Losing Weight, Having Babies: Meet 10 'This Is Us' Writers Whose Own Lives Impact Storylines

6:00 AM 9/13/2017

by Lacey Rose

Along with creator Dan Fogelman, these diverse scribes bring their own life experiences to the Pearson family's domestic drama.

The 'This Is Us' cast, plus producers Ken Olin, Jess Rosenthal, Berger, Aptaker and Fogelman after winning best new series at the TCA Awards.
The 'This Is Us' cast, plus producers Ken Olin, Jess Rosenthal, Berger, Aptaker and Fogelman after winning best new series at the TCA Awards.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Television

"What we're doing," says This Is Us' Isaac Aptaker, "is telling stories that people don't realize are common."

The co-showrunner, along with his partners Dan Fogelman and Elizabeth Berger, has assembled a writers room that gathers daily on the Paramount lot and often functions more as group therapy. The tight-knit scribes are encouraged to speak often and openly about their own pasts, regularly mining personal wounds — about marriage, divorce, loss, weight, sobriety and illness — for plot points. And on the rare occasion when the drama wades into subject matter for which they lack first-hand knowledge, they invite speakers in to share their stories. 

"We see it in the room: someone will tell us something that happened to them, and then three other writers will chime in with, like, 'Oh, that happened to me.' 'That happened to my aunt.' 'That happened to my best friend,'" says Aptaker. "And all of a sudden, we realize that thing we're not talking about every day is something that is a universal experience, and that's what we're putting on TV."

In fact, Berger would go so far as to argue that that universality is why This Is Us has struck the chord that it has. "We don't want to act like everyone is the same because everyone is not the same, and that's why our show has black characters and white characters and characters of all different shapes and sizes and ages and sexualities," she says. "So, we try to simultaneously honor those differences as truthfully as we can while also showing that, in a lot of ways, we're all the same."

Now, meet the 10 writers — as diverse in age, race, gender, body type and life experience as the characters they write — who, along with the series' creator, are responsible for broadcast's breakout hit of the year.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Isaac Aptaker

    Co-Showrunner

    Getty Images

    HOMETOWN Cambridge, Mass.

    PRIOR GIG Grandfathered, Neighbors 

    I'LL ADMIT "I'm still getting comfortable with people just breaking down crying to me once I've said what my job is. Whenever we tell people what our jobs are — and for the actors, it's worse because they don't have to tell people — people will just open up to you. You become their instant therapist."

    FUN FACT At age 10, Aptaker was writing Boy Meets World spec scripts.

     

  • Elizabeth Berger

    Co-Showrunner

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Queens, N.Y.

    PRIOR GIG Grandfathered

    I CAN RELATE TO "The mother-daughter storyline."

    I'LL ADMIT "We usually end up crying in the writers room, too." 

    FUN FACT Berger's father was the head writer for Sesame Street.

     

  • Don Roos

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Binghamton, N.Y.

    PRIOR GIG Younger

    HOW I LANDED THE JOB "Flattery, followed by begging."

    FAVORITE SCENE When Kevin shows his painting to his nieces, Tess and Annie.

    FUN FACT "Am able to not think about my weight or my age for up to 30 seconds at a time."

     

  • K.J. Steinberg

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Great Neck, N.Y.

    PRIOR GIG Mistresses (created the U.S. version)

    HOW I LANDED THE JOB "Left network TV, head full of steam, determined at long last to write for cable. Then read Dan's damn pilot and had to work on it. There went my life plan!"

    FAVORITE SCENE Every scene from the Memphis episode, during which Randall's father takes him on an emotional trip to his hometown.

    FUN FACT "I played one of Joey Tribbiani's seven sisters on Friends."

  • Shukree Hassan Tilghman

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Newark, Del.

    PRIOR GIG The Vampire Diaries, Satisfaction

    HOW I LANDED THE JOB "I still don't know. Luck? I was all ready to take another job because I thought there was no chance I would get an offer. I was just happy to get a meeting. I thought that would be it. Apparently I was wrong." 

    FAVORITE SCENE "Hard to pick one scene. I'll go with William's passing in Memphis." 

    FUN FACT Had a baby in May. The room was particularly thrilled, says Aptaker: "For a show that's so much about raising kids, it was mostly a bunch of childless people."

