With Phylicia Rashad, ‘This Is Us’ offers a different portrait of a mother and daughter
The dynamics between mothers and daughters are well-explored territory on NBC’s hit family drama “This Is Us.” And its newest episode adds another portrait to the mix with the help of TV mom icon Phylicia Rashad.
Over the course of the show’s run, viewers have become acquainted with the pasts of most members of the Pearson family. Now Beth, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, is coming into focus.
As the strong and supportive wife of Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown), a member of the Big Three, much of Beth’s story has been in relation to her husband — this season has put their future into question. But Tuesday’s episode offers a glimpse of the girl known as Bethany to her family.
Titled “Our Little Island Girl,” the episode finds Beth, along with her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd), returning home to D.C. after her tough-loving mother, Carol “Mama C” Clarke (Rashad), injures herself. Through flashbacks, viewers will learn of Beth’s childhood ambitions of becoming a dancer and what led to her pushing her dreams aside — all of it giving some clarity to that flash-forward moment from the fall finale that showed Beth keeping watch over a ballet class.
The episode also brings Watson and Rashad full circle. The pair first came to know each other when Rashad, who has had an active acting career since the end of “The Cosby Show,” including a recent run on “Empire,” was teaching master classes at Howard University, where Watson was a fine arts major.
“She was so young and so delicate and yet so strong in a very very quiet way,” Rashad recalls. “I remember her scene as Desdemona. That moment when Othello was about to kill her — it stays with me.”
Rashad and Watson talked about the complexities of mother-daughter dynamics, how hindsight brings a greater appreciation for one’s parents and the importance of representation.
Susan, as the person playing Beth, how did it feel to finally delve into her backstory?
Watson: I’ve been intimate with Beth for three years and I didn’t realize how much about her I had yet to know. And so it was such a great opportunity to go deeper with her. To fill in some of the blanks. Her story is so unique and so very specific, and that was so exciting to me — that they really delved into not only where she comes from, and her life goals, and what her disappointments have been, but also the psychology of what makes Bethany Beth.
But it was a challenging episode for me. I’m used to Beth being able to express herself pretty freely — if she has an opinion, she finds a way to put it out there, and is sort of bold in that way. Even though I never feel that way, it’s the way she’s interpreted. And she’s not like that around her mama. It was great, because there was a very strong feeling of discomfort. She’s not being the woman that she is in her own house. And she has to conform and be something that works for this environment. So that was really challenging.
The Huxtables on “The Cosby Show” were considered by many to be a groundbreaking portrayal of a black family. And some see that depiction carry on through Beth and Randall Pearson. What are your feelings on the significance of these portrayals?
Rashad: First of all, they’re truthful. They’re truthful because these are the families from which we have come. Susan comes from such a family. I come from such a family. There are so many people who come from families like this, and it’s important that their truth be seen. You know. That’s the first thing I would say.
Watson: One of the first things that I said to people when they say, “How do you feel about a family being seen this way?” I say it feels normal. And I say, I’m enjoying that people see that we’re normal. I’ll say this: I think black people are not as surprised. I think it surprised everybody else.
This episode highlights a complex mother-daughter relationship, one that is very different from the Kate and Rebecca dynamic or even the kind Beth has with her own daughters —
Watson: One of the most complicated relationships is a mother-daughter relationship. The idea of sacrificing certain things in a relationship for what you deem as most valuable or what you’ve been taught is most valuable. I like that we showed the strengths in a mother, a mother who wanted the best for her kids. A sort of dominant strength without demonizing. At no point are you confused that this mother doesn’t love her kids. She’s just loving them in the best way that she knows how. And that’s a generational thing, and it changed from generation to generation as we learned more about how to express ourselves and express our love. We learn what we don’t want to do from our parents or we do want to do.
And to see Beth, who is usually a strong woman who speaks her mind, become someone who, once she gets around her mom, finds that very difficult to be … I think that’s such a true dynamic, right?
