This story contains plot details from the winter finale of NBC’s This Is Us, which aired Tuesday night.
Does Kate need to make room for another urn in her living room to watch Steelers games with?
The winter finale of This Is Us — titled, gulp, “Last Christmas” — ended with a panicked series of hospital-machine beeps as Toby (Chris Sullivan) was seen on a gurney in surgery, fighting for his life. (The good news: Looks like Dr. K is going to pull through his scare.) Yes, after deciding to not accept the results of being dumped by his girlfriend, Kate (Chrissy Metz), He of the Grand Gestures flew across the country in a middle seat, showed up unannounced at Randall’s house in a Santa hat (Deeply romantic or slightly stalker-y? You decide), delivered a gooey speech that won her back (CliffsNotes version: Kate > pizza + cookies + brownie thing on plane), had make-up sex with her upstairs, and then, as all living family members gathered to celebrate the holiday, collapsed onto the living room coffee table.
Is he alive? Is he dead? What to make of this literal heart-stopping development? What would be the right hashtag to start trending at this critical time? We phoned the man of the end of the hour, Chris Sullivan, to talk Toby.
Based on that last scene, Chris Sullivan, I should start by asking you: How are you feeling?
Oh, man. #PrayForToby.
What was your reaction when they pitched you that scene? And if you had it to boil it down to three letters, is it “WTF”?
Yeah, I think you could boil it down to those three letters. It is a bold and tricky storytelling move that only the writers’ room of This Is Uscould handle. Any actor becomes concerned when the writing staff starts having them collapse over coffee tables, but I have faith in our creative team that they will tell the best version of the story that there is to tell.
Do you remember your conversation with [series creator] Dan Fogelman when he pitched to you?
Actually, when I first found out about was maybe five or six episodes ago, from a different director. Here’s what happened: I was improvising in another scene, and I made some joke about having a heart attack. And the director was like, “Uh, we can’t do that joke.” And I was like, “Okay — wait a minute, why can’t we do that joke?” [Laughs.] And he was like, “Uh, no, uh, never mind.” And I’m like, “No, you tell me why I can’t do that joke!” And so the cat was out of the bag.
The fall looked pretty real. I’m sure there is a stunt coffee table, but what did it feel like to take that dive?
No, that was a real coffee table. How dare you minimize my stunt work? [Laughs.] It was a real coffee table, but the entire action was done under close advisement, and we choreographed it out pretty well so there was no unnecessary injury accrued. I was definitely sore the next day. But we planned it out well enough to where we only ended up having to do it a couple of times, so it wasn’t so bad.
Did they offer you a stunt man and you said, “No, I’ll take this”?
No, it never really came up. I think they just assumed I was going to do it. [Laughs.] And I wanted to. I always want to — not push things, that’s not the right term — but I want to be involved in as much of things like that as possible because my involvement gives everybody else more freedom creatively. The camera gets to do more things. The other actors get to do more things if it’s me and not somebody else. It’s just a more full experience for everybody involved, including myself.
They give you all the clues that something’s wrong with him, but you keep passing it off as he’s sore from the middle seat, he’s breathing really hard after the sex. The clues are there, but you don’t put it together.
The writing team did a really deft and delicate job at putting all the signs out there, and foreshadowing without being too heavy-handed. And then they, of course, get into the editing room, and the work that everybody does on the show from front to back is pretty outstanding.
I know you can’t say too much about what happens next, but… what happens next? Is he dead? Is he alive?
Well, I’d say he’s definitely one or the other. You know what I mean?
I do. How about a cryptic clue that will have people poring over what you meant by that statement?
I think I just said it. I’m going to leave it at that. I start saying any more than that, I’m going to get in trouble. I know they’re listening to these calls. They’re listening to these calls right now. I know they’re listening.
Granted, on This Is Us, you can be dead and still part of the show, so we ask: Have you still been filming scenes, so people can be assured that you’ll be around in some form?
Uhhh… I can neither confirm nor deny that.
In other news, Toby and Kate are back together again! Congrats!
[Laughs.] Or not. He might be dead. We don’t know.
What did you think about that move? What changed from when he hung up the phone on her last week?
The holidays are a time of reflection, and I think it becomes really clear in people’s minds around this time of year what they want to get out of life, who they want to spend their life with, and what kind of person they want to be. And so I think things just became clear.
Assuming that Toby lives, is this all a very noble, holiday-spirited romantic gesture where he has this realization about his life, or is he ultimately trying to change his lifestyle still to please his girlfriend — I know he says he’s doing it for himself, too — when their lifestyles are just different. Is that a danger trying to make something work when these two were already at their impasse?
Yeah, I don’t know. When it comes to relationship compromise, it’s a fine balance between doing something for your own happiness, and finding happiness in being of service to another person, in whatever way that ends up being. So I guess only time will tell if the choices are healthy choices and loving choices or ill-advised.
How would you describe the emotionality of this episode?
We can never underestimate the emotionality of This Is Us. Just when you think you don’t have another tear to cry, we will find a way. We will find all of your tears. We will dig down deep, and we will yank them out, whether you like it or not.
What was your favorite moment?
I really enjoyed Toby’s entrance. That was also the first time I’ve ever been in a scene with all of those other actors. So to walk into the room and to see them all standing there, it was like I’d walked into an episode of This Is Us. It was great.
With the Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes —you got left on the sidelines for Thanksgiving — the actors say they’re enjoying these big scenes in which everyone gets to work together. Is that something you guys lobby for?
I mean, there’s not really any lobbying going on per se, but Dan definitely keeps us all in the mix. He knows that we all get along very well, and we all have a really good time when we’re in the same room together, so I think they do their best to try to get us all together, because we naturally want to be in that space.
Recently, Kate made the decision to have gastric bypass surgery. Depending on his fate, what would/will Toby think of that a solution for Kate and her weight issues? Would he actually agree with some of what Olivia said to Kate at the cabin, albeit things she said quite harshly?
I am not sure where Toby is going to land on that. It kind of all depends on Kate’s real motivations behind it all, where it’s a rash decision or something she has well thought out. But I think Toby will be pretty good about deferring to her own personal judgment and what she decides to do with her body.
There was another surprising moment in this episode, one involving William (Ron Cephas Jones). When Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is watching William play piano and Jessie (Denis O’Hare) has his hand on William’s back, Tess (Eris Baker) explains to him, “Dad, Grandpa’s gay — or least bi.” What do you think of that reveal? Did it catch you by surprise?
It didn’t catch me by surprise, per se. As we’ve learned on a logistical level, anything is possible in the This Is Us world. I think it’s one of those beautiful things that once Dan Fogelman reveals it to you, you realize that it’s been that way the whole time.
Lastly, do you have your line worked out about what you’ll say to fans on the street when they ask you, “Is Toby dead???” Because you’re going to be asked it a lot.
I haven’t, but thank you for reminding me that I should probably come up with an answer.