Susan Kelechi Watson: The untold truth

This Is Us brought the world's eyes upon actress Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Beth Pearson on the hit drama. While the show brought her fame to another level, her success was far from sudden. Watson had been quietly paving her way to Hollywood stardom for years before landing the gig. The Brooklyn native is serious about her craft. She honed her skills in school, attending Howard University and then going on to New York University for her master's degree. From there, she landed several guest spots and recurring roles on shows like Louie, The Blacklist, Third Watch, and NCIS. The actress also has some films under her belt, including Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, and Peter and John.

Some celebrities get lucky breaks early on, but Watson struggled for years to make it to the top. The journey was a difficult, and often frustrating one, but in the end she proved that hard work and determination really do pay off.

Denzel helped pay for her education

Like many other college students, Watson found herself in need of financial assistance while she was in school. She was accepted into a program to study Shakespeare at Oxford one summer, but the fees were too high. Instead of giving up on her dreams, Watson and her classmates were awarded a scholarship from an unlikely source. They contacted actress Phylicia Rashad, who joined forces with Denzel Washington to send Watson and her classmates to England.

The experience was an unforgettable one, and not just because of the famous figures who helped fund them. Watson told Talk Nerdy With Us that she has always loved Shakespeare, and that studying him had a major influence in her life. "I was really in love with him in my teens and stuff so that sort of inspired me going on that trip," she said. "It was really, really special and something that I won't forget. I think a lot of what we learned there I still take with me."

Her casting in Louie was "a bold step" and "remarkable"

Before she became one of the stars of This Is Us, Watson was probably best known for her role on Louie where she played the title character's ex-wife. It was a role she never thought she would land, as she assumed that the part would go to a white actor, especially considering his children were white. Instead, women of all races were auditioned, with the part going to Watson.

She told Essence that the casting choice was a bold step, but also "remarkable because for so long we've been saying we just want to see each other as human beings," an attitude she was able to embody on the show. She said, "Our culture is very important, of course, but this feels like a moment where someone has said, 'Your culture is irrelevant at this moment. It's more about whether you feel like you're right for this role and what you're bringing to it."

She and Beth have a key trait in common

Watson's parents are from Jamaica, and the actress embraces her Jamaican-American identity. She told Ebony that one of the things she likes about her character on This Is Us is the positive way her African-American family is portrayed. "It's no secret to Black people that we're smart, that we have abilities," she said. "We're obviously very strong, powerful, resilient, inspirational, intelligent, phenomenally talented… I could go on and on about our culture."

Since her character Beth is also Jamaican, Watson is often consulted by the writers about her culture in order to ensure authenticity. Watson told The Mary Sue that she recognizes the opportunity she has to represent the "rich powerfulness" of her culture. "There's this richness, this beauty, this light and so I get the opportunity to be some sort of symbol of that and for us, it's a new thing in a lot of ways to see that on TV," she said.

The death of "five great women" in her life shaped who she is

Watson doesn't just acknowledge her cultural roots, but also remembers the women who have influenced her in her life. In a letter written to her younger self published by People, Watson revealed that as a child she lost many of the people closest to her. This had a profound affect on her life.

"Hey young one with the round cheeks, big eyes, long think [sic] hair, and skinny little legs," wrote Watson, "in the next seven years you'll suffer the loss of … five great women you loved and had tremendous respect for. Women you aspired to be like. … Not an easy time in your life, kiddo, but you will survive … and who they were will make you better."

In that short span of time, Watson lost her godmother, aunt, cousin, great-grandmother, and a close friend she called her "twin from another mother." The heartbreak of surviving their deaths shaped Watson and her career. "You will remind yourself to take their gems and distribute them as generously as they did with you," she wrote to her younger self. "In your life and in your art, they will make you better."

She makes an empowering statement with her hair on the show

If you've seen This Is Us, you'll likely have noticed Watson's luxurious long locks. She designs most of her hairstyles on the show, which is a bigger deal than many people realize. She told Vulture that her natural hair is her "shout-out to black women" who often feel pressured to relax their hair rather than keep their natural texture.

"For so long we've been told we have to look a certain way, or our hair has to be a certain way just to even be accepted or as a part of what is considered to be the American standard of beauty." she said. By creating her signature hairstyles, Watson is saying to black women that "there are beautiful things we could do with our hair."

Watson's hair on the show doesn't just look incredible, but also helps boost the confidence of viewers who relate to her. "You have no idea what it does for the consciousness and the self-esteem of so many people in this country who are beautiful, but for so long have been told their differences don't allow them to be," she said.

