'This Is Us' Writer Eboni Freeman on What to Expect From the Beth-Centric Episode

Michael Maloney
Q&A Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Along with making us cry each week, This Is Us specializes in individual character-centric episodes. Tonight’s episode, titled "Our Little Island Girl," shines the spotlight on the sensational Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth Pearson).

Watch for Beth to leave town after she gets a call to take care of her feisty mom, Carol, played by Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show), who is recovering from an injury. In the time-jumping episode, we’ll learn about Beth’s love of dance and how her mom played a pivotal role in whether or not she’d continue with that passion.

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And get a first look at guest stars Phylicia Rashad (as Beth's mom) and 'Timeless' alum Goran Visnjic!

As always, the show’s casting department does a great job of finding young actors to bring to life earlier incarnations of modern favorites.

Read on as show staff writer, Eboni Freeman, previews tonight’s episode.

As a former dancer, it seems like a no-brainer that you’d be assigned the script for this episode.

Eboni Freeman: I didn’t actually pitch the idea that Beth would be a dancer. That’s something the [writers] room came up with organically with the show knowing Susan’s background. At one point, I said, "Hey, that’s kind of me! Before I started writing I wanted to be a dancer, a ballerina." This is before we had Misty Copeland (the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre). She was definitely an inspiration of setting [this episode] in the ballet world. That’s the world I came up in.

This episode is set in 1992, 1998, and modern day. Back then, Beth wouldn’t have had a Misty to look up to. She does talk about Lauren Anderson, who was the first black woman to be a principal ballerina for a major company.

Akira Akbar as Young Beth, Goran Visnjic as Vincent (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

How do you keep track of all the different time periods?

There’s a board [in the writers’ room] and we have dates on it of all the big moments in the Pearson family.

The casting of Akira Akbar as Young Beth and Rachel Hilson as Teen Beth is spot on.

When we were going to cast "Teen Beth," I said we have to have someone who has a background in ballet and who looks like Susan and has that swagger. Then, [Rachel] walked in. She had all of that and more. We were like, "Can you dance?"

Viewers cry when they watch the show; do the writers cry when you’re all writing it?

When we’re in the room, we do when we realize the emotional moments. I thought when we were writing the scenes with Beth and her mother, "I understand that relationship."

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Did you know you were getting Phylicia to play Carol, Beth’s mom, before you wrote the episode?

No, not until the script was finished. We realized that Carol is such an important character and we needed an actor who can carry that.

Carol says some things to Beth because she cares about her and wants her to have a good future, but they’re also hurtful remarks. Can you talk about that dynamic?

I’m not one, but we have a lot of parents on the writing staff. They have that perspective of knowing what it would be like wondering if they’re child were to go into something like the dance world or something of that nature [and how hard it would be]. Parents want their children to succeed. We thought it would be an interesting color on Beth’s mother if her father [played by Carl Lumbly] were the one who told her to dream and her mom was the one balancing it out saying, "Let’s be practical."

What do you want the audience to take away from this episode?

I think what we see is that life truly turned out great for Beth. Yes, this was a wound [with her mom] that needed to be healed, but her life took her on a path where she would meet Randall (Sterling K. Brown).

Phylicia Rashad as Carol, Akira Akbar as Young Beth, Carl Lumbly as Abe (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Before you wrote in Beth’s dance scenes, did you check with Susan to see what her dance background was?

Yes. I had just joined the show as a writer. Susan and I didn’t have much of a relationship yet, but we knew she had a dance background. Susan had had a similar experience with ballet to mine, dealing with body issues and [studying] an art form that is strict and has to be a certain way. We knew that we wanted to [write] this dance for her at the end of the episode.

How have things changed since Beth studied dance as a young woman?

The Debbie Allen (Fame, Grey’s Anatomy) Dance Academy [studios] are opening the dance world to a more diverse group of students. Years ago, it wasn’t as diverse and it was harder to break through. There was [ballerinas] Lauren Anderson, Raven Wilkinson and Janet Collins – [it was] few and far between. It was harder to break those barriers. Now, we’re going in the right direction.

Now that you’ve completed this Beth-centric episode, what other characters are you looking forward to giving a voice to?

We’re finishing Season 3 and I’m looking forward to Season 4 where I get to work with more of the cast. I was a fan of the show before I came to work here. I fell in love with the family and the characters.

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When did you learn you were writing this episode?

The writers decided they were going to make Beth’s background about dance. I kept talking about my personal life in the room and they were like, "We think this is your episode."

How much time do you have to take the notes and whatever comes out of the writing room and turn it into the actual script?

It varies, but it can be a week or sometimes two to [formulate] the episode and then it’s handed off to the writer. I wrote the first draft in a  week. Then, it goes through a process. I’m so proud of this episode. The original title was going to "Bethany" and then we changed it to "Our Little Island Girl."

Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth, Phylicia Rashad as Carol, Melanie Liburd as Zoe (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Might we see more of Carol in the future or, as this is This Is Us, in the past?

We were so lucky to get her. I don’t know what Season 4 holds, but I’m sure there’s some Phylicia in our future. We just all love her so much!

This is your first big episode. How are you going to celebrate that? 

I’m going to have a party with my friends at my place and we’re all going to watch it!

This Is Us, Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC