In the fourth episode of Season 4 of “This Is Us,” Randall Pearson ― the upbeat yet neurotic, pep-talking father of three girls, played expertly by Sterling K. Brown ― meets a teenage boy interested in dating his daughter Deja (Lyric Ross).
Randall and his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), recently moved their family from the New Jersey suburbs to Philadelphia for his job, so they’re trying to help their kids, including daughters Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman), adjust to a new normal. Raising a teenage daughter who has an older boyfriend is definitely uncharted ground for Randall, but he’s excited to get to know Malik (Asante Blackk), a schoolmate whom Deja has been talking to for a few weeks.
That is until he finds out the 16-year-old is a father himself.
“When my daughter gets old enough, I plan on installing a tracking device on her,” Malik laughs while a slightly confused Randall stares down at him during their first meeting. As Malik realizes Deja didn’t tell Randall about his 6-month-old daughter, Janelle, he explains that he has full custody and occasional child care support from his parents.
For Lyric Ross, playing out this complicated plot point is a thrill, albeit a surprising one. “I didn’t really know how much more they could do with this character,” Ross, who is 16 herself, told HuffPost. “She was a foster kid, adopted as part of the family ― I didn’t know they could take it even further with a whole different storyline.”
It’s not easy to portray someone who’s trying to overcome a tragic past, but Ross said the loyal “This Is Us” audience keeps her eager to bring Deja’s story to life. The character has really resonated with the show’s viewers, whether they’re personally familiar with the foster care system or not.
“They see all of this hurt that this girl’s feeling,” Ross said.
Deja was introduced in Season 2. Viewers learned that her mother had her when she was 16 and struggled to raise Deja alone following her grandmother’s death. After the little girl was hospitalized with a bad cut to the hand, Child Protective Services noticed some inconsistencies in Deja’s home life and put her in the foster care system. She rotated through a few homes ― some abusive, some over-crowded ― before she was reunited with her mother. But then her mom was arrested for possession of an unlicensed gun. That’s when a 12-year-old Deja was placed with Randall and Beth, who eventually became her permanent guardians when her mother realized they could provide her daughter with a more stable life.
At first defiant, Deja comes to love the Pearsons and forms a beautiful bond with Randall, who was adopted himself by Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) after one of their triplets died during childbirth.
Ross, joined by her mom, Brandi, talked to HuffPost about her journey as Deja and what it means to play a Black foster kid on primetime TV.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
I’ve been wanting to act since I can remember. And it’s funny, I would always change what I wanted to be, but I would never change acting. Like, I always wanted to be an actress and an astronaut, or an actress and a scientist, or an actress and a fashion designer. Then I grew up and finally said, “Yeah, I’m going to focus on acting.” It’s pretty much what I wanted to do my whole life.
Do you remember your first audition?
My first audition was for an agency and I did a monologue from [Disney sitcom] “Good Luck Charlie.” I had to be 5 or something. [Pause] That’s crazy! Thanks for having me remember that!
A trip down memory lane! So what was the first role you ended up booking?
I was about 9 and it was this commercial called “Madam President” for Hillary Clinton. And I don’t think it was supposed to be on TV or anything ― it was just like an internet commercial [for EMILY’s List], but I saw it on the news one day. I literally saw my face on TV and I was so fascinated by that. I didn’t even see that coming!
Was that the first time you realized that acting could be something that would work out for you?
I never really thought about this being something that I should be doing. I just always knew I loved it so much so I wanted to do it. So it was pretty much just like, “It really doesn’t matter if it works out or not. I just want to work. I just want to do what I’m passionate about.” When I got the part on “This Is Us,” I didn’t even know how big the show was until people started telling me. It was really just work!
You were 13 when you got the role of Deja on Season 2. When you auditioned, did you know that the character would be a series regular?
When I got the part, I was told I had two or three guaranteed episodes. But I put my all into those episodes and I guess when they saw me do that, they wanted to keep me around to do more. That was pretty awesome.
A lot of people responded to the character. It was eye-opening to see a storyline of a young Black woman in the foster care system ― an arc that hasn’t really been explored in this way on primetime TV. Was it powerful for you to bring Deja’s story to viewers?
It was very different because I’ve never played someone like that before. That role pretty much stretched me as an actress. I had to do a lot of research because I did not know anything about foster kids. And the writers were so detailed about this character that I really just focused on their words and bringing them to life. When it came to acting with all of this hurt that this character had ― all of the dark emotions and how she was so shy and closed-in because of everything that happened to her ― it was a lot. It was a lot to deal with when the cameras would roll.
What did you pull from to get into that mindset? I’m sure it’s hard when you don’t really know the experience of being in foster care, but you have to accurately portray it on screen.
This character had so much going on in her past, and she’s the type that will have all of that build up until she explodes. And I’m kind of the same way when it comes to that. I’ve never been in her situation, of course, but I can relate. So I kind of just put a little of myself into the character at times.
I think that’s why your performance feels so real ― you’re authentic. Is that something that made you realize you could really dig into this character and explore her more?
I tried to do that with my tape for the audition actually. Boss Mom, my very loving, caring, kind mom [Mom laughs], has always seen something in me that I never really saw. She’s always been the one to push me, even when I don’t want to be pushed. Like, I hate practicing, right? So I really had to dig into this character for that audition and it took a lot of energy. I wanted to take a nap, I wanted to play games, but my mom was like, “No, you gonna do this.” So shout out to her, because I don’t think I would have gotten that part if it weren’t for her. She pretty much told me to dig through that character and, actually, dig through myself.
