‘This Is Us’ Season 2 Winter Finale: Sterling K. Brown on ‘Lighter’ Randall, Saying Goodbye to Deja, Cliffhanger With Kevin

THIS IS US -- "Number Three"
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Number Three,” the Nov. 28 winter finale of “This Is Us” Season 2.

The first season of “This Is Us” saw Randall (Sterling K. Brown) dealing with his biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones) not only coming into his life for the first time when he was already a grown man, but also preparing to say goodbye to the man he was just getting to know. In many ways, that experience prepared Randall for what he’s been going through in the second season, bringing foster child Deja (Lyric Ross) into his home temporarily, only to have to say goodbye to her when her biological mother got out of jail and reclaimed her.

But Randall has learned that as smart as he is — and as much as he likes to always have a plan in place — curveballs will get thrown his way. Upon the show’s return, he’ll have to deal with his brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), getting arrested for a DUI while his oldest daughter was in the backseat, along with the question of his next foster kid and whatever baggage he might bring.

Here, Brown talks with Variety about the events of Season 2’s winter finale, including how Randall will react to Kevin’s DUI, whether Deja will return to the Pearson home, and what’s in store for the Super Bowl episode.

The audience finally learned why William stayed out of Randall’s life even after he got clean. How did that feel, and why do you think it was important to tell that story now?

I think I was waiting all season for a little Randall-William time! Ron Cephas Jones is not only one of my favorite actors on the planet, he’s also one of my favorite people on this planet. And any opportunity I have to spend some time with him is always time well-spent. He was given this beautiful piece of dialogue to deliver, illuminating the backstory and missed opportunity he had to be connected to his son — but also recognizing that he had been out of that framework for such an extensive period of time, did he have the right to insert himself against the wishes of the parents who were rearing [Randall] for the past 10 years? Randall recalling that immediately after [recalling] the aftermath of finding out his mom knew who his biological father was and wrestling with that information had him taking all of the information and saying, “Now what do I do?” He’s in the position of the parent now. “How do I affect the trajectory of this young one’s life? Where should she be? Where does she deserve to be?” He’s in such a unique position because he has real empathy towards himself and Beth and what they can provide for this young lady, but also for the biological parent in Shauna. It takes him time to come from a place without judgement to say, “If Shauna is willing and wanting to be a part of her child’s life, we have to give her that opportunity.”

Do you think he could have come to that decision without that story from William?

I would like to think that he would have because you have two people in Shauna and Deja who wish to be reunited. So just given that simple fact, I would like to think he’d be able to remove himself from the situation enough to say, “I can’t come between two people who want to be together.” But the wise old owl that is William Hill always helps to make the decision!

No one in the episode ever actually asks Deja what she wants, though.

I think there were earlier iterations where versions of that conversation took place, but I think we know what she wants just based on her calming her mom down and telling her everything was going to work out. So it’s not a question of whether or not Beth and Randall are aware of what Deja wants, it’s a question of whether or not this 12-year-old girl is able to make the best decision for herself at this time. I don’t think either one of us were confused as to where she stands, it just took some time to get on the same page.

Will Randall check in on Deja down the line?

I’ve not shot anything with young Miss Lyric Ross at this point in time, so I’d have to go check with my writers.

Randall was hesitant to go through with bringing an older child into their home at first. How do you think his experience with Deja affected where he stands now?

I think as difficult as things had been with Deja, she had his heart when it was all said and done, and they recognize collectively, Beth and Randall, that the resources they have and the desire they have can help someone else. Whether or not that’s going to be on a temporary basis, and regardless of the baggage is that they come with, they have an opportunity to be of service. And usually what ends up happening is it’s a mutually edifying experience if you’re willing to see it through, so I think at this point in time he’s on board.

Randall and Beth talked about bringing a little boy into the home next, and there was a glimpse at one who needs a home. How soon will they get that call?

