By 60, most people are dreaming of retirement full-time. Not Ron Cephas Jones. With five TV gigs since 2015 — This Is Us, Luke Cage, The Get Down, Mr. Robot, and Banshee — the actor is busier than he’s ever been since he started auditioning in the early ’90s, and he couldn’t be more tickled.
“I’m having the time of my life, getting to portray characters I really enjoy spending time with,” Jones says. “I don’t exactly know why it is happening now, but I will take it gladly.”
Jones — who made Yahoo TV’s list of the Top 20 Character Actors Working Today — spoke with us about his process, taking This Is Us’s William from supporting role to star turn to superb death scene (pay attention, Emmy voters!). He also admitted that he was not really ready for William to say the last goodbye and made our day when he confirmed the character would be resurrected, in some capacity, in Season 2.
Yahoo TV: You have been working fairly consistently in film, TV, and theater since the mid-1990s, but in the last two years you have been on what can only be described as a TV hot streak with a major role on This Is Us and important (often simultaneous) recurring roles on Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, and The Get Down. The work has always been worthy, but now you are getting face and name recognition. What do you credit for this recent explosion?
Ron Cephas Jones: It’s been interesting, a sort of roller coaster ride. But first, thank you very much for honoring and recognizing the work. That’s an important element of how I’ve built my career, and also a testament to the many actors [who believe] the idea that after all is said and done, it’s always about the work. It feels great that I got to this point based on the work that I put across, whether on the stage, film, or television. It felt like a natural progression. When you’re young, you want things to happen right away. And sometimes that doesn’t always develop in the way you want it to. But my thing was to continue to work, in whatever element I could.
I got a lot of that philosophy when I started to work with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Labyrinth Theater Company group. I’ve been a member since the early ’90s. It’s been a culmination of all that work leading up to the last two, three years. It’s sort of classic in that way. It’s just another one of those stories of an actor who’s worked a long time finally given an opportunity to have his work seen by a mass audience. Not to mention [be a part of] a hit show. I didn’t see any of it coming. I knew that if I continued to do good work, eventually, the benefits, or the blessings, as I call them, that come from being an actor start to happen.
Also the landscape changed with the advent of Netflix and Hulu and all this iPad stuff. It opened up. One show that I booked, [AMC’s] Low Winter Sun, was picked up only for one season. Then Mr. Robot came up and, fortunately, I got a recurring role on that, and they kept writing more episodes for me. And then Luke Cage happened because Netflix and the USA show were filming in New York — I didn’t have to choose. New stages were built. I did The Get Down way down in Queens when they opened up these new soundstages. So there was a little bit more TV work in New York, and I got lucky because I wasn’t an L.A.‑based actor. Then, the next audition was with This Is Us. It happened to be filming in Los Angeles. That’s what brought me out here. Otherwise, I probably would still be in New York. Then, I got fortunate to be working for a project that ended up being a hit show and picked up for two more seasons during the first season, and that rarely happens. No one expected that.
That’s the truth: Critics loved the show and knew it was a hit for NBC, but that two-year order still caught people by surprise.
That’s a testament to [creator] Dan Fogelman, the directors, and his staff over there at This Is Us. [I owe] everybody who decided to give me an opportunity to do this role. I knew I could do the role, but there were a lot of times I auditioned for roles like this that I couldn’t book because I just didn’t have an older look. I don’t carry any gray hair or anything like that. So a lot of times, even though they recognize the work level is there, they’ll say, “Well, he just looks a bit too young.” I knew right away that Dan Fogelman and [pilot directors] John Requa and Glenn Ficarra were looking deeper because the character was so layered. They immediately grabbed on to that and said, “This is what we want.” And they made that clear to me after the audition [that I gave that to them], so that was a great feeling too. That’s never happened to me before. So it just made for a beautiful fit.
Having seen you in real-life photos and in films like Half Nelson and Across the Universe, I had no idea you were technically old enough to be Sterling K. Brown’s dad. I thought you were around the same age.
That’s where the makeup and costume teams come in and help to create a character. I can’t say enough about how much those elements contribute to the overall character, the end product. It can be as simple as adding a pair of glasses to make you look like a smart hacker. With William, they added gray and some other signs of aging. The hat and clothes became an important part of his story.
Did being 60 help you relate to William or find the character in a way that you would have had trouble with if you were doing this at a younger point in your life?
