The Emmy-winning actor tells USA TODAY’s Bill Keveney how the portrayal of interracial adoption on NBC’s ‘This is Us’ mirrors reality and praises grad school classmate Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays his character’s wife. Sean Fujiwara, USA TODAY
One day you’re an eighth grader in a Chicago suburb and the next, you’ve got a juicy role on one of TV’s biggest hits, This Is Us (NBC, Tuesday, 9 ET/PT).
You can imagine the range of emotions 14-year-old Lyric Ross felt on her first day on the Los Angeles set.
“I was excited, I was nervous, I was scared, I was happy, I was confused, I was tired,” she tells USA TODAY in her first interview since her character’s arrival in the Pearson home in the Oct. 10 episode. But mostly, “I love it. I’m grateful.”
Ross, who said she’s wanted to act since she was a toddler, had appeared in minor roles on Chicago Fire and Sirens before she won the part of Deja, a 12-year-old foster child taken in by Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), the parents of two younger girls.
When Ross got the role, producers explained Deja’s mother’s legal problems and the girl’s harrowing experiences moving between foster homes.
“She’s pushing people (away). She doesn’t think she can trust anybody,” Ross says. “It’s the opposite of me.”
Ross points out how Deja’s story connects to Randall’s adoption. “It was cool that he wanted to do something like that for another little black baby, but the other thing I thought was cool was that Beth wanted to help an older child get somewhere stable.”
Brown, via e-mail, marvels at fledgling actress’ skills. “She’s a baby, and to me, it feels like she’s been doing this for years. She is so present, responsive and truthful.”
Watson admires Ross’s wide-eyed sense of discovery. “Lyric is a beautiful young girl. Her personality is so loving, warm and very fresh. She’s seeing things for the first time.”
The teen sounds like she still can’t believe she works with such actors. “It’s GREAT!” she says. Brown “is amazing. He is an Emmy award winner. I was going crazy. … (Watson) is funny. She’s super cool to work with.”
Deja’s push-pull story has partly been told through her hair. Initially, she wouldn’t take hints to wash it, before eventually letting Beth wash and braid it, revealing bald spots from stress-induced alopecia. After Beth revealed that secret to Randall, Deja exacted revenge for the betrayal by chopping off her braids.
That required more than just acting: Ross had to cut her own hair as Deja stands before a mirror with scissors.
“I never wanted to cut it, so when they said I had to be willing to cut my hair, I had to think about it, because that was everything. I loved my hair,” she says. “So, I made the decision (and then) they told me I was going to cut it myself. That was the hard part.”
Watson is impressed by Ross’s fortitude.
“This is a teenage girl being asked to cut her hair off in a matter of, like, 15 minutes. That is a huge deal, especially as a young person (and) as a black woman. There’s so much about our hair that is part of what defines us,” she says. There were tears and it was hard and her mother was standing by. That wasn’t easy. She’s a champ .”
Over time, Deja has opened up a bit. In Tuesday’s episode, Randall accompanies Deja for an emotional jail visit with her birth mother.
Brown looks forward to upbeat scenes. “Her smile is infectious. Sometimes my only goal in a scene is to make her smile, especially when she doesn’t want to.”
When Ross isn’t acting or in school in Homewood, Ill., she likes to watch TV, listen to music, swim and fish.
She’s adjusting to being recognized. Classmates “think I’m famous now,” she says, giggling.
Ross has playful fun with new acquaintances. “They say, ‘Are you on the show?’ I would be like, ‘What show are you talking about?’ ” she explains, adopting a coy tone. “They say, ‘This is Us.’ And I say, ‘Oh, yes!’ ”