“This Is Us” Actor Chris Sullivan on the Show’s Impact Across America

By Rachel Jones | Photograph from Maarten De Boer/NBC

Has anyone ever watched an episode of “This Is Us” and not cried? The engaging story of families embracing the ups and downs of life has captivated audiences since the first episode last fall. Lightening some of the heavier storylines with quick wit and swoon-worthy moments is Chris Sullivan’s character, Toby. We chatted with Sullivan about the show’s cultural phenomenon and the buzz around season two’s premiere September 26.

How did you land the role of Toby on “This Is Us”?
A couple years ago, I did a show called ‘The Knick’ on Cinemax. Steven Soderbergh directed it. Not many people saw it [laughs], but it was a really good show. A lot of people in the industry saw it, and pretty much every job I’ve had since almost always directly had to do with someone who saw that show. That included Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, two of the executive producers of ‘This Is Us.’ I don’t know how they looked at [my character on ‘The Knick,’ an ambulance driver who steals from patients] and thought I should read for Toby, but they invited me in and it all worked out.

How would you describe Toby?
So far, you’ve seen his relationship with Kate [played by Chrissy Metz]. People talk about how perfect Toby is or how romantic he is. All of the things he does are very loving and thoughtful. But he obviously has his downside — he throws tantrums, he storms off, he has his moments. I think what we’re finally learning about Toby and Kate is that the real relationship doesn’t start until you start delving into each other’s pain, really getting in there and doing the difficult work. I think he represents the Hollywood, romantic idea of what a relationship is supposed to be. The writers are using him now to sort of demonstrate how to get around that ideal, which I’m enjoying. Of course, I enjoy everything I get to do with Chrissy Metz. We get along so famously, and it’s a real honor and privilege to create next to her every day.

Which storylines really affected you?
My stuff with Kate is pretty fun, mostly. As far as the storylines in the show, though, I know a lot of us were really into William and his storyline. Ron Cephas Jones is just one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. Certainly made me cry every time I saw him.

In what ways has the show impacted viewers?
The stories that you see on screen are pulled right out of the hearts of our writers. Although the story is fictional, there are people in our writers’ room who are bearing their souls through all of these scenarios. What you end up with is an audience who watches this television show, and the title of the show is their response. You know? They watch it and say, ‘Holy s—, this is us.’ All of the relationships are so relatable that that’s the kind of response we’ve been getting. Our viewers, as far as I can tell, are just a lovely group of people.

You and your castmates play one family on the show. Is that kind of how it is off set?
It really is. Since last season, we’ve all gotten to spend time with each other off set. We’ve had quite a bit of press to do, which we find very enjoyable. It’s a chance for all of us to be in one place at the same time, which doesn’t happen very often, since the show is so broken into different storylines. It’s actually kind of shocking how well we get along. Not that I would expect these people to be jerks [laughs]. But just in life, when you gather this many personalities, people are bound to not be as compatible as we’ve turned out to be.

Most of the show takes place in the Pittsburgh area. Have you been to the city before?
I’ve never been to Pittsburgh. The closest I’ve gotten to Pittsburgh was a charity event in New York for the Pittsburgh Film Commission. We are all hoping for a family field trip together to Pittsburgh. We should probably go to a Steelers game, right?

Of course! Are you a football fan?
I grew up in Central California in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, so I got to witness the Joe Montana, Steve Young era with the 49ers. It was pretty impossible to escape that phenomenon as a kid. I don’t follow it as much as an adult. I was a competitive tennis player, so I follow that instead. I don’t want to jump on anyone’s bandwagon, you know — just because I’m on this TV show, so now I like the Steelers. But I’ll do it!

+ The only hint Sullivan could share about season two? “I’m excited for everyone to see Toby try to get to know the family a little bit better.” So are we!

“This Is Us,” nbc.com/this-is-us

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