Yes. Because I’m 60, I could closer relate to who William was. I’m friends with men like him. I’m closer to uncles and neighborhood men that I grew up with than I am to the generation that is Sterling’s. So that’s the character right there. The other elements compounded the visual aspects of it. So I think that’s why the character resonated so much. Because people thought I was younger, they didn’t realize that I was closely related to the inner elements of the character. I get his age and experience and I know what your body feels like at 60. I’ve raised a daughter. My daughter is 27 now and has gone on to be the age where she could have children. And so the character was close to me in that way. That’s where good acting starts from — you have an inner story that’s already there. The hard part is getting it out; to open it up, to be truthful and reveal it. Acting is revealing the truth that is already within you and that reflects the character that you’re doing. It’s the process that I work from. That’s why I was able to tap into that character right from the audition. And that’s also, I’m sure, what Dan, John, and Glenn saw and felt in the initial audition. The blessing is that we were able to capture it on film.
Are there other things you had to do to find William after identifying his truth and realizing that you related to it?
You still have to do the homework. The homework is in the script. That’s the study part, the mental part of it. Being able to master and own the script, memorize the lines, know the story, know what the writers are trying to say, and know what the layers are. And there was research in regards to looking up elements about Memphis, the music and poetry, finding the different poems that you think the character might like or listening to the music the character would like or play. Once you do all that and you do it on a daily basis, it seeps into the subconscious. That’s where you work from. Then you open up and let it happen. I try to get a script as soon as possible to delve into it to see where the arc is going.
Were you a fan of egg creams before, or was that part of the homework process?
I was. I had an uncle who used to take me to Brooklyn for egg creams when I was a kid [Laughs]. So I did know about those already. It was a funny coincidence when they did that. Also, I think they knew coming in that I was a jazz aficionado. We talked about that in the room. Several of the writers, Dan and myself, and a few of the other actors, Sterling and Susan [Kelechi Watson], are fans, so we explored some ideas about how the jazz element could come into it. William has a particular sound to his voice and tonality to his language. It was sort of a rhythm or a mood, if you will, and I loved doing that too. I loved exploring the language, getting the words in your mouth, and moving them around and adding tonality and melody. It’s something I learned from doing August Wilson onstage. Some of the monologues Dan wrote, I could interpret in a very musical way. That’s where the enjoyment of [being] an actor is — playing with all the elements that you discover. You don’t know all the answers, and they start to come in the process. And that’s about trust. You learn that you can trust that it will happen. It will be there when you need it.
Music also plays a giant part in The Get Down, and that is a time period you would have been closer to. Did the process feel similar when developing that character?
Yes and no. Ironically, one of the writers on the show is my best friend. When he ended up getting the gig and started to write this character, we talked about it a lot and I read for it. That’s how I booked that role. It started formulating when talking to him and listening to him talk about the project and all of our experiences growing up in the ‘70s and with hip-hop when New York was almost bankrupt. Out of it came this new art form. You could actually see it. It was so tangible at the time during the years of the blackout and Son of Sam. All that history’s in that show. From there came the character, Winston, who was a beautiful character and ironically another black man who can project love, which you don’t see a lot. He is a father of three boys who had a loving relationship with his wife and who is struggling to keep his boys out of trouble and still be himself. It was this open, artistic, beautiful character that they laid out for me there in The Get Down. Having those few episodes to try to get that in was a joy. It was a joy to work on that project and with Baz Luhrmann. To be able to talk with him and see and hear all his visions for the project was so rewarding. You knew it was going to have a beautiful aesthetic, and so I’m very proud of it.
It often seems that people think character actors are less important than leads. But lately, I’d argue those parts are usually more fun, complicated, or interesting. Would you agree?
I don’t know. We see it a little differently. I think most actors don’t start out wanting to be either a lead or a character actor. You just really want to work, whatever manifestation that takes. It makes me think of that old expression, “There are no small parts, just small actors.” It reads true as far as I’m concerned. There’s a fine line between lead actor and supporting actor. Two actors do their job to get a story across. Someone else then takes it and turns it into a category, which turns into an award, which turns into more work. I don’t have control over that. I just do the role to the best of my ability, and I’ll leave it up to you, the media, to call it what you will.
You just hope to do a good character. Good character actors are lead actors, and lead actors can be good character actors. It really depends on the script and the story. If you look at old movies, you have lead actors who also played supporting roles. You have James Cagney or Bogart in the same film as Edward G. Robinson. Or you have George Clooney pulling together the Ocean’s 11 thing with all different character and lead actors. So the case of This Is Us, it felt more like an ensemble all along. It felt very much like theater. It’s all connected. Whether it’s the lead or a supporting role, you’re trying to move people with your performance.
