Death is inevitable. It happens to the best of us. Even to a Super Dad like Jack Pearson.
That grim truth was first confirmed in the fifth episode of This Is Us, as we learned that the reason that we’d only been seeing the gold-hearted patriarch played convincingly by Milo Ventimiglia in scenes from the past is because he now rests in a golden urn in Kate’s living room, where she watches Steelers games with her father in spirit. When did tragedy strike? How did it strike? The answer to that second question still remains at large — and will for some time — but the answer to the first came into focus at the end of this week’s episode of the NBC family dramedy.
As Kate (Chrissy Metz) gave herself over to a drum circle at an “immersive weight-loss experience” in the Adirondacks — where she had ventured in search of an alternative to gastric bypass surgery — she suddenly tapped into something significant and traumatic from her past, evidenced by a rush of charged memories with Jack from her adolescence. That includes flashes of his funeral, where we saw Pearson matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and — wait for it, first it’s just the shoes — the teenage incarnations of the Big Three, whom we glimpsed briefly from the side, mourning their father.
The episode did feature Jack in the living flesh, too, as we watched Rebecca and him try to manage a near-impossible feat in the past: Throwing three parties at the same time in the same house for three kids who were turning 10 and no longer interested in a joint birthday bash. And so we had a Princess Bride-themed celebration for Kevin (Parker Bates), a Madonna party for Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak), and a prestidigitation spectacle for Randall (Lonnie Chavis). As Kate’s friends, including BFF Sophie, ditched her celebration for Kevin’s in the adjacent room, Jack valiantly tried to cheer up Kate, asking her to mentor him through the hand choreography to Madonna‘s “Vogue.” A sweet moment veered into heartbreak territory: She was literally just going through motions and asked him softly if she could just be alone.
Now might be a good time to strike a pose and check out this Q&A with Ventimiglia, 39, who explains what it was like to attend his own funeral — and what to expect from Jack moving forward (or is that backward?) in time.
This episode contained a key piece of the puzzle about Jack’s death — that the Big Three were teenagers at the time. What was your reaction to that revelation when you read the script?
When I read it, I didn’t know how it was going to be shot. And I understood that it was all supposed to be cloaked in a little bit of mystery of when and how and why. I was surprised to see that they did reveal the age of the kids.
You knew this was coming, but what did it feel like when you actually saw it? There’s a real sadness and mystery to it. It’s almost through a haze.
I think the thing for me that resonated the most was just the pain of others. I can’t look at it as Jack’s loss of life just because, well, I’m Jack. So, I was looking at it through the lens and the scope of Kate, of Chrissy, of Hannah (Zeile, who plays teenage Kate), of Mackenzie, and understanding that at 36, Kate is still feeling the tremors of her father’s passing. And we understood that from the episode of the football game, and she was watching the game with her father. It was a very sacred thing, her relationship with her dad.
We see it a lot in the stuff that Mackenzie and [I] play. We’re definitely going to explore that more with Hannah. But it’s this idea that she is still hanging onto a deep, deep pain of her father’s passing, and what that does to her. How does that and how has that impacted her? So, for me I’m excited to figure out: What are those moments, father to daughter, that she’s really hanging onto and sharing and learning from or heartbroken over?
Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] said that while all the kids are greatly impacted by Jack’s death, Kate is the one most impacted. What can you say about that?
Jack lives for his family. He lives for his kids. I think the idea as well that is going to start to become more apparent is that Jack’s wife and kids hold him together. They really hold him together. I think it’s only been hinted on in small doses that you know that he had a really horrible upbringing. You met his dad. … I’m looking forward to exploring more of that. Jack is held together by his kids and we’ve seen moments with 8-year-old Kate at the pool and now, having the moment at the birthday party where Jack tries to cheer Kate up, and it just doesn’t quite work anymore.
What did you think about the choice to make them teenagers when Jack died? They’re old enough that they’ll have a lot of memories and bonds formed, but young enough that it’s still a formative time in their lives when they’re starting mature relationships. Did that feel like the biggest impact zone to you?
It felt like the right time. I definitely trust Dan’s decision to say, “These are the stories, and this is the time when we’re telling these stories.” And I think it was a pivotal time in any kid’s life. You’re just about to finally gain that confidence as a young adult, get out of your teens, and then all of a sudden Dad dies. Or just before that, your father passes, and maybe if your father was your strength, how does that cripple you to a degree where maybe you have to support your siblings a little more? Or you have to stand up for yourself a little more? Or maybe in some cases, maybe like Kate, it holds her back, or it adds a level of, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and maybe I’m going to turn toward food or not take care of myself,” or something like that. So I think it was a great idea, especially leading into more stories for the Pearsons to have Jack’s death be in that teenage [era].
