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This Is Us' Susan Kelechi Watson on the Importance of Cracking Beth's 'Supportive Wife' Mold

And what it was like going toe-to-toe with Phylicia Rashad

Megan Vick

Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson) emerged as a fan-favorite character on NBC's This Is Us the moment fans saw her fake-smoking before having a verbal sparring match with her husband, Randall (Sterling K. Brown). From the beginning, she's been the rock in his corner, keeping the adopted member of the Big 3 going and helping him find the inner strength to pursue his dreams, whether it was reconnecting with his birth father, buying an apartment building, or running for office.

In Season 3, it was finally Beth's turn to fight for her own dreams, and Watson was suddenly flooded with a lot of new information about a character she had deftly managed for over two years. The fan clamor for more Beth led to a character showcase, an episode titled "Our Little Island Girl," that introduced fans -- and Watson -- to Beth's lifelong love of dance and how the loss of that dream set her life on a completely different course. The episode also saw Phylicia Rashad playing Beth's stern but resilient mother.

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While the first two seasons painted Beth as the perfect supportive wife, the show's third outing allowed Watson to explore Beth's backstory, find her cracks, and have her show up for herself rather than constantly rooting for Randall. Suddenly, the couple's infamous tête-à-têtes had a lot more bite, and Watson emerged as a powerhouse as she fought for Beth's autonomy in a seemingly perfect relationship struggling to keep itself together.

TV Guide spoke with Watson about diving into the depths of Beth's character, making her as a fully realized person, and, of course, what it was like to go toe-to-toe with Rashad in her standout episode.

How much of this season was you getting to show people things that you already knew about Beth because you and creator Dan Fogelman had talked about it, and how much was you discovering new things about her because we were seeing her in a different light?
Susan Kelechi Watson: There was an arc that was introduced to us about [Beth and Randall], seeing maybe seven of their worst fights. That was introduced maybe over the summer, before we got back for Season 3, but the rest of it I learned as we went along, and once I got the scripts. So it was a really great surprise, and challenge for me as well, in terms of learning more about her.

What it was like for you and Sterling to deconstruct this marriage after spending two years building it?
It was great, because we just felt like these are the struggles that real marriages go through. So, it just gave us more of an opportunity to really explore the depth of their relationship, and acknowledging that good things happen and bad things happen.

Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us​

Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us

NBC, Ron Batzdorff/NBC

I want to backtrack a little bit to "Our Little Island Girl," because that was really such a special episode. We learned a lot more about Beth in one chunk than we had in the entire series. At what point did they come to you and tell you that this episode was going to happen?
Watson: I remember Dan mentioned that there would be a Beth showcase when we were doing a panel at the end of Season 2. It's foggy now, but I remember getting a call in September while we were in the midst of Season 3 [asking] do I know how to dance? Was I really serious about being a dancer? Because I told them [in] Season 1 that I used to dance, and I was like, "Yeah." Then they were like, "Do you love it?" and I was like, "Yeah, I love it." Then I started to learn about what this arc was going to be.

I remember not knowing that it was going to be a whole episode about Beth. I thought that it would be one of the storylines, so that was part of the surprise for me, and also learning about her journey as a dancer when she was young, and all the dreams and the hopes that she had. That was really great for me to learn as well, because it was me also getting her history just as the audience was getting it.

What was it like having Phylicia Rashad come in to play your mom?
Watson: That was wonderful. I don't think there's anybody else who could have played it. I think it's just perfect casting. I remember trying to find a way to enter into [scenes with her] because there was so much new information that I was just learning about Beth. And then here I was now doing this with Phylicia, which was a whole other layer to it. It was challenging, but once we found the groove of them and found a certain level of comfort with it, they really started to take on a life of their own. But even when it's challenging, it's great. Just to be able to say those words, and act them with Phylicia, was really huge. It was really a really great moment.

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After getting all of that information about Beth's backstory, and knowing that about her for sure now, did that change how you approached her for the rest of the season?
Watson: Boy, yeah, it informs all of it. So now I've seen the younger version of Beth, which is kind of amazing, and watching Rachel work taught me about Beth. Watching her do it, I was like, "Oh, wow. Oh yeah, Beth does that. Or she's like this..." because it was a reflection of the character as well. So, actually watching my younger self taught me a lot about Beth. That informed me a lot for the rest of the season.

How important was it for you to get an episode in this season where we get to explore Beth as more than just Randall's supportive wife?
Watson: I think it's important because I have heard of a lot of friends, and women growing up, talk about who they are as an individual, outside of having kids, outside of having a husband, outside of their careers -- just who they are. I always thought that was so interesting, because I didn't have any of those things yet. I was always in the place of exploring who I am, but to hear grandmothers or older relatives talk about who they are, specifically, as a person, and their wants and needs, and how they still have desires for those things. I always thought, "Oh, wow."

I just always took note of that and felt like, "That's really important that people pay attention to their own desires and what they still want and need, and not just get caught up in the labels of being wife, or mom, a career, or whatever it is." This was an opportunity to explore that kind of self-care and self-love that even after you become a wife or a mom or a career woman, there's still space and room to be you and be a whole person, in and outside of those things. So it was really important. I felt like this was a storyline that is owed to a lot of women to see, and for men to see too, important for us all to take note that we are these whole individuals first, before we enter into any other relationships.

Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us​

Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us

NBC, Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Were you able to talk about that with Phylicia at all? She had to break a similar mold of being more than just her husband's wife as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
Watson: I don't know that we got the opportunity to talk about that, but in a way, that's what the characters' conversations were about. So, I feel like we kind of spoke about it through the characters. There [were] her ideas of what Beth should be in order to have a successful life, and then there [were] Beth's ideas of what it needed to be. That was the conflict between the two characters. I think the characters got to explore that together.

How do you feel that you've grown with Beth over the past three seasons?
Watson: I keep learning more about her, which is really awesome. And I'm really excited to explore this dance side because as it's awakening in Beth, it's awakening in me too. It was something that meant a lot to me growing up and throughout my life, so the opportunity to get to explore that again, and through this great character, is something that really excites me.

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Dan Fogelman has said that this is about the halfway point of what he imagined this series is going to be. Where would you like to see Beth go from here?
Watson: You know, wherever they want to take it. I really feel confident in where the character's going. From the looks of things, it's in a direction of really exploring her truth and what means something to her; and also just this beautiful family that she has, and being the matriarch of this home that has a lot of love, and has a lot of understanding and a lot of compassion. I think those are things that I would be really proud to continue to explore, on the show.

What are you most proud of when it comes to your portrayal of Beth Pearson on This is Us?Watson: What she represents to women, to all women. I've gotten feedback from just all cultures of women, and also really what she represents to black women in terms of being someone who people can look to and find some part of themselves in her, and find a validation in her and feel like they're being seen. I love that she represents in that way. I am really excited to continue to do that, to continue to do that for the next three years.

This Is Us returns Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 9/8c on NBC.