William’s death on This Is Us was one of the most emotional scenes this season. Consider Ron Cephas Jones’s heartbreaking and emotionally devasting performance in your Emmy® voting.
Ron Cephas Jones is on the East Coast filming Season 2 of Luke Cage. He’s taking a moment to talk about how I share the same name as his daughter Jasmine Cephas Jones and some nicknames. Hamilton fans will know her as the original Peggy Schuyler. He is a proud father. We chat about his love for Jazz music, which leads us onto NBC’s This Is Us.
Cephas Jones stars as William on the smash hit show of the year. He plays Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) biological father. As the season progresses, we learn William is battling Stage 4 cancer. As we learn more about his character, we learn about how he abandoned young Randall at a bus stop. After being reunited with Randall, we learn his fate. Like William, we don’t give up. We have faith because his spirit is just too damn awesome, but this is that show that sets social media alight each week. And, well, William and Randall have a tear-jerking, rip your heart out trip to Memphis, and well, William dies. Cue ugly crying.
Speak to him, and you’ll be inspired. I could have talked all day listening to his passion about jazz, theater, acting, his mentors. Read our conversation below and consider Ron Cephas Jones as you cast your vote for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in NBC’s This Is Us.
On that subject of jazz and music, there’s that great episode in “Memphis.”
As I’m getting older, it was more profound, and the experience was overwhelming and beautiful and wonderful and soul searching. I have a lot of connections with Memphis. Stax Records is in Memphis and we went by there. All the music that I grew up with that was recorded in that studio. We filmed on Beale Street which is the main strip that has so many different clubs with their history of all the different musicians that I’ve listened to and seen live.
Memphis has a great history of the Civil Rights Movement and when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It also has the Garbage Worker’s Strike, so all of that came flooding back and that feeling growing up around that feeling of Memphis, as well as with places like New York and New Orleans where blues and jazz come from. It was a great and wonderful soul searching experience.
How long were you there?
We were there for a week.
How would you describe the experience of working on This Is Us?
William was a great character. It’s very rare that an African-American or a black man gets to play a character like that on a TV show that has so much depth and layers. When you are first introduced to the character, that’s the brilliance of Dan Fogelman and the writers. They made him such a layered character and so interesting that I feel it was a character made for the type of acting that I do. It gave me the opportunity to have an arc and a storyline with a character that makes sense from beginning to middle to end all the way through the entire season.
It’s rare. This is my first character on TV like that. I’ve done a bit of TV but never had a leading role like that. It changed the game for me and put me in another place that I’d been working so hard to get to, and that’s wider exposure to the work that I do.
So that was the overall experience.
The intimate experience of playing William was me, my uncle, my dad and I didn’t have to reach outward for him. I had to reach inside. I had to conjure, remember, and feel all those things that I felt growing up.
An artist that is intelligent, who is well-read, he’s a musician and he’s a poet. He has his flaws, and he’s a flawed man like any other human and to be able to come back from that was such an incredible experience. It was life-affirming and life-changing.
His death was really gut-wrenching. It still hurts me.
It’s so ironic because I was having the same feelings as the fans and not knowing with each episode whether I’ll be coming back. In the beginning, Dan didn’t give up to me when he was going to pass away. I found out one episode before, not until the end of Episode 14 and going into fifteen, that he was going to pass away. I went through the whole season coming into work not knowing if he was going to pass away and when.
Did he tell you coming that William would die?
No. Dan was still contemplating how long he wanted him to die and when and where. That’s when they came up with Memphis. It was such an honor because they focused a whole episode around William’s character which is very rare, Jazz, to having a full episode dedicated to your character. That’s when we found out he’d be passing.
You played a character who died before on Mr. Robot.
[Laughs] That was something.
What does dying the way William did do to you as an actor in getting there emotionally and mentally? I mean, how would you compare the experience of those two deaths, if compare is the right word.
I thought Mr. Robot was going to be the This Is Us. I thought they’d keep that character and I’d have a gig for how many seasons. I was thinking as we were doing the season that someone would have to pay for what they’ve done, and I had a feeling it would be Romero. [Laughs]
It’s that old cliche that the black man always dies. [Laughs] I tried to put that out of my mind. It was towards the end of that when I got the call saying they were going to kill Romero off, and I was disappointed for a while.
Thank God that I had some great scenes in that episode that gave me wider attention. It took a lot out of me because I’d waited so long for a character like that and I wasn’t sure if I’d get a character like that anytime soon.
Fortunately, it worked out because it opened me up for This Is Us. Had they brought me back for Mr. Robot, I might not have been able to do This is Us.
So, it turned out to be a blessing. It’s one of those things that was meant to be and you don’t find out until after it happens, but at the time I was devastated because I didn’t think that it would happen with Romero.
Over the last three or four years, I’ve been doing TV work. I’ve had recurring roles but that show wasn’t picked up. Mr. Robot I was killed off, and so I couldn’t get a lasting character.
Then, I got This Is Us and I found out he was going to pass away, but the beauty is that Dan reassured me that there’s room for him to come back because, even if he dies, there’s so much life we don’t know about William, and we’ll see that in Season 2 and possibly in Season 3.
I was saying, I didn’t think we’d seen the last of William yet. Especially with this formula.
We haven’t I can assure you. I’ve been guaranteed at least ten episodes, so you’ll get a chance to see some of William’s life. I don’t know how or when or what, very much like Season 1. I’m okay with that because I know the writers will come up with something beautiful and riveting.
I have to talk about the magical chemistry you have with Sterling. Chemistry can’t be forced, and we’re watching these beautiful father and son moments that seem so natural.
You just said it. It happens and it happened that way. A large part was the respect we had for each other’s work. We knew that together we could raise the bar. I knew Sterling from New York, and we briefly met doing a few workshops with Tarell Alvin McCraney.
He’s so talented.
He is. I met Sterling because Tarell brought us together. I knew he was really well trained, and we started working and we had similar techniques and depth. We didn’t even talk a lot about the characters. It was more symbiotic and you could feel it. Sometimes you don’t have to talk a lot. When you get on the set, you feel what the actor is, and you keep raising the bar and keep pushing each other in a quiet way.
You’ll see it and it’s rare, but I believed that’s what it was with Sterling. I believe he felt the same work. Everyone on the set had incredible respect for one another with regards to what they brought to the show. It felt like an ensemble piece rather than a star. We helped push each other to heights.
That’s the sense I got from speaking to you and other members of the show.
I have to give credit to the writing, and we all realized if we all pitched in this show could be wonderful. We knew we had something special, and we wanted to honor it by doing the best that we could do. The unwritten rule was raising the bar.
You talk about the fans and I have to stay off social media. What is it about this that stands out?
I think it’s personal. It allows the audience to feel in a way that they don’t normally get to. Our show lets you feel something. The other shows have gunshots, blood, and other things, but this gives them license to feel things they normally push down.
As humans, we are fearful people. We are so afraid of things whether it’s confronting people when we are uncomfortable. So we get lost in music. We watch TV, and we stuff those feelings away. This show opens the lid up and lets those feelings come out. I think that’s what these people are feeling. It touches those feelings that we’ve been putting away with regards to their brother, their sisters, their parents and other people who have passed away. It brings up those memories, and those memories switch into these feelings that we’ve been stuffing away for all these years. That’s why people are bawling and crying because they’re letting themselves feel feeling that they normally stuff away.
I don’t want to feel that feeling when I told my brother when I was sick, that I want to be dead. Or, I don’t want to feel that feeling when my father passed away. I don’t want to feel that feeling when I was rejected by my mother. All those human feelings that we suppress, and this just lifts the lid. Then it’s whether that person is courageous enough, and they allow themselves to cry, feel, or laugh.
Did you have any fond highlights?
Watching Milo doing those push ups, that was a highlight. I gotta be honest with you. Every single day was a highlight. Watching Justin get through that transformation of a jokey, handsome, body type guy to this deep, concerning character was a character. Every single day stood out.
You are back as Bobby Fish on Luke Cage.
I have a day off today, but I’m here in Brooklyn. It’s incredible. I love working with that crew. Cheo Hodari Coker is incredible. I have two degrees of separation between that and working with Mike Colter. He’s such an amazing person also. There’s stuff happening with Mike and I. I play a character who’s a mentor and that relationship is coming together in Season 2. It’s amazing to be in this place that I have two shows that are very popular and giving attention to the work that I do.
For me Jazz, it’s about the work. That’s why it’s taken me so long to get here. I’ve done Shakespeare. I’ve played Richard III, and I’ve done grand things in theater and am really respected there, so to be able to transfer that to TV has been a blessing for me at this point in my career.
Would you like to tread the boards?
I’ll always go back, and it’ll be there until the day I die. There’s a network of family there in New York, at the Public, at the Atlantic, and at the Signature. I’ve played at all the theaters.
I’m at a point where I know the writers who are up and coming. There’s Stephen Adly Guirgis who is one of my best friends and was my roommate for many years. I rented a room in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and he ended up writing a play called Between Riverside and Crazy that I was in at The Second Stage with Stephen Henderson. He was in Fences with Denzel Washington, so there’s a degree of separation in New York that extends all the way to London. I’ll always go back. It’ll always be my home as far as my heart is concerned.
I look forward to the day I can go back and do some of the classics that I’ve been waiting to do.
You were at the Old Vic, right?
I was there in a play called The Bridge Project that Sam Mendes directed. I was Caliban in The Tempest. We went to Singapore, Paris, Amsterdam, and Madrid, and then we came back to do it at the Old Vic.
That was one of the theatrical highlights of my career.