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‘This Is Us': Ron Cephas Jones on William’s ‘Total Rejection’ of Young Randall in ‘What If?’ Episode

”It was a constant learning process of how to get it right through Randall’s dream,“ Jones tells TheWrap

Ron Cephas Jones has once again been nominated for an Emmy for his guest role as William, Randall Pearson’s (Sterling K. Brown) deceased biological father on NBC’s “This Is Us.” But his third nod for the same part comes for playing not one, but two different versions of the character that only exist in his son’s mind during a “what if?” exercise in a therapy session.

“I’ve never experienced that before and going into it, I had to constantly remind myself that it was nothing like anything else we’ve done before,” Jones told TheWrap of the Season 4 episode, titled “After the Fire.” “I guess the difficult part was trying to get into Randall’s head. So I had to keep referring back to the writer and the director to make sure that actions were conducive to who William would have been through Randall’s mind.”

During the episode, Randall sits down with Dr. Leigh (Pamela Adlon) and tells her exactly what he thinks his life would have been like if he had stopped his father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), from going back inside their house when it was burning down, which is what led him dying of a heart attack that same night.

Randall goes down two paths, one a best case scenario that shows him finding out about William from his mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) as a teen, as opposed to the reality of her keeping William a secret and Randall discovering him later in life. In this time line, Randall bonds with William almost immediately, which leads adult Randall to noticing his biological father’s cancer early enough to save him from dying of it.

“It was a constant learning process of how to get it right through Randall’s dream and through Randall’s idea of who William was,” Jones said. “Also, it was the first time I had an opportunity to work with [‘This Is Us’ actor Niles Fitch], the younger Randall, which was mind-blowing in itself because I had to go back even further to re-create — in Randall’s young mind, in Randall’s mind through therapy — what that situation would have been like. So I didn’t have Sterling there to make any reference either.”

The darker “what if?” timeline Randall imagines in therapy is one in which, as Jones put it, young Randall faces “total rejection” from William when he finds out about him as a teenager and goes to see him with Jack.

“If you think about human behavior, it’s easier to discard than it is to accept,” Jones said, “If you just think about that premise alone, just human behavior, it easier to fear than it is to love. It’s easier to reject than it is to accept. And that’s human behavior, our first instinct is to reject, you have to work at acceptance. You have to work at love. So the rejecting comes at all levels, whatever stage of grief it is, you can identify with rejection.”

This is also where never having worked with Fitch before worked in Jones’ favor.

“I had never, in my mind, accepted Randall in that particular scene. So I didn’t even really have to look at Niles. It was a total rejection of the idea that I had ever had a child. So to not even focus on him and instead look at Milo– or Jack, who I didn’t know was Jack. And of course in the character you’re not thinking it’s Milo, it’s just some strange white man with some kid, and then the subconscious of me registered it. And hopefully– that was the difficult part, if the camera could pick up that moment where it registers in his subconscious and then he pushes it to his consciousness to say, I reject everything that’s in front of me and even the idea that you would even say that this is my son, that was the goal in the action of that particular moment. Just total rejection.”

He added: “But there’s a moment where you maybe see that he knows it, but the rejection happens so fast and so totally that by the time you blink, the door has slammed.”

Jones doesn’t know if he’ll be back for the upcoming fifth season of “This Is Us” — which has yet to begin production amid the pandemic or set a premiere date, but is still holding a spot on NBC’s fall lineup — though he is hopes to find out more about Rebecca and William’s complicated past one day.

“There are a lot of questions I still have about his relationship fully to Randall’s mother,” Jones said. “And hopefully I get to be included in that.”