'This Is Us' : Sterling K. Brown on How 'The West Wing' Influenced Randall's Political Career

"We're getting to this place where last moments are starting to transpire in the history of This Is Us," Sterling K. Brown also tells PEOPLE about approaching the series finale

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

It's official This Is Us fans: The final trilogy episode has aired and the show only has eight episodes left.

The third installment of the Big Three-centric story, titled "Every Version Of You" and directed by Justin Hartley, focused on Randall (Sterling K. Brown) after his mom Rebecca (Mandy Moore) told him, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) to not let her Alzheimer's diagnosis hold them back from making big moves in their own lives. Also during that family meeting at the cabin, Rebecca named daughter Kate as the backup executor in the case husband Miguel (Jon Huertas) could not be the primary caregiver — a move that left Randall feeling hurt initially.

The episode spotlighted Randall (Ca'Ron Jaden Coleman) in his childhood, excelling at swim lessons in the deep end while his brother and sister struggled with treading in the shallow waters. Then, the boy, who was advanced in academics, cared deeply for his mother and practiced empathy like an adult, grew up into a teen (Niles Fitch) who had continued to go above and beyond for Rebecca, two years after Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died.

Meanwhile, in the present day, Randall, a father of three and city councilman, and his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) were also dealing with their adopted daughter Deja (Lyric Ross) after he told her boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk) that it was best for both of them to break up. Out of frustration, Deja left the family cabin in the middle of the night and ran off to Boston, where Malik attends Harvard and raises his young daughter. Instead of driving alone to bring Deja home, Randall is joined by Rebecca and the mother-son pair have long-delayed conversations about their unique dynamic and his future.

Below, Brown tells PEOPLE about his character's big decisions and breaks down those much-needed talks between Randall and Rebecca as the councilman looks to make a name for himself in politics.

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PEOPLE: How was being directed by Justin Hartley for the final time?

STERLING K. BROWN: Justin's awesome. As a matter of fact, his first episode was more of a Rebecca and Kate-focused episode [in season 4's trilogy]. I may have been in it just tangentially, so it was my first time really doing it [this episode]. And Dan [Fogelman] asked before, he's like, "Hey, this is a Randall episode. Are you cool with Justin directing it?" I was like, "I wouldn't have asked for anybody else." That's my brother and I love him to the moon and back, he's a wonderful director. He's very gentle. He obviously knows how to speak to actors. He has wonderful ideas and challenges you in the best way. And then also there's the synthesis of working with my fellow Aries, Miss Mandy Moore, who is a joy in and of herself. I don't think I could have had a better time. Shooting this episode about this family with nothing but my family was awesome.

Randall's had some memorable road trips, from Memphis with William (Ron Cephas Jones) and New Orleans with Beth. This was another special road trip for many different reasons. How was it, not only as you Sterling spending time with Mandy, but Randall spending time with Rebecca?

Okay, so now we're getting to this place where the last moments are starting to transpire in the history of This Is Us. And this episode marks the back nine, like we finished the front nine. Now, this is when we try to really go and get that medal. I love Mandy, and I want to give her some roses real quick too. She is the youngest of our cast members who plays the oldest of our cast members and plays herself at pretty much every age — I think up to 16. I remember one episode, they had Mandy in pigtails, like in grade school or whatever, or middle school. I was like, "Lord, have mercy."

She's a rock star, literally and figuratively. She is so full of life, and in particular, I would say since becoming a mother, there's another level of humanity that she brings to everything that she does, which is just awesome to be in the presence of. For Sterling and Randall, it was an absolute joy because he loves his mom, he loves her so much. He wants to see her well and wants to see her around for as long a time as possible, but as well as she possibly can be. You reach that moment where like, okay, tomorrow's not promised. At some point in time, I won't have access to her. I won't be able to talk to her. My kids won't have the same relationship that I hope that they would have with her when she lived right around the corner. Now she's on the opposite side of the country [living in Los Angeles]. So time is fleeting. It's starting to go away. And there's the sadness of the son for the woman … he's cherishing every moment that he can have with her because he now recognizes that it won't be forever. I think that's pretty much the same thing with Sterling and Mandy. She is wonderful, she's a wonderful human being. The idea that we have just over a month left before it's all said and done, it's … Yeah, you're starting to feel it.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

With parenting Deja through her first real love — now first real heartbreak — and the road trip with Rebecca who is coming to terms with her Alzheimer's diagnosis, what does Randall discover about himself after the events in this episode?

I think Rebecca purposefully takes the pressure off of her son to feel as if he has to have the answers for every situation, all the time. I think she has leaned on him in the past, and he has shown up and has been happy to show up. But he has also developed a narrative in his head, "If I don't show up things won't work out, there's no alternative. It's either me or nothing." Which is not true because he has a brother and sister who are very capable individuals in and of themselves.

