'This Is Us' Creator on Season 4's New Characters and Sterling K. Brown's "Dangerous" Storyline

Showrunner Dan Fogelman tells The Hollywood Reporter about the decision to spend most of the opener on newcomers, including the grown-up version of Kate and Toby's son, Jack.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[This story contains spoilers from the season four premiere episode, "Strangers," of NBC's This Is Us.]

The fourth season premiere of This Is Us introduced three major new characters to the time-skipping saga of the Pearson family. In "Strangers," three storylines about characters the audience had seemingly never met before converged with the Pearsons at the end of the episode.

House and Once Upon a Time veteran Jennifer Morrison turned out to be a military veteran at a support group where present-day Nicky (Griffin Dunne) gets in trouble for throwing a chair through the window. When They See Us Emmy nominee Asante Blackk turns out to be a teen in Randall's new home of Philadelphia who connects with Randall and Beth's newest daughter, Deja, at a barbecue. And finally the third character, played by blind musical theater actor Blake Stadnik, turned out to be a far-future version of newborn baby Jack, Kate and Toby's son who, it was revealed at the end of the premiere, was born without sight.

Creator Dan Fogelman told reporters on a conference call Tuesday morning that the plan all along was for Kate's son to be born prematurely, and retinopathy is more common in premature babies. "We've always known that this was where we were heading," he said. "It wasn't a debate about what type of thing may or may not happen as opposed to it was always part of the character and the story that we were planning on telling."

The search for grown-up Jack began over the series' summer hiatus, because it was important to find an actor who was both blind in real life and a talented singer. It was Stadnik's first time acting for television, though he is a stage veteran, and Fogelman and his team "fell so in love with the actor" that they're planning to bring him back in the future — but the rest of the flash-forwards in the first part of the season will go back to Rebecca's (Mandy Moore) death bed, where most of the cast gathered in the final moments of the season three finale.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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"We're going to get a lot of answers [about Rebecca] this season is basically the most I can say, especially by the end of the front half of the season. Right now by having shown the full end game of where we are without giving all the details, we've set ourselves up to start the slow process of telling the story of how we get there. So this is one that will be very answered in this season, even in the first half and two thirds of the season, to set us up for some bigger leaps and some more time in the future as we get a little deeper into this season and next."

After the conference call, Fogelman spoke more extensively with The Hollywood Reporter about introducing new characters in the premiere, the new characters who will appear in later episodes, and what's coming for each of the Big Three — Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown).

What else will we find out about Jennifer Morrison's character?

She's a huge part of our season and I think it goes without saying that she wasn't put in this episode to just be somebody who happened to be in a room when the chair went through a window. She's going to play a big part, clearly, in Kevin's story moving forward and obviously Nicky's. Where that goes is many, many episodes ahead but it's a very interesting and it's very unusual and deep and a very important relationship for Kevin moving forward, and obviously for Nicky as well. To say anything more about it kind of spoils it, but all of these actors who have joined the cast, and Jennifer in particular, are people we were so excited about from the moment they came in and read the parts. I think it goes in a funny direction, in a weird direction and occasionally dark direction that I think will be exciting for people, especially in relationship to Kevin.

What about Asante Blackk's character, Malik? He and Deja — who looks beautiful and happy, by the way — meet at a barbecue.

We're obsessed with the little Lyric, the actor who came out of nowhere for us and has just blown us away. But there's stuff coming with her and this young man, and the two of them are both real prodigies and it's so complicated for the parents on both sides. There's really interesting stuff coming that deals with perception, it deals with class, it deals with race in a really interesting way. But for the kids, there's stuff coming that is so romantic and I'm so excited about it just purely watching these two. We can't get enough of them.

What about some of the other guest stars who haven't appeared yet? M. Night Shyamalan makes his debut next week, but what about the others?

Night winds up actually with a substantial, important part later in the season. He came down and we actually loved working with him as an actor. He was so great with us and our cast and crew. We've actually built him into a major point in our back half of the season.

My friend and one of my favorite actors I've ever worked with, Tim Omundson, who was one of my leads on my show Galavant many moons ago, is playing a really interesting part on the show. He's been through a lot in his personal life and we're bringing some of that into the show and doing some really, really interesting stuff that I'm excited about. I can't really talk about what his character does, but he's someone I'm very excited about that isn't in the first episode.

