Ron Cephas Jones (‘This Is Us’) on why people ‘fall in love’ with William [Complete Interview Transcript]

Ron Cephas Jones received his fourth consecutive Emmy nomination for his performance as William Hill, the biological father of Randall (Sterling K. Brown) in “This Is Us.” The veteran actor won an Emmy for Best Drama Guest Actor in 2018 for the show’s second season.

Jones spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen before the nominations about what it’s like being back on the set of “This Is Us,” the episode he is submitting to Emmy voters this year and what it’s been like to keep getting nominations. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Since you are in a guest actor capacity on this show, I was curious how far in advance you know that you’re going to be back on an episode.

Ron Cephas Jones: Well, each season has been different, man. It’s a really strange place to be because you don’t quite know if they’re going to use you in the season. I think one season after the first, Dan [Fogelman] almost guaranteed me that I was coming back to do maybe four or five episodes. And then the following year, the time got a little less. So they might contact me maybe a week and a half, two weeks prior, and say that, “We want to fit you in on a certain episode.” So I try to get the script as soon as I can to find out what it is that I’m going to be doing and in what capacity. So I would say sometimes an episode or two before, which gives me enough time to actually focus on the script and think about what I’m going to be doing. Usually, I’m very excited about how much content it’s going to be and who I’m going to be working with. So it’s a strange place to be. It’s sort of bittersweet. Like everyone and the fans, I wanted William to live as well because I just fell in love with the cast and the crew and everybody. So of course, I would love to have been a series regular, but as it turned out, it worked out really well and I’m just extremely grateful to continue to be a part of this wonderful project. Being able to talk to you going on the fifth season after my character’s passed away says a lot about what I brought to the show and what William’s brought to the storyline and they continue to bring him back. So I haven’t heard anything yet about Season 5 but we’ll see. He always surprises me in that way, so I’ve been grateful.

GD: Well, when you get back on that set, in the Pearson household, is it like riding a bike? You just kind of fall back into the old rhythms or does it take a minute to adjust to things? 

RCJ: It’s been that type of cast and that’s what makes you feel that feeling. It’s really about the people that you’re working with. So as soon as you step on the set, as soon as I step on the set, it’s like old hat, man. Everybody greets you in the way that they’ve been greeting you and it feels so warm and right. So that’s what really you miss. It’s that camaraderie that actors have when you build a project like that. That’s what I miss. I don’t know about anybody else, but I miss the work and I miss the people more than anything else. And with COVID and sequestering, you miss that. You miss the hugs and the love and the kissing. Just miss all that, man, touching someone. So it’s even amplified now with everything that’s going on. Yeah, but that’s what I miss the most. 

GD: Yeah, I feel that totally. Well, you appear in two episodes this season. One of them is “Storybook Love,” which is where we see a flashback to William telling Beth that he had anxiety when he was younger, but they didn’t really call it that back in the day. They said he was sensitive and an artist, but not really that word in particular. Was there anything about that scene with William that just resonated with you personally? 

RCJ: It was going back to feeling William and having that hereditary anxiety that ended up being hereditary for myself and for Randall, it was connecting that after the fact. You know what I mean? Like, I got that information as we got it. So it was connecting it to what I had done before and realizing that there were moments where you could see, which was uncanny, some anxiety that was raised up in William as well. There was a scene back in Season 2, I believe, or 1, in the driveway where he was stopped by the security and there was this anxiousness that he was speaking to the security about in regards to why he was targeting him for some reason. And then there were other moments in the house with Randall where he was dealing with the cancer, where he just was so anxious to get everything done, to get it over with, and Randall was telling him about how he had to be patient and stay calm and let the medication work. So there were moments where I could look back and say, “Yeah, that’s where he was very anxious. He displayed some symptoms of anxiety.” 

I love doing all those scenes with Beth. Susan is wonderful, man, and I love that they let me make a connection with her character in a way that was very father-daughter as well, because I have a daughter myself. So a lot of those feelings and moments resonated directly from my relationship to my daughter, and that’s how I work as an actor. I try to find out what’s inside already, so I don’t have to act it but I could bring it forth from inner and bring it out, things that are already inside myself that relate to the subject matter or the action. So those were the moments that I really enjoyed working with Susan and I was hoping that I’d get a chance to eventually work with the kids in a grandfather manner but that never developed. That was one of the things I was hoping if he had stayed on, so possibly that could happen in a dream sequence or something like that. We’ll see. 

