Response lessons from a ‘fat suit’ controversy

Chris Sullivan plays heavyset Toby on NBC’s ‘This Is Us.’ He uses prosthetics to bulk up for the role, it was recently revealed, eliciting fans’ outcry. We examine his handling of the brouhaha.

A multifaceted response to a controversy can meet with varied levels of success.

Consider the Chris Sullivan “fat suit” brouhaha.

On Tuesday nights, my wife and I look forward to concluding our evening with the latest episode of NBC’s “This Is Us,” a tender 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 three siblings. In case you haven’t seen the show, you should know that 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-storm ensued on social media. Here are a few tweets, via 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 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.”

Twice in that response, he uses a key word—costume—and that word choice is purposeful. Here’s an earlier interview he gave to PeopleNow:

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.

Here’s an excerpt from a chat with 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.

Message 1: 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 placing Sullivan’s “fat suit” well within the acting mainstream and dismissing critics who think otherwise.

Message: Great.

Message 2: I try to play Toby’s character with integrity and honesty.

This resonates. 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 3: 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 probably a reaction to the trauma from a bad first marriage, so flashbacks might show a slimmer Toby.

Message: Good.

Message 4: People on the internet get bored if they’re not angry.

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.” Though that seems defensible and may be true, it’s also unnecessarily dismissive of, say, overweight fans who empathized with Toby and then felt deceived. This message lacks Toby’s (and Sullivan’s) sensitivity.

Message: True, perhaps, but lousy.

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

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

(Image via)

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