Even at age 8, Susan Kelechi Watson was already a staunch Brooklynite. She remembers helping her mother sweep the family apartment in East New York before they moved to Long Island, and feeling only dismay.
Decades later, donning cozy sweatpants in a Sunset Park photo studio following our Alexa cover shoot, she laughs at the memory of her determined childhood self. “I looked around our apartment as we left. And I said, ‘I’ll be back.’”
Watson was true to her word. When she’s not filming the hit NBC drama “This Is Us” in LA, the actress lives in Brooklyn for roughly five months of the year. “I still cherish it, all the time I get to be here,” she says.
That steadfastness has served her well in an acting career that’s taken her from roles on “Louie” and “The Blacklist” to a starring spot in TV history as eternally understanding wife Beth to Sterling K. Brown’s Randall on “This Is Us.” While Beth had only two scenes in the show’s first episode, the character has stepped out from Randall’s shadow in Season 3.
“If we’re tracking the past three years, it’s been all [about] him,” Watson says. But that’s all changing this season. “So many people want to be seen not just as a mom or a wife, but they want to be seen wholly. And Beth wants that as well.”
A recent episode followed Beth’s trip home to see her iron-willed mother, Carol, played by Phylicia Rashad. The visit triggered fraught memories of Beth’s aspirations to become a dancer, set aside (at her mother’s insistence) following the death of her father. But it also prompts Beth to pursue a new dream of becoming a dance instructor and opening her own studio.
“I want Beth to be an everywoman,” Watson says confidently. “Everybody can see a little bit of themselves in her story and what she goes through.”
The inspired casting of Rashad as Beth’s mother came with its own real-life back story. When Watson was an undergraduate at Howard University, she was selected to spend a summer studying Shakespeare at Oxford University in England, but couldn’t afford the fees. Rashad (also a Howard alum) and Denzel Washington offered to sponsor the trip.
“She found out there were students who needed help to afford the program. And she helped in a huge way,” recalls Watson, who also has an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It was such a broadening of our horizons.”
Rashad also directed Watson in a 2012 production of “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Westport Country Playhouse. “She’s always been this fantastic legacy in my life,” says Watson.
Their reunion on the “This Is Us” set was, naturally, affectionate. Watson waited in the wings while Rashad finished a take. “She’s like, ‘Come here, you,’” Watson laughs. “We gave each other a big hug. Acting opposite her was just easy. She gives you so much. I shouldn’t say ‘easy,’ because there was a part of me that was like, ‘Ooh, girl, you’d better get this right.’
‘You can’t stop. You have to keep setting the bar for yourself … I’ve had these dreams for years.’
“I knew [Rashad’s casting] was going to set the internet on fire because so many people had already made comparisons between Beth and Clair Huxtable [whom Rashad played for eight seasons on ‘The Cosby Show’] in terms of being black mothers in the same vein — of being positive role models.”
Brown is similarly effusive about his co-star Watson. “She’s the best TV wife I’ve ever had,” he tells Alexa. “She’s always able to hold in her mind what’s important for the scene and how it affects the collective relationship of Randall and Beth. Besides that, we have more fun than any two people should have doing a one-hour drama.”
Watson has gained fans beyond the small screen, landing a co-starring role opposite Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Tom Hanks film about children’s television icon Mister Rogers, scheduled to open Nov. 22. She managed to film her scenes while “This Is Us” was still in production.
“Thank God for all the Vietnam [flashback] episodes at the beginning of the season, because that allowed me to fly back and forth to Pittsburgh to do the movie,” she explains. “Matthew plays a journalist [based on Esquire writer Tom Junod] whose life is changed once he has to do a profile of Mister Rogers. He’s used to being the kind of journalist who digs up the dirt on people; a cynical sort of guy. He and I just had a baby, our first child. He prefers to be buried in his work. And Mister Rogers steps in and changes their world.”
Hanks, of course, plays Mister Rogers; Watson reports that he lived up to his good-guy reputation.
“He’s not only just one of the great actors of our time but just one of the great people. So down to Earth, so lovely, so generous. And then we had the marvelous Chris Cooper [playing Junod’s father], who I just love. I’m surrounded by great men.”
As the setting sun darkens the studio’s chicken-wire window panes, Watson reflects on her accomplishments.
“This year was the fulfillment of a lot of goals, with the film and the show,” she says. “That feels good. But you can’t stop. You always have to keep setting the bar for yourself. Playing scenes with Tom Hanks in what Phylicia would call an A-plus-plus project. I’ve had these dreams for many years.”
Although “This Is Us” has not officially been picked for a fourth season (the season finale airs April 2), Watson expects to go back to work on the show in July. Currently single, she stays busy with yoga and writing and may fit in one or two acting projects during her hiatus.
She also has plenty to do in Brooklyn, which is now far fancier — and quite a bit more expensive — than when she grew up in that apartment off Pennsylvania Avenue. Her views on gentrification are strong.
“I don’t understand why there wasn’t the same investment in the community or the same investment in the prosperity of the community when the culture was majority Afro-Caribbean, African-American, when it was a majority of black culture,” she says. “It becomes more opportune to invest when other cultures decide they want to live there. Or other cultures must live there because they’re forced out of — let’s say, Manhattan. At the core level, that’s my problem with gentrification.
“What I say is that there’s this culture and this vibe and this community in Brooklyn that’s so amazing and wonderful and it has influence on the world,” she says. “That’s the part of Brooklyn that I love and I begin to miss. All these people who made Brooklyn, Brooklyn. When you’re from Brooklyn, you are the show, aren’t you?”
Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Johannah Masters; Hair: Gianpaolo Cecilato for Tracey Mattingly; Makeup: Kyrsten Oriol
By Robert Rorke