In conversation with Awards Daily, Susan Kelechi Watson details taking on the role of executive producer for the HBO adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. She also dishes on starring as Beth Pearson on NBC’s This Is Us.
The show at the Delacorte Theater will be one of the first in New York after the shutdown. Watson is no stranger to career firsts during COVID, Between the World and Me, the HBO variety special that Watson co-executive produced was shot entirely during the lockdowns. Directed by Kamilah Forbes, Between the World and Me features stars like Mahershala Ali, Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, and Watson herself performing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 memoir, written as a letter to his teenage son. The acted segments are intertwined with artwork, animation, protest footage, photos from Coates’ life, and other vignettes to form a stunning portrait of Black life in America, drawing necessary attention to injustice, but also never forgetting to celebrate Black art, creativity, and most importantly, joy. Between the World and Me is a beautiful artistic exercise, representing the best of what a hybrid approach to filmmaking can create, and a worthy companion to Coates’ work.
In addition to making her first foray into producing, Watson returned to the fifth season of This Is Us in her role as Beth Pearson, for what Watson calls “Beth’s season of trying.”
Read more from Susan Kelechi Watson below:
Awards Daily: I want to start with Between the World and Me because I was completely blown away by it. I must tell you; I read the book a while ago, as did everyone else. I was so curious as to how they were going to adapt it. COVID and the need to be safe amid the pandemic played a role in the format. But how did you all settle on this hybrid approach to the material?
Susan Kelechi Watson: Thank you so much! First of all, we just love hearing that people are watching it. You know, it means so much because it meant so much to us to do it.
But, the hybrid part of it, creating it came out of what everyone was doing at that time, which was Zooming. And, how could we create an intimate space? An intimate way to tell the story using the medium of television, of streaming. Kamilah Forbes’ vision was to keep the intimacy that we created in family Zooms, and friends Zooms, on game nights Zooms, to keep that same intimacy going and make it feel like we were talking to someone that we loved. That was a great way to incorporate the direct-to-camera format with just a single person being in the scene because we were in a world where you couldn’t do much more than that.
You know, we were, I venture to say the first or one of the first people to even shoot during that time. It was a time where we were actually in complete lockdown. New York was completely locked down, and we were the epicenter at that time. So, there wasn’t much filming or anything going on. Very few people could gather at once. And as a matter of fact, we could only have ten people gathered. And that’s not even in the same space. That’s like, sometimes only two people were allowed to a room depending on how big the room was, depending on how many people you have in it. So sometimes if a director had to step in, that meant the camera person might’ve had to step out, or the boom person might have to step out. We had a very strict protocol that was all very new. We knew that we were doing this in a time of pandemic and people not gathering, but we tried to use it to our advantage. And that’s why we were able to shoot in LA; we got an LA crew, a New York crew, and an Atlanta crew. So, we were able to shoot in three different states.
Using maybe 20 different cast members. What we couldn’t do via travel, we did via Zoom. Most of the directing Kamilah did was via Zoom.
As a producer, I was always on a Zoom watching performances, watching everything as it was being filmed. It allowed me to be in all those different places. Sometimes we did New York, L.A., and Atlanta all in the same day. We really had to make those days move, you know? But, we decided to use it as a tool rather than fight against it. So it really was about, ‘Let’s make this as intimate as possible. Let’s base it in a similar tone that Ta-Nehisi Coates based the book, which was dedicated to his son, him speaking to his son. So, we have all of our performers doing it as though they were speaking to someone they loved.
AD: When you’re dealing with such a personal project, you really need a lot of trust between yourself and your cast and your crew. And you also have the involvement of Prince Jones’ family. How do you, as a producer, establish that trust?
SKW: I think the casting of it was also very strategic. Many of the people in the cast had done the staged reading at the Apollo and at The Kennedy Center. We used a lot of the same cast and the additional cast that came on. We were very sure in going for people who this cause was profound and near and dear to them. People who were out in the streets either marching or speaking about it.
There was a connection that most of the cast, if not all, already had to the material. Either people love the book, or again, their cause is for the rights of Black people. So it wasn’t, I think, a stretch for anybody. As a matter of fact, it was some of the easiest asks we had. So many people were willing to do it. It was to our delight that everyone we kind of dreamed of and wanted to be a part of it was able to do it.
That was half of the intimacy right there. And then, you know, there was a quiet intimacy between the director and the cast and just putting people at ease once they came onto our set, letting them know—Make this your own. This is about how you tell this story. This particular piece that you’re doing, we’ve asked you to do it because we feel that you’re the best voice for it. So, just make it your own and feel as comfortable as you want to feel. Make it feel like something that you thought of, something that came out of your own heart. That was the environment that we tried to create for everyone.
AD: I have to ask you about filming your segment at Howard University, your alma mater. I mean, what was that like for you to be there in that moment, in the midst of all of this turmoil, to then perform this ode to a place that means so much to you.
