Joining a hit series with an Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Award winning cast can be a bit like catching up to a runaway train.
For actress Melanie Liburd, joining This Is Us as a regular cast member in its third season proved jointly challenging and thrilling. This Is Us, NBC's critically acclaimed drama, follows parents Jack and Rebecca Pearson, and the lives of their three children, Kevin, Kate, and Randall.
Liburd's character of Zoe, a spirited documentary filmmaker, debuted in This Is Us' second season as cousin to Randall's wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and as a potential love interest for Kevin (Justin Hartley). Much is revealed in the third season as Zoe's backstory slowly unfolds before both the audience and Liburd herself, allowing Zoe to develop a storyline of her own.
What can you tell us about Zoe?
She's really interesting. I've had real fun playing her. She has a complexity. She was sexually abused by her father and was abandoned by her mother when she was eight years old. Her mother left Zoe in her auntie's house. She happened to be Beth's mum. I think it was a strict and very loving household, which was great for Zoe.
Zoe is allowed to grow substantially over the course of season two to three. Were you privy to her backstory when you started playing the character?
No, I wasn't really told much about her at all. I had a chemistry reading with Justin. We did some real fun comedy scenes written just for the audition. [The producer's] just said she was Beth's cousin. Once I was a series regular, I went to the writers and said, "What's Zoe's deal?" They didn't tell me much, actually, just that she had a complex past and secrets. I was very intrigued.
After all this backstory was revealed to you, did you feel like this is the same character you played from the beginning? Has this changed your approach to Zoe?
It's constantly layering. It's funny, as actors we all do it. We put meat on the bones. We're given this skeleton. I had these ideas about Zoe and I was creating her own backstory for myself until they told me her exact backstory. But I do think I got the essence of her, that she had complex childhood and a dark past.
But she loves life and doesn't want to let her past affect her future or become a victim of what's happened to her. That's what I love about her.
Did you feel any pressure when you joined such a critically lauded show?
I guess I tried not to get overwhelmed by it. You need to just really enjoy it and work as hard as you can work. Actually, when you're on the show, it's really fun, and you forget that it's such a huge beast of a show going in. You start working with nice people and doing some fun stuff.
It doesn't feel like there's any pressure when you're on the set. We're given a lot of freedom to create great stuff.
Did the role feel different for you once you went from recurring to full a cast member?
No. I was so excited from the beginning and the cast and crew are just wonderful. They're just the kindest and most wonderful people. It's the best show to go on as a guest. I was a fan of the show before, with such wonderful actors.
And it can be kind of intimidating going from guest actor onto a show where everyone knows each other so well, and everyone's so brilliant. But they were so welcoming, and everyone wants to help you do as well as you can possibly do.
Much of Zoe's backstory is revealed as Kevin learns his father was hiding the truth about Kevin's uncle. Is it challenging playing a character whose past is slowly revealed to you as the episodes continue? How do you play a character like that?
I think as long as I have just basic foundation about the character that I'm playing so I can feel grounded in her. Then, to be able to play and discover is brilliant. I think it keeps it dynamic and exciting. There is nothing lovelier than when we get these new scripts every week. It's so exciting because you don't know what's going to happen next.
I can only react the way I think Zoe would react. But it is a challenge and it's a fun challenge. I think Zoe and Kevin's dynamic and about what's happening to both their relationships with their fathers is brilliant as well. Kevin grew up in a nurturing, loving environment where his father adored and loved him. There was much trust in that household.
Zoe didn't grow up in an environment of trust. She had a very unstable childhood and had to learn to trust. I think they've really helped each other. Kevin's helped her trust again and they can only teach each other about their different dynamics. And I think it really compliments each other in a way.
Do you try to make predictions as to where your character is headed? How do you think her story ends?
No, I don't know how it's going to end. I think she's got so many more adventures. It would be great to delve into her backstory about what really happened in her childhood, to see how she became the person that she is. We explore some of that in [third season] episode 13, where we delve into Zoe's childhood.
She grew up in Beth's household. Beth's mother is played by the amazing Phylicia Rashad. That was so exciting. I'm a big fan of hers and grew up watching her on television So that's going to be really, really interesting.
And I would love for Zoe to meet this mystery father of hers again and see how she would go about healing or see if she can possibly forgive him. I'd like to see the complexities of exploring and going deeper into that would be really interesting.
You've had roles in genre shows like Dark Matter and Gypsy and are now in a drama. What would you like to try next?
I love both comedy and drama. I think I'd love a really interesting, gripping independent movie. I just love to tell stories that mean something and that can possibly change people's perceptions of life without sounding too deep. Just something that really excites me. Something interesting. Something real.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays on NBC.