Ron Cephas Jones won an Emmy last year for his performance as William on “This Is Us,” and he’s nominated again in Best Drama Guest Actor this year. Jones is one of only three actors to be nominated for every season of “This Is Us” thus far, collecting three nominations in all.
Jones recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about winning the Emmy last year, the complexity of William and whether he’ll be back in Season 4 of “This Is Us.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: First of all, Ron, congratulations on your third consecutive Emmy nomination this year. Talk us through the morning of and how you found out about it.
Ron Cephas Jones: My manager actually gave me a call and told me that NBC, I think it was, submitted me and there was a possibility that I might make the list and then he gave me a call and told me that I made the list of nominees. I was very excited. I’ve been very blessed with this show to have three nominations in a row and also to be able to come home with the trophy last year was a highlight of my career. There were a lot of years under those three years. I felt very good about that.
GD: You won last year and I remember seeing your acceptance speech. It was really beautiful. You called out to Sterling [K. Brown], you thanked a whole bunch of people from your life. What does it mean to you at this stage of your career to be winning an Emmy? When I looked at you walking up to the stage, you looked genuinely shocked and surprised and so honored.
RCJ: I was very shocked and surprised. I never imagined after all those years. You stop looking at those kinds of things after a while and your whole focus is just on being able to work, to continue to do good work, at that. I had been very fortunate to be able to be in that position at the theater. I just didn’t know how it was gonna ever play out on television or film because I was moving basically from New York and never made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles but they started shooting more cable stuff and television shows out of New York so I was able to start putting together a string of jobs that led to “This Is Us.” I was very shocked and surprised. It just felt like I had so many people to thank because there were a lot of years under that night, so many people have come into my life and led to that point. So yeah, fortunately, I jotted some names down on an envelope just in case, so as it happened, my name was called but I could barely read the list. It’s just one of those moments you can’t believe. So I understand after watching so many award shows how people feel when they get up there. It’s pretty overwhelming and it was for me as well.
GD: It is overwhelming and we always hear how it’s like a blur, just a profound moment in your career. For an actor like yourself that’s been acting for a very long time and you have a recognizable face but I think it’s obviously this role that has really cemented your name in people’s minds, I wonder after winning awards and accolades and great reviews, what has a show like this done for you personally and professionally?
RCJ: It’s established me as a good actor out here in Los Angeles, a workable actor. This is what I feel, an actor that directors or writers will wanna write for, directing and producers will wanna work with, with good work. That’s something that takes a lot of years to do when you’re out here in Los Angeles. Fortunately, I got lucky and was blessed to be on a show that had some excellent writing and gave me an opportunity to show the depth of my work in the character that was given with William. All those elements coming together gave me a big advantage because it was like a big audition thing. Week after week you get a chance to show producers and directors and people in the field what kind of work that you can do. So that’s how it pays off. It gives other people a chance to see your work and say, “Man, I really would like to work with this cat,” or, “I think this guy would be excellent for this particular role that I have in mind.” I did some other wonderful things just over the last couple years, working with Octavia Spencer, doing a John Green novel that I just finished, “Looking for Alaska,” and a few other things that are coming down the pike. I think that’s the answer to the question, Rob.
GD: Speaking of your acceptance speech, you called out to Sterling and mentioned something about how you just gotta show up. Mandy [Moore] said that to me the other day as well and I wonder, what does that mean? Talk us through what that means amongst your castmates because it appears that this ensemble is quite a family and yet you all seem to elevate each other on-set.
RCJ: That’s exactly what it is, Rob. Sterling had said that to me when he got his award and he was speaking and I said the same thing back to him. Basically, it’s actors who do the work, who go home and do the homework and come to work ready to work, ready to give something, ready to play, ready to give back to the scene. That’s always a wonderful thing when you have an actor that you know is bringing the homework to the job. Then it’s time to play. Then it’s exciting. You push each other to another level and you’re constantly looking to do that in every scene that you work with. You push each other to another level. That’s a challenge that every actor likes to look for, to work with someone that’s gonna help take you to that next level and make the scene and make the piece the best that it can be. That’s what that means, “All you have to do is show up.” That means that the actor has done his homework and you can feel it. Then it’s just about showing up and having fun and playing and elevating the work.
GD: Yeah, and I would say for a show like this, that’s really important because this show is very emotional, I could probably say. It evokes various emotions. It’s very empathetic. It’s unlike anything else on TV, actually. For me, I like to call it therapeutic. It’s actually quite therapeutic and resonant. Do you hear that a lot from people when they’re talking about your work on the show and the show in general?
RCJ: Yeah, I do. That’s a word we hear quite often, actually. It’s a fine line, though, Rob, because it’s entertainment, also. It could be a very fine line between using the idea of therapeutic and entertainment as well, but therapeutic in a way that’s good. It’s healing but also like you said, it’s a show that allows you to feel when most of the time, when we watch television, we’re looking not to feel. We’re looking to escape. This particular show does just the opposite. You escape into your feelings as opposed to escape away from your feelings. I think that’s the difference. It gives you license to do so. Knowing that you’re doing it with so many hundreds of thousands of other people, you don’t feel so alone. You don’t feel so weird that you let yourself cry. We’ve had cats like motorcycle drivers or construction workers that shed a tear with their wives and their children when they watch this show. That can be a beautiful thing. It opens up conversations about disease, about adoption, about love, about brothers and sisters, so forth and so on. I think you hit it right on the head.
GD: I never thought of it that way ‘cause a lot of the times when you’re watching TV or movies, you do wanna just switch off and escape. This show is not one of those shows. This show is immersive. It’s a really good way to put it. Your scenes, in particular, they evoke very strong feelings about our relationships with fathers and sons, depending on where you’re at in your life. What can you draw from as inspiration to give that angle of authenticity?
RCJ: There are a lot of men like William in my life, uncles, my father, my grandfather, I’m sure as well as Sterling on his side, the different men that I grew up in my life that I drew from. One in particular, Rob, is interesting. My best friend that I grew up with at the time, his name is Charles Bivens, God rest his soul, he was going through stage IV stomach cancer, the same disease that my character was going through the first year that I was doing William. He eventually passed away as well. Things like that were very close. I know a lot of men who are in recovery from addictions, alcohol and drug abuse, two uncles in my life who’ve gone through that. There are a lot of very strong, powerful men that I had an opportunity to draw off and all my years of growing up through the ‘60s and ‘70s in New York, jazz musicians, me wanting to be a jazz musician, many musicians that I grew up are good friends of mine, poets. That’s the beauty of William that I loved. There were so many different men that were creative, African American men that you don’t see much, that are artists, that draw, that write poetry, that play music and also have children. Many of them are in-home dads and many of them are away dads. Most of them, for whatever reason, love their children from afar or even close. There was a lot of different men in my life that was very easy for me to look inside and draw from for William. He became a character that was very close to me because it reminded me of so many wonderful men that I grew up with.
GD: He’s also such a fully-formed character. There’s a lot about him over the last two years in particular. His sexuality, for example, is something I wasn’t expecting and really has added this extra color. Talk us through that angle as well and how you were forming that side of his character.
