Spoilers ahead for This is Us.
Milo Ventimiglia gets it: People want to know how Jack dies, which means he can’t go anywhere without being asked the five w’s of Jack’s death. “There’s not a day that goes by,” he says, “I don’t pass by someone and they don’t ask me how I died.” In Tuesday night’s episode, viewers saw more of Jack’s battle with alcoholism and how he opened up about it with his family in a deeper way. Vulture spoke to the actor about the public fascination with Jack’s ticking clock, the challenges of playing the same character through different eras, and why his waistline is thicker.
What is it like for you to go through all of this with Jack? We’re learning he’s in a lot more pain than he’d let on.
God, there’s so many sides to that. First what Jack is experiencing is that alcoholism definitely runs in his blood and is something he’s made efforts to get away from, but he’s only human. He struggles with the urge to go and have a drink. And in terms of how it affects me, it’s painful to wear Jack’s history at times. Especially when he has to play the vulnerable moments of asking his wife for help, or telling his daughter that he has a drinking problem — things like that, they’re painful to play, but I think given what we hope to accomplish on the show, which is this very real and honest interpretation of the Pearsons and their extensions, it’s necessary.
This time, he’s saying he’s going to share the struggle with his family. That scene with Kate when he admits he has a problem was so touching. If you were ever to become a dad would you want to be one like Jack?
There’s a good many parts of Jack that would probably be much like myself. My own father is a very fun-loving guy, and at the same time he raised me with enough discipline to do well in life, and he showed me what a good man is. I know that’s something that a lot of people, a lot of young men and even women, don’t necessarily have, are role models. And just being in the world of influencing people by way of entertainment, being a positive influence I think is very important, and I know that I take on that responsibility and try to represent the best of a good man. If I went further and I was a parent myself, I’d probably be some kind of version of Jack. I’d definitely be fun and lead with my heart, love my kids, and love my partner.
You and Mandy Moore are playing these characters through the decades. Jack and Rebecca evolve as they get older as people. As an actor, what process do you go through to keep Jack who he is, but reveal those nuances as time passes?
Aside from hair and makeup, wardrobe is a really big factor to that. And Zoë Hay and Michael Reitz, who are our hair and makeup department heads, putting the gray streaks in my hair, and putting the age around my face and the different facial hair really assists. But then on top of that is what we’re wearing and how Hala Bahmet, our costume designer, specifically tailors everything to the era. I feel once I get my hair and makeup done and then I put on Jack’s clothes of each decade, I know exactly where this man is in his life. It’s almost like the job is 90 percent there, I just need to show up and say the words that I’ve learned, and the hair and the makeup and the wardrobe and the words will carry the rest.
Is there one stage of his life that’s been the most challenging for you in terms of nailing him?
The older Jack — Jack in his 50s. But that’s only because that’s still a decade off for me in the future. Playing someone who has life experience if I haven’t had the same amount of years is not difficult, but I have to rely on the words and my imagination a little bit more.
Which version of Jack affects you the most emotionally?
Probably older Jack. I think that’s creatively the most rewarding as well as the most challenging as an actor. Because, like I said, Jack has so much that he’s lived through and he’s faced with these things that have been chewing at his soul for years, and he thought he had them broken down, but as it turns out he hasn’t. He’s going to deal with them until the day that he dies. It’s so hard because we do have this ticking clock going against Jack. We as an audience know that he’s not meant for a longer life.
We do know. Jack’s death is a cultural obsession. How does that aspect of being on the show make you feel?
We have a savvy television audience nowadays and I know it’s not a gross fascination where people just want to see a man die. They have an itch to scratch, and they want to know what happened to this man and how that moment in time can change and affect the people he loves the most and that love him the most. So I’m not offended or upset by people’s desire to know that because I don’t think it’s coming from a place of watching a train wreck. It’s kind of pulling the Band-Aid off. We don’t know how any of us are going to meet our end, so when you know someone is dying or you’re watching your story of the moments that lead up to it, people are more vocal about it. But also it would be bad-form storytelling on our end if we were to just give it away right at the beginning. Dan Fogelman’s plan is parceling things out so you’re satisfied in knowing, hey, maybe this burned-down home has something to do with Jack’s death because his wife is grieving and his kids are crying and everybody’s really emotional and Jack’s not there. So beyond that, it’s to be uncovered in the season.
How did you feel when you saw the scene at the end of the premiere with Rebecca crying in the car outside the burned-down house?
That one hurt. It didn’t hurt from my perspective as Jack; it hurt just as a human being seeing someone go through loss. We all in our lives will experience great loss, and it’s hard to see someone go through that and not sympathize with what they’re going through. So seeing that very last scene with Rebecca wailing away on the steering wheel, and knowing the kids are home crying, my heart was breaking because I knew that their dad was dead.
The child actors did a great job in that scene.
They really did. We are very lucky for the talent they have and their desire to do good. We’re gonna see more of the teenagers this year — the teenage big three — and Hannah [Zeile] and Niles [Fitch] and Logan [Shroyer], they’re just such phenomenal actors. They’re very present. They’re very professional. And they’re very interested in the process. You’ve got young artists who may not have been exposed to a lot of sets that many of us have been on, but they’re soaking it all in. And that enthusiasm, that’s calm and understated, but you know there’s excitement in their hearts, it’s fun to be around.
