Veteran star of stage and screen Ron Cephas Jones earned his fourth consecutive Emmy nomination for his work as William Hill on This is Us. In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Jones reflects on the challenge of returning to the NBC hit and playing an alternate version of his character.
Ron Cephas Jones is no stranger to complex characters as you’ll see during the course of this conversation as the Emmy-winner reflects on his vast theater, TV, and film credits. But, Jones’ season 4 return to This Is Us did create a challenge for the iconic character actor —crafting an alternate history where William rejects his teenage son [Niles Fitch], crafting a William that is not loving and warm, but lost in the midst of his own struggle with addiction.
Jones’ performance is heartbreaking, reverberating through the episode and beyond — earning Jones a Guest Actor in a Drama Series nomination at this year’s Emmys. And with any luck, a deserved second trip to the winner’s podium.
Read our complete interview with Ron Cephas Jones below:
Awards Daily: I have to begin by congratulating you on your fourth Emmy nomination for This Is Us.
Ron Cephas Jones: It’s pretty incredible, thank you very much.
AD: Your daughter, Jasmine, is nominated this year as well. [Jasmine Cephas Jones is Emmy-nominated for her work in Quibi‘s #FreeRayshawn] How special was it to get to celebrate with her and have dual Cephas Jones Emmy nominations this year?
RCJ: To be honest with you, that’s probably the most honor the most blessing. You know, of all the accolades that an actor could receive, it’s the ultimate accolade as a parent. So I think it resonates more for me not as an actor, but as a parent. I would probably sacrifice all the accolades to see my daughter happy and healthy and thriving in something that she loves to do. That in of itself would make me the happiest. As an actor, it’s wonderful. It’s going to be a great feeling.
You know, my daughter was with me on the first Emmy nomination of This Is Us, she sat in the audience with me and we walked the carpet together. So she’s been sharing this career with me for a long time. So. To see her being happy and succeeding, not only in her career but in love —it’s been a great year. I’m so truly blessed to see her doing well and healthy and happy.
AD: William is such an important parental figure on This Is Us. Has playing him given you a new perspective on fatherhood or life in general?
RCJ: Well, you know, I’ve been a father for 31 years now, and most of the experience that we see through William is through my own fatherhood. You know, part of that journey of the craft is to be able to reach in and find that which is already in you and have the courage to display it.
So, I think many of the moments that you see William look at Randall [Sterling K. Brown] is very indicative of the way I might look at my daughter or speak to my daughter. That makes everything real, as opposed to having to think up or manipulate or create something that’s not real, but something that’s already there— the idea is to reach in and use that which is already there. It takes craftsmanship to be able to find that transformative feeling as a parent— what does it feel like to be a parent? And in doing so everything else becomes a natural state. Whether it is a son or daughter, even an adopted child— there is a certain amount of love that’s already there that exudes. And if you tap into that, everything else becomes more natural and you could just let it flow. And when you have a good director, good writing, and a good actor that’s working in front of you— you learn how to listen to one another. Sterling and I just naturally work so beautifully together that he feels like my son and I call him son often. The other day, we did an interview together on Zoom with Phylicia Rashad [Emmy-nominated for This Is Us this year alongside Brown and Jones] and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘How are you son?’
AD: I wanted to ask about your Emmy-nominated episode, ‘After The Fire’ where Randall is imagining an alternate life where you’ve rejected him completely. You’ve spoken in interviews about how difficult that was for you because it goes against the version of William that you had crafted before.
RCJ: That’s right.
AD: I would love to hear more about that.
RCJ: That’s exactly it. I guess it’s the opposite of what I was just telling you about. The reason why it was so hard is because I didn’t have reference to Randall’s dream. I don’t have reference to being inside his body or his mind or his soul.
What I just described to you prior was everything coming from my mind, my body, my soul, my experience —whereas this scene has to come from the perspective of Randall. So how does one do that? How does one get into the mindset and the feeling of being able to display my character as Randall sees him?