He may have taken a while, a little bit longer to reach the same level of maturity or responsibility or whatever it is. But we're all in the place where we can be of value. So now, she's giving him permission to change the narrative in his head that it has to be me. It doesn't have to be you anymore and it never really had to be you, to begin with. That's just a pressure that you put on yourself to the point where it could be debilitating at different points in times in your life. Rebecca said, "You don't have to do that anymore, and I don't want my life, what I'm going through, to add to that narrative. Other people can help. You can do the things that you feel driven, determined, inspired to take on for you and your life. Don't be small, don't be scared. Don't make yourself available because you think you have to."

We're family, we'll do it together. I think that's the lesson that Randall has been left with after years and years of thinking, "If it's not me, it all falls apart. If it's not me, it all falls apart." It's not true. Life goes on. That in itself is sort of encapsulates the story of the show. No one is inoculated from bad things happening. They happen to all of us, but life goes on. There's something beautiful waiting for you, if you keep your eyes open and you are looking for it.

Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown on This Is Us. Ron Batzdorff/NBC

When the writers or Dan told you that Randall is going to set his sights on the position of senator, what was your reaction? Councilman Pearson could be upped to a senator, and potentially the president.

Dan saw a couple of years ago, people on Twitter were talking about a reboot of The West Wing. They were saying like, "Would it be cool if Sterling Brown were in The West Wing?" And Aaron Sorkin said something to the effect of "that's not a bad idea." I was like, "What?!" I mean, I was a West Wing fiend! Me and Jed Bartlet are like this [crosses his fingers]. So, Dan saw that and he's like, "You know what? How cool would that be, if we set Randall Pearson up to become a politician and then like, Sorkin took it over?" I don't think [Dan]'s deliberately doing that, but like in his mind, maybe he's like, "Well, you know what? Maybe that is something that we could see Randall doing."

I think Randall's the kind of character that is set up that he can do whatever he puts his mind to and he wants to be of value. Initially, it's like, "How do I be of value to the people who look like me?" Because he was questioning his own identity and his own Blackness for such a long period of time. "How can I be of value to these people with that I love and wish to be connected to?" I feel like now that he is more settled in his identity and knowledge, and affirmed in his Blackness with his family and his community, he can now sort of open that up and like, "How can I be of value to the greatest good?"

So, I was like, "I'm down for it." I love Randall and people mistakenly think that I am Randall. I'm never running for any political office ever. I can put that pretty concretely out there. But Randall asks me to access the best parts of who I am and the best parts of what I think a real public servant should be. Sometimes I think we can be a little bit skeptical of why people enter into public service because you may consider there's a certain level of ego, that someone has to be like, "Well, I'm the person for the job to change the world." Maybe there is some, and then I think there are people who truly wish to be of value. Not because they need to be patted on the back, but they just want to make the world a better place. I think Randall Pearson is one of those people who wants to make the world a better place.

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I mean, he told his mom, "If I run, I'll win." [As fans will recall, from the season 5 finale, there was that big profile that touts him as a "Rising Star" in politics.]

I think he sees within himself the capability and understanding that I can do this job. I'll even say this, and I'll make it a Sterling echo: I think Randall is fairly acute about how he can be received by other people. There is a level of charm associated with his a-dork-ability, which he knows and can use to his advantage. So when he makes that statement, it's twofold. He's like, "I can only make it to you. This thing that I'm about to say, I can only say to you." And Rebecca's like, "I know exactly where it's going to go." There's still a bit of childlike excitement in hearing it affirmed by your mom. But I don't think that it's ego, in that way.

Do you know what I'm saying? I'm saying like, there are weird things that I can only talk to Justin or Chrissy or Mandy or Su about because this past six-year ride has happened. If we said it to anybody else, it would sound like, "Oh, you sound a little full of yourself." But there are certain people that you can say it to, they understand where you're coming from. His mom's a safe place, she's that safe space where he can actually put that thing out into the world. Because sometimes the thing that we fear is not failure. The thing that we fear is success, like in a very Marianne Williamson sort of way. I think that's what he was trying to say to his mom.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Can you tease anything about Rebecca and Miguel's anniversary party? Chrissy told me that whenever the Pearsons are together in one room celebrating a party, "s--- always seems to hit the fan."

That's about right, I don't know if I can add too much more to it. Boy, [laughs] there's been a lot of stuff bubbling. We obviously know from the season 5 finale that there was a wedding that everybody was at — and it did not look like it was Kate and Toby's. I think Dan and our writers have been interested in showing the different forms of family and giving value to all those different forms of family.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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