This Is Us is one of those shows that has never strayed from its North star. It has a unique way of reaching through the screen every week, connecting to its audience through unforgettable moments that often feel innately personal. From the frank conversations about anxiety, transracial issues, or PTSD, creator Dan Fogelman and his team of writers never shy away from unpacking complicated issues while leaning into the beating heart of the show — its earnest sentimentality.
This past season brought new challenges no one could have predicted, with production halting in the wake of COVID. The writers used that time to tell necessary stories that were happening to Americans in real-time. Whether it was telling stories about Randall’s reckoning with his identity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder or Toby losing his job due to the economic fallout from the pandemic, in true fashion, This Is Us met the moment with us.
Emmy nominated actor Chris Sullivan plays Toby, husband to Triplett Kate, whose lovable presence is often the comedic relief. As a spouse of one of “the big three,” he’s 7th on the call sheet, but as a supporting character, he brings an observational voice that’s unmatched, often saying what the audience is thinking in reaction to Kate, Randall, and Kevin’s lives. Over the years, viewers got to see Toby beyond just being Kate’s supportive husband, as he battles depression and being a first-time father to a child with special needs. With a sudden job loss, Sullivan gets to play a story that feels essential to the everyday American.
Chris Sullivan spoke to Awards Radar about Toby’s growth, the challenges of this season, and his Emmy nomination.
Niki Cruz: Congrats on your second Emmy nomination! That has to feel great.
Chris Sullivan: It feels really nice, especially to be included on a list of my favorite actors.
NC: When the show ends, I’m waiting for that spin-off with Miguel, Beth, and Toby. I love their little Alliance as the new big three.
CS: [Laughs] Yeah, they create the first wives club!
NC: This Is Us had its work cut out for it this year. I think a lot of shows struggled with balancing COVID. Some leaned into it heavily, and others didn’t touch it and created some dissonance but This Is Us really got into a nice sweet spot where they incorporated it but it didn’t feel like a radically different show.
CS: Yeah, I think it was our responsibility to address the world as it is. That’s how Dan and the writers speak about it — they had a lot of conversations on do we or don’t we. It was only in the season before that I realized the title of our show is not just the title of our show; it’s the response that our audience has when they watch our show. This, the thing that we are watching is “us.” It’s nothing like us and it’s exactly like us, and I think, going into this last season, we had to address what was going on.
NC: It goes beyond the show and it feels like a connected community.
CS: Yeah, when you have a 14-year-old African American girl struggling with her sexual identity, and you have a 40-year-old set of twins and the other is adopted, and then to have one of them be African American and two are white, so you’re looking at what kind of conflict that creates. Those are such specific scenarios. For whatever reason, the more specific the show gets the more roads people have into connecting to it. It becomes broader the more specific it gets and that’s been really great to watch.
NC: Did you have any idea Toby’s storyline would be pretty much the centerpiece of the COVID-related storyline. Do you walk in on day one and get presented with a mapped out arc?
CS: Dan and the writers were working on this season since the lockdown. They had three or four extra months to map the season out to get all of these episodes written and even with that amount of lead time, we were still shooting two days before they went on television because things were moving so slowly. They definitely had the whole season mapped out and let us all know where it was going and how it was going to work.
NC: We’ve seen Toby really evolve over the seasons. He was there for comedy relief but now he’s this fully realized character with fears and a life, as we see, beyond Kate. What has it been like to see this character grow?
CS: Dan has joked a couple of times saying it was a testament to Chris’ ability that we give this character a heart attack in episode 10 and he’s still around [Laughs] I think that was their eject plan in case Toby wasn’t working out with the audience. The heart attack could’ve gone one way or the other and after the heart attack we went on break and people were not happy, and I was so grateful for that. When you’re number seven on the call sheet they have other storylines they need to flesh out but they finally came back to Toby and got into some of his problems and his pain with depression. I’ve said it a couple of times but I think my favorite monologue so far is the monologue that Susan Kelechi Watson gave this season about these pains and traumas of our lives — they’re the fence posts on which the rest of our lives hang. I think it was such a beautiful way to put it.
NC: That was such a great scene. Truly one of the stand out moments of the season.
CS: This is the article that needs to be published. The Emmy award committee has one more season to nominate and award Susan with every award that is available because the work she does on the show blows my mind every time. If we can understand what these fence posts are for every person we encounter in our lives we would have a much greater understanding of how people become the people they become. The writers over the season have done that for Toby, Beth, and Miguel, and it took a little while longer because we’re the supporting characters but it’s been really nice to get to know Toby.
NC: Anxiety and depression manifest in individualized and specific ways. Those fence posts just look different depending on the person. I appreciated how the writers developed that for Toby and it didn’t feel like a very ‘special’ episode.
CS: Right, and I think that’s something our writers did a really good job of avoiding over the season. As shows become popular or gained notoriety it’s very easy for a character or even a whole TV show to start impersonating itself. The writers’ room evolved and new writers come in and instead of writing for the story they start to write episodes of “This Is Us” and I don’t feel like any of our writers have done that. They’ve stayed true to the characters and the purpose and values of the story.
NC: In addition to the fantastic writing, I’m always floored by the casting department. Dan Lauria being your father makes complete sense.
CS: Yeah, our casting department is incredible. Bernard Telsey and his crew are people that I knew from the theater world back in New York and they also understand the heart of this show. It is incredible actors but the people that they get flow effortlessly in and out of our stories.
NC: They didn’t play it safe when they decided to make Toby a father. Getting to see Toby come into his own as a father to a kid with special needs, really enriches how we see Toby navigate fatherhood. The show is constantly honoring different experiences from what we’re used to seeing on television.
CS: People will say they are dedicated to diverse casting and diverse storytelling and some are more successful than others, but as we talked about, our show gets so specific. You can say there are three kinds of relationships — husband/wife, parent/child, and romantic, and the different subsets of every type of relationship that we’ve managed to explore in our show — it never feels forced. Everyone can watch this show and find themselves in it somewhere.
NC: In the season finales and premieres, we’re usually flashing forward and getting little pieces that ultimately tie into the next big event. How shocked were you to find out you are not a part of the next big flash-forward?
CS: [Laughs] I knew that was coming. Dan has laid the road for us pretty far in advance so that we don’t get too side-swiped by the twists and turns. For me, the surprises are never the flash-forwards or flashbacks, it’s how are they going to connect those dots from point A to point B? And I don’t know much about how season 6 starts but I do know Dan told Sterling [K. Brown] that writing the season premiere of season 6 is the second time he’s ever cried while writing a script. So, we’re going to welcome everyone back with a classic This Is Us style.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]