‘This Is Us’ Star On Zoe’s Secret: ‘I Didn’t Know It Would Be Quite This Difficult’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Sometimes,” the Nov. 13 episode of “This Is Us.”

Zoe (Melanie Liburd) has been a woman of mystery since she was first introduced at the end of the second season of “This Is Us” and started a relationship with Kevin (Justin Hartley). Although her cousin Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) warned Kevin that Zoe had a history of being a “man-eater,” he fell for her anyway — so much so that he invited her to visit Vietnam with him to learn more about his father’s past. And in doing so, she finally opened up to him, albeit it briefly, when she told him her father sexually abused her.

“In the beginning of that scene I don’t think she knows she’s going to tell him,” Liburd tells Variety. “She thinks there’s a shame people carry when they like someone, they don’t want to be seen as a victim. Zoe’s such an independent person that she just never wanted to be seen that way, and she never wanted what happened to her to define who she was and who she was.”

Liburd says she believes Zoe is the kind of character who has “done work on herself” and gone to therapy, but the only person in her life who really knows what she went through as a child is Beth. The reason she decided to tell Kevin, in Liburd’s mind, was because “she really cares for him and she realized she was falling in love with him, and she thought, ‘I’m going to lose him if I don’t open up and say something.’”

Here, Liburd talks with Variety about learning from real-life survivors for this storyline, how Zoe and Kevin’s relationship will evolve, and what she still wants to learn about Zoe’s past.

How much did you know about who Zoe was or what her struggles would be when you first auditioned?

I didn’t know anything — literally. They said she grew up with Beth, and all I knew was what was explained in that final episode of the last season — that they grew up together and she was abandoned by her mother. So I knew she had a difficult childhood, but I didn’t know it would be quite this difficult. And I don’t think they knew either! They were still deciding what to do with her…until they took their break and then started writing the [third] season.

How did learning about the abuse in her past affect any backstory you had created in your mind for the character?

I love gritty characters like that — interesting, complex, flawed people. She’s so interesting to play, and there’s still so much more they’re going to add. I spoke to some very brave people who had been in similar situations of sexual abuse. It’s such an important, serious subject matter I wanted to do it properly. There’s that daunting aspect of just getting it right. I took a lot from what they said and did my own research online about how abuse is so different [depending] on who did it, when it was a family member, when it was your father. It was quite an interesting and emotional process, really, speaking to people.

There’s a moment after Zoe tells Kevin when she reiterates to him that she is strong. Do you feel like that was a moment she had to reassure herself of that? Will she expose more vulnerabilities as time goes on?

I think vulnerability is strength. I think she has been strong her whole life, and that’s her being strong — sharing that with him, sharing her truth with someone she cares about and allowing herself to be wide open and vulnerable, which I think is the bravest thing in the world. When Zoe says she is strong, she really means it. She’s been working her whole life to not be defined by what happened to her and working through that pain and living with it and knowing that she’ll never get the innocence that was taken away from her back, but you have to fight through that and it makes you very strong and it makes you grow up very fast, when something like that happens to you.

This episode laid the groundwork that Zoe’s dad wants to see her. Is that something you want, as an actor?

Oh my goodness, yes, that would be fantastic! Devastating, also, but what a brilliant thing to do to go back. She probably hasn’t seen her father for a long, long time, and the complexities of that — understanding that this should have been the closest, loving person to you and he’s abused you. To confront him, what would she say, how would she go about it? I would love to explore that.

Earlier in the season Beth warned Kevin about Zoe’s past relationships, and at first glance it seemed like their relationship may have been contentious because of that, but if Zoe has let her in, is their shared past just more complicated than it first appeared?

She knows her cousin so well, and Beth is so incredibly smart that what Beth understands is Zoe’s behavior is because of what happened. Whenever someone gets close — too intimate — Zoe runs because, to protect herself, she keeps people at a distance. Letting people in is her uncomfortable point, so it’s easy to be a bit promiscuous in her past, but she doesn’t want to do that anymore. The beautiful thing about [Kevin and Zoe’s] relationship is he’s pushed her to let him in, and she’s felt safer than she has in a long time — I don’t think she’s felt safe for a very, very long time.

What does the future of Kevin and Zoe’s relationship look like? Does one of them influence the other more?

We’re pushing each other in different ways and together they make each other better. She’s inspiring him to travel and really ask questions and find out about his father — because he was always so worried as a child and didn’t ask the questions. She just understands and pushes him to do that and encourages him to do that, and he encourages her to open up and face her fears, which I think is really great. It’s a very adult relationship.

What have you and Justin needed to work on together to find the chemistry and the evolution of their relationship?

We were lucky from the start. From our first chemistry read we just hit it off and had an absolute scream in the audition, really had fun. So we had [that] to start with. Feeling comfortable in scenes, he’s very, very supportive, so we help each other out. It’s really fun working with him.

What was it like to film in Vietnam? 

I went with Justin and Milo [Ventimiglia]. We got back last week, so it was a very quick turnaround. When we land in the airport, that’s Vietnam. When we were in the market eating bat, that was Vietnam. It was an incredible market, just so full of life and vibrant and people earning a living and cooking, and it was amazing. We went shopping there and out in the country. And the scene where we walk over the bridge was in Vietnam, and it was just breathtaking.

And we know that Beth’s backstory episode is coming up, and since Zoe lived with her then, it seems like it’s opportunity to learn more about her, as well.

We haven’t done that episode yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. It’s coming up, it’s 313.

What are you hoping to learn about Zoe in that episode?

What she loves. I would love to see what made her happy as a child, rather than have it be so clouded by what happened to her — what made her laugh, and her relationship with Beth, and how she learned to trust people again after being left by her mother in Beth’s house.

“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.