little breath to try to get the courage to say it. I do start speaking, it’s in kind of a small voice, but I do start speaking. What I love about that moment is that it mirrors something that Rachel did, playing teenage Beth, where she tries to tell him at the bar, what she’s feeling. She takes that same breath as if about to say something and nothing comes out. So I love the fact that it wouldn’t come out as a teenager, but it came out, she kind of had the courage and it came out in the small voice as an adult. Then as she speaks it gets stronger. So it’s one of those small probably actor things.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Those are always the most beautiful moments though, right?
Yeah, but it was just sort of this beautiful mirroring moment and neither of us knew the other was doing that. It wasn’t scripted that way. It’s just the way she played it and the way that I played it. I shot that scene out before I think she did her scene. So she would have never known that I did it.

What is a lesson that you hope audiences get from this episode?
I think to let go in however you need to of the thing that you may be holding on to that’s bringing you shame or making you feel like you have to hide a part of yourself in some way and making you feel less than like you can’t shine. She does that, she releases that ghost from the past, but also understanding that your greatest triumph might not come from you being in the spotlight. It might be that you’re in the wings and being there for somebody. There are all these different positions in the world that we can play and I know that everybody in this day and age feels the most important one is to be sort of seen in the spotlight, but I don’t think that that’s the reality. I think the reality is that you can be in the wings or in the background and be so powerful, be so necessary, and be so validated in helping others. Whenever you give in that way, it always gives something back to you, it’s just universal law. And sort of forging the path that feels authentic to you, even if it’s never been forged. Beth created this role for herself out of the need that she knew she had for it when she was at that age. So, using past experiences, even if they felt scarring or damaging, can really help you innovate a new experience that could help others. There’s a lot of little gems in there that I hope people come away with.

This Is Us is a show that generations can enjoy together, which is rare on television right now. My mom and grandparents were the ones that introduced me to the show and now we watch it together weekly. What does it mean to you that your work, character, and the show itself can bring families together like that?
Oh, everything! The family unit is where everything starts, right? I remember growing up, I remember the shows that bought me in front of the television with my family, and you bond in those moments, even if you’re not speaking. A year from then you’ll say a line that you guys all remember and it brings you right back into a moment where you’re all together, and you feel that love, you feel that happiness, or in the case of our show, maybe the sadness. But you’ll feel that moment all over again and you shared it with people that you love or people you’re trying to connect to. How often do we get to connect to our families once we become adults? It’s not an everyday occurrence once you are out of the house. It really is something. I’ve had a young girl who was my biggest supporter and fan, and she was only like 11. My nieces and nephews told me, when they were in sixth grade, they had friends in their school, who had a little roundtable after Tuesday’s on the next Wednesday. They would talk about the show, they had like kids groups. It’s like, “what?!” So it just really runs the gamut. It really does and it’s so phenomenal to be a part of. It’s really something special, truly grateful for it.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Oh my gosh, that’s so sweet. As sad as I am that the show is coming to an end, I am just so excited to see everything that is coming. What do you hope the legacy for either the show or your character is when the show does, unfortunately, end?
I know. I hope that women will have seen themselves in the part of Beth. She was really meant to be, for what I was hoping to create, was an every woman. Somebody that any woman could see themselves in and she’s a woman who lived in the suburbs, lived in the inner cities, she has her own hopes, her own dreams, a husband, kids. I hope that they see something of themselves in that because there probably is. She’s really a culmination of a lot of observations that I’ve made in my life with other women and particularly for Black women. I am just so extraordinarily grateful to be a Black woman in this world. There’s nothing else I’d choose to be. So I hope that we see a lot of love for ourselves in Beth.

Is there anything you want to take from the set when you wrap?
I keep telling folks, I was looking at rugs in there yesterday. I’m decorating my house, so I was like, “I don’t know, can I get this rug out of here?” Then I saw a nice armoire and I was like, “How’s that gonna be, getting that out of here?” I just keep looking for the most expensive things and hoping they wouldn’t notice. It’s not about sentiments for me, I’m just looking for what would be fly in my house. I’m telling you, don’t let them let me in there with some kind of truck. I’ll empty it out.

There are still a lot of questions that fans have, so without giving too much away, which question or storyline are you most excited for them to find out the answers to in this final season?
Toby and Kate, how their marriage ends. It’s incredible. I mean, it’s so moving and you really see sort of the deterioration of this couple. It’s so sad and yeah, it’s something. I will say, I’ve read it and without giving away too much, they’re going to be incredible in it, both Chrissy and Chris. I’m excited for fans to see that.

I’m not ready for that. I’m already grabbing my tissues.
I know. Listen, I won’t say too much but reading it, I wasn’t ready.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Do you have a memory just from filming this season that you feel like you’re gonna hold on to a little extra tight when you finish?
I think definitely the memories of doing episode six, the memories of being with the cast. Honestly, it’s been mostly hanging out with them is the memories, I’m gonna hold on to, those moments of the downtime that we have. So it’s kind of like the in-between scenes, which are turning out to be the times where I feel the most that I’m holding on to even more than I had before.

The love that fans have for this show is just amazing and part of that is because you are all telling these stories in a real way. So many people and viewers can relate to This Is Us. Is there a fan experience that stands out to you or really moved you?
Yeah, there’s been a lot that I’ve been told over the years. There’s stories of people who have adopted because of the show, there’s stories of people who have reached out to — I remember a young man said that he reached out to his birth mother that he wasn’t speaking with, the show made him reach out, get back in touch with them, and start a relationship with them again– people whose siblings weren’t talking to each other, they reached out. Then there was a particular story of someone who was transitioning from this life and it was sort of sudden, but they knew that there wasn’t anything else that could be done. They asked that their friend, who was in the room with them, play This Is Us on the television, while that was happening. So I thought that was really deeply sad, but it was very moving that somebody would think that that would be their comfort at that time. So it runs the gamut.

The power of television and representation in these stories you tell is really unreal. Does that ever amaze you when you take a step back and look at the impact?
Yeah, but I think it is the power of the art itself, film and television. It’s created to kind of reflect our lives as best we can or give us an escape from it. So there’s a part of you that attaches in that emotional way because you’re looking for one of those things. If you do it well, then people really do attach to it and feel a connection to it. And look, I’ve done it with stuff that maybe doesn’t even do it that well but there’s something about it that I like. So I’m grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to just have great scripts, great people in the front and behind the camera, especially during the time with the pandemic and all of that, people are really looking for connection. It’s good to have a show that’s all about connection.

Is there something about the character of Beth that you’re going to carry with you either in your personal life or acting-wise?
One thing I’m gonna carry with me from Beth is that I think she’s a very understanding woman. People really appreciate that. So that has taught a lot, people appreciate somebody whose first instinct isn’t to be judgmental, to try to understand where that person is coming from. She definitely has an opinion, but I think her first thing is you’ve got to be understanding and I like that about her. So she’s taught me that.