'This Is Us' : Milo Ventimiglia on What to Learn from Jack's Loss — It's a 'Heartbreaking Experience'

"We need to understand that men can be vulnerable and still carry a lot of strength. It's human, it's very human to experience loss," Milo Ventimiglia tells PEOPLE

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Photo: NBC

This Is Us delivered yet another Jack-centric tearjerker.

Tuesday's episode, titled "Don't Let Me Keep You," saw Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in Ohio for the first time after getting the phone call about his mother Marilyn's (Laura Niemi) death. It had been over a decade since Jack last saw his mom when he helped her escape from his father Stanley (Peter Onorati) in Pennsylvania. Since then, the mother-son pair had only communicated over their brief but weekly Sunday night phone calls.

Though he was expecting to tie up loose ends and organize a funeral on his own, Jack quickly learned that Marilyn had found a new life for herself, full of friends, a passion for knitting and even love. What started as a quest to Ohio alone turned into a family affair when Rebecca (Mandy Moore) showed up for him at the memorial with their three young kids. To honor her memory, and in a way to create new family memories, the episode ended with the Pearson family ice skating on a nearby pond and eating Jack's childhood favorite of hot dogs and tomato soup.

Below, Ventimiglia unpacks Jack's "bag of memories" with PEOPLE and opens up about the important lesson he hopes audiences will take away by watching his character navigate grief and loss.

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PEOPLE: What was your first reaction when you read the script for this Jack-centric episode?

MILO VENTIMIGLIA: You know, Dan [Fogelman] told me, 'Get ready for this episode.' When we first started filming the season, he was like, 'Mi, episode four. It's a big one about your mom dying.' He didn't really give me much more than that. Definitely have to give credit to our writer, Elon Mastai. He just had this beautiful, beautiful script about loss and remembrance and what that whole experience is like. He and I spoke a lot about it. He had lost his mother, I still have mine. It's really a heartbreaking experience for Jack. Also tough because we see Jack always as this rock, this stoic, never rattled individual. Even though he's completely an emotional person like everybody else.

Jack has been the strength of the Pearson family for so long and it's rare to see him break down in tears. What was it like portraying the emotional and vulnerable side of Jack?

We need to understand that men can be vulnerable and still carry a lot of strength. It's human, it's very human to experience loss. It's very human to let that break you in a moment when you might consistently be the shoulder that everybody else is crying on. I think it was earned if anything. Throughout the whole journey of the show, Dan and I talked about how Jack is. Actors themselves, we sometimes measure our ability based on how emotional we can get. When you see other characters crying left and right, it's kinda like, 'Well, I can do that.' Then you start to understand, "Well, I can do that as an actor, but is that what the character really needs?" So what happens is this realization of, "Am I crying because I'm a performer and I'm an emotional professional? Or is it earned by the character?"

Jack is a man born in the '40s, a product of the '60s, fought a war in the '70s, raised a family in the '80s. I know that's basically my own dad. I never saw my dad cry until I was in my 20s and he lost a parent. It's interesting, the parallel between those stories we tell and my own experience with my father. It was just earned to see Jack actually break, but it was also so very Jack to excuse himself from the table and be away from the kids. And it was so very Rebecca to be there for Jack. I mean, Rebecca is absolutely Jack's rock so I thought the whole sequence and the way it all worked out was very earned and really beautiful.

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Could you also relate to hearing a phrase like "don't let me keep you" or any loved ones not wanting to feel like a burden?

I think a lot of people get so focused on their own lives that they forget that if there's a time, it's now. People in our past, let's say that we came up with, grew up with, were raised by our parents, our sisters or brothers, any of that — they're running their own independent lives and if too much time passes, you're basically gonna miss things. So if anything, I hope that idea of "don't let me keep you," people should invest in those moments now because they're now. If you have a thought to do it, reach out and tell someone, you love them. Have a conversation, share a meal. Call someone for five minutes, two minutes, just letting somebody know. It's a really important thing to do.

About Jack's favorite childhood dish, Dan Fogelman previously tweeted: "My sister and I used to come in from playing in snow and mom would make us tomato soup and hot dogs."

