This Is Us‘ Chris Sullivan spoke to Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki about Toby’s journey from Pearson family outsider to becoming one of the series’ most dynamic characters.
When I spoke to Chris Sullivan, it was early March and we were in the early days of Coronavirus lockdowns. Perhaps it’s the time at home that has allowed Sullivan to reflect so beautifully on his work in This Is Us. Perhaps it was his own impending fatherhood and parallels to Toby— either way, his connection to Toby is palpable— as is his desire to not let Toby become a one-note TV spouse.
Sullivan earned a somewhat-surprise Emmy nomination, his first, in 2019. Season 4 of the juggernaut NBC series saw Toby becoming a father for the first time and struggling to adapt—Sullivan’s performance is brutally honest, one that doesn’t shy away from parenthood’s harshest truths —It’s a performance that could (and should) put Sullivan back in Emmy contention.
Read our interview below:
Awards Daily: How has life in quarantine been so far?
Chris Sullivan: It’s fine. I’m sitting here in the living room with [my wife] Rachel, our two dogs, a guitar, and coffee, and it’s OK. It’s surprisingly busy. [Sullivan continues to strum on his guitar, providing our interview with its own soothing soundtrack].
You know, there’s a lot of people who need help and we’re raising money. We’re doing a lot of fundraisers, streaming shows, Zoom birthdays with our friends, and quarantine projects. We also have a baby on the way so we’re getting the house ready.
AD: You’re expecting a baby boy! Congratulations! What is it like having your life so closely mirror the show?
CS: Yeah, it’s been kind of nuts how the show has mirrored our life. I mean, in certain ways, we have conversations with the writers and we share our stories with them, so there is that kind of influence, but then there are things like this that they could never have planned around. it’s definitely sticky at times.
AD: How much input have you had in the evolution of Toby? How much inspiration do you think the writers have taken from your experiences?
CS: I don’t know if I can quantify that, as far as the writers go, but they’re paying attention. And they give us things— certain character traits, certain types of scenes, a certain sense of humor, personality traits — if they work, then they continue to do that. I think both wittingly and unwittingly, they ended up writing to our personalities and our voices probably pretty frequently because after a few seasons they know what we’re good at, they know what sounds good coming out of our interpretation of the character. There is that type of influence for sure. And yeah, I think a show that is a relationship drama and a show that goes on this long, it’s only a matter of time before the character and the person kind of meet in the middle at certain points.
AD: Going back to the evolution of Toby as a character —it’s been so interesting and unique, and so different from what I expected when we were first introduced to Toby in season one. I’m curious, how would you, Chris Sullivan, describe that evolution?
CS: I mean the show, in a lot of ways, is a relationship handbook. There are certain quote-unquote ‘ideal relationships’ in the show. But the show doesn’t shy away from showing that ideal relationships are well-balanced with ups and downs, and struggle and pain, people moving away from each other and back toward one another.
I wasn’t surprised, based on the writers that we have, by their ability to take Kate [Chrissy Metz] and Toby or Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson] and Randall [Sterling K. Brown], Rebecca [Mandy Moore] and Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] and move them in and out of those seasons, the seasons of life, so effortlessly.
The thing with Toby is that he started as this kind of, not one dimensional, but he was a supporting role, you only really got to see a certain side of him, whether it was the flamboyant, the joking, or the lightheartedness. And it wasn’t until late in season one, or the beginning of season two, where you guys started to see why he develops that type of personality and that there’s a balance to him as well— A depression behind the smiling face at times.
So, that type of balance is always fascinating to me because the fans of our show have this ideal view of the relationships on the show; the Pearson’s, Toby and Kate, Beth and Randall. They talk so frequently about this ideal family, this ideal couple. These are relationships that involve depression and anxiety, addiction, mania, all of these really complicated things. And yet, the relationships are still healthy.
AD: I think season four, in particular, has been really interesting for Toby. We’ve learned that baby Jack is visually impaired. And we see that Toby’s reaction is, you know, so different from Kate’s. And I think that his reaction, maybe I’m wrong, is not something that we see as often on TV. Usually, we see Kate’s reaction of, ‘Okay, how are we going to deal with this?’ But, we have Toby as well who is really struggling. I wanted to dig into that with you. Did you find yourself judging Toby for his reaction? Or did you relate to it in any way?
CS: That was definitely a conversation that I had with Dan [Fogelman] and our showrunners, [Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger] before we started that season. Over the last year, Rachel and I have had like 13 babies come into our lives through friends and family —two sets of twins, five trips to the NICU, home births, and hospital births, literally every combination of everything. And on a couple of occasions, I was talking to the fathers, my friends, and they were talking about this feeling of disconnection from their partner. I mean, that’s a notorious side effect of pregnancy and children. I just heard Esther Perel talking about it yesterday. She said it’s Interesting that desire leads to sex, which leads to children, which are the killer of desire. [Laughs] That’s a weird cycle.
Obviously, a woman’s relationship to pregnancy and to childbirth, I can’t really speak on, but I know that mothers and fathers alike have really complicated feelings, all swirling around the whole process, that don’t generally get any recognition from people.
