This Is Us: Sterling K. Brown & Jennifer C. Holmes Discuss Randall & Laurel's 'Beautiful' Origin Stories

This Is Us just made fans ugly cry by gifting them with the second half of Randall's birth story.

In Tuesday's "Birth Mother" episode, Sterling K. Brown's character, a Black adoptee welcomed into the white Pearson family, was finally able to put together the missing puzzle pieces about his biological mother Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes) and piece together the seasons-long 'Where do I come from?' identity struggle.

Laurel was introduced to Randall through her last boyfriend Hai's (Vien Hong) retelling of her life experiences, and audiences saw flashbacks of her most pivotal life moments: Starting with her upbringing as a member of the distinguished DuBois family in New Orleans to running away to Pittsburgh to avoid an unwanted proposal and being incarcerated in California for a drug possession charge after her son's birth until 1985.

Hai ended his love story by sharing stories of Laurel, portrayed by actress Angela E. Gibbs, in her final years when she was battling breast cancer back at her aunt Mae's farmhouse by the lake until her death in 2015. Randall was able to learn about Laurel's life before and after she gave birth to him, and also correct the notion that Laurel's life ended due to an overdose — an assumption previously told to him by biological father William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones).

Not only did Randall track down the answer he was searching for, but he gained much more than he anticipated, even inheriting Laurel's home. And with a bit of closure after coming to terms with his identity, Randall was ready to reconcile and let go "of all the bad stuff" with his brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) months after their big fight.

But the timing may not be in Randall's favor. During their brief phone call, Kevin informed him that Madison (Caitlin Thompson) was at the hospital in labor with the twins and the actor had to find a way back to Los Angeles from Vancouver, where he had been filming Glass Eye, the project that could possibly define his career.

Below, onscreen mother-son duo Holmes and Brown tell PEOPLE all about the emotional origin stories of Laurel and Randall — and how discovering the past will impact the city councilman's future.

PEOPLE: Season 1's "Memphis" episode sent Randall on a journey with William to see where the patriarch grew up. Now learning about Laurel, Randall went to New Orleans with Beth and was taken on an emotional journey by Hai. After four seasons, which focused on Randall's paternal side, how do you feel about this episode unlocking so much about Randall and Laurel's journeys?

STERLING K. BROWN: For such a long time, the only way which Randall thought about Laurel was how her life impacted his. For most of us, we are the center of our own story. Every once in a while you have a moment of clarity when you recognize that each person is the center of their own story, and their story is important not just how it relates to you, but because their story is important. It was a dawning on Randall when he found out because he was wondering "why did she abandon me, if she was alive, how come she didn't make her presence known in my life?" He didn't just disappear, neither did William — what's the deal? Then he learns she went to jail, not only for five years but on the other side of the country.

On a social level for me as a Black person, recognizing the consequences of one's actions sometimes aren't necessarily parallel experiences for everyone. For anyone who is not Black, someone can say "you need to clean yourself up" and then have the option of going to rehab instead of jail. We can even take Kevin's own addiction as an example of that.

JENNIFER C. HOLMES: I'm so happy they actually wrote that in briefly. It didn't matter how much money Laurel came from or anything, the moment she was arrested for drug abuse there was no rehab or intensive recovery. It was more so: this is what you did, what you did was bad and because of the color of your skin, you were given a harsher time and thrown in prison for five years. For Laurel, a woman who had never gone to jail and grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth, this was her new reality. It's so relevant to today, hearing stories of Black women and men getting harsh times that white people wouldn't get. It opens your eyes to that, this is still going on today. I thought about Sandra Bland, and all the men and women who had no way out because of the color of their skin, social background and financial background.

Laurel did not sleep the five years in prison, every day she dreamt about Randall, even when she went back to New Orleans, she couldn't sleep at night so she had to walk into that lake and let it go. She had so much regret, shame, pain and hurt. A part of Laurel died when she could no longer be with her son. Her life was over.

Fans have long wanted answers about Randall's biological mom. Jennifer, what was it like to portray Laurel in the formative years of her life?

JCH: I got the audition for the show in 2016, it was season 1 and it was a self-tape audition. There wasn't much description about the character, she didn't have a name yet so they called her 'young woman' — and a dangerous one at that. … In season 1, we filmed the Laurel montage of her and William on the bus so there was a lot of mystery in regards to her. I was following the show and kept up with most of the characters. I made sure to stay in tune with what was going on in case I could use it for Laurel's backstory.

For [season 5] episode 6, it took about two months to film from the '60s and '70s to the '80s and '90s. There were a lot of wardrobe changes and hair, which was great and fun. I was excited when I read the script and saw how many wardrobe changes and decades. We shot in order, which helped me a lot. It let me build as if I was growing from year to year. You see Laurel mature from a young adult to womanhood. You see Laurel making a transition in her own way and her own rules for what she thinks is best for her. She completely wanted to remove herself from what her family wanted.

Among the similarities between Laurel and Randall are their chosen families. Another is how the profound losses they experienced when they were young — Laurel's brother Jackson died in the Vietnam War and Randall's father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died after the house fireimpacted how they love.

