Susan Kelechi Watson
Who Is Susan Kelechi Watson?
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Susan Kelechi Watson is a first generation Jamaican-American who holds Fine Arts degrees from both Howard University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. With the aid of superstars Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington, she was also afforded the honor of studying Shakespeare at The University of Oxford as a Howard undergrad. Watson went on to star in several Off Broadway and Broadway productions, such as A Naked Girl on the Appian Way in 2005 and 2012’s Rashad-directed A Raisin in the Sun before she scored her breakout role in the third season of Louis C.K.’s FX dramedy, Louie the same year. Now, she oozes cool and warms hearts as fan-favorite Beth Pearson, a no-nonsense mom and one-half of a golden couple alongside onscreen husband Randall Pearson (played by Sterling K. Brown) on NBC’s tearjerker hit, This Is Us.
Watson began her post-secondary studies at Howard University’s School of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. While enrolled at the historically Black university, she was one of about 10 fellow undergraduates presented with the opportunity of a lifetime: to be a part of an inaugural group to study Shakespeare at England’s University of Oxford one summer. But at an estimated cost of $5,000 per student, a cash-strapped Watson would have missed out, had it not been for the generosity of Hollywood icons Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington.
During a January 2018 appearance on Live with Kelly and Ryan, Watson explained that a friend and fellow classmate reached out to Howard alum Rashad, who recruited Washington, and, between the two of them, paid for the group’s summer abroad. For Watson and her fellow Bison, the trip “changed all of our lives,” she remarked.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Howard — where she says she learned to be fierce and not accept ‘no’ for an answer — Watson went on to receive her Masters of Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has credited the program’s training for her palpable chemistry with This Is Us onscreen husband, Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown, who also received his MFA degree from Tisch.
Upon her 2003 graduation from NYU, she went on to star in several Broadway and Off Broadway productions, including 2005’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, before eventually joining forces with her Howard benefactress Rashad in 2012. The Tony winner, who Watson has called “the mother of advice,” mentored and directed her as Ruth Younger in a stage production of A Raisin in the Sun at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse.
Between on-stage gigs, Watson snagged her first recurring television role as Emma St. Clair on NBC’s Third Watch from 2004-2005, before going on to guest on several other network hits, including and CBS’ NCIS and ABC’s Private Practice. In 2012, she finally scored her breakout role as Louis C.K.'s ex-wife Janet in season 3 of the comedian’s FX dramedy, Louie.
Watson’s casting created much buzz, as she played the mother of the white protagonist’s also-white children — something even she has admitted confused her at the time. But her race (which was never addressed on the show) wasn’t a premeditated decision: Producers simply thought she was the best person for the part.
“I think it's remarkable because for so long we've been saying we just want to see each other as human beings,” she explained to Essence in 2012. “Our culture is very important, of course, but this feels like a moment where someone has said, 'Your culture is irrelevant at this moment. It's more about whether you feel like you're right for this role and what you're bringing to it.”
After wrapping the 12-episode arc in 2014, Watson went on to score several more guest spots in shows such as HBO’s Veep and Showtime’s Billions, in addition to recurring on Fox’s The Following and NBC’s The Blacklist. Still, by 2016, she felt her career had hit a lull and the native New Yorker considered leaving the country and giving up acting altogether.
'This Is Us'
Immediately following her first tryout for NBC’s megahit drama This Is Us (an “untitled Dan Fogelman project,” at the time), Watson said she badly botched an audition for Familiar, a play written by pal Danai Gurira (of Marvel’s Black Panther and AMC’s The Walking Dead fame). Disheartened, she began Googling apartment listings in Montreal, Canada, and even thought about applying for a job in a local coffee shop. "I had friends who were praying for me,” she admitted to MTV News last year. “I was leaning on a support system to believe for me when I was finding it difficult to still believe the dream for myself." With that encouragement from her loved ones, including Gurira, she vowed to persevere, going to a This Is Us callback and even auditioning for the part of Nova Bordelon (a role that went on to be played by Rutina Wesley) on OWN’s Queen Sugar.
A month later, the call came: She was selected to be Beth Pearson on This Is Us, which premiered on September 20, 2016, to critical acclaim. Now wrapping her second season on the show, which, this year, won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, Watson has made the role all her own and even influenced producers to infuse parts of her own African heritage and culture into the show. For one episode, costume designers even found material from Mali to create a special poncho for Beth to wear. And as for Beth’s always-on-point hair, Watson almost exclusively conceives those styles.
“It’s my shout-out to Black women,” the actress, who recently purchased a home in Los Angeles but remains based in New York City, told Vulture in 2017. “For so long we’ve been told we have to look a certain way, or our hair has to be a certain way just to even be accepted or as a part of what is considered to be the American standard of beauty. . . You have no idea what it does for the consciousness and the self-esteem of so many people in this country who are beautiful but for so long have been told their differences don’t allow them to be.”
A first generation Jamaican-American, Susan Kelechi Watson was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 11, 1981. Her aspirations to become an actress began when she was just three years old, growing up in the New York City borough, as well as on New York’s Long Island. Recalling a specific conversation she had with God as a youngster, she has said that she decided in that moment that her destiny was to become an entertainer and that, to this day, she’s never second-guessed herself. Watson has credited her Jamaican-born parents as her biggest supporters, having once said, “When things weren’t going well, they kept me going with their words of encouragement.”
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