    I'LL ADMIT "I worked for many years as an editor in reality television. Which is where I actually learned how to write."

  • Jas Waters

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Evanston, Ill.

    PRIOR GIG Hood Adjacent, The Breaks

    HOW I LANDED THE JOB "How much time do you have? Getting staffed on this show is a direct result of faith and a series of losses. During my first staffing season, my agent sent the trailer for This Is Us. Love, instantly. It was Chrissy. I’d lost 111 pounds. I wanted on this show. I wanted to help tell her/our story. Keep in mind, I’d never even set foot in a writers room, and getting on a network show without going through a program is … tough. A month later I got an offer from The Breaks, locking me up for three seasons and taking me through the fall of 2016.  During hiatus, VH1 'loaned' me out to Comedy Central for Hood Adjacent, which took me through the end of the year. But I wasn’t happy. Ridiculous, right? Here’s the thing: I’d learned so much about writing, worked with some super-talented people, but my creative instincts wanted to tell stories from different parts of my life. So, during the first sunrise of the year, I told God I was ready for new challenges. Five days later, both of my shows — for separate political reasons unrelated to me — ended both of my contracts and I was without a job. I told my agents, 'I want to write on THIS IS US!' which was the equivalent of a rookie declaring they wanted to play in the Super Bowl. But I loved the show. I studied it. I knew I could give to it as much as I’d learn from it. And more importantly, I had faith. Anyway, a couple weeks went by, I was meeting on other shows when my agents got me a meeting with Isaac Aptaker and [producer] Jess Rosenthal. I pitched for dear life. And then I waited. My agents stopped responding to my, 'Hey guys, just checking in's. Finally, on a Saturday morning — two whole weeks later — all three of my agents called with the offer. It was a coup, a concerted effort by many people and nothing short of a Hail Mary."

    FAVORITE SCENE "The scene from the pilot where Chrissy weighs herself. Game changer. I remember that girl. I'm still that girl. But I was encouraged by Dan's honesty in that moment and personally empowered by Chrissy's vulnerability. I still can't make it through that scene without crying. I'm crying right now. Thanks a lot guys."

  • Tyler Bensinger

    Ron Batzdorff/NBC

    HOMETOWN Los Angeles

    PRIOR GIG The Good Wife, Parenthood 

    FAVORITE SCENE "When Jack lies to his father, Stanley, about being a loser."

    FUN FACT "Don't have a fun fact because I am a very serious person."

     

  • Bekah Brunstetter

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Winston-Salem, N.C.

    PRIOR GIG Switched at Birth, American Gods

    HOW I LANDED THE JOB "I met dream team Isaac and Elizabeth back in the day, as the writer's assistant on MTV's I Just Want My Pants Back. Years later, they put in a good word for me for this job. Thank God I never screwed up their lunch order!" 

    FAVORITE SCENE "When Kate sings 'Time After Time,' and the song takes us through Randall taking William to the doctor, Rebecca searching for William in the past. I love when the show harmonizes with itself throughout time like that." 

    FUN FACT One of three on staff who's newly married or engaged. "Most of us are pretty close in age to the characters, give or take five or six years, and we're going through these things in life as we're getting to write about them, which is pretty special."

  • Kay Oyegun

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN Philadelphia by way of Lagos, Nigeria

    PRIOR GIG Queen Sugar

    HOW I LANDED THE JOB "Met with Dan! Also prayer. Lots and lots of prayer."

    FAVORITE SCENE "There are so many moments that I absolutely love from season one, but I think the final scene between Randall and William in episode 16 is an absolute masterpiece. Dan's writing broke me, Sterling [K. Brown] and Ron [Cephas Jones] poured their hearts into the scene, and [episode directors] Glenn [Ficarra] and John [Requa] let the moments breathe. I'd never seen anything like it onscreen. It was a highlight in a season full of highlights." 

    FUN FACT "I can't whistle. It's been a problem my entire life."

  • Vera Herbert

    Chris Haston/NBC

    HOMETOWN "I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and graduated high school in Youngstown, Ohio."

    PRIOR GIG Developed a pilot for Fox and a feature for Fox Searchlight. 

    FAVORITE SCENE "When Rebecca discovers Jack slept on the floor outside their bedroom like a Labrador."

    FUN FACT "For a while I seriously considered leaving film school to study neuroscience."

     

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