You were there at the funeral shoot. What were the other cast members saying to you when they were filming this scene? What was it like to go to your own funeral?
It was surreal because I’m staring at my face and urn, in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But at the same time, I knew that how Dan and Ken [Olin, the director] have been talking about how they wanted it to be shot and shown, it was a mystery. They didn’t want to give away too much. But … it was a somber moment like anything else … I never want to get in the way, but I’d show up on off times and I photograph. I was there, and I was trying to stay out of Mandy’s eye line, but I got this photo of Mandy and the kids, and oh my God, it was like … you just see pain in her eyes, and it hurt me. It hurt me to witness that.
How somber was that shoot? Were there moments of levity when you stopped filming?
No, it just kind of felt somber. But also, I know what it’s like to play those moments over a casket where you’re addressing a group of people and those that are close to you are laying there deceased. And I know how difficult it is in real life to do that as well, so I didn’t want to get in the way as Milo. Because I think there is a bit of magic where I truly have to believe that these events are happening in order to give a believable performance. So, even though I knew that I wanted to be there to document, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible, just so that even if Mandy or the kids saw me, it didn’t pull them out of the moment, because it was so important for the character. And honestly, at a certain point, I did kind of like fade back. I don’t need to be in anyone’s way or anything because the work is more important than me grabbing a photo.
Kate has a lot of emotions bottled up and there was certainly that cathartic yell during the drum circle. What has loosened in her? Where are we going to go from there?
The biggest thing for Kate is learning to truly love herself. And I think if you truly love yourself, then you can choose to do better for yourself. You can keep your health. You can surround yourself with people you love. Toby has had to work so hard to let her know that he loves her. I mean, even she couldn’t say she loved him when he was going into surgery and he’s like, “I’m in love with you.” And then, “Oh, God! What is that big needle???” So that cathartic moment loosens the idea that Kate needs to participate a little bit more, and move on from past pains, and accept that people are truly there for her and loving her.
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Let’s talk about something lighter, which is Jack’s idea, God bless him, to want to go for kid number four — or at least a dog. Will a joint Madonna/Princess Bride/magician party cure you of that desire pretty quickly?
Yeah. And I think also it’s knowing the impact, that it would take the toll on his wife and the strain on their financials and their marriage. There’s a lot. The heart of wanting to have another baby because three have turned out so great. And three are also moving to that age where they are going to really be their own people. The little girl’s not going to need dad as much or the little boy’s going to be like, “Dad!” and then they roll their eyes and they walk away. A little bit comes out of the necessity of being a father, but it’s also Jack understanding that just because a child doesn’t depend on you in that way, physically like, “Feed me. Physically change my diapers. Make sure I don’t die,” they’re still kids. They need to learn lessons, and I think it’s an adjustment for Jack to know that he has to step into a different realm of his fatherhood.
The heartbreaker, though, was definitely—
That “Strike a pose” moment, with Kate then saying, “Dad, I think I want to be alone right now.”
Yeah. God, she was so good in that scene. Really great. We were in the hair and makeup trailer beforehand before the day started and she said, “I’m scared.” I said, “You’re scared?” She’s like, “Yeah.” I said, “Why are you scared?” She goes, “What if I mess up?” I said, “Oh, no, you’re not going to mess up.” I said, “It’s the best part of it being a set. We want you to mess up, and then you do it over again, then you mess up and you do it over again, and you get this perfectly imperfect performance.”
And I said, “Let’s do one pass where you’re mad at me. Let’s do one pass where you’re mad at mom and you want me to know that you’re mad at mom. Let’s do a pass where you’re mad at your brother. Let’s do a pass where you’re sad. Let’s do another version where you want to be happy, you’re trying to be happy, but you’re crushed and heartbroken.” And I said, “Now, this last one, put them all together and mix them all up.” And then at the end, I’m like, “Are you afraid now?” She’s like, “No.” And it was funny, I got messages from Dan in the editing room and he’s like, “Where did this performance come from?” [Laughs] And I was like, “She was afraid, and we made her not afraid.”
I want everyone that I’m in a scene with to shine and to just be the best they can ever be. And I think it was such a beautiful thing for Mackenzie and such a heartbreaking moment for Kate to have this realization or this belief that maybe people just show up to her party to go see her brother. And how crushing that must be. Where does she go? Where is her comfort?
Is a dog negotiable down the road?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, Jack’s getting a dog. And that’s the thing I always wondered: Does he want it for the kids or does Jack want it for himself? I feel like anything that Jack can do to bring his family together and closer, and just more wrapped on top of one another, he’s going to do it. And I think a dog absolutely does that, no matter who’s walking it or picking up after it or feeding it. I think Jack just always wants to keep his family together.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC