Emmy-nominated actor Chris Sullivan has made a strong impression on critics and fans since arriving in Hollywood. The actor quickly found himself landing roles in projects like Netflix’s Stranger Things, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and NBC’s critically lauded This Is Us.
Sullivan stars as Toby Damon on the Emmy nominated NBC drama. As season four closes, the family celebrates the first birthday of Toby’s son, Jack Damon. The topic of additional children for Toby and Kate (Chrissy Metz) arises and then the narrative jumps to the future where a fully-grown Jack Damon welcomes his first child, making Toby and Kate grandparents.
Sullivan and his real-life wife are expecting their first child, one of the parallels between his fictional life on the series. He spoke to Awards Focus about his work on the series, playing in his band Joseph the Spouse, and how he reacted to his first Emmy nomination.
Awards Focus: As you’re reading a script and preparing for the episode’s shoot, what are some things that you take into account?
Chris Sullivan: I think about the process as a whole. Television is this immediately collaborative art form, where you deliver these simple human moments and they’re recorded, then sent them to musicians and the editors… you want to give them the most honest, real moments.
It’s a privilege to tell these stories and see how each piece of the puzzle fits within the larger production.
AF: The writing in This Is Us is incredible. As an actor, how do you work with the writers and how has that evolved throughout the various seasons?
Sullivan: Good writing is everything for a TV show, it can save performances. There are very few actors who can spin bad writing into gold. The writing on our show, and the quality of it, it’s the source of the show’s success.
Our writers are paying attention when they’re on set with us, and we’re allowed in to the writers room. They have certainly evolved with us, and they watched the characters and started writing to fit the characters as they evolve.
It’s such a gift because it showcases each actor in a way that we rarely have the opportunity to live out. The writers are definitely open to us affecting the scripts, and they’re definitely open to our input and to our storyline ideas. But when the scripts come down the line there’s not much need for adjustment, they’re flawless one after the other.
AF: Last year you received your first Emmy nomination, what was that moment like for you?
Sullivan: Honestly, I didn’t realize it was Emmy morning because I was at home in Sacramento with my parents. Dad and I were in the garage working and Chrissy Metz sent me a text and then my publicist reached out. It was really shocking but a great honor.
AF: Submitting the episode, “Toby,” must have been an obvious choice as it gives such insight into your character and allows you to really go deep in the performance.
Sullivan: The challenge of that episode was that I had to go to those places and get down and honest about depression and anxiety and all of those things, the thing that I’m probably most proud of is the people that I talk to who struggle with anxiety and depression, they tell me it was an accurate and honest depiction of what they were going through and what they have been through.
AF: Talk about Toby’s relationship with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), can it be difficult as an actor to connect to certain situations?
Sullivan: We all have people in our lives that we are trying to live up, or that we are trying to impress. Sometimes those people are worthy of our attention, and sometimes that can lead to dysfunction in relationships.
Fortunately, Jack Pearson, as a flawed and humble character, is somebody we can all strive to be more like. I can relate to that, I certainly have those people in my life that I want to be more like and that I want to emulate, and I have people in my life who I want to take care of and who I want to make feel safe and I want to provide for.
AF: Does Toby influence Chris’s style or does Chris influence Toby’s style?
Sullivan: It’s actually neither, it was a total coincidence! During season one of the show they started dressing Toby, and I every time I went into a fitting I would say “I would love this in my size”.
There’s actually a jacket that Toby wears in season two that I loved so much that I went out and bought in my own size that I wore to the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 premiere.
I enjoy bright colors, I enjoy the silly spectacle of going out, and the silly spectacle of the public nature of our industry. I try to imply that I am having fun and I’m not taking myself too seriously.
AF: You’re a musician as well. You play under “Joseph the Spouse”?
Sullivan: Correct, I perform under the name Joseph the Spouse. We’ve got a bunch of really good music co-written and produced by Taylor Goldsmith from the band Dawes. I play guitar and I’m a singer/songwriter, our sound is blues, folk, and rock with very story driven lyrics.
One of my all-time heroes in terms of songwriting is John Prine, who recently passed away due to complications from COVID. I do my best to emulate his spirit.
We’ve got an album put together that we’re going to release. We want to be able to go play shows when we release the record, and we’re just not sure when we’re going to be able to do that. I know when this is over it’ll be really nice to gather together.