WASHINGTON — He’s at the heart of one of television’s hottest cliffhangers.
On Tuesday night, the world will learn the fate of fan-favorite character Toby, as NBC’s “This Is Us” returns from its mid-season holiday break to pick up where we left off on the Christmas Eve episode.
“We shall see what happens with the charming Toby,” actor Chris Sullivan told WTOP. “You will get answers one way or another as to the fate of Toby and Kate. It should be a very interesting episode.”
Are there hints in the most recent episode? Does the title “Last Christmas” mean this was literally Toby’s last Christmas? Or is there still hope in the line, “Nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve?”
“Somebody was joking online, it seems like a lot of bad things happen on Christmas Eve,” Sullivan joked with the type of hilarious quip that Toby might make. “I think the love and support of the family will pull them all through what was a rough place to leave things when we left for the holiday break.”
Based on the outcome of this cliffhanger, we don’t know whether Sullivan will be involved in the second half of Season One. Fans certainly hope he’ll return as the show’s beloved comic relief.
“The writing team has written a great character,” Sullivan said. “He’s generally a guy who walks into vulnerable situations with a positive attitude and a sense of humor, even if it might be a protective armor at times. He seems to be a pretty vulnerable character. Everybody has coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms to navigate through this world, and I think comedy is definitely part of his.”
But Toby is much more than comic relief, routinely dealing with the serious subject of weight loss.
“It’s the last stand of people’s biases when it comes to weight and physical appearance,” Sullivan said. “This is an obstacle just like anything else that people go through, whether it’s past trauma or alcohol, problems with their spouse, problems with adoption or any other issues touched on in this show. The message the show delivers is that everyone is going through something. … As soon as you share your pain and suffering with the people that you love, it turns out they would like to do the same thing.”
His recurring scene partner, Chrissy Metz, just earned a Golden Globe nomination as Kate, the middle child of three siblings who meets her boyfriend Toby during a weight-loss therapy session.
“She’s an amazing actress, an amazing partner,” Sullivan said. “The key to what she and I do with each other is trust. From very early on, we hit it off and were able to show up, look each other in the eye, and trust that we will be taken care of by the other person. She’s incredibly funny, sincere and loving. The difference [from other characters] is that the vulnerability that Kate is showing resembles the same issues that Chrissy might face in her own life. So it’s pretty admirable to be that vulnerable.”
Metz’s on-screen mother Rebecca is played by Mandy Moore, whose Golden Globe nomination marks a mature comeback after her teen stardom in such flicks as “A Walk to Remember” (2002).
“The performance Mandy is turning in is remarkable,” Sullivan said. “I’m blown away. Everyone fears change a little bit. … We want to remember things the way we first experience them. Maybe they want Mandy remain a certain thing for them in their nostalgic past. But this woman is evolving and turning in performances that are well worth the Golden Globe nomination that she’s received.”
Moore’s on-screen husband is the amazing Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who thinks he wants kids, immediately develops doubts, then grows into the most loving of fathers.
“He is a great force in our show,” Sullivan said. “He is a television veteran, he’s been around a long time, he has a great sense of morale for the show. The paternal nature of his character also lends itself to his role in the cast. I think the work that he is doing is amazingly sincere and heartfelt. Oddly enough, he kind of feels like the dad of our cast, even though we’re all pretty much the same age!”
His eldest on-screen son is Justin Hartley as Kevin, a conflicted sitcom star who wants artistic cred.
“Justin is being unbelievably funny,” Sullivan said. “I’ve had more laugh-out-loud moments watching the show when it comes to Justin probably more than any other character. And he’s breaking the bounds of what people expect of his character type after being on a soap. … Just being a pretty face on a TV show to sell an idea to market products to people, and Justin is showing that he can go deeper than that. … We can all go deeper [and] get a little closer to the highest version of ourselves.”
