Kay Oyegun has been a member of the This Is Us family from the very beginning — starting as a staff writer in season one and eventually writing and co-executive producing her own episodes for the series. Tuesday marks another major progression for Oyegun’s career — her This Is Us directorial debut.
Titled “Birth Mother,” the episode features flashbacks set in New Orleans and answers lingering questions about Randall [Sterling K. Brown]’s mother Laurel.
Oyegun has proven to be a supreme talent, having produced and written some of This Is Us‘ strongest episodes, often focused on the series’ diversity and deeply empathetic storytelling. Her latest work on the series promises to continue in that tradition.
In an exclusive interview with Awards Daily, Oyegun shares her vision for Tuesday’s episode. She also discusses her involvement with NBCUniversal’s Female Forward — an annual initiative for female directors that aims to achieve gender parity among scripted series directors —and how it all finally led her to the director’s chair.
Awards Daily: What can you tell us about Tuesday’s episode?
Kay Oyegun: I think it’s an extension of Randall’s core wound, essentially. And the exploration of putting the puzzle pieces together of what his life is. I think a lot of times, people underestimate the blank slateness of being an adoptee who has no idea who they are. I think that picture is starting to crystallize in a way. And I think this is the second half of his experience as a person who is coming to realize their mother’s side of things.
I think when people were first introduced to Laurel, for example, if you even thought about her enough, you may have just thought, ‘Oh, here’s this junkie. Here’s this woman who potentially made these terrible decisions. And there was no emotional connection that you may have had with her.
My hope and prayer is that this episode allows for people to realize, ‘Oh, every single person not only has a story but a story that’s worth telling.’
And hopefully, it allows you to feel connected to someone who you may not have thought you would have been able to feel connected to before.
AD: You’ve been a writer on This Is Us since season one. Birth Mother marks your first time both writing and directing an episode. Talk me through putting those pieces together and seeing your words come to fruition in this new way.
KO: Yeah. I think the writing process was a lot of fun. I got to do it with Eboni Freemen, who’s on staff with This Is Us. I love Eboni. We worked together on a previous episode, [season three’s] Our Little Island Girl.
It was a great time. I think the specificity of building the world out in New Orleans was a lot of fun. My previous job was in New Orleans, so there was a lot of New Orleans acumen about the area’s history, which was great. I think one of the things about a blank canvas in the sense of who Randall’s mother was—and you know, we’ve played around with her character before; I remember doing some stuff for her in season one, and then in subsequent seasons—but being able to dive into a world was just exciting.
And [This Is Us Executive Producer] Dan Fogelman gave a lot of freedom there [to go and explore]. So, the writing process was great, and I tend to, for better or worse, write specialized episodes for the show, so it felt very natural. It felt a lot of fun.
You get to create something that feels personal, oddly enough. But the directing part of it, I cannot overstate how unbelievably helpful NBC’s Female Forward program was, just in the sense of getting me prepared. I’ve produced episodes, so I’ve been on set. I’ve been familiar with our crew. I know how post-production works. I understand how pre-production works and production itself, but it’s always been from the producer side. So, there are elements that you’re just not thinking about. You’re not thinking about the allotment of time for a scene. You’re not thinking about shots set up. You’re not thinking about how to communicate with your DP. You’re not thinking about how to line a script. You’re not thinking about any of those things, you know, you write. And you just let your imagination go. And then you hand that script over to our director and that you’re like, ‘Make this happen, genie.’ [Laughs].
The reality of that, being on the other side, was very sobering—but the Female Forward program broke down the stages and the processes and what directors do and how we’re in service of the project. And also, being unbelievably collaborative yet having a very clear vision of what you want is incredibly important. And I was very fortunate that not only were I able to write it, so I knew where emotionally the characters were. I knew the performances that I wanted to get. Still, I also was able to get in behind the scenes and be on the directing side so I could actually get those. And my goodness, if you are a micromanager by spirit or someone who enjoys the nitty-gritty and making things just the way you want it—write and direct! I cannot say that enough. It’s just like everything that ends up happening is literally, just purely, from your own head.
And the only person you have to blame is yourself because every person on the crew is crushing it. And if something doesn’t go well, it’s because something in communication did not work. But everyone— costumes, set design, everyone nailed it. I want to hug everyone if I could. Everyone just brought their A-game, they always do, but they stepped up in such an amazing way to bring New Orleans to Los Angeles.
It was just one of those things where the responsibility falls on you like, ‘I have to be clear. I have to know what I’m doing. This particular shot literally came from X, Y, Z moment—I need to make sure that every single person knows what that is so that all the hard work they put into it can be on screen.’
It was collaboration all across the board. The Female Forward program and Scriptation— the app and the program solidified it. Everyone just made me feel comfortable, to the extent that nerves don’t kick in until you yell ‘action.’
AD: Tell me more about NBC’s Female Forward program. How did you get involved? How did that lead to you ultimately directing your first episode of This Is Us?
KO: Yeah, it’s a combination of two bizarre things—everyone has a different familiarity and comfort with being on set. I love it. I was a journalist for a long time, so I worked with cameras. I’ve been comfortable in that way. I never verbally said to Dan Fogelman, like, ‘Dan, I’d love to direct,’ but it was something that I think was just very evident. Production has always been something that I was comfortable with and something I’ve always been a fan of— I love our crew, being communicative with our crew, engaging with them as friends, and all of those things were there for the last couple of seasons.
This year, as we were setting the season up, I was asked if I would be interested in being a part of the program by Jess Rosenthal. I was like, ‘Absolutely! That would be unbelievably amazing. I was super grateful for that. The fortunate thing is that I’ve directed before, so I had material to submit to the program. I had a short film that I had done, and I could use that as evidence of things that I had done.
Female Forward launched in 2018. I was part of the third class. It’s still relatively new in that respect, but it’s an unbelievable program that NBC put together to help achieve gender parity and racial parody in the directing process. I think that they are very, not only selective, but they’re also encouraging of different perspectives, both female and people of color being in the conversation behind the scenes. It was an organic process, but also I think the timing aligned with what had already been happening on the show.
AD: This Is Us does, I believe, an excellent job of bringing Randall and Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson]’s perspectives to the forefront of the show and making it authentic. What’s your view on that as a woman of color, a writer, and now a director on the show? How do you ensure that these stories are told properly?
KO: Yeah. I mean, for me, it’s been such a wonderful gift. I was there from day one. So not only being involved in pitching and telling stories for all of the characters but having a particular perspective to Randall, to Beth, to our black characters and characters of color, having a specific perspective and having a room full of unbelievably kind and generous and wonderful writers who allow those perspectives to be shown on screen.
Dan and I always joke about the fact that there are times where we’ve gone back and forth in many different ways, about a lot of the other things that are very nuanced. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. Do you know what I mean? It’s kind of like you do what you’re told, and that’s about it. But in this particular space, the conversations have been in-depth. The conversations have been raw, but conversations that had been messy, and then there’s ownership.
I personally, very comfortably, feel a lot of affection for Randall and Beth and their stories. And I feel affection for everyone else, but I know specifically there’s a particular leaning for me. You know, I used to feel a certain type of way about saying that, but I’m like, ‘No, it is what it is.’ So yes, there is a kinship there that is shared with everyone in the room, but I particularly love them.
AD: It sounds like you’ve caught the directing bug, and you’ve had an incredible experience. Are you planning on directing more episodes? Do you have something else coming up? Where do you go from here?
KO: Well, on the This Is Us front, those are all Dan’s decisions. Like I’ve said, ‘I’ll give you my real. You can have my sample, whatever y’all need, I’m here to step in, so hire me.’ Who knows, we’ll see.
But on a separate note, I’m writing a feature that I’m going to go ahead and just direct. Because I just love it.
This week’s brand new episode of This Is Us, directed by Kay Oyegun, airs Tuesday, January 12th at 9/8 CST. You can learn more about NBC’s Female Forward program here.
See exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of Kay Oyegun on the set of This Is Us in the gallery below: