In Praise of Mandy Moore on This Is Us

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Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson on This Is Us. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Those of us who grew up listening to Mandy Moore’s music on Radio Disney may find her recent rebranding as a respected dramatic actress something of an outright marvel. America came to know Moore when she was still just a sweet, skinny 15-year-old girl who sang that piffle of an earworm, “Candy,” in 1999. What followed was a steady, if somewhat undistinguished, career in pop music, followed by a handful of attempts to make it as an actress on the big screen, most notably 2002’s A Walk to Remember. Fifteen years later, it’s her work on the small screen — in NBC’s This Is Us — that has widely been seen as proof of her maturation as an actress, and was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination earlier this year. But since her earliest work, Moore has always shown she has the range to be a uniquely engaging, emotionally alert actor.

The transition from music to acting presents a conundrum that numerous women before Moore have faced. Look at Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Courtney Love, or, more recently, Lady Gaga. These women struggled to varying degrees to have their actorly pursuits taken seriously by both a skeptical public and a harder-to-please critical community. Their personas, so ubiquitous in their musical output, were constricting onscreen. Even when they received awards from the Oscars or Globes, there was still a reticence to embrace them as legitimate actors in their own rights. Some might dismiss, for example, Moore’s Globes citation as evidence of that awards body’s tendency to slobber over big names, rather than evidence of her talent.

This Is Us, popular as it is, has been critiqued for being simpleminded and old-fashioned. Many episodes feel as if they are calibrated just so to pull at your heartstrings. The show is deepened, though, by a lot of its acting, and Moore in particular is luminous. She plays Rebecca at two stages in her life: first as a 36-year-old mother of three children in the early 1980s, the next in the present day when she’s reached her 60s. As the season progresses, Rebecca becomes the emotional linchpin of the show. If one were to trace the source of many of the characters’ pain, all roads lead back to her.

Rebecca is a character largely defined by tragedy — the abandonment of her dreams of being a singer to raise a family, the loss of the third of her children during birth, the eventual death of her husband — and the grief it gives rise to, despite her best efforts to suppress it. In spite of this conceit, the show’s narrative architecture largely obscures her pain, giving considerably more real estate to her grown children’s struggles. At times, it can seem as though the show actively works against Rebecca’s character by examining more deeply the pain her parenting decisions have caused her children in adulthood. Randall, for example, is furious upon learning that Rebecca had known his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), since his birth, and kept in regular contact with him since adopting Randall. Kate actively resents Rebecca for reinforcing an impossible standard of beauty. What the role of Rebecca demands of the actress who plays her is emotional clarity. Moore has this ability to communicate directly and lucidly, even when the script renders her character’s intentions opaque. Much of her role is also composed of scenes of maternal warmth, which Moore imbues with sincerity. The ability to telegraph warmth, and make it seem genuine, is an undervalued skill that Moore possesses.

Moore’s presence on This Is Us is also a stroke of ingenious casting — it uses her image in the popular imagination to the show’s advantage. Who better to play a woman who’s “the gold standard of wives” with a “great personality and greater ass,” as one character (Jon Huertas’s Miguel, the man who will later become her husband) describes her, than Moore, the vanilla, reformed pop princess of early-aughts MTV? For a time, she was a perfect panoply of the balming, unchallenging, undeniably pleasant ideals of her era. She embodied a so-called “all-American” sweetness like others in her pop-princess cohort, from Britney to Christina.

It follows that, on this show, Moore is asked to signify another American image: that of an adoring, perky mother. Sweetness is Moore’s natural register, and the show doesn’t try to suppress it. The role of Rebecca does not merely play on Moore’s established persona, though. It inverts it. What makes her performance so interesting is how she amplifies and complicates these aspects of her image, displaying how Rebecca’s perfect, practiced suburban smile becomes a cover for her anguish.

Rebecca’s torments become clearer as the series goes on, namely the all-consuming fear that she hasn’t lived up to her own expectation that she’ll be a great mother to her three children. The season’s 12th episode might be the highlight of Moore’s performance, showing the origins of this destabilizing anxiety. Charting the lead-up to her pregnancy, the episode keeps her onscreen for what feels like its entirety. The strongest moment comes when she’s in the middle of a breakdown, speaking to her soon-to-be-born children while sitting in a rocking chair. Moore stages this monologue like a plea to her unborn children. She professes that she wants to be the world’s greatest mother, but asks them to take the good alongside the bad. It is a scene that Moore gets all to herself, and she treats it as a confessional; it has her cycle back and forth between fear and elation. She sings her husband’s praises, telling her kids they’ll love their father, while denigrating herself as stubborn and impatient. What Moore conveys so sincerely here are the insecurities that Rebecca has coached herself into obscuring beneath her porcelain, carefree smile.

It’s the later scenes, of Rebecca in her 60s, that engage the full range of Moore’s talents. She’s buried beneath piles of makeup, a tight bob of a wig, and black-rimmed glasses, yet Rebecca’s pain comes across vividly: She has become a guarded woman in old age. With a colorless face and a downcast, sullen gaze, Moore is a walking bundle of melancholy when she interacts with her grown children. Her resourcefulness as a performer sustains these scenes, which could otherwise veer into histrionics; the show’s emotional punches wouldn’t land without her generosity as a performer. She operates beautifully within these extremities of emotional range, showing the extent to which Rebecca’s kittenish, overflowing exuberance, once her defining quality, has petered out in old age, bringing her sorrow to the fore.

Moore’s agile dramatic work on this show shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to her onscreen before. She began acting in such films as The Princess Diaries (2001), but what’s arguably her most famous live-action role came in the following year’s A Walk to Remember, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation that is the Love Story of the aughts. In the film, she played the Ali McGraw role, fast-tongued and suffering from leukemia. She displayed an easy charisma and provided a sympathetic anchor that is probably more responsible for the film’s endurance in the public memory than most would give it credit for. Then, 2004’s cult classic comedy, Saved!, suggested that Moore had shades of the same comedian Reese Witherspoon proved herself to be in 1999’s Election: sardonic, spiteful, and ruthlessly cruel beneath an innocuous veneer. She’s wonderfully engaging in Because I Said So (2007), a negligible movie that put her alongside Diane Keaton. Their fraught mother-daughter dynamic was the film’s one saving grace. It’s a movie that relies on the repartee between these two women to animate the plot’s paper-thin comedy. The ease with which Moore renders her role ends up carrying the movie. She handles her scenes with spunky, gleeful comic agility, all while making clear her character’s motivations and frustrations while facing an emotionally intrusive mother.

Still, these vehicles weren’t conducive to Moore, former bubblegum-pop songstress, being taken seriously. For the most part, they were spiritually aligned with the persona Moore had already created as a pop star. This Is Us, despite its tonal similarities to her previous projects, is Moore’s first major association with anything that resembles prestige in the acting realm. The NBC series — which was also nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Drama this year — is part of the critical conversation in the way none of her other work has been. It will be around for at least two more seasons, and one can only hope that it gives her more latitude to plumb greater depths with this character, and lets her combine her dramatic and comic skills in the same character. The ingredients are already in her arsenal: charisma, intuition, attentiveness, and an ability to make herself sympathetic even when the plot is working against her. That she’s stellar in This Is Us is simply confirmation of what was there all along.

In Praise of Mandy Moore on This Is Us