Emmy nominee Chris Sullivan joins Awards Daily to discuss his work on This Is Us and why he doesn’t worry if fans will be disappointed with the upcoming sixth and final season of the NBC family drama.
Chris Sullivan knows just how much This Is Us fans adore the show. And heading into the final season of the mega-hit family saga, he seems even more meditative and keenly awake of the impact the show has had on his personal and professional life. Since meeting Toby Damon, we’ve seen him fall in love, get married, have two children, struggle with his weight, and severe depression. Sullivan has navigated the highs and lows of his character with tremendous compassion. And skill —knowing just when to dial back his performance and when to lean into This Is Us‘s distinct brand of heartache.
Here, Sullivan shares the secret to getting Toby through the Pearson orbit. And delivering a performance so honest, our tear ducts get a workout each and every episode.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination! Was this something you expected?
Chris Sullivan: I always expect it. I expect nothing less at all. Every nomination! [Laughs]. That, of course, is not true. I’m very, very honored to be included in a list of actors who are also my favorite actors. It was an exciting day.
AD: Something you and I have discussed in the past is that Toby is kind of like the ‘every man’ of the family. The Pearsons are this seemingly polished, loving, perfect family and Toby is a bit rough around the edges. How does that idea carry into season five and everything that he went through?
CS: I think you’ve pointed out something interesting about our show, which is that everyone perceives the Pearsons as this perfect, polished, loving family. People are transferring their families onto the Pearsons. Obviously, This Is Us is not just the title of the show; it is the way our audience responds to watching our show, which is, they watch the show and say, ‘Wow, this, what we are watching, is us.’ And that’s kind of why the show has stuck around so long.
But, I think the interesting part is that this family that is viewed as perfect and polished and shiny is so far from perfect and polished. There’s addiction and depression, privilege, and infighting, conflict, and a father who passes away very unexpectedly, and siblings who can’t seem to connect. And I think the interesting part is that even with all of this conflict and turmoil, because the audience is outside of that family, [the Pearsons] can be viewed as this ideal family unit. But, we have a hard time applying that to our own families because we are on the inside looking out.
AD: So where does Toby sort of fit within that picture?
CS: Yeah, I think that’s the hard part about this character. You know, sometimes you can orbit a family your whole life and never fully fit in. And maybe you’re not supposed to. I think Toby has a hard time navigating the dynamics, especially between Kate and Kevin. He’s never really connected with Randall. He does his best to kind of blend in and fit in. But, it’s been hard for him to do that. I think he may be the eyes of the audience, kind of on the outside looking in.
AD: One thing actors talk about when they’ve been on a show for a long time is the struggle of not wanting to fall into a rut with their performance, wanting to make changes and find new nuances. How did you approach that coming into this season?
CS: Yeah, I think it’s very easy for characters or performers or shows to start doing impersonations of themselves—to get feedback from the audience and then to try to give the audience repeats of their feedback.
I try quite a bit to play against any sentimentality. I try to remember what it was like to be on this show before it was a huge hit. And to remember who Toby was, how weird, kind of out there, and against the grain he was at the beginning, and carry some of that with me while he evolves and matures and becomes a father.
Sometimes, especially on a particularly heavy scene or a particularly sentimental scene, I will think to myself, ‘All right, let’s not put a hat on a hat here.’ To play a sentimental scene sentimentally is viewing it from the outside, and I have to be inside of it.
AD: Toby was in a dark place this season, a bit of a rut. How did you navigate that? Did you find yourself getting frustrated with him at any point?
CS: Certainly, there are moments of frustration. I can also identify that part in myself. I certainly got into a rut this last year. There was a time, maybe six months into the pandemic, where I said to my wife, ‘I’m just sick of myself. I’m sick of my thinking. I’m sick of being alone with myself.’ And talking about that with my wife and working on my ability to be still, to be with myself, was undoubtedly helpful when it comes to playing Toby. And to realize that it’s okay.
You know everyone’s problems hold equal weight for the person holding them. Your problems are your problems. And everybody processes them differently and at different speeds. So, it’s out of my hands; it’s in the hands of the writers. So, we shall see how things play out.
AD: Dan Fogelman has had the ending of This Is Us in mind all along, and the actors have also known where your characters will ultimately end up. How far in advance are you molding your performance? Do you approach every episode on its own, or do you approach your performance with the arc of the season in mind?