She and Sterling K. Brown harmonize between scenes

Watson isn't just a gifted actress, but is also a talented singer who loves to sing karaoke. It's not a surprise when you look at her resume. Watson has spent a lot of time on stage, including performing in Marley — The Musical. She's a television star now, but that doesn't mean she has put the theater completely behind her. "I've done Broadway, and I've done off-Broadway so it's definitely something that will always be there," she told Talk Nerdy With Us. "I love it."

While she may eventually return to the stage, the success of This Is Us means Watson probably won't do so any time soon. In the meantime, she keeps her vocal chops warmed up by singing with co-star Sterling K. Brown, who plays her husband on the show. According to Watson, the two harmonize between scenes — or at least attempt to. "Sometimes we don't harmonize so well, but we try," she told Vulture.  

A month before This Is Us, she almost moved to Montreal to work in a coffee shop

It might seem impossible to believe that someone as determined as Watson would give up on her dreams, but that's very nearly what happened. If she hadn't landed the role of Beth on This Is Us, her performance career might have ended altogether. "A month before I booked This Is Us, I was like, 'Maybe I should move to Montreal and work in a coffee shop,'" she told MTV. "I had friends who were praying for me. I was leaning on a support system to believe for me when I was finding it difficult to still believe the dream for myself."

Thankfully, her support system came through for her. Watson decided to stick with her dream and give it another shot. "All of the sudden I just believed again, like, I didn't come this far for it not to happen. I'm going to enjoy this again," she said. "It's the best thing I have to give. So I had to get my personal joy back, and then things started to change." It wasn't long after that Watson captured the hearts of audiences everywhere on This Is Us.

She was stuck in a cycle of endless guest starring roles

Before This Is Us, many of Watson's roles were guest spots or recurring parts. On This Is Us, Watson has finally been able to show off her range as an actress. She expressed her excitement at having the opportunity to play a character over a long period of time, telling blackfilm.com that "there is nothing like being able to develop a three-dimensional character over a long period of time."

She spoke of the differences in portraying a character throughout the course of a series as opposed to having just a few scenes to do it. "When you have time, and you have people writing for you, and developing with you, and invested in your character, there's nothing like it," she said." I have time to sit with this woman, and really contemplate and think about how much more of her I can bring to life and to the screen… You don't get that with a guest star."

She's sported the same fave $59 tote for years (and other reasons she's a budget queen)

While Watson has hit the big time and is now living a life of superstardom, that wasn't always the case. She has definitely experienced what it's like to live on a limited budget, and she still remains down-to-earth in spite of her fame. She told New York Magazine that one of her favorite bags is a $59 tote from Urban Outfitters that she's had for "so many years." She also uses a budget facial moisturizer, off-brand lip balm, and affordable vitamin E oil for wrinkles around her eyes instead of an expensive eye cream. "I'm all about simple products," she said.

One thing Watson did splurge a little on is a pair of $350 cat-eye sunglasses. They're a bit pricey, but not exactly extravagant, and she had a good reason for spending the money. "I actually was at the Oliver Peoples store on Sunset and treated myself to these because I'd booked the pilot to This Is Us," she said. "This was my pilot present to myself — an expensive pair of sunglasses. Welcome to L.A.!"

She and her on-screen hubby actually go way back IRL

Watson and her co-star, Sterling K. Brown, are the perfect on-screen couple. They have their ups and downs, but always manage to pull through. Their believable relationship is a testament to their acting skills, but the two also have a history together. The actors were both at New York University at the same time, although they mostly admired each other's talent from afar.

"I just remember watching you in your process do incredibly beautiful and nuanced work, and just being a fan of your talent," Brown said to Watson during an interview with Entertainment WeeklyWatson also spoke highly of her co-star. "I remember … fangirling out because there is this specific work that can happen on film and television that the camera catches, but sometimes it's harder to do that same type of intimate specific work in a theater space," she said. "Sterling was capturing all of that."

Their shared alma mater might be part of the reason for the show's success. The NYU alums say they have a similar acting technique, something that likely helps them mesh as an on-screen couple.

Giving back is in her genes

Watson believes in the importance of mentoring. In an article she wrote for Backstage giving advice to those trying to break into show business, Watson said, "Find a mentor and find someone to mentor. It's just as important to share what you've learned as it is to continue to learn."

The television star practices what she preaches, and gives back to the community. Watson is on the board of Drama Club, which mentors incarcerated youths through theater. She also mentors young people through the theater company Epic Theatre Ensemble, serving as a youth development mentor.

Watson's desire to help others is something she inherited from her mother, who also supports charitable organizations. Another of Watson's projects is empowering people through the media. She told blackfilm.com about attending "an independent women in journalism fundraiser," where she saw "how these women are putting their lives on the line to be able to tell stories"

"We have freedom of speech in this country, freedom of journalism, that other people don't have," said Watson, adding that she was happy to be "getting the opportunity to be a part of things that I haven't been before."