People put their feelings on ‘Oh, you must be so happy.’ ‘You must be so excited.’ ‘You must be overjoyed.’ ‘You must be…’ We hear it a lot. “You must be.” And we slowly think that we have to be, and then if we are not feeling most of those things, then something’s wrong. I had a couple of dads who were like, ‘Yeah I’m just not feeling it. Whatever this magic feeling is I’m supposed to be feeling, that everyone tells me I must be feeling, has not arrived yet. And I feel guilty about it, and I feel shame around it, and I’m not sure what to do.’
You know, a friend of mine said, ‘I got this stranger living in my house who is literally consuming my wife.’ It’s a relationship. It’s a new relationship, and it’s really much more complicated than just, ‘Ah, the joy of parenthood.’
And so, I talked to Dan, and Isaac and Elizabeth, about wanting to kind of explore that. It would’ve been super easy to have Toby be the perfect, jovial dad. And I’m glad that we got to explore [the other] side of it a little bit because I think part of what this show does very well is it lets people know that they’re not alone especially when it comes to difficult emotion.
AD: As I said, I think that has added a whole new depth to Toby. I’m also curious about, the idea of having a child that fits outside of the quote-unquote ‘norm’ and what that’s like. I am very glad to see the show explore how difficult it can be for parents to have to come to terms with that.
CS: Yeah. That’s a really excellent demonstration of how attached we get to our expectations. You know, how things are supposed to go, how things are going to go, how things should be — and when they don’t go that way, it’s really disconcerting.
But as we see, although baby Jack has problems with his vision, and it is a challenge in his life, he seems to be getting along just fine. You know? He seems to be doing better with challenging eyesight than maybe Kevin [Justin Hartley] is doing with his challenging drinking or Toby may be doing with his challenging depression.
The thing that we deem a disability, or a problem, or a challenge, may or may not be, only time will tell, and it really only depends on how we relate to that challenge.
AD: That’s beautifully said. I know how connected fans are to the show, and likewise, I know that the cast is very connected to the fans as well. What kind of feedback have you gotten about season four, from parents saying like, ‘Oh my God, you know, you’re showing my experience on TV.’ And in particular, is there feedback that you’re carrying with you as you move forward?
CS: Yeah. You know, we get a lot of feedback from children who’ve been adopted who are a different ethnicity or race than their parents. I met a couple once who walked up to me and each of them had a newborn strapped to their chest. I said, ‘Oh my God, are they twins?’ And the mother said, ‘Actually they’re triplets and we lost one of the babies in delivery right as your show started.’ And as the show was airing, they were experiencing, in real-time, the things that Rebecca and Jack were going through, and the show was kind of presenting this possible future for them.
That’s the interesting part about the show, the more specific we get, the broader accessibility it has to people, because the more specific we get, the more ways there are [to connect], whether it’s Randall and Beth adopting an older foster child or seeking out your birth father and discovering that he’s a recovering heroin addict. There are very specific story points to the show, but it just seems to keep broadening the number of ways in for people. So yes, the feedback is very specific.
AD: People also have such a strong emotional reaction to the show.
CS: I think [this is] a kind of funny way to say it, but it’s also true: It’s like, people aren’t crying watching our show because the show is sad. The show’s not real. People are crying while watching our show because they are sad, because they have things in their lives that are unprocessed, or things that they want to talk about that they can’t, or they don’t know how to. They’re relating, they’re seeing themselves in this show. You know, they’re relating to what’s being said. And I think that that’s a valuable thing to be able to do once a week, to kind of investigate where the hurt is, you know?
AD: Absolutely. There is an intimacy to being inside somebody’s home with them every week. In a strange way, it’s like you’re going through these emotions with them. As an actor, is there a sense of pressure that goes along with that?
CS:Mmm. No, I don’t think there’s any pressure there. it’s a common human experience and that’s what the show is, it’s a constant, common human experience. The fact that show is a success and that people are relating to it takes the pressure off completely. [Laughs]
AD: And lastly, Chris, I have to say This Is Us is a very hard show to prepare an interview for because I’m fully aware you can’t tell me anything.
CS: [Laughs] Right.
AD: I’m trying to ask without putting pressure on you, but can you tease anything about what’s coming up?
CS: I mean, pretty soon we’re going to have to figure out the mystery of why Toby and Kate aren’t arriving together in those flashforwards and what’s going on there. I don’t actually know what the answer to that is. I’m looking forward to that like everyone else.
AD: Wait, so you don’t know the ending of the show?
CS: I know where we’re going. I just don’t necessarily know how we get there.
AD: It’s fascinating to see Toby, someone outside of the Pearson clan, come in and get to shake things up a little. You did such a beautiful job this season. Thank you for digging into that with me. And congratulations in advance on the birth of your baby boy!
CS: Oh, thank you so much! I appreciate it.
Chris Sullivan is Emmy eligible in the Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category. This Is Us is available to stream on Hulu and NBC.com.