‘This Is Us’ Star Chris Sullivan On the “Bright Sadness” Of Being a New Dad

Having a baby put everything in perspective for him in real life, and on the show.

by Donna Freydkin
Getty / Disney/ABC

Being a working parent during a pandemic turns all of us into manic contortionists who shift the space-time continuum and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Chris Sullivan is no exception. Sullivan, whom you know as the new dad on NBC’s This Is Us, is deeply contemplative during a late afternoon interview, conducted while his baby son was home with his wife Rachel. “I’m talking to you in my car. In my driveway,” he says, nonplussed, and exceedingly friendly to the two kids who gate-crash the conversation because, well, the pandemic and all.

For Sullivan, as for his character Toby, fatherhood proved something of an adjustment. And unlike so many other new dads, he doesn’t spout out jolly but banal chestnuts about the magic and beauty and all-around glory of being a dad. Sure, it’s all the above. But since Bear arrived last July, Sullivan’s life, and how he approaches every decision he makes, has shifted seismically.

“It’s just an interesting time to figure out how to best support this little life and how to encourage him to make mistakes and to not be afraid of failing. I guess the only way to do that is by doing that myself,” he says.

Sullivan talks to Fatherly about priorities, perspective, and a balanced approach to parenthood.

Let’s start with Toby, who’s having quite the moment on This Is Us. He and Kate have a son who’s blind. They’re adopting another kid. And Toby has struggled with depression and his own health. So, what gives?

If one child with a physical disability wasn’t stressful enough, adopting a second child is only going to try them in ways that they weren’t tried the first time. It seems to me to be exponential when a second child comes into the story. Some things are a lot easier. And then there’s this whole new level of learning that has to happen. And I don’t know, we’ll see if Toby and Kate are capable of continuing to learn. This Is Us. Anything is possible.

Has being a dad changed how you approach Toby, himself a new dad on the show?

I feel like Toby is a completely different person. I feel different in him. I couldn’t quite put it into words. And then I heard Kristen Bell talking about it in an interview, where essentially she was saying — Bear arrived and none of this matters. None of this is that important.

I don’t mean to say that it is unimportant. I don’t mean to say that I don’t care about it, but the level of mental and spiritual anguish that I carried around inside me around my job and around this show and around performing has left me. Everything has been right-sized. Actually, no, everything has been brought down to exactly the level of importance that it deserves to be at. Because of that, I find myself showing up differently for Toby, when it’s time for me to show up for him.

Meaning, you get the job done and move on?

I’ve found that this season I’m doing a lot more acting and a lot less performing. I don’t think it was even a choice. It took me until a couple of weeks ago to figure out what was going on. All the paradigms have shifted and there’s no going back.

Your mother-in-law on the show, Mandy Moore, just had her first baby. Have you met him?

We met for the first time, a couple of days ago, actually. Taylor and Mandy came over and we had a little food and, and Bear and, and Gus got to get to meet. That’s really nice.

How do you view yourself as a dad? What’s important to you?

There’s an immediate letting go of ownership over who this person will be, who they will become. I find it really ridiculous to think about all of the things I’m going to teach him. It doesn’t make any sense to me — the things that are worth learning can’t be taught, and the things that are worth learning have to be learned through failure and heartache and struggle and mistakes and putting yourself out there. Beware of unearned wisdom, of trying to pass wisdom on to anybody.

That’s the truth. It’s fairly arrogant to think we have life lessons worthy of being imparted.

Our therapists and a couple of friends have put it in an interesting way, where you spend all of this time in a relationship, narrowing your circle down to the two of you, strengthening it, and strengthening that bond. Rachel and I were 10 years in when we had Bear. Then there’s this third person that you have to accommodate for, and all the dynamics are completely different.

One of my spiritual teachers, the progressive catholic monk Richard Rohr, talks about embodying a bright sadness. He’s just this hip cat. I’ve always liked that term. Having a child puts everything into perspective in a way that is very contemplative and very finite, that truly makes you understand mortality and the brevity of our time and all the time wasted. And yet there’s this joy that blankets everything. So it’s a kind of bright sadness.

But there’s also so much joy. You announced his birth on social media. How much do you plan on sharing?

We’ve posted a couple of times. I think it will be an inevitable evolution. Rachel and I, we don’t post anything without talking about it. We’re also not gratuitous, obviously. I think we probably won’t do a whole bunch more, just maybe a special one here and there, but it feels like eventually, you have to get some consent from this being. We don’t want to do anything that would embarrass him 10 years from now. If the internet is even still a thing 10 years from now.

You can catch up on This Is Us on Hulu and Peacock