Still, the most fascinating character is the adopted son Randall, played by the impeccable Sterling K. Brown. Coming off an Emmy for his role as Christopher Darden in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” Brown is the vehicle for “This Is Us” to explore its social commentary on race, playing an adopted black man raised by a white family who seeks out and reconnects with his black biological father.
“Sterling is breaking all kinds of stereotypes in the characters he’s playing on television this last year,” Sullivan said. “I learn something new as far as acting goes every time I watch him. He’s an extremely intricate actor, he’s a detailed performer, he comes from the stage, he’s a theater performer, and he brings something to his ‘This Is Us’ character that makes him unlike any character I’ve seen on TV.”
These intertwining lives resemble Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004), though the better comparison might be “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011), which was written by “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman. The result is more family-friendly than, say, Robert Altman’s enigmatic ensemble mosaics, but it’s no less effective.
“I’m constantly amazed at how genuinely sincere this show can be,” Sullivan said. “Often times, when people attempt sincerity on television, it can come off cheesy, saccharine, preachy. Dan Fogelman [is] handling this show in a way that is unbelievably gentle. … What we end up with is characters people can relate to. There’s a little bit of everybody in this show. I don’t know where the magic emanates from — clearly this is Dan Fogelman’s show — but I think it’s a combination of all its moving parts.”
Indeed, “This Is Us” demonstrates a rare ability to walk the tightrope between art and entertainment.
“I think it’s about being realistic about the balance of life,” Sullivan said. “You have to acknowledge suffering, the vulgar sense of humor, the joy, the anxiety, because all of those things exist. Things fall apart both in art and real life when you refuse to acknowledge the balance. We’ve got Dan Fogelman heading this sincere group of people, but we also have executive producers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who wrote ‘Bad Santa!’ So you have a group willing to acknowledge all of the aspects of life.”
The result is a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Comedy. Does he have a favorite episode so far?
“The Thanksgiving episode was a pretty excellent episode of television, and it’s probably because I wasn’t in it,” Sullivan joked. “The pilgrim stuff with poor Miguel. Jon Huertas plays that so wonderfully of a stepdad trying to be intimate with his stepchildren. I think that was a really wonderful episode.”
It truly was a great episode, setting up the Christmas finale where Toby’s fate leaves us in suspense.
Yes, after decades toiling in the theater, Sullivan finally has the entertainment world hanging on his every breath — literally. It’s a career breakthrough that began when Steven Soderbergh cast him in Cinemax’s “The Knick” (2014). Two years later, he’s on 2016’s top shows: “This Is Us” and the pilot of “Stranger Things,” playing the doomed restaurant owner who first encounters and comforts Eleven.
“Pretty much every job I’ve been offered since then is due to somebody watching [‘The Knick’],” Sullivan said. “The Duffer Brothers were huge fans of Soderbergh and managed to get me in real quick for Episode 1. I’m excited to be working in TV and figuring out what this art form is all about.”
Still, no matter what he does, Sullivan will remain the Hump Day Camel of Geico commercial fame.
“See? I can do all kinds of things, but the most-viewed thing I have ever done as a voiceover artist is a Geico commercial with a talking camel,” Sullivan said, laughing. “It’s a beautiful balance to life.”
So no matter what happens to Toby on Tuesday night, we can wake up shouting, “Hump Day!”
Laughing at the irony, Sullivan launched into his best camel voice: “Guess what day it is?!?”
All joking aside, Sullivan is a serious performer hitting his artistic and philosophical stride.
“This is what I’m meant to do, I’m meant to be a storyteller,” Sullivan said. “One of my all-time favorite philosophers [Joseph Campbell] puts it: ‘The job of the artist is to mythologize the universe.’ In the way that NASA [inspires] us to explore our universe and look outside ourselves, the job of any artist is to … encourage people to look inward and get to know themselves. That’s what ‘This Is Us’ does.”
Listen to the full conversation with “This Is Us” star Chris Sullivan below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Chris Sullivan (Full Interview)