The characters that are floating around Randall's storyline, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Omar Epps and Asante, we have an episode coming that I'm incredibly excited about where we get to put those four adults along with Randall and Beth in a room together and let them have at it, and that's very exciting. We have Phylicia Rashad coming back. We have a whole bunch of exciting stuff happening.

Speaking of Randall, he and Beth and the girls are settling into their new home. What else are they going to be tackling this season?

I think Randall and Beth are in a really good place, a place of reconnection. We had always planned with the third season and this political aspiration of Randall's that pulling him to another city was going to be the most the fabrics of their relationship were ever pulled at. We don't really have a lot of desire to watch Randall and Beth fight for multiple seasons. We think we executed it correctly last year, but we want them in a good place now.

He's got a lot on his plate right now. He's starting a new job as a councilman in a new city, which we get into in our third episode, he's obviously got kids going through those preteen and teen years, which is just an exhausting period for a parent, and some stuff starts happening in his storyline in the course of the season that is really exciting and potentially even a little bit dangerous. I think it's going to give our guy Sterling, particularly in the back half of the season, an incredible showcase to do his thing.

Kevin is going to be focusing on his health and his sobriety this season, and Jennifer Morrison's character will play a large part. What else can you say about his storyline?

I think he's doing some of his most interesting work in the series, and that's coming from his biggest fan for the first three seasons. This season is really interesting because Kevin's heading toward 40. Next season will be [the Big Three's] 40th birthday, and I think he's feeling a little bit lost. He's always been a character that's been a little bit lost and a little bit searching, but I think we find him this season in the midst of an existential crisis where he's trying to figure out — it's not cute anymore, not knowing what he wants, and he's just broken up with Zoe and he's gotten the acting career he wants. But is it fulfilling him?

What is it that's making him lack such compassion for himself, and how does he start addressing it? It's a real existential crisis. I just find it to be a really interesting color on a guy who would seem from the outside to have it all, but there's a deep well of guilt and unhappiness inside of him that he can't seem to escape from. Justin's doing such interesting stuff as the episodes proceed with that character that I'm excited by the storyline.

For Kate and Toby, aside from the baby Jack situation, is it incorrect to sense a little bit of a rift or some distance growing between them?

Well, I mean certainly when we flash forward there's an end game for what looks like their relationship. That doesn't seem very pleasant. They seem disconnected and I think they had a challenging pregnancy, obviously. They were not expecting everything that happened with Jack, and so that puts a natural exhaustion and strain on the relationship. It's an interesting area we're exploring this season. They're not having knock-down, drag-out fights or anything, and there's a lot of lovely episodes because this couple is so wonderful together, but it's going to be an interesting season for them as they navigate this newborn child without sight and figuring out all their next steps in life.

It gets into the next episode but they've bought a new house, they're carrying mortgage payments, Toby's trying to work more to earn more and be healthy. There's a lot going on between the two of them. Marriages don't repair or fracture overnight, but it would be fair to say some seeds really start getting planted this season.

Last season saw some interesting experiments when it came to episode structure, will you continue to do that this season?

We always try to do a couple every year. When we have an episode like our first episode of this season, which is a really bold, different type of episode, we don't do seven of them back to back. We want to push and pull with our audience and keep it fresh for them, but also give everybody a lot of what they're also familiar with, but hopefully in interesting and new ways. So we tend to do somewhere between two to four or five every season of these special episodes. As we're getting further along, we're finding ourselves enjoying the ability to have real estate for stories. So maybe instead of just doing the one-person story, doing three of the characters and tying them together thematically, which is what we do in the golf episode.

We're also in the process of, in the back half of our season right now, doing our second version ever of a Big Three-type storyline, meaning every one of the kids basically gets their own thematic episode like we did in the second season of the show when you're in the same time period, but within different storylines. One with Randall, one with Kate, one with Kevin, but during the same window of time. It's something we're very excited about and our writers room looks like A Beautiful Mind right now. I'm trying to put together all the timelines over the course of three and four episodes.

What about Rebecca — toward the end of season three you showed her writing down notes in a notebook, which makes it seem like she's having memory issues, which is pretty common for people to deal with as they get older. Is that something that'll come into play now or is it setting up something for later?

I know there's a lot of theories — or so I'm told — about whether there's something going on with Rebecca when she's writing that stuff down, or whether there is something physiological happening, or she's just a person who likes to take notes, but certainly like we've seen her in the end in the bed, much older, not looking super well. And that is something we're going to be getting some answers to in the first half of the season. If we give everybody all the answers all at once, there's nothing left to do!

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.