Sterling K. Brown and Uzo Aduba on Tackling Therapy on TV and How Events of 2020 Influenced ‘This Is Us’ and ‘In Treatment’

Sterling K. Brown Uzo Aduba
Brown: Mark Mann; Aduba: Robert Maxwell/CPi Syndication

“Game recognizes game.”

That’s how Uzo Aduba (“In Treatment”) and Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) said their goodbyes when Variety brought them together to talk about their Emmy-nominated roles work. But we saw it fitting to declare that right at the top so there aere no misconceptions about what a singular talent each is.

Aduba is a three-time prior Emmy winner, including just last year for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm in “Mrs. America.” She is back on the Emmy ballot for portraying Dr. Brooke Taylor on HBO’s continuation of the aforementioned early-aughts drama — but for the first time, she is in a lead category. Brown, a two-time Emmy winner, is seeing his fifth consecutive nom for his role of Randall Pearson on NBC’s family drama (which garnered him one of his wins). He is also a double nominee this year, also up in the narrator category.

Aduba and Brown have known each other for years, but never have their roles shared so many similarities. While she plays a therapist, his character has been going to therapy; both are leading the charge in representation for Black characters in that space on TV. They also both completed seasons during the turmoil of 2020 that brought the hot topics of 2020 into the storylines, including the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and cancel culture.

Deep work inspires deep conversation.

Since therapy can be such a sensitive subject matter, what was the research process like for you to understand sessions overall versus specific behaviors your characters might have to embody within them?

Uzo Aduba: I go to therapy, but I also happen to know three therapists intimately: one of my cousins is a practicing psychiatrist and licensed psychotherapist, and I have friends and a teacher who’s a license therapist. And so, I really talked to them about what the insides of it [are] and just borrowed from the three of them. One of my friends had talked a lot about vulnerability of space — creating a space for the patient to feel open to speak and share. And her poker face, as she called it, was finding the best place of her heart to be open; that was actually how she was able to sit without judgment in front of someone and give enough, which I thought was an interesting aspect. Another one of my friends is in a disclosure practice and uses experience to help the patient and that was another layer. And then I have another friend who does dress.

Sterling K. Brown: The clothes were killer!

Aduba: My therapist doesn’t look like this, but I do know one who does, so those were the roots of it. And to be honest with you, as I’m sitting in the material for work, something that started to come to me was, I don’t necessarily think it’s a performance; to listen and to be actively listening, there is something in the exercise of what we do, to some degree, that was a shorthand of vocabulary that you could find to sitting there and staying open to somebody who’s giving you a big share. I’m familiar with that feeling [of being] as open to them and their share as you possibly can. Do you know what an impact it is to see a Black man in therapy — and doing it with the fullness of heart?

Brown: I do recognize it and sometimes it gets reflected back to me in the most lovely ways. Men will come up to me and be like, “You know what, bruh? I was not sure if I was comfortable sharing intimate details of my life with a stranger” — because that’s how a lot of people can see therapy — “and then watching Randall on his journey of self-discovery made me realize this may be something worth taking a chance on.” I’ve had that happen more than a couple of times, and it breaks my heart in the most beautiful way possible because until you see it sometimes, you don’t know that it’s a possibility for you. But when you put it out there in the world, it cracks people’s minds open: “OK if Randall can do it, maybe I’ll give it a shot.” So I thank you for saying that, I thank our writers for giving me the opportunity to embody this character and to show that there is a strength in vulnerability. I think that’s the most important part — that being a strong man doesn’t mean being silent, doesn’t mean being stoic; it means embracing your feelings, living with them, recognizing that you need help and reaching out for the help that is necessary. ​I’m wondering in the therapy sessions with the character that [John Benjamin Hickey] embodied, coming from a place of non-judgment, was that an easy thing to do for the character, or did it take work on her part?

Aduba: It takes work on her part. And what was interesting for me, and I think for Brooke, was ear-tuning. She is here to help her patients become closer to their authentic truth; that is her job. And because you cannot divorce yourself from the world — she’s still a woman, she’s still a Black woman and before she was ever a therapist she was both of those things — her life and experience is, in some parts, used to service her patients. And so, what became a character piece for me was this exploration of how you treat someone and what is treatment? Because how’s she’s going to hear something from Colin, JBH’s character, might ring differently in her ears as something that needs treating than it might have were it in the ears of Paul Weston, Gabriel Byrne’s character, who moves through the world in a different way. What she chooses to zero in on — and at the end of the day she’s been through the pandemic, the world change, uprising, the reckoning that has happened — it becomes a different responsibility, her work, to handle and manage those things.