Rashad: It’s a true dynamic, a true dynamic. And I enjoyed very much the exclamation of a very firm idea [of Mama C’s parenting] and conviction that proved it ain’t necessarily so. It was not necessarily the best way, and that she could be vulnerable enough, honest enough, loving enough, to accept that and to admit it to her daughter. Because that’s not easy.
Ms. Rashad, who is Mama C to you?
Rashad: Oh, she says very clearly who she is. She was reared in a time where educating a woman was a little bit doubtful — certainly doubtful in her mother’s time. Many intelligent, competent women would not render the benefit of common education [to their daughters] because of the time in which she lived and the social climate. It’s a very myopic point of view in terms of her development and progression as a woman. And then she meets this man, who would become her husband, who is just not like that. He’s really earnest and honest and he’s hardworking. He’s devoted. But he laughs. And he doesn’t take everything so seriously. ‘Cause he can’t take a chance on something. So it kinda balances her in way.
As you got older, how did your views of your parents change?
Rashad: When you’re an adolescent, you’re looking at things you want to do and you’re told, “No, you’re not gonna do that.” You’re not happy about that at all. Not happy about that at all and you don’t quite understand what that was all about. And then there comes a day when it just ... The cycle of life is turned on and all of a sudden you understand that everything that was being decided upon and everything you were being said no to, was really for your well-being.
Watson: I pray for everyone the day that they realize their parents are really just doing the best they could, given what they had at the time when they had it.
Were you able to draw on your own experiences of how your parents reacted to you wanting to pursue a life in the arts?
Watson: My parents were all right. They just wanted me to have a backup. They just thought, “That’s nice. That’s a dream. And if you want to have that dream, that’s fine. But make sure you’re doing something for real.” Something that backs it up so you can make a living. And they weren’t wrong. ‘Cause I struggled for many years. They weren’t wrong. But I was just very right in my own head.
I will say, there’s this amazing moment between when Mamma C and Beth where Beth says to her, “I’m strong because of you.” And in that moment, I felt more of a Susan-Phylicia thing. I’ve always looked up to her path and what she’s gone through and come through as an artist, as a woman … and continuing to go through, because she’s not stopping any time soon. And then for me to say, “I’ve watched that and I’m strong in this because of you and what you’ve given me. The wisdom you’ve passed down. The legacy you’ve built.” That was a big moment. When people talk about representation of all these things, and the need for it, it’s why it’s so important, because these things need to be passed down. I thought about that and about my own mother and the strength that she has passed down to me. My mom’s one of the strongest women you’ll want to meet. But, yeah, my parents got on board with the acting once they saw me do it.
Rashad: When I was 4, we knew. My father was a dentist, my mother was a poet. And so I grew up in a very unconventional circumstances. And it was no surprise to my father — when I was in high school, it was very clear to him the direction that I would take. He said, “Well, this is where you’re going to school. You’re going to Howard University and you’re going to enroll in Howard University College of Fine Arts.” And I said, “Well, I want to apply to such and such and such” and he said, “You can apply wherever you want, but this is where you’re going.” And he was right, he was right. So they were strong in their support all the way.
Susan, how does connecting the dots on Beth’s upbringing change or reinforce the character you’ve been playing all along?
Watson: I always felt like she was an artist. In Season 1, she gets high with William off the brownies and they talk in the back yard and she says, “I thought I was gonna be this artist who lived in this loft, who didn’t get married,” and this and that. So I always felt that about her. Randall was the more 9-to-5, tightly wound one, and she just had a looseness about her. She may work in urban development, but she was this artist at heart. I just always felt that about her. So it didn’t surprise me. I was happy to learn it was dance, because I’ve studied dance most of my life, so that was something that was gonna be really fun for me to play.
We know this is a show that jumps forward and backward. Do you hold the door open to return, Ms. Rashad?
Rashad: Oh, you never close a good door. You always keep a good door open.
Watson: Believe me, the first thing I said after we finished, I said, “Will you come back? Will you come back?”
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