Dan experienced that loss, losing his mother, which I know has been a pretty big impact on his life. That's been one of the great things with the writers that we have, really baring their souls and experiences to give and lend them to the characters so that the audience can hopefully learn something and experience something that's going to get them to live in the now.

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Jack realized how absent he was from his mom's happy life in Ohio. From the cat to her favorite book and a relationship with her boyfriend Mike (Jim Cody Williams), Jack never got to witness those positives in her life. Can you describe the guilt Jack was feeling?

Jack missed out. Mike calls Jack a hero for getting her out of the house, out of this horrible place with his father. But Jack feels like she had a whole life that he just completely missed. I think again it's just this reminder that you gotta live life now. Yes, we can plan. Yes, we can remember, but you kind of have to be here now, in the moment, and make those efforts. I don't think Jack ever left his mother behind. I just think he was so focused on his kids. He was so focused on his marriage. He was so focused on making sure his family had everything that they needed, or he believed that they needed. He didn't consider his mom might have liked to have been involved in it too. Ultimately, I mean, the kids were about 7 years old when his mom passed away. So everything was still pretty young and Jack was dealing with a lot back then.

Camryn Manheim was great as Marilyn's cousin, Debbie. What was it like working with her?

She's phenomenal, she's great. I've been a fan of hers for years and just to be on set with her is one thing. But then also the conversation after, after the work, was always really, really wonderful. She's such a talent and more importantly, just a really great, great person.

Was that just a one-time appearance from Debbie?

I believe it is. I believe it is, but we're happy to have the one.

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With Jack's eulogy, it's a thank you to those in Ohio who helped Marilyn create a new life. But was it also closure for Jack and a weight lifted off his shoulders, knowing that she's forever in a better place?

I think it's a hard pill to swallow, Jack almost regretting he wasn't there for his mother the way he could have been. But I think at the same time, there has to be some kind of closure. You have to let go, you have to give respect to those people that filled her up and made her laugh. Made her smile and gave her enjoyment in life for several years.

That eulogy was a tough one. When I first read it, it was like, man, I'm a complete mess reading this. But Jack, he doesn't break. The break comes later, by himself privately, not in front of people. So it was tough dancing that line. And let me tell you, there were a lot more emotional takes and there were some that were right on the edge. And then, there was what you saw, which was a little more composed.

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Milo Ventimiglia.

You previously described this episode to me as a "discovery of Jack," could there be more to discover in this final chapter?

We've already learned so much about Jack and him being dead as long as he has been, there's not really to discover much. Here's just another thing that we get to see about Jack. We get to see how he's experienced this loss, because everybody else has lost him. We've seen everyone else do it, but now it's time to see Jack do that. It was nice to explore something that I really hadn't with Jack, knowing that we'd been through a lot of his life. To find out how he dealt with the loss of his mom, find out how he could move forward through that. And within that, I think it was just an important piece to, I don't want to say wrap up Jack, but I don't know if there's much more we're gonna learn about Jack. I think at this point he's still just gonna serve as a memory and as this foundation for his kids.

If this is the last Jack-centric episode of This Is Us, that makes me even sadder that we might not learn or see more about Jack.

It's tough, it's a hard thing. I mean, there's not a whole lot. Not that there's not a whole lot — we've already been through a lot with Jack. We truly have been through a lot with Jack. I mean the first seasons 1, 2 and 3, there's so much discovery of Jack. Then when we moved into 4 and 5, Jack became very supportive. He was supporting what was going on in the kids' storylines. And then, those kids grow up and they age out. We kind of lose the opportunity to work with younger actors because they bump up to the age of the other actors. So therefore that whole era of Jack, we can't really explore anymore because we just can't and it just goes away.

I kind of equate it to that movie Back to the Future. When Marty McFly, he has that photograph of his sister and his brother and him. His sister fades and his brother's fading, then Marty starts to fade away. That's Jack, everything's just starting to, kind of like, fade away. So I understand your want to have more. I don't know that we're gonna get it, but Jack is always there. He's always gonna be there.

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

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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