THR – The star of the NBC drama also discusses the season premiere’s “painful” final scene and his character’s “inner demons.”
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “A Manny-Splendored Thing.”]
Now that the sophomore season of This Is Us has revealed a big piece of its ongoing mystery — how Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) died — the show settled back into more of the overarching family drama with its second episode of the season on Tuesday. That included the entire family traveling to L.A. to visit Kevin (Justin Hartley) at a reunion show taping of The Manny, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) attempting to talk Randall (Sterling K. Brown) down from spinning out over the adoption, and Kate (Chrissy Metz) coming to terms with living in her mother’s shadow.
In the past storyline, viewers also saw the aftermath of Jack returning home following the epic fight with Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and confronting his alcoholism for real. The narrative also traveled back to the first time Jack promised Rebecca he’d quit, when him went to a boxing gym to confront his demons following a particularly soul-sucking day at work.
To catch up on all of the big Jack reveals from the first two episodes and to preview what’s next for the Pearson patriarch, THR caught up with Milo Ventimiglia. Here, he breaks down sobriety the second time around, his special relationship with Kate, and the fall of one of TV’s super dads.
What was your reaction to the house fire scene and how much, if any, of that revelation was actually a reveal for you?
Fogelman had shown me the ending before it screened so I had seen it and had an opportunity to kind of process it. It’s a painful moment. Everybody asks me how I personally feel about Jack’s death but I don’t know that there is a feeling other than sorrow for the rest of the Pearsons. It’s powerful and it’s only a piece of what happened to Jack, which still remains to be uncovered. We’re kept really informed, which is nice because in essence it informs our choices as actors. We have everything we need to play these moments and characters and even to understand the timeline. It helps to know the family history; having a creator that’s giving us all the information is really beneficial.
At the beginning of the first season Jack’s death was originally in the pilot so you were speaking freely about it for a while. Given that, were you surprised at how much this mystery blew up?
It’s definitely who shot J.R. I never imagined it would take on a world of its own, have dedicated articles and whatnot. But that’s encouraging; people are invested and they want to know about this man and this family. All I’ve ever said is be patient and the story is going to unfold how and when it’s supposed to.
Is it a relief that people have at least a bit of the puzzle revealed now?
Yes, 100 percent. It’s tough. Even going into the first season when we didn’t want to give the reveal that they were actually a family, it took a lot of strategic wording, especially doing the press. And that’s something we had to be out doing, promoting. It’s difficult to promote something that you can’t really talk about because you want the audience to have a true reaction to it. I’m happy people have seen the burnt down house and that they know it has something to do with Jack’s death, but I’m still looking forward to that being completed at some point this season.
What has it been like to dig into this antihero version of Jack after painting him as a hero the entire first season?
I try to understand that Jack is human. As much as people have projected this perfect husband or father image on him, I’ve always said he’s made mistakes and he has a past. Those are the things that shape him and make him lead with goodness and strength and a positive attitude towards life. We saw a little bit of his past at the end of the season with relation to his father and poor choices he made when he was younger, and we’re going to dive more into that and understand his younger years.
Is that projection of perfection a part of why he’s gone back to the bottle or is that a direct result of his demons?
It’s his demons. If you’re an alcoholic, it’s an every day struggle. It’s an every minute struggle from what I’ve researched and based on conversations I’ve had with men and women who have dealt with this, not only for themselves but with their families. Every moment you’re thinking about it. That’s addiction. Knowing that it’s in Jack’s DNA and part of who he is, it’s something he struggles with. But he has the positivity of his children and wife so when things start to teeter those are the vulnerable moments where he questions if he can have a drink and be fine. But then that one turns to two and then more. Those issues have been packed away but we’re going to unpack them this year.
How does quitting this time around affect him compared to the first time?
We’re going to see a contrast… a man that in the past white-knuckled his way through addiction and now we’re going to see him ask for help from his family and go to places where help is given. We’re going to see him not do it alone, but take a path that other people have taken before.
Does following Jack to AA meetings and the boxing gym open up the door for new characters to potentially follow this season?
Yes, it does. That’s the good thing about this storytelling is that when you introduce a new set piece, you’re going to introduce a side of that person’s life. Jack going to AA or hitting a boxing bag those are definitely sides you’ll see in the future.
Will he have a sponsor?
He does, he does. If a man has taken steps to go into AA, by formula you have a sponsor.
There was another flashback to Vietnam in the episode. How much do you know about what happened there and how much will the storyline potentially go there this season?
I know quite a bit about Jack’s past in Vietnam… there are still some questions I have but I know that also is a side of Jack that informs who he is today. I know that Jack’s existence in Vietnam was impactful. Jack hitting the bag and seeing his demons, his father taking a drink and seeing him in Vietnam, those are obviously things that haunt him so at some point we’ll be exploring that side.
Can you break down what it took to do the scene with teenaged Kate (Hannay Zeile) where Jack has to admit he’s not the super dad she thinks he is?
It was painful. I don’t have kids, but I have friends who have kids and even the mention of my friends kids names to them gets them emotional. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Jack to admit to his daughter, who he seems to be the closest to, that he had a drinking problem. That was the first real time Hannah and I had gotten a chance to have a really impactful scene. A lot of the stuff I’d had with Mackenzie Hancsicsak in the younger years. So it was hard. It was hard because of what I had to admit to my teenaged daughter. When kids are younger they may not understand completely; they’ll know an emotion, they’ll know a feeling. But when they’re older they’ll know the significance of what’s being said. To admit that he has a problem and he’s been weak and he needs to be honest with his kids because he needs his kids, that’s a big step. He’s been a superhero their whole life and now he has to admit that he’s human and capable of making a mistake.
What was your interpretation of Kate holding Jack’s face twice in the episode?
It’s a very sweet moment. It’s letting Jack know that he has support and he has people looking out for him. He’s a proud man, someone who doesn’t ask for help often and shoulders a lot of responsibility on his own. In those moments, to know that his daughter is giving him all the strength he needs just by holding his face, it’s a very beautiful moment. It’s something that Jack has needed; to know that he’s not holding up everything all on his own.
Now that his family is aware, how does that affect the mood in the Pearson household?
That’s to be discovered in the next several episodes; how does it impact Jack and Rebecca. They’ve had this massive argument and Jack has admitted fault and is taking steps to fix himself, but it’s still a fractured home. Same thing with Kevin and Randall. They have different viewpoints of Dad being an admitted alcoholic. It’s still tough in the Pearson home, but that’s what families are. Things don’t get better overnight; sometimes you need time. Which is terrifying because we know that Jack doesn’t have a whole lot of time.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.