"I bring all of my life to this part and this character," says Mandy Moore, the pop star-turned-actress who, at just 33, already has lived many lives in show business and now is experiencing a career renaissance thanks to her acclaimed work as Rebecca Pearson, the matriarch of a complicated family on NBC's This Is Us. The drama series' first season ran from September through March and proved not only a critics' darling, but also a ratings smash on a level bettered only by The Big Bang Theory and Empire among other current shows.
Moore, who was ready to quit showbiz just two years ago, and who got divorced last year after seven years of marriage to fellow singer Ryan Adams, says of her show's constant stream of melodrama, "Sometimes it hits really close to the bone. There were certain scenes and bits and pieces of this season, with Jack and Rebecca, that echoed things that I've experienced in my own life almost to a T, that just blew me away." But, she emphasizes, she finds it "cathartic" and wouldn't give it up for anything. "I feel like my life has been rebooted in the best possible sense."
Moore was born in New Hampshire but raised in Orlando, Florida, where, at a young age, she developed a passion for musical theater and began performing the National Anthem at sporting events around town. When, at 13, she first stepped into a studio to record a demo, she was overheard by a FedEx deliveryman who then passed along her work to a friend at Epic Records. "He helped my music find a home," she says. At 15, before many of her friends and classmates even knew that she sang, she signed a deal with the label, left school and embarked on a new life as a burgeoning pop star in the mold of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
"I recorded most of my first album in Orlando so I could be home, which was great," Moore says, thinking back 18 years. "But there were a lot of trips out here to L.A., a lot of trips to New York, meeting producers, meeting songwriters, trying songs in the studio. I remember shortly thereafter — the summer of '99 — I came out to L.A,, I made my music video for my first single, "Candy" [which wound up spending 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart] and then that night I flew on a redeye across the country to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to start the first leg of opening for 'NSYNC. And that was it. The ball was rolling. The machine was on. And I kind of haven't stopped since." (Her only major regret: "I really wish that I had had the experience of going to college... I wish I'd had a little more time to kind of figure out who I was.")
Moore insists that she never posed a threat to the likes of Spears and Aguilera — "They are and were the best at what they did," she says — noting, "We never really crossed paths. I don't know them at all." And she also notes that she is not a fan of her own early music: "There was a lot of garbage on there, in my estimation," she volunteers, adding, "If I had the money and people took me up on it, I would refund them." Still, she's grateful for the doors that her music — and lack of tabloid fame on the level of her aforementioned peers — opened into acting. "I think that's where not having nearly the same degree of success with my music really was an advantage for me. People were like 'Oh!' I think they were able to lose themselves in me potentially portraying a character because I just wasn't on MTV every five seconds."
Moore worshipped Bette Midler and dreamed of a career like hers, jumping between singing and acting. She began with small roles in big films like 2001’s The Princess Diaries and then wound up in big roles in smaller films like 2002’s A Walk to Remember, an early Nicholas Sparks adaptation that proved a hit. Over the ensuing years, she continued to put out movies (ranging from 2004’s Saved! to 2010’s Tangled) and music (jumping from Epic to Warner Bros. and taking particular pride in her fifth album, 2007's “Wild Hope,” her first for which she wrote her own songs). Then, around the start of this decade, she began to focus on acting more than music, and specifically TV more than film — so when three pilots, into which she poured her heart and soul over three consecutive years starting in 2012, were not picked up, she began to grow despondent. "That sense of rejection did make me start to question, 'Is this the right field for me? Should I go back to music? Should I go back to school? I don't know what I'm doing with my life.'"
In 2015, with things looking bleak, Moore switched agencies, signing with The Gersh Agency, and decided not to even pursue another pilot. But then she was sent a script written by Tangled scribe Dan Fogelman and, as she puts it, "I read it and fell in love." Despite her self-doubts, she auditioned — "like 50 million other women," she notes with a chuckle — and the rest, as they say, is history. This Is Us — which offers her a chance to play a mother and wife for the first time and to play the same character at the ages of 27 and 66, "a woman who has lived a life" — was brought to series by NBC and proved so popular that the Peacock Network renewed it for two more seasons after only 13 episodes had aired. The show was nominated for top honors at the Critics' Choice and Golden Globe awards, and at the latter Moore herself was nominated for best supporting actress in a series, limited series or TV movie.
"I thank my lucky stars every day just to have this job and to be a part of this," she says. "To have this really nuanced, rich, creative, collaborative experience? Dan Fogelman changed my life. Him giving me this opportunity to play Rebecca and to be a part of this cast has allowed me to do what I've been wanting to do and trying to do for so long. I'm just thrilled and can't see what it leads to."