When you talk about your mom, it makes me feel like she’s your real-life Randall.
[Mother and daughter laughter] Yeah, Randall is much nicer though. [More mother and daughter laughter]
How is it to play opposite Sterling K. Brown? He’s a powerhouse, but you guys do have this great on-screen connection where Randall really pushes Deja to be the best version of herself ― to try new things, to kind of get out of her head. It must be exciting to learn from and work with an actor like him.
Man, Sterling is awesome. He’s so great. After the cameras are off, he won’t try to go his own way but he’ll take time to get to know you. If ever you need anything when it comes to acting ― if you need help delivering a line ― he will help you. He’s pretty much there for you, which is great. I love that about him. And when it comes to that connection with our characters, he’s that person I can feed off of. When we have those types of scenes together, he’ll just put something out there and I’ll just grab it and I’ll take it and I’ll throw something out there and he’ll take it. It’s that kind of communication through acting and I love stuff like that.
His character is adopted, as well, and he also feels like somewhat of an outsider in the Pearson family. Did you talk about your characters having similar viewpoints in life?
We’ve talked about how Randall tends to think that we’re in the same kind of situation and that’s part of the reason why he adopted [Deja]. For him, he’s trying to pretty much make it easier on Deja, but it’s kind of not working because Deja isn’t yet comfortable talking about everything that’s happened in her past. And she knows that everything she’s been through is not even close to what Randall has been through. So yeah, we’ve had conversations about how to go about some scenes we’ve done, especially when it comes to those adult conversations. Sterling is very open when it comes to helping people out, so I’ve had questions sometimes about how to go about the delivery of things. We’ve just connected when it comes to understanding what’s going on between those two characters.
I just remember that beautiful scene where Deja is talking to Randall about how everyone sleeps. He starts crying and you’re clearly holding back a flood of tears when you say, “I’m really tired.” Is it hard to play out those emotional scenes?
Especially when you have to cry. I’m not a crier at all. Like, I will watch probably the saddest movie and my eyes would stay dry.
So you don’t cry during “This Is Us”?
I cry every week.
[Laughs] It is sometimes challenging for me to bring on the tears. And when I say Sterling is so helpful, he told me the key to crying on demand is it’s easier when you’re drinking water ― when you keep downing a lot of water. And I tried it one time and it did not work! And I was like, “OK, well, how am I going to bring this emotion and cry?” It’s just a lot to put in a scene. So I started praying, right? I actually started praying. I was like, “God, bring these tears so I can deliver this message.” And right after that, they just started falling. The emotional part is easier for me. When it comes to actual tears, that’s different.
You relate to Deja in that way, though, since she doesn’t really break down those walls very easily. What kind of response have you gotten from viewers, not only in the foster care community but around the world, who’ve seen this character and responded to her story?
There are a lot of people who have actually been through this kind of stuff. These people have went through this, these people have been Deja. So for them to come up to me and tell me, “You’re really giving these people what they need to hear” ― it’s definitely very humbling. And even people who have never been through anything like that but they want to adopt because of what they’ve seen on “This Is Us” ― I mean, that’s incredible. They see all of this hurt that this girl’s feeling. ... They can actually look deep. I’m just glad I can help people see that. That gives me a lot of joy.
This season you have such a rich storyline with Deja and her love interest, Malik, who has a young daughter. Their relationship opens up an even bigger conversation about how a foster child born to a teenage mom will handle dating a young man with a baby. Were you excited to see that arc for Deja, or was it a little terrifying that you’d have to dive into a new situation?
You know what? When we started auditioning for that part, all I saw was that Deja was going to have a boyfriend. I didn’t know all of the extra stuff that was connected to that boyfriend. I was like, “Cool, it’s just going to be an extra thing in her storyline.” But it’s so much more. This is a whole love story between two young Black people. It is so rich and amazing. I cannot wait for you to see more of what’s to come with Deja. It’s fascinating.
How was it to work with Asante Blackk, who’s had a big year already with “When They See Us”?
Asante is incredible. Like, he is so good it sometimes makes me mad. We would have these back-to-back scenes together and I would try to be doing my part ― you know, I want to do good, too! But he would just come out and just completely destroy me. It’s like, “Give me a break! I’m trying hard over here.” He would come in, like, “This is nothing. It’s just another day at work.” He’s such a natural. So natural. And incredible to work with. He’s amazing at what he does.
Does that pairing make you even more excited to continue on with this character? Because, like you mentioned before, you didn’t even know you would get more than three episodes.
I didn’t really know how much more they could do with this character. She was a foster kid, adopted as part of the family ― I didn’t know they could take it even further with a whole different storyline. If they can do that, who knows what they’re going to do in the next season, or even in the next episode!
I think that every season.
The actors put a lot into our characters, but it’s easier for us because the writers put so much meat into their scripts. So it’s just like, “Oh, we got it down, now!” We don’t really need to make a whole world for our characters because they pretty much break it down for us. That’s all the writers, man.
“This Is Us” has this ability to interconnect viewers through stories about family and identity and race and ability. But why do you think so many people watch it and respond to the characters and storylines?
It’s a relatable show, and some of the situations that they put out there people don’t even think about having a conversation about. Some people keep stuff in. I remember I was sitting down, watching the show with my mom and my grandma, and my grandma has been through a lot in her past and she’s never been the type of person to actually bring anything up. But she saw something in one of those episodes and she kind of just broke down into tears because it reminded her of a situation that she went through not too long ago. After those tears come down, you feel a sense of lightness and it’s like all this weight just falls off of you. I think that’s one reason why people love the show.
“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.