From creator Dan Fogelman (who also created Fox’s Pitch), the NBC series This is Us is one of the biggest stand-outs of the new fall TV season. It is an honest, provocative and emotionally heartfelt story about a unique ensemble of individuals whose paths cross and life stories intertwine in unexpected ways, with several of them sharing the same birthday. The series stars Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan and Ron Cephas Jones.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Milo Ventimiglia (who plays Jack, the loving husband of Rebecca and soon-to-be father of triplets) talked about telling a very human story, getting deeply invested in all of the characters, his nude scene in the pilot, that viewers should expect to feel every level of emotion throughout the season, his easy chemistry with Mandy Moore (who plays his wife), and whether he’d want to direct an episode of the series. He also talked about what it was like to return to Gilmore Girls for the Netflix revival and getting reacquainted with his character, Jess.
Collider: With this being a TV series that’s really just about life and family, were you concerned that such a simple premise would get buried under the bigger and flashier stuff out there?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: No, not at all. When you’re bigger and flashier, you’ve got a lot more to live up to. When you’re as easy to relate to as life that we all experience, in different and varying degrees, I don’t feel the pressure. I really, truly, honestly don’t feel the pressure that everybody else does feel in the TV landscape. I think there are endless stories when you’re just in the space of real life happenings. And also, [Dan] Fogelman and our writers are just incredibly talented. Their mining a world that is very, very rich and very, very deep, creatively, emotionally and cinematically. I think it’s going to be something that people can watch and hang onto for a very long time.
It’s remarkable how this show has found a way to have different ages, types and races, in a really natural way, when a lot of other TV series seem to really be lacking that.
VENTIMIGLIA: Yeah. We jump right into, here are these character and these are the lives that they’re living. In the first episode, we discover how they’re all connected, and then beyond that, you love them and you’re on board with them and you want to see their journey, navigating this 36th year of their life. I think it’s nice that there isn’t a high-brow concept or a mystery that we’re all waiting to reveal. It’s all very accessible.
A lot of people have talked about how this show has a twist, and everyone who’s seen the pilot has been good about keeping that under wraps, but the show has to work beyond that, in order to sustain itself. So, when you read this script, what was it that really stood out for you, aside from there just being a twist to the storytelling?
VENTIMIGLIA: The funny thing is, I wasn’t even paying attention when the end of the script happened and it hit me how all of these people were connected. I was just so invested in Jack and Rebecca’s story, and Randall’s story, and Kevin and Kate’s story, that when I got to the moment of understanding who all of these people were, in relation to each other, I was blown away. I was already on board, but then I got to the end of the script and I went, “Wow, man, now I’m really, really invested and I really, really want this to work.”
Was your nude scene in that original script that you read, or did you sign on before you knew you’d be flashing yourself to the world?
VENTIMIGLIA: The funny part is that it’s not my first time. Some people have seen some independent films that I’ve done, and you definitely see a lot of me. But with this, I think the opening words were, “Jack is in nothing more than his birthday suit and a Steelers Terrible Towel,” and that was it. I understood it. And then, when I got to set, it was like, “Oh, okay, you really do want me bare ass.” It’s no big deal. We all have asses. But, I think there’s a very honest approach to the show. It’s the opening scene for Jack and Rebecca and what they’re going through, on Jack’s birthday and with her pregnancy, or even with Chrissy Metz’s character and that very real and honest perspective of having every moment of her life being about her weight, and having to consider that and think about it. It goes across the board, for all of the characters.
Along with this show being about human relationships, it has a little bit of everything in it – laughs, tears and many heartfelt moments. Was the fact that there’s such a blending of everything and that it’s not just one genre also part of the appeal for you?
