Death is not an ending on This Is Us. Ron Cephas Jones celebrates the life he portrays on the show.
There is no drama in life without death, and no one knows better how hard it is to prepare for that final moment than Ron Cephas Jones.
Jones, who stars in NBC’s hit drama series This Is Us, plays William Hill, a gay, recovering addict who reconnects with his biological son Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) while dealing with the last stages of terminal stomach cancer.
In the show’s first season, Randall brings William home to live with his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and two daughters, but as the bonds of family formed, everyone knew that their time together was limited.
Jones says that he was in as much suspense as the audience was, wondering when he opened each week’s script if that would be the episode when death would finally come.
“It was excruciating not knowing when William was going to pass,” Jones says. “It gave me a sense of what so many thousands of people with cancer go through every day. It was difficult, but also humbling and life-affirming.”
While acting was always a passion for Jones, the star’s success did not start on the small screen.
Jones, who studied music and theater arts in college, is a jazz aficionado who frequented the New York artist scene in the ‘80s. He says after his daughter, Jasmine Cephas Jones, was born, he taught high school by day, but in the evenings would read poetry at artist gatherings in the East Village, where he was discovered by a casting agent.
“Being a father gave me the ability to focus on my daughter, and not on my acting career,” he says. “I had faith that I could work out my artistic life, and I did. Being in New York gave me a stage career with award-winning actors.”
He loved the classics, and appeared in numerous productions, including the Longacre Theater’s Broadway production of Of Mice and Men; Second Stage’s Between Riverside and Crazy; The Classical Theater of Harlem’s The Tempest, and The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit Shakespeare play, Richard III.
Jones joined the Labyrinth Theater Company in the ‘90s, working three times under the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who led the ethnically diverse troupe as co-artistic director with John Ortiz for several years.
“We talked a lot about acting techniques, what to look for in a script, and how to build on it,” Jones says. “Those talks meant a lot. To me, this is all about the work, and what you bring to it.”
In 2006, Jones received the prestigious “Sustained Excellence of Performance” at the Obie Awards, affirming his work on the stage.
As television shows started filming in New York, the actor began to book guest appearances on series like Law and Order and New York Undercover.
“My agent was sending me out to auditions, but it was hard to book major roles because they wanted big names,” Jones recalls. “I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles because I wanted to stay with my family in New York, but I started getting TV work that raised my profile.”
The actor was cast in AMC’s Low Winter Sun as Reverend Lowdown, then joined the second season of USA Network’s Mr. Robot in the recurring role of Romero. Jones also snagged the recurring role of Bobby Fish in Netflix’s Luke Cage, based on the Marvel comic of the same name.
Then came the show that catapulted Jones to fame with fans of the show that shared uplifting and tearjerker moments in the lives of characters who could be part of anyone’s family. As the actor prepared to audition for This Is Us, he was struck by the well-written monologue that led him to find the character of William.
“I knew the type of man William was,” Jones says. “I grew up with a lot of men like him. I had friends who were separated from their children for various reasons. My best friend was going through Stage Four cancer at the time, and I spoke with him almost every day until he passed recently. William was just in me all the time.”
The actor says playing William, who abandoned his son at a fire station during a low point in his life, verified a lot of things for him.
“You can have second chances, and be forgiven,” Jones says. “William had these guilty feelings after abandoning Randall. But he became a stable person for Randall and his family. He’d become a wise person, who knew about life. When you looked at William, you saw how to deal with pain and loss. He taught you to keep fighting, until your last breath.”
Why does the character of William resonate so much with viewers?
“William exuded a lot of love and forgiveness,” Jones says. “People want to forgive. William also redeemed himself by ingratiating himself to the family. “He was given a blessing by being able to enjoy and fulfill his life at the end. His honesty and ability to be open and clear about what he had done was a big part of why people love him.”
The actor says This Is Us hit a chord with audiences that no one on the show expected. The drama, which tells the story of the Pearson family in flashbacks and present day, explores issues ranging from racial identity to sibling rivalry and everything in between.
“The show asks great questions about things I’ve been guilty of doing myself,” Jones says. “Why do we fight? Why do we abuse or harm ourselves? Why did Rebecca (Mandy Moore) not tell Randall about his biological father? It was done out of love. She tells a lie to protect him. Yet a lot of what we do is based on our fears. She was afraid she would lose her son.
“The show examines loyalty, trust, suspicion. There are a lot of emotions that we repress to get on with life. This is a show about feelings, and most shows avoid that by putting in gun shootings and explosions. People are afraid of feelings.”
The actor says his daughter could not watch the episode in which William dies because it was too close to home.
“We’re very close, and I can imagine it would be very difficult for her to watch,” Jones says. “I respect that.”
He says most families seem to take two steps forward and three steps back at times, forever trying to catch up with the idea of getting along with others, and having peace and harmony with those we’re related to.
Jones says he is extremely proud to be involved with This Is Us, not only because of the stories that are told, but because of the way the show is run.
“It’s always about the work and what you bring to it,” he notes. “Everyone has a chance to shine on the show. It’s like an ensemble in theater. I had carved out a nice career as a theater actor, and am blessed to have this success come, too.
“Whether you call it prayer or meditation, there’s an element of faith that I hold dear – that everything will all work out, no matter what. Now, the first major role in my 25-year career is in This Is Us.”
Recognizing the show’s success, NBC has renewed This Is Us for two seasons, ensuring that the Pearsons will continue to be water cooler talk for some time to come. While William has now passed away on the show, Jones is pleased that the character will be back in Season 2.
“I know he’ll be in at least 10 to 11 of the 18 episodes,” Jones says. “I’m sure the writers will come up with something beautiful. I assume they’ll have him in flashbacks or dream sequences to answer some of the questions about him from Season 1.
“William will go on, thank God.”