Three Great Things: Susan Kelechi Watson

The star of This is Us and the upcoming Netflix series The Residence shares her love of South African adventure, Sade and comedy.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. In this latest edition, acclaimed actress Susan Kelechi Watson – best known for playing Beth in the smash-hit NBC show This is Us, and who is currently starring alongside Uzo Aduba in the new Shondaland limited series for Netflix, The Residence shared some of the things she is most passionate about in life. — N.D.

I went to South Africa in December 2022; I had never been to the African continent before. I visited various places in South Africa, but Mpumalanga stood out to me, because it’s a very natural area mostly used for safari. It also has the cutest, quaintest little airport I’ve ever seen in my life, which we flew in on a plane that held 50 people at most. I did the trip with a friend and we were both going on safari for the first time. When we first arrived at Lion Sands Tinga Lodge, the first thing I saw was elephants walking toward me, larger than life, with nothing between us and them. It was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had.

I never realized going on safari and seeing these animals would have such an impact on me. In Mpumalanga, I learned so much from just observing. I saw the Big Five, I saw one animal tearing apart another animal to eat it, I saw who was the prey and who was the predator. It was fascinating. Also, the people in Mpumalanga were lovely, the land was beautiful, and we got to drink a beer and have little snacks in the middle of the safari, just chilling in a field. Most of all, though, I felt an amazing sense of connection from seeing giraffes two or three feet away from me, or being less than a foot away from a tiger! (Who knew that giraffes were my favorite animal?! I mean, I had an inkling, but those giraffes at the Bronx Zoo are short compared to the ones I saw.) It was a life-changing experience. It blew my mind.

Whenever I’m in a new place, I always try to notice the sky and to remember I’m canopied under the same sky as in Brooklyn, or in California, or any of the other places I spend so much time. But doing a nighttime safari and seeing the stars and the way they shine in Mpumalanga, the world seemingly hangs a little lower there, maybe because the altitude is different. Being on safari seemed to change something in the fibers of my being. I’m an explorer now. I want to explore places and do things that feel adventurous, that feel exciting, that bring a whole different experience to my body, to my mind, my soul, my spirit. And I want to explore the continent of Africa so much more now. I’ve planned a trip to Ghana. I wasn’t able to go this year, mostly because it conflicted with my shooting schedule, but I want to go to there, and also to Tanzania and Kenya. I’ve heard that going on safari in Kenya is amazing, because the landscape is totally open and so you see the animals perfectly.

Sade is an artist I feel a deep connection to. From the moment I first watched one of her concerts on PBS, I remember feeling a true appreciation for minimalism and the ability to communicate volumes with so little, which is something that I want to do in whatever I do artistically. There was a moment in that concert which to me defined feminism and sensuality and strength and softness and boldness and patience, all at once. She was singing “Is It a Crime” and standing on stage with incredible stillness. But at one point, she took the mic with both hands, her eyes closed, and dipped her hip to the right. It was just a simple dip of the hip, but the crowd went nuts and so did I, because it was the most beautiful, sexy, feminine gesture. She barely did anything, but she did everything, and it has stayed with me ever since. I thought, That’s the type of artist I want to be.

When people ask me about actors I want to be like or who have inspired me, the artist I keep coming back to is Sade. The way she uses words is incredible, when she says things like, “I can’t hate you, though I’ve tried / Love is stronger than pride.” The way that she builds songs is so based in truth; they’re like haikus that simply get to the very heart of what we think and want to say. Somehow she’s able to find a direct line straight to the truth of things, so she is the artist of all artists for me.

She’s the most private person in the world, but if there were ever a Sade biopic, I would be the person to play her. It’s a dream I’ve always prayed for, and I hope to meet her one day and tell her the influence she’s had on me for so long.

One of the loves of my life is comedy. I learned a lot about comedy through my family, who are very funny, from my Uncle Sonny to my dad, my brothers, my cousins and my great grandmother. As we Jamaicans say, my family knows how to “give a joke.” It’s the very fabric of how we communicate.

My mom worked nights and I grew up watching comedies in the living room with my dad. He was such a funny guy, but he only laughed at things that were hilarious. If you could get a breathy little giggle from him, that meant your joke was genuinely funny. When we were growing up, my mom would rent videos for my brothers and me to watch after school or during holidays until she and my dad got home from work. She would especially rent videos of a lot of stand-up comedians, so I would memorize their routines and perform them for family or friends. I memorized Whoopi Goldberg’s stand-up and could speak along with shows like A Different World, word for word. I would watch them over and over again, which helped me gain a sense of comic timing.

What I love most about comedy is how medicinal it is; I don’t think there’s anything that can change an atmosphere or environment faster than a laugh. I remember learning that clearly once when my older brother was in trouble for missing curfew. My mom was going to discipline him, until he suddenly launched into this routine about a character named Kimba he had invented. Kimba was always sorry. Kimba was always hungry. And Kimba was always hilarious. I remember my mom laughing, because she loved Kimba, this character he had come up with. And it got him out of trouble! My family is a first-generation Jamaican household, and it’s hard to get out of trouble with them.

So when I saw that, I remember I said, Note to self: Comedy can change things. And it has for me. Anytime I’ve had any issues in my life – struggling with sadness, dealing with disappointment, or just wanting to to feel good – I turn to comedy. I’ve seen everything from Hazel in the ’60s, right up to the new Netflix show The Gentlemen, or anything Tina Fey does. Humor is my great escape, so I watch everything I can get my hands on.

I’m acting in a comedy right now for Shondaland and Netflix, The Residence, which is a murder-mystery comedy that takes place in the White House, and it has been an absolute joy to be a part of. It’s so funny and everybody in it is hilarious. My ultimate comedy dream, though, is to stretch my wings and show a different side of myself. I’d love to do something like what Eddie Murphy did with Beverly Hills Cop, to do a female version of a buddy cop film, or be the bumbling detective who figures out the mystery, like some mix of Columbo and Monk, with a little bit of Bad Boys (one of my favorites!) thrown in.

Susan Kelechi Watson starred as Beth Pearson on This is Us, winning awards and widespread acclaim for her performance. In addition to starring in the series, Watson penned an episode of the upcoming final season. Her other TV credits include Netflix’s animated series Ada Twist, Scientist, a major recurring role on Louie, and appearances on numerous other TV shows including The Blacklist, Divorce, Private Practice and Law & Order. In film she starred in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Peter and John and Small Moving Parts. On stage she most recently starred in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in The Park production of Merry Wives. As a producer, Watson executive produced and starred in the acclaimed HBO special of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Watson’s first foray into producing was the film Premature, which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by IFC Films. Watson is also a proud Epic NEXT youth development mentor with the Epic Theatre Ensemble, a professional theater company with a mission to promote vital civic discourse and social change through drama.