When did you find out what happens to Jack?
I found out as quickly as Dan was ready to share it with us. I knew in the beginning that Jack was dead in the present day, and then once the events of his death were sorted out and kind of agreed on by Fogleman and the producers and the writers, Dan’s always been very kind with giving us as much information as we need to inform our performances.
Was that last season?
Yeah. Mandy and I’ve known quite a bit of what happens over the course of a handful these seasons, but we knew as quickly as Dan was ready to share with us.
Have you filmed Jack’s death yet?
Yes and no.
I’ll take the ‘yes’ part first.
It’s actually all one word. It’s y-e-s-a-n-d-n-o. It’s a new word. It’s an exaggerated word, but it’s a word.
Is it true that people come up to you all the time about this part of the story?
All the time. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t pass by someone and they don’t ask me how I died. It’s a little off-putting because I realized I can’t take my character mask off when I walk around. I wear a mustache in real life at this point because it makes filming easy and I could put a hat on, but people seem to know who Jack is so a lot of people want to know how he dies. It’s a question that I don’t escape very often, so I’ve gotten clever with my responses.
You mentioned you are wearing a mustache these days. It takes Mandy three-and-a-half hours to get made up for older Rebecca. How long is your process?
My old age is not as long as her. When Rebecca’s in her mid-60s, mine’s not that long. But to get a full beard on and hair extensions to play Jack in the early ’80s/late ’70s, that’s about a two-hour process. It takes some time.
Is that the longest one for you?
When I’m in a full beard, that’s the longest process. And then the goatee is the second longest because we have hair and makeup. We have these streaks — gray hairs — that get folded into my own hairline. And of course, adding the goatee like we would a beard. The easiest look is 1989–90 Jack, where he just has the mustache and hair. I show up maybe half an hour before I’m on camera those days. It’s great.
Are you relieved you don’t have to do Jack as an 80-year-old-man?
A little bit. It would be fun to see what Jack looks like as an older man, but I think it serves the story much better having Jack pass away sometime in his 50s.
You’ve said in interviews that the audience needs to give Miguel a break, but I’m not there yet.
[Laughs] That’s okay! That’s okay. Look, people can hate on Miguel all they want right now, but over time, he’s going to win you over. He absolutely will. I think what people forget oftentimes is that Rebecca lost the love of her life, but Miguel lost a best friend. I know people put the spotlight more on the husband and wife, but Jack’s death touched a lot of people, not just his wife and those kids.
Last year, you were on The Talk and you mentioned how hard it is to keep your dad bod. Tell me about that.
It’s very simple. I eat everything that’s in my path. I snack in between those meals and I also try to work out and just maintain some kind of strength to pass on to the kids. I definitely look down and realize my waistline is not what it used to be.
Can’t they just make a fake waistline for you?
[Laughs] No, no. I don’t mind doing it myself. I’m sure I’ll get back to fighting weight in some point in my life. I am as an actor ruled by the men that I play. And when the conversations came up about what Jack physically looks like, I know it was a concern that in the pilot I didn’t look too much like a modern man. And that would have been a really tight physique. I mean, look at Sterling. Look at Justin. Those guys are incredibly fit because they’re men of this era today. Back then, especially in Pittsburgh, being a father of three who probably didn’t have a whole lot of time at the gym, but he works in construction so he has this great foundation. I had some conversations with Fogelman and the producers and decided the best thing was to remain looking strong, but also not look too modern.
Justin Hartley has a scene in last night’s episode where he’s actually counting his abs. There’s some tough competition on that set with him and Sterling K. Brown.
I know, I know. By the way, that’s not competition. I let Justin and Sterling fight over that gold medal, I’ll settle for the bronze any day. It’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m not here to impress people physically. I’m just here to bring Jack to life.
You and Mandy Moore have a great chemistry. We’re seeing Jack and Rebecca more in conflict now than some of the sweeter moments from last season. How do you work together?
It’s a lot of communication. We both have the same goals. We’re both really supportive of one another and we talk a lot. We talk through things, we talk through scenes and it’s important to me as an actor to support her as an actor. I want the best performance from her, and so sometimes I feel that I have to step up even more so in the moments that the camera’s on her because I know I feed off of people who I’m in a scene with, and I know she feeds off of it. We talk a lot, we communicate, we respect one another, and at the end of the day, we understand this is a really great job and we’re really fortunate to have one another. Through all that, it’s nice to know that I get to work with one of my close friends now.
Did you feel you had something special when you auditioned together?
Oh, yeah! It was in the room before either of us had the job and we were just doing chemistry reads. The second the cameras started rolling, there was something different with Mandy. Mandy embodies this character so well that people have a hard time seeing the difference between her and Rebecca. And I think people kind of see the same thing with Jack and I. But yet, I know deep down who Mandy is and her differences and similarities with Rebecca. But we read together and it was very clear very early on, that the best version of Jack and Rebecca were she and I. There is no Jack without her Rebecca.