If you’re a fan of NBC’s heartrending series, This Is Us, you’ll already recognize Eris Baker. The 14-year-old actress plays Tess Pearson on the series, and handles her coming-of-age with a grace and grit that might surprise you. That’s because Tess—whose character acts as a beacon for LGBTQ+ audiences after coming out in Season 3—clearly isn’t just ticking off the boxes of teenage malaise. She is one of the series’ most nuanced young characters, bringing narratives of identity, sexuality, and, yes, as of Season 4, even mental health, to the fore. And while This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman and his team of writers are also surely to credit here, Tess’ brilliance is in large part thanks to Eris Baker’s skillful depiction on screen. Watching her, it’s easy to get nostalgic: What would growing up have been like with a young Black actress of Eris’ caliber to look up to?
It’s a question Eris Baker understands and appreciates with great gratitude. STYLECASTER spoke with the This Is Us star this month to consider her newfound position as a role model, reflect on her time on the series so far, and more ahead of Season 4’s mid-season finale tonight.
“Living in a world of so much hate,” Baker reveals, “The feedback that I’m getting from portraying Tess’ character has been amazing. So many people have been DMing me on different social media about how Tess’ character has been a pathway for them.” Eris, who is often active on Instagram, is regularly interactive with This Is Us viewers who write in with comments relating to Tess’ coming-out arc on the series. Baker recognizes the significance of her fans’ connection to Tess, and by result, to her: “We’re shedding light on what Tess is going through, from anxiety to coming out to her family,” she reflects, “but being still so young while doing it.” For many, this is the first time we’re seeing a young Black girl on television going through a situation like Tess’—and the result has been, in instances, lifechanging.
“Many mothers have commented about how this is bringing their relationships closer to their daughters or sons, just from watching the show,” Baker says. Speaking to Baker, it’s easy to forget that despite these mothers looking up to her, she’s still growing up herself. To take on such a stance as a role model would surely be intimidating for the average high school freshman, but Baker—who started high school herself this year—fits into the role with ease. She does admit, however, “I had no idea that Tess would help so many people.” And how could she? The past few years have all been something of an unexpected whirlwind for the Los Angeles-based actress.
Eris was only about nine years old when she first auditioned for This Is Us, and she didn’t have any major performances under her belt at the time. She tells STYLECASTER that she walked into a reading for what was originally an untitled, “really big show” that she knew little about.
“That was, for sure, a leap of faith,” Baker adds. “My confidence level, it wasn’t that strong, only because I wasn’t booking anything. When I was going into this audition, I just thought, ‘Oh my God, should I even go in here?’ Because I thought the problem was with me.” Yet with a few years of experience on This Is Us now, Baker is confident that she was following the universe’s timing. “The real problem was just that the roles in the past weren’t meant for me,” she muses, and ultimately, taking a shot on her breakout role only “showed how important it is to take risks.” It’s something her character, Tess, is doing plenty of these days on This Is Us.
“What I learned from Tess is just to be confident,” Baker says. “Of course, her cutting her hair, that was a really big thing for her—and for her to take such a big risk really showed me that sometimes you just have to do it in life and not be scared.” After Tess came out to her family in Season 3, she went through with a big chop before starting high school in a new city—one which Baker actually carried out for the character. While she has spoken at length on Instagram about her transformation, Baker revealed to STYLECASTER that her haircut has proven to be a great symbolic shift for her as she’s entered high school in real life, too. “Going into high school before I actually cut my hair, I think I was more scared,” she admits, whereas now, “I’ve never been more confident.”
But as if shedding her length for a cute pineapple ‘fro isn’t enough to depict her fearlessness, Eris Baker’s ultimate takeaway from the whole experience definitely is: “Do not be afraid of growth,” she offers, “And take risks. Taking a leap of faith is so important in this life.” Straight out of the mouths of babes.
The mid-season finale of This Is Us Season 4 airs tonight, Tuesday Nov. 19 at 9PM ET/8PM C on NBC.