GD: Yeah, anything’s possible on this show, I’ve found. But the other episode you’re in is “After the Fire,” which is the episode you’re submitting to Emmy voters this year. It’s the second-to-last episode where Randall is imagining what his life would have been like if Jack had survived and that includes the best-case scenario, which is that he would have met William as a teenager and gotten him clean and became a part of the family. And then the worst-case scenario is where they would have met and William would have rejected him. What do you think of the show doing this sort of butterfly effect, sliding doors scenario for Randall and William?

RCJ: It was really interesting. I mean, I thought it was one of the more interesting things they had done. I liked it because you got a chance to see another side of who William might have been. The whole idea of that scene was so different, slamming the door in his face and displaying that sort of seclusive, angry, resentful sort of person, which is the total opposite of what we know of William, and also being able to meet him early on like that, and also being able to have Milo [Ventimiglia] in the scene and what that feels like to have your son call someone else Dad. And you look across the table and you realize that your son has a father and it’s not really you and the only connection you have is a distant memory of leaving him at a fire station. So that was a very difficult scene for me to do. I hope that I got in the right actions because it’s one of those scenes that’s unknown. It really is what it is. It’s like I didn’t know him, and so, when he opened the door, the actor, I really didn’t know Randall. It was strange and I just stuck with that. I stuck with the idea that this is my son but I don’t really know who he is and I didn’t know, and I’m sorry, his name escapes me, the wonderful actor that played him at a young age. 

GD: Niles Fitch.

RCJ: Yeah. I didn’t really know Niles like I know Randall. And so, I had never worked with Niles before. I’d seen his work and he’s a wonderful, tremendous young actor, man, with so much road ahead of him. But I didn’t really know him, and so, that’s what came out. That was the realness of it. I really didn’t know him and I liked him a lot. So that’s what was there, and I hope that that’s what people saw, and the uneasiness that comes with that. Trying to be impressive, but at the same time really having nothing to impress him with. He’s floating around, trying to show him stuff and here’s my trumpet and here’s my book of poems and trying to impress him with nothing really to impress him. Looking across and there’s Jack, successful, and obviously he raised him wonderfully. He can see that. So the awkwardness about that scene I hope just really showed because it was real. I don’t know how to describe it in any other way. The angry scene was easier than the nice scene. The angry scene was a lot more easier because it was short, quick and abrupt. It was just like, “I don’t have a son. I never had a son,” bam, close the door. I didn’t have to linger on it too much, so I didn’t really look at him in that scene. I didn’t give myself time to do any recognition. So I look above him and I look more at Jack than I did the kid. Like, “Who are you and why are you bringing this kid here or whatever?” So it was more about looking over the kid’s head at the man and then really yelling at the man because he didn’t even want to acknowledge the fact that this kid could be a son. So I like the duality in that. And that’s what I’m hoping that gets noticed, so I think that’s why those scenes resonated. Hopefully they made the grade. 

GD: Yeah, that’s super fascinating. I’m not sure how much you’ve thought about this in particular, but what do you think really would have happened if Randall had come into William’s life when he was younger? Have you thought about that? 

RCJ: Well, the first thing I thought was that it was an impetus to keep him clean and straight. Children have a way of giving you responsibility and accepting responsibility. So I’ve always thought that William would have made a good go of it. I don’t know. It’s hard to say how to raise a child by yourself or on your own. I’m not sure what he would have done. But I always felt like had he met him sooner, it might have worked out the way that they kind of wrote it. I think in a way, in a distant, as long as the child has a desire to make the connection, then the adult can make the adjustment because their heart wants to but they feel like the child’s heart is not into it, even if you see them, if the child’s heart’s not into it, then I think William would’ve just excluded him gladly, especially after seeing that his child is safe and happy. I think he would have been fine with that, which was the way he passed and he said to Randall, “You deserve everything. You are special,” and he accepted that. And I think that’s where William would’ve been at. I think that Randall, at a young age, if his heart was into being, which it was in that scene, then I think it would have kind of worked out the way it did. I think he would have came into his life when Randall wanted him to, maybe visit every now and then or take him for a walk or go fishing once a month. I think William would have been very happy for that. Just whatever it was that he could spend time with.

I think he said that to Rebecca in a scene where she came to his apartment and she said, “Do you want to meet him at first?” And then she decided not to. But he said anything at that point. He was telling her, “Maybe I can just help him with his homework or whatever, anything that I can do to be around and not be his father, but find a way to make a connection with him.” So I like to think in my heart, and I always have, that that’s what William wanted. The first day that he met Randall and he says, “You want to meet your grandchildren?” And he said, “I’ll get my coat.” So right there, it showed you that it was there, because he didn’t hesitate. But he also accepted the fact that if Randall rejected him, he was ready for that because he said, “I’m walking out right now.” He said, “Go ahead.” I mean, I expected that, too. I was prepared for that all these years. So I had a full understanding of that character in a way that I’ve never understood a character before. It’s my first real kind of lead character that I had a full storyline. I’ve done other television pieces. But this was the first that I had a full arc. So I fell in love with him because I knew him so well and I think that’s what resonated with the audience as well. True character to what was in my heart already and the people and the men that I knew and grew up with. So he was very much a part of that, which was a part of me. 