No matter how you categorize William, what you’ve accomplished with him is amazing. He became one of the most interesting and beloved characters on the show despite not being one of the Pearsons.
That means so much because you don’t often hear those things. That’s a beautiful thing to hear. For me, that’s the payoff. That’s the award when you have people really feeling the work. Wow, it’s like finally someone is actually talking about the work — not just the way his body looked, or if he’s good-looking, or how many stunts he’s done. I love hearing it. I appreciate it. It humbles me.
I lost my father last year and took on covering the show before I really knew it involved two dads potentially dying. It was really hard to watch at first because it is so realistic to the experience many people have gone through. But it was also very healing.
I felt the same way. I have lost several important people from my life. One of my best friends is actually going through that process right now with stage IV stomach cancer. And it can be painful to think of those things. My daughter couldn’t watch that episode. I don’t know if she’s ever watched it in its totality because it affects her in a way. I’m getting older and not running around the way we used to run around. A lot of feelings come up there, too. We’ve had to sit down and have a talk about it. I, too, was very moved by it. It was hard to do that death scene [in the hospital]. It wasn’t easy.
Emotionally, it was very, very difficult to get that scene across so I’m glad they did it the way that they did, that we didn’t have to stretch it out for a long time in multiple episodes. We got to the initial, difficult stuff right from the beginning. It made the day a lot easier to get through because that was a very difficult scene for me. It kicked up a lot of my own stuff in my personal life, too. I had to be able to trust that Sterling and the people around us would treat me with gloved hands and share the experience with me. That’s what the result on the camera is, which I’m very proud of.
Were you personally ready for William’s death?
No, just like everyone else who watches, I was not. I was worried that meant it was it for me on the show, and I was sad I might lose a role I was so attached to. It was also painful to think that he was not going to exist as the man he had become from knowing Randall and his family. But I also trust Dan and the writers, so I have to believe they made the right move for the show.
Can you calm the nerves of fans who are worried that Season 2 of This Is Us will be William-less?
I don’t know much about what will happen in Season 2 yet. We have not been told much. But I can give a confirmation that you will see the character in some form or fashion. I don’t know how many episodes, although I imagine it will be quite a few, or at what age we will see William. In terms of which storylines they plan to approach, your guess is as good as mine at this point.
Must be interesting to be doing that at almost the same time as Luke Cage, which comparatively is a more fun, action-driven superhero show.
Every moment’s different and special in its own way. I think the work happens all the same way, but sometimes it’s fun to do something lighter [where] you can have more fun and there’s a little more laughing going on. I love it all. I would love to do some comedy sometime and bring out my comedic chops. You want to try to do it all. Each project came with its own set of problems and attitudes. But I like the diversity. I’m fortunate enough to have been able to do that with the stream [of work] that happened that year. I was booking things one after another [Laughs], which never happened to me before. I’ll take it.
What’s the craziest/most interesting thing you’ve ever done to get into a character?
That’s not hard to answer. About three summers ago, I did a production of the play Prometheus Bound, about this guy chained to a rock for eternity by Zeus. I did it in conjunction with the California Institute of the Arts. I had been teaching some classes there through good friends, Travis Preston and Marissa Chibas, who run the dramatic wing of that institution. We did it at the Getty Villa out on the Pacific Coast Highway outside in the amphitheater. The director mounted it with a 24-foot steel wheel with an inner circling wheel attached to it built by this rigging company that does a lot of Cirque du Soleil shows and other big budget stuff. I had to do the whole play — and the whole play is just him speaking — on the top of that wheel in a crucifix position.
That probably was one of the most challenging experiences and the most gut-wrenching study experiences that I’ve had to do. The old language is very poetic, in Greek form. My brain was exhausted doing all the study behind it trying to find the character in there. It was crazy, man. And then I found out we were going to be outside and on that wheel and it was very physically demanding. The whole play takes place outside under the sky, and many of the references are to Zeus and the elements. It became a lot about water and wind and fire and storm and sky and stars. And so I was closer to the sky and water and stars and wind in doing it this way, so it brought me closer to the language and closer to the character. Eventually, it was one of the most beautiful productions I have ever seen or been involved in.
This Is Us will return this fall on NBC. Season 1 of Luke Cage and The Get Down are now streaming on Netflix.
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