VENTIMIGLIA: Yeah. As many vampire movies that I’ve done, or sci-fi, or heroics, just to get back to people that were having very human experiences was definitely something that was exciting to me. Knowing that I wasn’t going to be strapped into a harness, up against a green screen, shooting light out of my hands, or running with a gun somewhere and shooting the bad guys, it was very attractive to just play a dad and to play someone who loves his wife. He’s got a lot on his shoulders, but he’s doing the best he can. He wants a good life and he puts his family before himself.
When you got to the end of this pilot and realized what this storytelling twist is, did you want to have conversations about where the show would go next and for the rest of the season?
VENTIMIGLIA: Fogelman definitely had the road map. When I signed onto the show, almost a year ago, I think he was still figuring out exactly what he wanted out of it, but I think he had a very clear idea of the emotional story he wanted to tell about this group of people that, for their lifetimes, will experience a lot of different things, including heartache, joy and laughter. The exciting thing about life and ultimately how people will relate to the show is that you don’t know where it’s going to go. It will go in a bunch of different directions. But if you can process the stories we’re trying to tell, you’re going to fall in love with the character. Once you fall in love with the characters, you’re going to want to see how they deal with anything and everything in life.
You can tell, right from the beginning, how much these characters care about each other and you find yourself rooting for all of them. Because of that, even though you’re in the show, do you find yourself as interested in what’s going on with the other characters, as much as you are with where your own is going?
VENTIMIGLIA: Oh, absolutely! All of the stories dovetail and impact one another. Whether it’s Jack, Randall, Kevin or Kate, all of the stories interconnect and are interwoven and relate to one another. For me, any other show I’ve ever been on, I was always fascinated more by the work of my co-stars and what they were up to than even my own, and this is the same. I wasn’t working today, but I was on set, photographing a scene between two of the characters because I just wanted to hang out and watch the scene. Later on, I’m going to go back to set and watch Chris Sullivan and Chrissy Metz do a scene because I read the scene and I want to see how the scene is shot. I’m very much invested in what everybody else is doing, even though Jack and Rebecca feel very isolated from the rest of the group.
This pilot is a real tear-jerker, on more than one occasion. How often is that going to happen? Should we always have a box of Kleenex nearby, when we’re watching this show?
VENTIMIGLIA: I don’t know. I carry a handkerchief, so I’m always on the ready. I think there’s something really deep, emotionally, that’s deeper than a lot of current television is, but it’s emotional without being heavy-handed. It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to make people cry. If anything, it’s just the stories that Fogelman and the writers have put together, as well as what the actors are able to do on set. It’s striking a chord in the emotions of these characters. So, you should be prepared to cry. I don’t think anybody goes through life and goes, “Man, I’m going to cry today,” but there are emotional things that happen. It may be a little more compact in a 44-minute episode of this show than any given period of time in your own life. You’re going to laugh and cry, and there will be a whole lot of emotions. We have them all.
You and Mandy Moore have a very natural and beautiful chemistry, which is so important for these characters because we meet them with such a deep history. Did you guys do a chemistry test to see if that was there?
VENTIMIGLIA: Yeah, we both had what was considered a studio/network test where they wanted to see how we were together. There were a couple of guys and a couple of girls, and Mandy and I read together. It just worked and was automatic. And then, once we both knew we had the job, we got together and sat down and talked about the work and how we like to approach the work. I pretty much said to her, and she agreed, that from “Action!” to “Cut!,” she’s my wife and I’m her husband. I think having that discipline and commitment to the work, and that respect for one another, it’s going to come across as a couple that really, really genuinely, deeply care for one another. And also, I’m inspired by her work, every day I’m on set with her. She is so good. Not even good, she is fucking great. If people aren’t already in love with Mandy Moore, they are absolutely going to fall in love with her in this.
There are some beautiful moments in the pilot between you and Gerald McRaney. What were those scenes like to shoot, with someone like him?
