'This Is Us': 12 Secrets From the Set of the Hit NBC Drama

A lot tour gone awry, a memoir in the making and why 'This Is Us' is unlikely to freefall the way Milo Ventimiglia's last breakout series did.
Miller Mobley

This Is Us is back, following a breakout first season and a web of overlapping plot lines left to play out. 

While much about the series and its origins was covered in great detail in THR's recent cover story on the NBC drama, a collection of fun tidbits — 12, to be exact — about the series' cast and crew didn't make it in. Here they are, in no particular order. You can't put away your Kleenex, just enjoy.  

1. You're not the only one who has a hard time keeping the Pearson family timeline straight. The This Is Us writers room has multiple cheat sheets for the writers to keep the time-jumping storyline on track. On one wall hangs a page that tracks how old each of the Pearson family members would be in various years. Lining another wall or two is also a timeline, which tracks the Pearsons' milestones and whereabouts at different dates. (There's also a map of Pittsburgh and index cards with stories color-coded by character.)

2. During the series' breakout first season, the Paramount lot tour would take visitors by that writers room, and, without the writers' knowledge, welcomed its visitors to peek in. The irony? Back then, the cause of Jack Pearson's (Milo Ventimiglia) death, which is now among the series' best-kept secrets, was splashed across a story board. "We were horrified when we found out," says co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger. (Worth noting: That information is no longer posted anywhere; instead, the staff has employed a code name and script pages with material about the character's death are redacted.)

3. Speaking of Jack's death, Ventimiglia admits that he found the fascination surrounding his character's fate pretty "morbid" at first. "I was a little like, 'Why are you worrying about how this guy dies?'" he says, laughing. "Then I thought to myself, 'All right, let's spin this in a positive way.' So, I'd tell people, 'Don't worry about how he died. Focus more on how the man lived.' But that line got kind of old, and everybody was like, 'But really, how does he die?'"

4. This Is Us has become a family affair in more ways than one. Creator Dan Fogelman's younger sister, an inspiration for the character of Kate (Chrissy Metz), is a consultant who reads scripts and gives notes from her home in Rhode Island, while Fogelman's wife, actress Caitlin Thompson, appeared in a handful of episodes as "not-really-fat rich girl" in Kate's support group. And star Sterling K. Brown's wife, actress Ryan Michelle Bathe, recurred, too, playing a black mother who gives Rebecca, Randall's white mom, a tutorial in caring for a black child in a series of touching scenes at the community pool. Bathe appeared in multiple episodes, and word is she'll be back for season two.

5. Justin Hartley was cast as Kevin before the actress who would play his on-screen sister, Kate, which meant he had to test with both women. Metz (Kate) remembers being terrified in the latter audition, while Hartley "skipped away after because he already had the job." But Hartley's recollection has him being pretty terrified as well: "There was so much pressure on me," he says, "because basically if they fall in love with one of these women and they don't think I have chemistry with them, they'll just send me out the door. So, there is no safe spot — any time you audition in Hollywood, it's a chance for you to lose your job."

6. Metz has had many pinch-me moments since she landed the role on This Is Us, but few can top her trip to Montecito to have lunch at her "hero" Oprah's palatial estate. In classic Winfrey fashion, the mogul began the meal wanting to learn all about Metz, before doling out advice about the importance of staying true to who she is. "We just talked about my life, and she said some of the kindest words anybody's ever said to me," recalls Metz, who wonders aloud if she's supposed to be talking about the "magical" day. "The craziest part is it felt like exactly what it was supposed to be."

7. There are a handful of props that line the writers room. Among them: Clooney, William's (not at all real) cat (per co-showrunner Isaac Apataker, one of the most common questions the writers would hear early in the show's first season was, "Where is William's cat?"); and a promo poster from Kevin's former sitcom, The Manny, in which he's posing shirtless with a baby. Hartley, who plays Kevin, insists he had no idea the poster was hanging there, much less that his bare pecs had been autographed by the writing staff.

8. Ventimiglia is the only This Is Us cast member who has enjoyed this kind of breakout first season success before. But while Heroes, which the actor starred in as a hospice nurse opposite Hayden Panettiere, quickly faded, the actor seems to harbor no concerns that This Is Us will do the same. "The numbers [on Heroes] started to go down and the stories changed, and people kind of tuned out. Then even creatively, when we were on that set it was hard for us to follow what was going because things felt very story-driven as opposed to what the characters were. There was something about the show that slowly fell apart," he says. "And if in the first season of the show you save the world, OK, what are you going to save next? The universe? With [This Is Us], it's grounded. It's human. It's a chapter in a book of the Pearsons' life, and I don't feel the need to outdo ourselves [for season two]."

9. Though it’s now hard to imagine a title more poignant than This Is Us, the group agonized over several others. Among the others considered: 36 and Happy Birthday, since the series opens on the "Big Three's" 36th birthday, as well as a few other variations on This Is Us, including The Story of Us.

10. When Ventimiglia isn't filming, there's a good chance you can still find him on set, often with a Leica camera dangling from his neck. Though he's not sure yet what he'll be doing with the collection, he’s been busy capturing onset photos. If they're filming in the past, he shoots on film; if they're shooting present day, he shoots digital.

11. Though Brown is the actor who spends the most time in the series' writers room, Metz is the one who actually has ambitions to write. She hints at a memoir, which she describes as a "coming of age story" that’s still "in infancy stages." Metz also says she'd "love to eventually help write [an episode] or maybe down the line write an episode." For his part, Brown has his sights set on producing and directing, and would love to helm a This Is Us episode in an upcoming season.

12) When Fogelman proposed the writers introduce Randall's dad, William, several pitched decidedly darker backstories for the character. "I remember we came in with pitches about how he was going to come in and con Randall, or that maybe he wasn’t his father," says writer Kay Oyegun. "There were all of these crazy things, and they would work on any show, but Dan was like, 'Well, what if he's just a guy who wanted to get back in touch with his son?' Like, 'What if he's just an old man who's lived this long life, and now is dying and wants to reconnect with his son? What if that was the story?' For me, that moment crystallized what this show is and what it means for people. At its core, This Is Us is about decent, good intentioned people."

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

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