RCJ: It’s so interesting, Rob. As an actor, you are given the task of bringing to life a character that’s given to you to be someone else. Someone writes it, someone has a full thought about it and then it’s handed to you. That’s what happened to William in the middle of that journey. Dan [Fogelman] came to me and approached me about the idea of William being gay, so the interesting part was not whether he was gay or not but the question was why, how are we gonna get to that place with the fans and the storyline makes it real? But I started to think about it and I realized all the different high-profile men that I knew and grew up with that were gay and were also artists and prominent figures like James Baldwin or Billy Strayhorn, who was a composer with Duke Ellington, or Bayard Rustin, who was also a big figure in Martin Luther King’s life and wrote many of his speeches and put together many of the civil rights movement marches. I remember my mother telling me the story of Bayard Rustin, he was a brilliant mind, but he had to stay behind the scenes because of his sexuality and he was Martin Luther King’s righthand man. Of course, we all know about the prolific James Baldwin. So when you think about men like that and all the other people that it wasn’t about the sexuality, it was about the person. The sexuality was a part of who William was. I didn’t have any problem with any of that. I don’t think anyone should when you look to the heart of a person. That’s why I tried to bring out. I know some fans had different opinions about it but that’s a beautiful thing too. The core of William never changed. The beauty of it was like he said, “I’ve always been attracted to men and women. I’ve always had the capability to love those that love me.” I thought that those lines and the way they wrote them out was beautiful. And then having the opportunity to work with an actor like Denis O’Hare, who many don’t know is also one of the most respected stage actors from New York to London, to get an opportunity to work with somebody like him, it was a beautiful thing. I wish that we would’ve had more to do together because he’s such a wonderful actor, man. To be in the scene with a cat like that, that’s the top shelf type stuff.
GD: There’s so much about the character that is complicated, organic. He’s not a cardboard cutout and that’s the beauty of this show.
RCJ: I love that about him and I love the way they wrote that about him, a lot of layers that I’ve had an opportunity to play.
GD: The other beauty of this character is like a few other people in the cast, you have to play him in various time periods. Before, we had Jermel Nakia playing him as a young man but you got the opportunity to do that as a slightly older young man and then obviously as a very old man. How difficult was it to play the different parts of him and what are you doing internally to bring that out apart from the makeup and the hair that we can actually see?
RCJ: It’s really about trying to keep up with the timeline. It’s like, “Okay, where does Jermel cut out and where does Ron pick up and then where does the older…” So we tried to explore that a little bit in the last season. There was so much going on and so many new characters so we didn’t get a chance to touch on it too much. I was hoping, and still do, that maybe in the up and coming seasons if they do decide to bring William back that that would be perhaps some of the area, where Jermel leaves off and then also that area where William has gotten clean. For instance, when he met the woman with the baby who came to live in the building, that period of William’s life before Randall came but after he’s in recovery and just before he met Jessie. Those are the little timelines that were going on and I had to just make sure that I kept together, “Okay, is this pre-Randall but after Jessie but after he’s clean?” Just trying to keep those timelines constant and consistent in my head. That was the difficult part about that, just making sure I was clear about where he was at chronologically in his life and when he got clean, when he met Jessie, when he met the woman, which was before he met Jessie, all those kinds of things.
GD: Speaking of the younger William, he features prominently in the episode that you submitted to Emmy voters, “A Philadelphia Story.” It’s a really poignant flashback in his early life. Is that the reason why you decided to go down that road and pick that particular episode?
RCJ: I didn’t actually pick the episode. The producers picked that episode so I think that’s the reason why. There was those little moments that really stood out and were an extension of the season before. I think that’s what the nominations are about also. They’re an extension of one another. It’s really about the extension of that character and the way they write it, I feel, and I couldn’t say for sure, but I feel like that’s what the nominations are about, too. The way they’ve written it and the way we’ve played it and the way I’ve been able to lay the character down, there’s always an extension from what happened before that leads into the next season. I’m pretty sure that’s why they chose that scene.
GD: Speaking of, Ron, we really hope to see you next season. I don’t know if you can tell us anything, if you know what’s happening with William but I think we’re unfinished. I think there’s more we need to learn about this guy. What do you think?
RCJ: Yeah, I would love that, Rob. I have no idea, to be honest with you, and if I did I would tell you. I have no idea if they have any intention of bringing him back. I know that it’s always open and I will say this, that Dan has always said to me that William is always open. He’s an open book. So they could decide to bring him back in a major way this season, next season, but they will bring him back at some point. I just don’t know when or how, but he did always tell me that. That’s the beauty of the way they write this show. You can get that call and they may have two or three episodes for me to do in a flashback, some brilliant stuff that comes out of the mind of Dan Fogelman.
GD: Fingers crossed and thank you, Ron, for your time today and good luck at the Emmys.
RCJ: Man, you’re the best. You’re the top shelf, Rob. Thanks so much, brother.