You won’t see it immediately after the break. The payoff to this is really lovely, and I love the way our writers can layer it in. I can tell you that you get a chance to see the fruition of that happen with our Super Bowl episode.

Randall has been in some tense situations this season, and yet he also feels a bit lighter, a bit looser. To what do you attribute to that most?

The storyline between William and Randall was huge last year; the impending loss of a parent has weight. You know, cancer is one of the weightiest things we have to deal with as a society, and William was not going to go into some kind of miraculous remission, so we knew we were going to have to deal with death. So yeah, there has been more lightness, even though we see them opening their home to a new child and that has inherent drama to it. The show has a whole has gone to some really dark and interesting places [but] my trajectory isn’t that right now. Randall is sort of the stable one; he’s a galvanizing force; people come to his house for Thanksgiving, for Christmas; Kevin comes to his house when he reaches rock bottom, he wants to share with him. It can’t be the same year in and year out. I love Randall’s tendency towards joy and to bring joy to his family, and the things that are so beautiful about him are that when the rug gets pulled out, it really affects him deeply. And I love being corny as much as the next person!

How many of those quote-unquote corny lines are your adlibs?

I know I’ve done some of them, and some of them make the episodes and some of them don’t. I know the first episode of the season I did a “That’s what she said,” and that was me, I think. I know there’s more. As far as writing goes, I say about 88% that’s on the page and then there’s about 12% that we find in the moment to make even tastier.

This trio of episodes really shined a light on how the kids were treated in regards to their birth order. How much of that do you think Randall internalized?

All three of them have their own different versions of how their childhoods were and how their parents favored one versus the other. In my family, as a young black man I was told, often times, that you have to work twice as hard to get just as far, so I think when you have an opportunity to experience how the world will receive your brother and sister and then how the world will receive you, a perfect example is Rebecca’s mother always referring to the twins and how handsome Kevin is and always trying to give Randall a basketball. This woman doesn’t see me, but never underestimate the intelligence of a child because they understand way more than we ever give them credit for, and they can internalize those sorts of things. The world may be easier for Kevin because he just looks like Kevin, so Randall has to do all of these other things to be seen in the way that Kevin just shows up and is effortlessly praised. One perspective is not right or wrong, but we all have a way of seeing the world in a way that serves us, and I think Randall is as guilty of that as anybody else.

Randall had a breakthrough moment as a teenager in this episode, first in his experience visiting Howard University and then in his ability to articulate that experience to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). How did getting this nugget of backstory line up with what you had already created in your mind for him?

Howard was one of the schools that I applied to and visited its campus. I went to a school, similar to Randall, where I was one of a handful of black students amongst a sea of white kids, and so that experience of stepping onto Howard University’s campus and the uniqueness of not being the minority and seeing people who look like you was important. He is a young man in search of a place of belonging. He loves his family, but he knows he’s adopted, and he has tremendous things to offer in terms of his mind and his mathematical abilities and his heart, but he just wants to know where is his place? Where does he fit like hand in glove? Where it doesn’t have to be massaged or explained. To be on that campus, it brought me such joy to see because I know that so well, and it fit pretty much part and parcel for how I see Randall’s journey and how he came to choose Beth as a partner in life. That felt like it was home. You could have imagined he’d choose a woman just like Rebecca, but he didn’t, and now we’re starting to see some of the experiences that led him towards Beth.

At the end of the episode Randall says he’s going to “kill” his brother, who gets a DUI with his daughter in the car. Is he going to stay angry or will he want to help his brother get better?

I think it’s more of the former but trying to be the latter. I think there’s the recognition that his brother was there for him when he needed him, and so he wants to be present for him — the caveat being, he endangered my child and anytime you endanger somebody’s child, it’s going to be hard to be your most gracious self. So when we revisit the relationship between the two brothers, there’s a tension, but Randall’s doing the best he can to be present for his brother, who’s going through one of the worst times of his life.

“This Is Us” returns with new episodes Tuesday, Jan. 2 at 9 p.m. on NBC.