VENTIMIGLIA: We worked together when I think I was 22 years old, on a show called Promised Land, and we had shared a couple scenes. But, this was not difficult. I think we were both present, in the moment, and we had an idea about what we wanted to accomplish, but at the end of the day, for me personally, I learn my lines and I show up ready to experience some heavy emotion. But then, when I’m on set, I throw it all out the door. I don’t think about it. All I do is listen. He was right there with what he was experiencing and what the character was saying, and we just fed off each other. There were moments the camera wasn’t even on me, and I was crying and very emotional with the scene. What a powerhouse of an actor he is. What a legend of an actor. As long as he’s been doing it, he still shows up and turns in the good work.
In the pilot, we only just get introduced to all of these people. Will there be other important relationships in your character’s life and this couple’s life?
VENTIMIGLIA: I can’t really say anything, at the moment, without giving things away. But you’re definitely going to see Jack through the course of a marriage, and you’ll see the difficulty and the joy of holding it together when you’ve got three kids that are the same age and a wife that you’ll do anything for.
Now that you’ve stepped behind the scenes a bit, are you thinking about the possibility of directing an episode of This is Us?
VENTIMIGLIA: It’s funny, that actually came up last night. I was on set with my camera, just photographing Sterling [K. Brown] and Susan [Kelechi Watson] in a scene, and one of the writers on set was asking about directing. I said, “You know, I started directing for Warner Bros. when I was 25, doing commercial campaigns for them.” And he went, “Oh, you did?!” And I said, “Yeah, I had a company for 12 years and we sold some TV shows and did a lot of digital content and made some movies and comic books.” He said, “Oh, man, you’re definitely going to be directing next year!” If I’m asked to, of course, I would. If I’m not, I’m happy just showing up and doing my job, as an actor in front of the camera. I’ve got a lot going on, but I never push the agenda or want to overstep or move my way into a position that would possibly take away from another position. Anything that I’ve ever directed, I’ve had small parts in. I’ve never directed something that I had a bigger part in. It would be interesting, so maybe. We’ll see. Who knows? We’ve gotta get through the first season first.
You also returned for the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls, which must have been a bit surreal. Since there had been some talk about it, over the years, when and how did you find out that was actually going to happen?
VENTIMIGLIA: I got a phone call from Amy [Sherman-Palladino], I think it was sometime in October of last year, saying that they were gearing up to do it and how and why it was all happening. I’ve stayed close to Dan and Amy, over the years since I left the show, and I’ve always said to them that whenever they call me for anything they need, I’ll be there, which is funny ‘cause that’s the opening lyrics or the song. So, she called and said they were doing it, and I said, “Great! I don’t know where I’m going to be, but let me know and we’ll work it out. Of course, I’ll be there!” It was fun to revisit the character and revisit the show and the great words that Amy and Dan always wrote.
Did it feel like getting reacquainted with an old friend, or did you have to figure out who Jess is now?
VENTIMIGLIA: It was all very much on the page. I didn’t have to dream too far about who he was. I definitely went back and looked at the last three episodes that Jess was in, just to see where his head was at when he last left and to understand the dynamic between Rory and Luke and just his own journey in life. I was surprised about where he was, and then where he is when we pick back up with him.
Once you got clued in on the story and who he is, at this point in his life, were you surprised, or was it exactly how you might have expected him to be?
VENTIMIGLIA: I’d never really dreamed about where he would go or what he’d be up to or the shenanigans he’d be imposing on anyone else, but I was happy with where they placed him, in relation to everyone else. Jess’ purpose to being in these new four episodes, I was really happy about it.
How was it to reunite with Scott Patterson?
VENTIMIGLIA: I feel it’s happening, more and more, that shows from the past are having a reunion run or some kind of a presence, which I think is exciting. It was fun to be back on set with Scott and play that dynamic between Luke and Jess. Scott is still Scott. He’s still a little grumpy. There’s a lot of Luke in Scott, and a lot of Scott in Luke. We had a great time in the past, and we had a great time in the present-day, doing it again.
This is Us airs on Tuesday nights on NBC.