SKB: The biggest similarity that I actually found was, and I think this is for every human, is feeling like you're out of place. Everybody in their own ways feels like, 'Where is it that I actually belong?' Laurel had a bohemian streak within her and resisted the formalities of her father's household so she found solace in the relationship with her aunt and this beautiful relationship she has with Hai. I don't think I've ever seen a Vietnamese man and a Black woman on screen being able to love each other, that's awesome! For me, as a way into the character, was the spiritual element of Randall and Laurel discovering that you can't control everything. You have to be willing to let go of all these things you feel responsible for. It's only in the process of letting go that God, that spirit, can show up and give you some sense of comfort and relief. Going into the water, the sort of purification, and the relief that she had a couple of times under her aunt's guidance. And now Randall gets to experience, under the guidance of his mom, I think gives access to a level of space that may not have been present in his life to this point in time. I'm excited to see if and how that plays itself out over the course of our series.

JCH: There are so many [similarities]. But the relationship with their parents, of course, Randall didn't have a strong relationship at the beginning with his biological family. For Laurel, although her family was wealthy, there was a disconnect when it came to her mom and dad. There was a correlation between Randall and him not being connected to his biological parents. Later on, him having a great relationship with William and Laurel having a great relationship with aunt Mae. They also have big hearts and love hard, both are so giving.

The lake brought Laurel to Randall, allowing them to meet for the first time albeit in his imagination. Was that a dream?

SKB: I'll give you some behind-the-scenes things that were written in the script but did not make it into the cut. At one point, Hai asks Randall: "Are you a religious or spiritual person?" And Randall says, "not really." The things that he can experience with the senses are what he knows to be real and everything else, sort of, doesn't exist. Hai mentions that when he goes out to the lake, he feels like he can hear Laurel laughing. So for Randall to go into the lake, he was in search of his mother. [Director Kay Oyegun] described it as the inner workings of his mind, but for me as an actor, what you experience visually, there is a moment of connection that he is able to actually say to and hear from his mother "I love you." I choose to put in the space of the miraculous because I don't know how many encounters with the miraculous Randall has had or willing to acknowledge as being such. This one is one of the reasons that he's so much lighter because a miracle occurred.

JCH: It was more so a spiritual moment than a dream, for me. I thought it was so beautiful for Laurel, who had so much heartbreak and so much against her. She ultimately died of cancer and never got the peace she wanted, which was her son Randall. For her to be able to say her final words as a spirit on the other side, in a way that audiences weren't going to expect at all, was beautiful.

For so long, Randall has struggled with his own questions of his identity. During the ride home, Beth noticed a weight was lifted off her husband, who said with a smile, "Two imperfect people loved me." What kind of closure did Randall get?

SKB: In hearing her story, there are two imperfect people who loved Randall. I think that's such a healing thing. It's been a nagging question that's been in the back of his mind for at least 36 years. Then, William's presence in his life helped to alleviate it somewhat. And now I think in total he knows that he is okay. His being adopted didn't mean he was defective or lacking in any shape, form or fashion. He was actually loved and the way in which the world conspired with my parents left them in a situation that was impossible. He still had a life full of love.

JCH: To me, it meant we are all far from perfect. Laurel and William did the best they can in the circumstances they were in. It showed me that we have to be so conscious about the choices we make in life because one choice can lead you one way and another choice another way. That one choice can affect yourself and even bigger, the loved ones around you. Two imperfect people loving him showed me that at least he knew the love that his parents had for one another and for him. Because of their choices, they weren't able to show him that — that's heartbreaking. In the end, he realizes they did love him and if his mother could do more, she could've of. It had nothing to do with him.

Have we seen the last of Laurel or is there more Randall will learn about her from Hai?

JCH: We just have to wait and see [laughing]. Dan Fogelman, Kay and all the writers, we have to wait and see what they come up with.

SKB: I believe this is the conclusion of Randall's birth story. I don't think we will see more of her. Unless we see her in connection to William at some point in time, like the virtue of going back into the past. I think we're putting this particular storyline to rest and hopefully in a way that folks will find fitting.

What will therapy be like for Randall post-New Orleans?

SKB: Yes, therapy can help him further after this trip. My experience with therapy is like maintenance — you don't necessarily go when something is broken or in dire straits. You go to maintain a certain perspective. You don't stop exercising once you're in shape, you don't stop eating well once you get your blood pressure and cholesterol taken care of. You have to continue with a regimen in order to maintain the psychological, emotional, physical health that you gained. I hope Randall continues; it's a good image in the world to see anyone asking for help, in particular people of color and Black men.

How do you predict Randall will be around his siblings Kevin and Kate after the New Orleans trip?

SKB: I think he's ready to put a lot of things to bed. … Randall is a tentpole figure, for the holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, he's going to do it big and fun, everyone will gather at the house. He wants to get back to that, that's who he is at his most comfortable and most familiar. He misses being able to occupy that space. The beginning of season 5 was hard for him, knowing they were celebrating their 40th birthdays and he was not a part of it. He wants to, in his ability, change that for the future, especially after this experience with his mom, he's got to clean up the past in order to enjoy the present moving forward with endless possibilities for the future. You're going to see Randall take the reins and actively repair that relationship.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.


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