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How Does Chris Sullivan from This Is Us Transform Into Toby? Insights From the Actor Himself


This is Us is one of the most critically-acclaimed drama series on TV today, having been nominated for dozens of awards through the years and winning a handful of them, including Golden Globes and Primetime Emmy Awards. This is due to fantastic acting from the likes of Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan. A key plot point during the premiere episode of season 4 (spoiler alert!) involves the health of baby Jack, the son of Toby (Sullivan) and Kate (Metz) who is born prematurely. Although on the surface Kate seems to be dealing with Jack’s diagnosis pretty well, Toby confides in his mother-in-law Rebecca (Mandy Moore) that Kate has been overeating. Meanwhile, Toby states he has lost weight as a result of the stress. However, at the end of the episode, it is revealed that his weight loss is actually due to him working out. He takes his shirt off, revealing a trimmer physique. Fans of the show took notice, complementing Sullivan through Tweets about his transformation. But then, the surprising truth was revealed.

Sullivan looked noticeably slimmer, but it wasn’t due to weight loss

While Toby the character might have lost weight, the actor didn’t have to. So what gives? Clever camera angles? The magic of CGI? Nope. Just a convincing fat suit. Yes, through the duration of the show to that point, Sullivan was wearing prosthetics to make himself appear heavier. Fans of the show were pretty surprised to learn the truth.

Let’s contrast this with Chrissy Metz. In late 2016, in an interview with TVLine, the actress suggested that she was “contractually obligated” to lose weight should she be called upon to do so. She would later tell Ellen Degeneres that it wasn’t a mandate per se, but that in reality it was, since weight loss would play a role in the show’s storylines. In other words, unlike Sullivan who could lose weight by simply losing the fat suit, Metz would have to do it the hard way.

The use of prosthetics generated controversy

After it came out that Sullivan used prosthetics to look overweight, fans took to Twitter to express their anger. Some discussed how disappointed they felt while others felt their trust had been betrayed. Although it would be impossible to imagine anybody but Sullivan playing Toby at this point, some viewers questioned why the show couldn’t have cast an actual white, overweight male for the role. After all, there is no shortage of people who fit that description. One noted that it would be nice to have plus-sized men actually represented in TV roles. 

Is the fat suit all that necessary?

When the whole “pretending to be fat” controversy was brought up on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen in October 2017, Sullivan initially scoffed at the response of the show’s fans. It was his belief that since folks weren’t going to complain about the quality of such a good show, they would find something else to get riled up about. He further added that we live in a culture where getting angry about something helps relieve boredom. 

He would later tone down his response during an interview with HuffPost. He understood that people are going to act disappointed when they feel they were duped. On the other hand, he defended the use of prosthetics, pointing out Toby’s backstory as having been previously divorced and responding by gaining significant weight. Thus, if the show needed to include a flashback scene to a time when he was skinnier, it could be done with ease. 

Sullivan himself struggled with weight problems in the past

When Metz appeared on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, she mentioned that during the casting call for the character of Toby, she tested with actors who were legitimately overweight. However, Sullivan won the role as a result of his talent. He was “the best man for the job.” She further noted that Sullivan was overweight at one point in his life, and therefore could genuinely relate to the condition. It’s also worth noting that actors routinely wear prosthetics in their roles whether it’s to change their nose or chin. It just so happens that in the case of Sullivan, he wears it to appear heavier. 

Sullivan relates to Toby in other ways as well

One of the reasons why This Is Us is such a successful drama is because creator Dan Fogelman ensures that the characters aren’t one-dimensional. While the issues of Toby and his weight are a major plot point, in the third season it is revealed that the normally happy-go-lucky character also deals with depression. The fact that there are many facets to Toby is what Sullivan enjoys so much about the role. He has personally experienced anxiety and depression himself, and so slipping into the character isn’t much of a stretch. 

The chemistry between Sullivan and Metz makes the show work

A movie or TV show can only succeed if the actors get along. Unfortunately, there are plenty of situations where the inability to get through filming without conflict doomed the production. However, Sullivan and Metz have a great working relationship, which allows the intense, emotional scenes to really come across with realism. It goes without saying that the trust they have for each other might not have existed if other actors had been cast in their roles.

THIS IS US — “Changes” Episode 503 — Pictured in this screengrab: (l-r) Chris Sullivan as Toby, Annie Funke as Ellie, Chrissy Metz as Kate — (Photo by: NBC)

The entire cast feels like family

Although it takes a great deal of effort for Sullivan to get into his role as Toby, the feeling of comradery among the entire cast makes it so much easier. Just like the fictional Pearson family is close-knit, the actors who play these family members also feel close to each other. Sullivan has stated that this fact makes it a pleasure to show up for work. The only downside is that guest actors could potentially feel like they aren’t welcome. For this reason, Sullivan and the cast go out of their way to make them feel comfortable and tended to.