This Is Us' Eris Baker on Portraying a 'Strong' Black Queer Teen: Tess Is 'True to Herself'
The Pearsons are continuing to navigate challenges in their relationships, both with their respective partners and family members.
On Tuesday's This Is Us episode, titled "Both Things Can Be True," Kevin (Justin Hartley) and fiancée Madison (Caitlin Thompson) started to plan their pandemic wedding in Los Angeles with the help of rehearsal dinner co-hosts Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) and Miguel (Jon Huertas) as the world subsequently found out about the couple's engagement via the front page of a tabloid magazine. Nearby, Kate (Chrissy Metz), who will be Madison's maid of honor, had her first workday at the music school for the blind with boss Phillip (Chris Geere) as Toby (Chris Sullivan) was still unemployed and adjusting to being a stay-at-home dad of two.
In the past, viewers learned more about Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Miguel's friendship, specifically when the latter was helping his friend prepare a proposal for Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and face her father Dave Malone (Tim Matheson). The backstory of Jack and Miguel's bond was relevant in the present when Nicky clashed with Miguel about him "swooping in on" Rebecca after Jack's death.
And in Philadelphia, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) attended his first transracial adoptee support group, which overwhelmed him and made him not ready to have a phone conversation with Kevin about their estranged sibling relationship — though Randall agreed to be his brother's best man and Kevin volunteered to fly out to see him after getting his vaccine. Meanwhile, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) hosted their daughter Tess' (Eris Baker) first study date with her non-binary partner Alex (Presley Alexander), and the mom of three continued to be careful about her use of gender pronouns and reaction to Tess' new relationship. Beth's mother Carol (Phylicia Rashad) was there for her with support and advice all while finding some understanding in their own mother-daughter correspondence.
Below, 15-year-old Baker tells PEOPLE about portraying a "confident" LGBTQ character, the "vital" importance of how This Is Us showrunners illustrate a "beautiful Black family" supportive of their queer child, and what's to come in Tess and Beth's relationship.
PEOPLE: Fans first saw Tess discuss her queerness with Kate after she got her first period during season 3 in the "Six Thanksgivings" episode. Then in the season 3 finale, Tess came out to her parents and also to Kevin via text message. Beth previously gave Tess a confirmation of love, specifically of her being an LGBTQ teen. Now we see Tess discovering her queer identity in her first relationship. Can you talk about your character's evolution and growth?
ERIS BAKER: She's been going through struggles with high school and her identity. I think she really represents an average teenager who goes through life struggles like any adult. I love Tess because she's so outspoken and true to herself. She doesn't really care about other people's opinions. I think some of the personality traits she has now and gained this season is confidence in herself and in her sexuality. She is more outspoken. Recently she was scared to come out and almost scared to just be herself around her family. Now, she has a trust and bond with them, to the point where she says what she wants, which I think is beautiful.
Tess isn't the show's first LGBTQ character. Her grandfather William (Ron Cephas Jones) was bisexual. This Is Us has been applauded for its LGBTQ representation and specifically with Tess, the show is contributing to coming out narratives being normalized. The Human Rights Campaign's 2019 Black and African American LGBTQ Youth Report noted that 44 percent of Black transgender and gender-expansive youth are out to their LGBTQ friends about their gender identity and only 13 percent are out to their parents. With this season 5 storyline, what is the Pearson family dynamic like now?
I think this family dynamic is beautiful because everyone is going through something and everyone is trying to understand each other when it comes to the Pearson family. When it comes to Tess specifically, I think probably the best example is her mother Beth, who is trying to understand Tess' sexuality and trying to be a mom for her. Trying to still hold that mother-daughter relationship with her, but it's almost a struggle because she does not know what it's like to be gay and to be a young Black teenager. Everyone is just trying to understand each other when it comes to Tess. She wants them to understand, she keeps telling them what pronouns to use, who she is and how to approach her. The biggest thing is that they support her and they're trying. The beauty of the Pearson family is that they honestly love each other and the support is real.
Can you discuss the research you did on other teens' coming-out experiences to best portray Tess' journey? And you keeping a diary to help get inside of Tess' head? What have the conversations about Tess been like with showrunners and the writers' room?
I was pretty young, I was 11 or 12, when they asked if it would be okay for Tess to be gay on the show. I said yes immediately because I think representation is so important. I had conversations with my parents, conversations with friends who came out to me, and had a diary. I wrote as Tess in my diary and the thoughts that she would be having when she came out. Fear, worry, and if she was going to be accepted. I did research and read stories of people just like Tess who were afraid to come out because they were afraid that their family wouldn't accept them. I just learned so much about the community and what they have to go through, which is so heartbreaking. It made me want to portray the role of Tess even more.
[The showrunners and writers] have always been great about asking me first instead of just putting it on me. They asked me, "Are you okay with Tess coming out?" When I said yes, they gave me more information. They did the same thing when they asked me, "Do you want to cut your hair?" I love that because not every network or production is actually going to ask you. I continue to have conversations about Tess and what they see in future episodes or season 6, just having discussions on what they really want Tess to be like and how they want other people to see Tess. It really helps.
In this episode, Tess mentioned "the look on" Beth's face, and Beth mentioned she's having trouble letting go and adjusting to the idea of Tess not "walking down the aisle to a man every bit as good as her father." Can you break down that mature mother-daughter conversation?
That part of the episode was so much fun to film, I was so happy I got the opportunity to film that scene. It's a beautiful representation of actual conversations that happen in households. Beth and Tess are an example of mother-daughter relationships that shine light on that type of relationship all over the world. I think many people can relate when it comes to a daughter coming out or figuring out her sexuality. They're talking about their feelings and Tess grew up in a household where having real conversations with your parents are important.
Tess also acknowledged that her mother is trying to understand, but Beth still "doesn't have to try with Annie (Faithe C. Herman) or Deja (Lyric Ross)" and that makes her sad, even questioning their mother-daughter bond. Though Beth tried to reassure Tess, she didn't look too convinced. Will Tess and Beth see more conflict in forthcoming episodes?
Tess almost feels like an outsider — I feel like that's the wrong word. But she is the only gay person in her family. She's the only gay person in that household. They didn't have these problems before Tess came out. They didn't have those conversations or issues when Tess was like Deja and Annie. Of course, Tess is going to have questions like, "Are they going to love me the same?" or "Will they have the same relationship?"
One thing that stuck out to me is the [season 3] scene with the older version of Tess and the older version of Randall, who said, "You have to go see your mom," and Tess was like, "I don't really want to talk to her." I think this is the beginning of a very hard relationship they have to go through.
In the flashforwards we've seen so far, Beth didn't appear to be as close to her family. Is this rough patch only going to be affecting Beth? Will there be favoritism for one parent over the other?
I, of course, can't answer all those questions. [Laughs] I don't want to spoil it but I think [every episode] is like puzzle pieces and it's really just coming together. That flashforward is so important, how Beth is almost a little distant especially with Tess and them not really talking in the future. The question is: is this the start of that or is something bigger going to be happening in the future? Or the beginning of the end? I think there are so many questions. I'm excited for you to find out Beth's relationship with everyone because I don't think it only affects Tess.
From what you know about Tess in the rest of this season and season 6, what kind of woman does Tess become as she gets older?
I believe she's strong and becoming more and more confident every season. She's still going to have a huge voice and not afraid to use it. She's just a beautiful Black woman and coming into her own. Based on what I've seen, Tess is doing great in season 6.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.
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