GD: That’s exactly why the audience did fall in love with William.

RCJ: I think so, yeah. I think that when you see work like that, you feel that it’s really coming from a truthful place and I’ve gotten letters from all over, man. All over the world. I mean, just yesterday from Bulgaria, this woman wrote me about her uncle who passed away. She said, “You reminded me of him so much that every time I watch your show, I cry and I long for you.” Bulgaria! I get letters all the time from all over the world. So that’s special. People fall in love with a character like that, even though he’s not on this show anymore. So that’s the genius of Dan, I think, also. Keep you in the people’s conscious because that’s what happens. It gets into your subconscious.

GD: Well, speaking of special, you are becoming something of an Emmy favorite. You have been nominated for the first three seasons of “This Is Us.” You won for guest actor in 2018 for Season 2. Big moment for you. Here at Gold Derby, we often like to ask actors what it feels like to be nominated and to win. But I mean, you have actually had this continued love from your peers in the Academy. So what has that continued love been like for you? 

RCJ: Everything I just said, man. It’s a testament for me, number one, to the work that I’ve put in. I mean, I’m all about the work. I love the work. I’ve been doing it for a long time and to be able to finally get to a place where I could do that kind of work on film and on a quality television show that’s a hit favorite that’s lasting over that period of time, has been very special. I mean, it doesn’t happen often, as you know, especially for a primetime television show with cable running rampant with all these wonderful shows and all these great performances. To be able to do that on network television has been special. But it’s a testament to the work, man. I mean, I just love doing work and consistently being nominated and winning just says to me that people are acknowledging the work. They’re saying, “Well, whatever the case may be, Ron’s work deserves to be noticed.” It didn’t become about the wins after that. It just became the fact that I was saying to myself, “My work is resonating. People are actually noticing my work.” And that’s what I waited a long time for, man. The Emmys and winning is a byproduct of the work. It is, man, and it makes me feel like the audience and the people that know the work are saying, “We know the work. We can see your work.” And that makes me feel like I’ll have some longevity, that I’ll have a place in the business where I can continue to do that type of work. And that’s a dream of mine.

I want to continue to do that kind of work and what’s happening is that kind of work is starting to come to me now. I’m getting offers, like the next show that I’m doing, we’ll chat on about in a minute, “Truth Be Told.” To get an offer to work with Octavia Spencer is a byproduct of my work that I’ve done on “This Is Us.” So the consistency of being able to go from one project to the next that has quality actors, quality writing and quality work is what an actor dreams for, to be able to be in the echelon of the grade-A actors, to be spoken with in that same category as Octavia Spencer or Sterling K. Brown, is special. And that’s where I want my career to continue to be. And then the Academy has been very kind to be me, man. Gold Derby has been very kind to me, and I think it’s because you guys see the work. So when you say, “Let’s talk to Ron because he does good work, man, and it’s interesting work,” that’s what this is all about, right? It’s all about good work, good TV shows. So to feel like you’re in that category, it’s like, that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 some years.

So to be able to have my work acknowledged, that’s everything, man, because it builds continuity and it builds quality to the work and everything should be better, wanna be better and want to do things that keep challenging you and so in that way, that’s how I feel about that. I’m grateful to all of you cats, man, because each time I speak to you guys, you’re always talking to me about work. And that’s what an actor dreams. I’ll just speak for myself. That’s what I work for, to see the work. To say, “Man, I want to do good work and have that working acknowledged.” So every time I talk to you guys, it’s always a big thank you and letting all of you know that I’m grateful for that. It doesn’t go unnoticed. So I notice you as well as you notice me. And the time I did the story thing at the Television Academy was invaluable. It was such a wonderful night of storytelling and I got a chance to tell one of my personal stories about seeing Denzel Washington do “Richard III” at the Public and then almost 20 years later, I ended up doing “Richard III” at the Public as well. So, really interesting story. 

GD: Yeah, well, we certainly appreciate your work. Unfortunately, we are out of time. I could talk to you for another 20 minutes and more. 

RCJ: I really appreciate it, man. Hopefully, after COVID and everything gets back to normal, keep an eye out on that show “Truth Be Told.” They picked it up for a second season. So hopefully the work will continue. Thank you so much, Kevin.

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