"This Is Us" Actor Sparks A Fat Suit Controversy

On Tuesday nights, my wife and I look forward to ending our evening with the latest episode of NBC’s This Is Us, a tenderly written drama that tells one family’s story over two generations.

One of the most lovable characters is Toby (Chris Sullivan), who plays the partner to Kate, one of the family’s three siblings. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s relevant to note that both Kate and Toby are overweight — and their struggles with weight make up a big part of their characters’ narratives.

When some fans learned that Chris Sullivan isn’t as heavyset as he appears and that he wears a so-called “fat suit,” a mini social media storm ensued. Here are a few of the tweets, as captured by BuzzFeed:
This Is Us Angry Toby Tweets
Chris Sullivan has been promoting the second season of This Is Us over the past few weeks, and I’ve been interested in watching his response to upset fans. My (hopefully) educated guess is that he’s developed his “fat suit” messages in consultation with others — show producers, communications executives, or PR firms — and, as such, it’s interesting and educational to see how they’ve been playing out in real life.

You’ll see his main messages in this interview from late last month on Megyn Kelly TODAY:

“The Internet is a dangerous place. Stay off of there … There’s a lot of things to be outraged about these days. I think that getting outraged about an actor on a television show who may be wearing a costume that makes him larger than he is might be low on the list. At least in my opinion. Now if I am not portraying Toby with a level of integrity or with a level of honesty that you disagree with, I would be happy to talk about that. But I think that regardless of the costumes that I wear, that especially with Toby, I try to bring as much heart and honesty as I can.”

He uses one word in that answer twice — costume — and that word choice isn’t inadvertent. Here’s an earlier interview he gave to People:

“As far as the costumes that we put on to try and explore the emotional space of a person, I’ve done that a lot in my career, and I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done as Toby.”

And to Watch What Happens Live:

“We currently live in a culture where outrage is a bit of a hobby for some people. If they’re not outraged about something, they’re totally bored. It’s a tool. It’s a costume that I put on. Logistically speaking, it allows me to travel back and forth through time when Toby was not as heavy as he is now.”

Toby This Is Us

MESSAGE ONE: This is a costume.

By using the word costume, Sullivan is intentionally breaking the fourth wall to remind viewers that this is make-believe — and that in make-believe, it’s common to don someone else’s clothing. That’s a savvy way to contextualize this controversy by simultaneously placing Sullivan’s “fat suit” well within the acting mainstream and dismissing critics who think otherwise.

Message: Great.

MESSAGE TWO: I try to play Toby’s character with integrity and honesty.

His messaging about infusing Toby’s character with integrity resonated with me. He plays the character beautifully, conveys a full emotional range, and demonstrates that weight alone doesn’t define a person. There are no condescending winks in his performance — he inhabits this character with honesty, as he says.

Message: Great.

MESSAGE THREE: This device allows for time travel.

This Is Us covers several time periods, and the lower-weight Toby might reasonably make an appearance in the past. As Sullivan points out, his character’s weight gain is likely a reaction to the trauma from a bad first marriage, so flashbacks might show a slimmer Toby.

Message: Good.

MESSAGE FOUR: People on the Internet are bored.

I’m not crazy about the part of Sullivan’s messaging that feels more personal (“If they’re not outraged about something, they’re totally bored.”). While that seems like a defensible and probably true statement, it’s also unnecessarily dismissive of, say, overweight fans who felt deceived after they realized an actor who looked like them wasn’t who he appeared to be. This message lacks the empathy of Sullivan’s portrayal of Toby, and comes across as gratuitous.

Message: True, perhaps, but lousy.

If I was advising Sullivan (call me!), I’d encourage him to keep up the costume and character integrity messages but to leave the personal swipes aside. Although he might feel his targets are deserving, he should be mindful that his “true” audience might be fans of the show who already agree with him — but who also want to see him treat his critics with respect.