CS: It’s a delicate balance between what I know as the actor and what Toby knows as the character, as far as the outcome or fate of a character, relationship, or storyline. It is something I try to navigate subtly so that the audience sees seeds of what is to come without witnessing the actor giving something away.
And the writers do an excellent job; they make it easy, and our directors make it easy to help us navigate that because they are the ones who, again, get to stand outside, looking in and say, ‘Remember this moment eight episodes ago where he had this thing? Can you put a little bit of that right here too? So that eight episodes from now when this happens, it all makes sense.’ That’s a perfect example of how much of the collaboration all of this is.
AD: What is the challenge in calibrating that? Has that become second nature to you because you’ve been doing this for a while? Or do you find yourself struggling to pull those pieces?
CS: I don’t know if it’s a struggle as much now because we’ve been with these characters for so long, and we know them so well. And our directors do too. We do a lot of work with Ken Olin, who’s my favorite director who we’ve worked with. Justin Hartley, Milo [Ventimiglia], Jon Huertas, as well as our director of photography, Yasu Tanida— anyone who directs the show that also happens to be an insider who understands it, understands the relationships between characters, relieves that struggle because they all know it so well that we can walk each other home, we can guide each other toward the end of the story.
AD: How much feedback have you given the writers about what you want, or don’t want, for Toby’s storylines?
CS: I haven’t stepped in and given too much feedback. The writers have, at least for my storyline and, in my opinion, have never made a false move. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to explore the areas where Toby brushes up very close to who I am as a person. It allows me to work on things from a different perspective.
We’re doing lots of retrospective stuff for the final season. And Dan [Fogelman] pointed this out the other day that, ‘I think, Toby in season one was the horniest character on television.’ [Laughs]. And I was like, ‘Yeah, Dan, I definitely noticed that.’ And I think after two seasons of Toby always just trying to like go for the ‘gold’ with Kate, I was like, ‘Hey guys, how about we broaden this out a bit?’ [Laughs].
Of course, they were already on that path and investigating Toby’s anxiety, depression, and history with weight control issues, and all of those things.
AD: You’ve said that this final season is going to be very ‘transformative’ for Toby. What does that mean?
CS: I think there’s a point in all of our lives when we enter the second half of life. And it usually has to do with a moment of pain, a moment of trauma, a moment of struggle. One of the greatest monologues so far on This Is Us came from Susan Kelechi Watson, as Beth, talking about these struggles are the fence posts in our lives. These things hold up everything else as we go on living.
And, I think Toby is on the verge of entering the second half of life. We spend the first half building this container, developing an ego, developing a personality, individuating ourselves. And then there comes a point when we realized that the world is bigger than us and the ego has to die in some form or another. Toby is on the verge of that. I think the writers are indicating that with the end of his marriage.
AD: Earlier, you mentioned how much the audience adores this show and these characters. As you come to the end of This Is Us, do you ever worry about how the fans will react to the finale? Or if they’ll be disappointed?
CS: I don’t worry about that. I think the reason the fans of our show have been able to stay committed to This Is Us for going on six seasons now is because they know that they’re going to be taken care of. It will be painful, it might be awkward, it might not always be fun, but they will be taken care of. And even though they’re going to be made to feel difficult things, they’re not going to be abused in that way for emotion’s sake. And I have the utmost faith in our writers and in Dan Fogelman in how they are treating these stories, these characters, and the way that they’re going to end.
They know how much these characters and how much this story means to people. And this season is going to be painful, and it’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be a joyful experience.
I’ve learned about my own life through my time on This Is Us—these painful moments, these difficult moments, the struggles are all necessary in contributing to the joyful parts of life; one is not possible without the other, both are going to continually go around in an endless cycle until one day, my individual life comes to an end.
The joy and the pain, they live together, and they will always come and go. And as long as I am not attached to either one of them for too long, the struggle in my life will be minimized. And I think that’s probably what I’ve learned most from working on the show.
AD: And lastly, what is the scene or moment that you’re proudest of from this past season?
CS: The very quiet scene between myself and Michael O’Neill in the parking lot of the hospital, reflecting back to our audience the reality, and the severity, and really the stillness of the pandemic. Even when this man’s wife is in the hospital, and Toby’s future child is in the hospital waiting to be born— birth and death are laid out side by side, but these two men have each other. Two strangers in a parking lot, and it seems the only way they get through any of this is by connecting with each other.
Chris Sullivan is Emmy nominated in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category for his work on This Is Us. The series is available via NBC.