There had to be a lot of questioning the craftsmanship and you have to collaborate, not only with the director but with the writer to ensure that you get the specifics correct so that the audience can see William through Randall’s eyes and not William through William’s eyes. And that was the difficult part and the goal.
I only hope, and from what people tell me and gave me feedback, that it eventually worked, but that takes collaboration. I couldn’t do that on my own. I needed to understand what the writer was trying to write. I also needed to work closely with the director to make sure that we get the details right.
There were certain things—for example, the set where there was paraphernalia on the stove before Randall opened the door. I originally said, ‘Well, William would be cognizant of that. He would try to wrap that up. He would try to hide it.’ but then the director reminded me that this is from Randall’s point of view.
So when he walks in the door with Jack, part of that is noticing that William was an addict and he might have that in his consciousness and he notices it. So there were things like that, very little, small details that I had to keep making adjustments with. That’s what made that difficult.
AD: You’ve been playing William on This Is Us for four years now. How would you describe that character arc? And how do you think that your approach to playing William has changed over the years?
RCJ: Well, if anything, it’s been consistent. It’s my first long-running character that I’ve played on film. I’ve never done a television series that long. This Is Us gave me an opportunity to be consistent.
The craftsmanship and the artistic things that I’ve learned through years in the theater and doing the limited amount of television that I’ve done, which was a lot but just never long. I’ve never had an opportunity to extend a character, play a full arc. This Is Us has given me an opportunity to find the consistency in a television character that I had done for many years in theater characters from Richard III to August Wilson to Katori Hall. My experience writing and working with directors has been vast in the theater and it’s taken me around the world —The Bridge Project with Sam Mendes, Shakespeare plays, from New York to London, as far as Hong Kong and Singapore. My experience with the craft is extensive. This is Us gave me an opportunity to transfer it from the stage to film on a consistent basis.
I’m very grateful to Dan Fogelman and everyone there for really acknowledging the work, right from the audition, and giving me an opportunity to play this character even when he passes away, the writing is indicative that they’re able to bring him back whenever they feel a need to or want to— to keep him alive and existing in the series. That’s another special thing about this particular character or else he would have been gone after the first season. Most of the seasons are done in flashbacks so that gave me an opportunity to be more consistent and then be able to apply the craft and the art that I’ve learned on a consistent basis with the character. And that will extend into many of the other roles that I will continue to do if I’m blessed enough to get the good writing, work with the good directors, and the good actors that I’ve been blessed to work with on This Is Us.
AD: Theater is, obviously, very close to your heart and this is a difficult time right now due to COVID. There’s a lot of uncertainty.
RCJ: I feel uncertain like everybody else. You know, the world is uncertain at the moment. There’s just a lot of things we don’t know. And that includes art. What direction is art going? Will we be able to sit in a theater again? It all starts from there, so I can’t look past that.
Like most people, you, me, everyone else— we’re still trying to get past, ‘Will we be able to hug again? Or shake hands? Or kiss a fellow person on the cheek? That’s what theater is about. It’s about sitting right next to someone and touching their arm on the armchair, feeling the energy flow through something that you’re experiencing together. I mean, you could have two people fighting about a parking space one minute, and then those same people sitting next to each other in the theater and experiencing the feeling of love the next. That’s the magic of theater. It brings people together.
I truly think that’s what’s missing. There’s an intense amount of love that we are not able to experience anymore because we are so separated and divided at the moment that we can’t even shake hands or touch one another. Touching is a human experience that I think we all need and touching comes with love and caring and it’s a big part of openness. So, I don’t know Shadan. I just don’t know. But I long for, and pray for, and hope that we’ll be able to get back and I’ll be able to do both —that’s the ultimate dream for an actor, to move from stage to film and back.
Ron Cephas Jones is Emmy-nominated in the Guest Actor in a Drama Series category. This Is Us is available to stream on Hulu and NBC.com.