SKW: That was the joy. You know, those were the joyful moments. Those are the moments where you could not think about it for a little while, the moments where you can revel in all the great things that we’ve experienced in our past. And you know what it meant to graduate from such a prestigious institution, a historically Black institution. The beauty of what that is. And to be on the campus just made it so easy to reference all the beauty because I could literally point to the buildings. I could point to the areas where I saw people hanging out on the yard, where I saw people gathering. It was all right there at my fingers as I was literally walking through the yard, which is spoken about specifically in the book.
That walk I did across campus was from the Howard library to the College of Fine Arts. I was really walking from the library to the school that I graduated from.
It was really a beautiful moment and a beautiful time. And it’s the part that makes us remember, you know, even in the midst of tragedy, all the things that are really joyous and beautiful, and the things that are to be celebrated.
AD: Between the World and Me isn’t the first project you’ve produced, but it is the largest in terms of scale. How does that experience translate to your work in front of the camera and what we see on This Is Us?
SKW: Yeah. You know what? On, This Is Us; I feel like I get to learn from some true masters because of the way that [creator] Dan Fogelman runs the set and producer Jess Rosenthal, who has helped me tremendously to learn about producing. Ken Olin, Steve Beers, all these people have been so, so generous with allowing me to ask questions and observe. I watched them take our whole production through COVID and quarantine. This entire season, we were in a world that nobody had ever experienced before, and they had to shepherd 300+people through it. And it was really tremendous to watch. I could not imagine.
For Between the World and Me,we had a crew at any given time with like 10, 11 people. And that was really new, and there was a stressfulness to that. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing. And they did it so gracefully. They didn’t even show us that they were even breaking a sweat, you know? They are just good people. You know what I mean? They really are. They just know how to make that thing go, make it work, and make it feel as seamless as possible. Even though we knew the struggle that it was. Of course, it was really hard, and we had some setbacks and some challenges, but we got through it.
And knowing now from the producer’s point of view, I know how hard it is. I know what it takes. I know the budget it takes to do it. I know what it is to get the right people to do it and all of that. So, to do it on such a larger scale, I just had nothing but respect for everyone.
AD: In terms of This Is Us, what I’ve loved about your arc this season was seeing you as a mother and as a daughter have these moments where you’re like, ‘I’m not going to get it right.’ In her relationship with Tess (Eris Baker) and her mother (Phylicia Rashad), Beth is well-intentioned, but she stumbles. I wanted to ask you about the vulnerability of playing this woman who is making mistakes and figuring it all out.
SKW: Oh, you know, I love that. I love that she doesn’t have this figured out. That was my whole thing this year; I wanted her to stumble and to kind of fall and to be messy. You know, she was too nice sometimes. Sometimes she didn’t quite understand. Sometimes she didn’t know if she should be doing the same thing for one child that she’s doing for another. Beth didn’t want Tess to mistake any of her actions as being disappointed with her in any way. Or like she wished Tess was different than she was.
So it rendered her, at some points, kind of inactive or just humbled— trying to figure it out at such a fragile time. The other thing is that her daughter is becoming a teenager. This is her first year of that. And so, there’s all of what happens as they hit teenagehood—those feelings, the hormones, and everything kicks in. It’s already going to be a situation, you know? So for Beth to have to manage that as well, and Tess coming out and exploring a new relationship. I’m trying to show her that she could still come to Beth and talk to her. It was all messy and I loved it. It was a big ole mess. She never really got it right. And that was perfect to me.
AD: Did that messiness allow you to unlock anything new in your performance? Did you change your approach? It just seemed like Beth was so much more vulnerable this season. In a way that we hadn’t seen her before.
SKW: I think it does. It made it kind of fun to tell you the truth. You know, sometimes it was funny. Like the attempts that she was making, and not really knowing, not being sure-footed. It was funny sometimes, and interesting, and vulnerable, and sad sometimes. It was like all the feelings, all the things. Because she just did not have a roadmap. She was just figuring it out as she went, and really with the best intention, but still jacking it up. I liked that. I didn’t want to fight that in any way. I liked that she wasn’t getting it.
I think the most important thing for her and for her journey and for people to see was that, this was something very new for her. And it’s always really interesting to watch people try to figure something out. And it’s even more interesting when they never quite figure it out completely. You just watch them try. And this was that season for her. It was the season of trying.
AD: And Susan, what’s next for you?
SKW: I will be doing Shakespeare in the Park this summer [opening in July]. I’m going to be starring in Merry Wives. Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. That’s coming up at the Delacorte Theater, it’s the first theater to come back to New York after the pandemic. And I’m getting chills just talking about it.
It’s going to be so amazing to bring theater back to New York and to be a part of that. I keep saying with everything that’s happened this year, the blessing of it for me has been that I’ve gotten to be the first of a lot of things— during and after this pandemic. One of which was making a film during it, coming back to a show, This Is Us was one of the first shows to come back, and now being a part of the first theater to come back.
Note: Between the World and Me is Emmy eligible in the Variety Specials (Pre-Recorded) category. You can find it streaming via HBO & HBO Max. This Is Us is available via NBC and Peacock.