Brown: So much amazing content was born out of this pandemic. I think your show really zeroed in on what everyone was going through at that time and how we were all just trying to find our mutual coping mechanisms, community, to make it through a time that seemed like it was never going to come to an end. And in talking to our writers, [creator Dan] Fogelman specifically, he said, “I think that we have a unique opportunity to address the pandemic through our show, to address what’s happening in terms of Black Lives Matter — especially having a character raised by a white family who’s always been trying to figure it out, is he black enough; is he enough? Sterling is an avid fan of therapy. Our therapist will work with me, will work with my wife, will work with our family depending on what’s needed at that time. And there’s a few sessions where it’s just me and my son, which was just so powerful. It’s so wonderful because, as a parent during this time, I felt like I am losing the father game right now. Because when you have a little boy, asking him to go to school for six hours a day in front of a camera is not his favorite thing in the world. And so you’re constantly trying to be like, “Hey man, let’s pay attention,” and he’s got on YouTube and he’s got on Netflix and he’s doing all this other stuff. So I needed to talk to somebody who said, “You are not the only person who is going through this.” In terms of Randall, specifically, he had Pamela Adlon as therapist at the end of last year [and she] really helped him hone in on this idea that his mother’s absence meant something — his story was incomplete. He thought it was complete. I think the thing about therapy, which can be fascinating, is that you don’t know what your blind spots are into somebody goes, “Have you ever considered this?” “Oh shit. Is that a thing? I didn’t even know that was there.” And so, he finds this Black therapist, but more than anything else, he gives him the courage and incentive to say, “You’ve been putting puzzle pieces together all your life — with William, with seeking out this Black woman that you’ve chosen to share your life with, to have these beautiful children. Why not go ahead and finish the job?” And so, it was really that permission to do that. I don’t know if he would have taken it. He had so much tied up into the idea that if she’s alive and she had been alive for all this time, why didn’t she see me? One of the things for me as an actor is that we all consider the world from our unique perspective because we’re at the center of it, and then for a second you have to go, “Well what was her world? What was she going through?” And the discovery that she hadn’t just abandoned him but was taken away from him — that the mistakes she made in her life took her away for five years. In my own family, my brother has had DUIs, et cetera, he had the privilege of going to therapy and working through his problems without any incarceration, without the system telling him that he was relegated to another part of society. It was a really wonderful moment for Randall to be like, “All right, it’s not about me. Let me step into what this woman’s world was and have some empathy for her.” And then to recognize there’s something very soulful about that connection. Randall is a pragmatist, a five senses kind of guy, so to touch base with someone in his family whose spirit was so big and who allowed spirit to be first, I think was a beautiful thing for him as a character because it’s hard to be anxious and faithful simultaneously. And I think this journey through his mother and learning her story allowed him access to faith that he hasn’t had before, that may help him release from the anxiousness with which he lives his life.

Aduba: Did you find that from end the of [Season] 4 into [Season] 5 to the end of 5 is a different Randall?

Brown: I think so. And then they can write a whole bunch of shit that they’re like, “No.” Sometimes you take a step forward and then you take two steps back, but I hope so. I think for at least 4-and-a-half years there’s been this pursuit of perfection that is not just an option — I think he has to do it in order for him to feel like he is enough, in order to feel like he is worthy of the love of his mother and father, brothers and sisters, of the Black community at large. And then he’s seeing his daughter live with a certain amount of anxiousness and anxiety as well, coming to terms with your own identity, and wondering, is this something that he’s passed along to her? It’s one thing when it’s just your problem, and I’ll put that in quotation marks. But when you see the way in which you’re leading your life is affecting the people that you love as well, then that may be a greater incentive towards change. My greatest hope for him is peace because people have watched that character and they’ve recognized aspects of themselves in him. And I’ve appreciated the fact that he’s been able to maintain forward momentum in the midst of living with anxiety, but I ultimately wish for him peace. And I think he’s on the road to that. But this is a great segue because Brooke is a great therapist but then we learn she’s in AA, so what did you do in terms of familiarizing yourself with that?

Aduba: I will preserve the sanctity of that space because there’s definitely that [aspect to AA], but the starting root for myself was I did have an understanding, unfortunately of what her pain looked like.

Brown: Specifically rooted in the loss of a parent?

Aduba: Yes. I had just lost my mother when I started this project. I sent her home on the Friday, November 13 and I got on a plane on the 14th. And every single time I say that, I have to be like, “Thank you so much, HBO” because we were actually supposed to start a month before that, and they were like, “We will wait.” My mother had been ill. And so, it was crazy because when the project came to me, it felt like it was, “Who let you in!? How can you see me?” It was so wild, and I was like, “Is this something I’m ready to jump into?” This is a story about a woman who’s losing her way after having suffered the loss of a parent, and I knew that that was going to become my story. And so, for me when I started with it, I knew what that pain was — I understood what it feels like and can look like to lose track of your pain.

Brown: Did it make it feel too close or did it feel like an opportunity to work through something?

Aduba: Honestly it felt like a little bit of all of the above, but firstly and mostly at times it felt reticent because it felt a little too close. I’d never played or done anything that felt, in terms of time and chronology, so aligned with my own life. I’d had proximity to things my characters were going through before, but I was able to create more space in the playing of it. Whereas, this woman is living in her grief and I am living in my grief. So, it did not feel comfortable a lot of the time in the beginning. And I was trying to figure out all of these ways around it, quite frankly, and then I just was like, “Whatever the thing is that is needed here, you’re going to have to offer it.” I was also curious about the exposing of it and the safety of it [because] I don’t know what lives on the other side of that. I had never done anything this close before, and is this going to be maddening? This is a person who’s really trying every day, fighting to hold it together, and I know what that looks like, I know what that feels like, so do what this calls for and see what comes out on the other side. By the end of it, I would not say that I was or am healed, because that’s too much to put on a project, but I found it healing. It provided me somewhere to put a lot of feelings I didn’t know where to put. How close for you were some of the things [Randall] had to work through to your own life experience at the time?

Brown: When we came back with our premiere, it was one of the most interesting discussions online that I’ve ever seen [around] an episode of “This Is Us.” There was a strong group of people who appreciated us illuminating what life was like for the Pearsons in the midst of the pandemic and in the midst of the social unrest that was transpiring, not only here in the United States but in the world at large. Never in our lifetime had we seen such a coalition of people from all walks of life chanting, “Black Lives Matter,” and it meant something to me that our show was talking about it. Randall was such a unique opportunity — to have been a part of a white family that eschewed talking about the ugliest facets of life for a couple of reasons — maybe they just didn’t know what to say or were afraid of saying the wrong thing. And there were folks who said, “Thank you for doing that.” But then there were people who were like, “If I wanted to know what was going on in the world, I’d watch the news. I watch TV to escape what’s happening in the world and you all just lost a viewer.” That perspective was illuminated quite frankly, and I was like, “OK, then it’s not for you.” But it was an opportunity, if you wanted it, to see something from another perspective and maybe grow in empathy in that way. Going through the pandemic I had this naive notion that racism could be put on hold: We’d have a kumbaya moment, the world will come together, we’ll defeat this thing, and THEN the world will get back to business as usual. [Laughs.] And then that was not the case. There was Ahmaud Arbery, there was Breonna Taylor, there was George [Floyd], and it happened back-to-back with visual evidence of two of those incidents in front of the world for public consumptionm and it even felt like because there was little distraction happening, people paid attention to it in the way they might not have if life was going on as normal. And I had a multitude of friends who were white who said, in the most loving way, “If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.” And in their minds, it was just one person reaching out to show that they were there, but from my perspective, I had like 50 white people like, “What do I do?” And I’m trying to figure out what to do! And I think that conversation that Randall and Kate had in the beginning of the season was a wonderful example of, “I know you mean well, but if I’m responsible for taking care of you in this moment, then where does that leave me?” And then the contentiousness between these two brothers — Kev and Randall — it parallels things happening in my own life with my brother, in terms of, “How do we treat an older parent who you can see Father Time, Mother Time is coming in and trying to stake their claim?” People have different perspectives on that, and it can cause some friction, and that got planted in the show as well.