Chris Sullivan is an actor’s actor. Widely known as Toby Damon on NBC’s wildly successful drama This Is Us, he’s a master of his craft, from Broadway to television.
Chris took time off from his family vacation (a family on TV and real-life) to sit down with Brian Calle and chat about his past, how he’s made it in Hollywood, and the upcoming series finale of This Is Us.
“The journey started in L.A. back in 1998. I went to Loyola Marymount University to study theater and graduated from LMU in 2002,” begins Chris. “I hung around Los Angeles for a couple of years, trying to make it happen, and ended up doing a lot of theater, actually. I ended up getting cast in a Broadway one-man show called Defending The Caveman that was a touring show.”
After being on the road for a few years, he landed in Chicago where he lived for half a decade. It was there that he continued to hone his artistic craft, and also met his wife. From there, the two moved to NYC to pursue Chris’s Broadway career. His talents got him recognized, and the opportunity to audition for the show This Is Us presented itself. He now finds himself settled in Los Angeles with his family, as the show brought him back to the West.
This Is Us has become a cultural phenomenon, one of the most beloved shows to hit the airways in modern day. He is now a very recognizable face (and arguably even more so a recognizable voice) thanks to his work portraying the lovable Toby.
Getting to where he is today hasn’t been easy. From constantly moving around for work to endlessly auditioning, his accolades are well-deserved.
“Ninety-five percent of all the things I have auditioned for I have not gotten,” he admits. “It was a slow build.”
“That Broadway touring show was a break in the sense that I did somewhere between 500-600 performances of that show,” he continues. “Over the course of the years, as my theatre mentor says, I got my Ph.D. in stage time.”
That time gave him the confidence he needed to push his craft over the edge. At what point did he realize he wanted to be an actor? What lured him into following this dream?
“I had a lot of energy growing up that needed direction, that needed funneling into something productive, and so theatre became a really interesting emotional activity for me,” answers Chris. “The emotional expertise of theatre, the creative collaboration, the sense of family that comes with a theatrical production … was always very romantic to me and I just loved it. I loved the process.”
Being an actor is one thing, being a theatre actor is another. The ability to successfully tackle both is incredible. To be a working actor in Hollywood, let alone Chicago and New York is a huge feat.
“Television in a lot of ways is rehearsing in front of the audience. You get several takes to try several different things, so it’s almost like every take is a rehearsal, and in post [production], the editor and the director get to decide which performance fits the overall piece,” says Chris of the transition from theatre acting to television acting. “Making that transition is difficult, it’s different styles of acting.”
Little jobs turned into bigger jobs, and now here he is. Through the little jobs he was able to figure out how it all works in television, including knowing he had to make the hard choice to pause theatre in order to make room to grow in his career and get in front of the camera.
It was the right choice, as it brought him to the set of This Is Us, the number one show on television in its time. From its inception, the show has been a groundbreaking hit, being renewed for large sums of seasons in an industry where the promise of even a single season following a pilot is rare.
It was recently announced that This Is Us is coming to its natural conclusion. Too popular to be canceled, the story is simply reaching its final arc.
“Dan Fogelman has had the ending of this series set up and planned out since the beginning. In fact, he’s already shot scenes from the final episode. We are going to go out in the exact way our creator wants us to, and we are going to go out strong and tell the exact story that we want to tell,” confides Chris.
“Now that the end is near it is just going to be soaking up each moment [for me] and really arriving and appreciating the work that everyone — the cast, the crew, post-production, our production staff — the number of people who work so hard to make this show happen is staggering. This will be a season of gratitude and appreciation.” ❖