On Set With ‘This Is Us’: TV’s Feel-Good Megahit Ups the Stakes in Season 2
A huge family drama on a broadcast network? Not possible, until NBC's top-rated series arrived to break records, mint stars, score 10 Emmy noms and set high expectations (try $750K for a Sept. 26 premiere ad): "It's like suddenly we're on 'Lost.'"
“Just curious, who got [the part of] Kate?”
That question, posed in an email to This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman by his producing partner, hangs framed in Chrissy Metz’s Los Angeles home, a reminder of the trajectory her life could have continued on.
When the actress first auditioned for NBC’s family drama in 2015, she only had 81 cents in her bank account. She had been living off ramen noodles from a nearby Dollar Store, scraping together gas money with a résumé on which the biggest credit was “the fat lady” on American Horror Story: Freak Show. Fogelman’s script, loosely based on his own sister’s weight-loss journey, tapped into something that Metz had rarely seen, and she was desperate to be a part of it. “Here was this woman who was actually dealing with weight. Not like, ‘Oh my God, I gained a pound,’ ” she says on a break this summer from filming the second season on the Paramount lot. “She was a real woman who was really struggling, and all I could think was, ‘Oh my God, I’m Kate.’ ”
It would take a little more time for those casting the show to see it, too. By early November of that year, the network and studio, 20th Century Fox TV, had lined up the other members of the Pearson family: Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore as parents Jack and Rebecca; and Sterling K. Brown (tightly wound adoptee Randall) and Justin Hartley (unfulfilled Kevin) as two of the three adult children. But the drama, which hopscotches between flashbacks and present day as it charts the Pearsons‘ interconnected lives, still needed that third sibling, hopelessly overweight Kate. Then Metz got a call: “Could she come back in?” It was down to her and one other actress, and both would need to turn up on the Universal lot to audition before the network’s top brass. The two women, who had similarly unremarkable credits, represented different ideas of what passes for heavy on television — and dramatically different directions for the show.
“The other actress was a sort of ‘Hollywood overweight person,’ ” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, “struggling with losing, maybe, 20 pounds.” You need only channel surf for a matter of minutes to see this process typically ends with the thinner actress landing the role. But Salke and her counterparts at 20th TV were struck by Metz and the authenticity she could bring to the role. If they were going to live up to the title of the show, they would need to do so with an honest portrayal. On Nov. 30, news broke: Metz had been hired.
Now, nearly two years later, the 36-year-old actress not only is a breakout star on the highest-rated new series on television but also a frontrunner to win a supporting actress Emmy at the Sept. 17 awards show. In that time, the series has morphed into a bona fide phenomenon, too, demonstrating that a family drama with a mix of body types — to say nothing of skin colors and life experiences — can generate both critical acclaim and mass appeal. In fact, This Is Us nearly doubled its closest rookie competitor (ABC’s Designated Survivor) among younger viewers and regularly ballooned past 15 million once those who fell outside the advertiser-coveted demographic were factored in. NBC pre-emptively renewed the show for a third season earlier this year; and, with 20th TV, rewarded the cast with $250,000 bonuses.
When This Is Us returns for a second season Sept. 26, it will be welcomed by an army of high-profile fans that includes Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who already has hosted Metz at her Montecito, California, home. And at least a few of them — Sylvester Stallone, Brian Grazer and season-one guest Ron Howard — will turn up in season two. (Production is heading to London to shoot around Howard’s Star Wars schedule.) Now advertisers want in, too, which is how NBC was able to push its asking price for a 30-second spot in this month’s premiere to a staggering $750,000 — and as much as $1.3 million for one in February’s post-Super Bowl slot. For the remainder of the season, spots are running about $475,000, per ad-side sources, making This Is Us the most lucrative scripted series on television.
On paper, Fogelman — a 41-year-old Jew from New Jersey, only now beginning to explore having children with his wife of two years — has little in common with the character of Randall, a black executive and father of two who was adopted as an infant and raised by a white family.
And yet, as the show progresses, Fogelman has found he has been writing more and more of himself into the role. “Our backgrounds couldn’t be more different,” he acknowledges, “but we’re both a little goofy and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be good, and so I find myself identifying with him and pulling the most from my life for him.” The additional layer of irony is that 41-year-old Brown — who like his character is a successful black man as well as an adoring husband and father — has been infusing more of himself into the part of Randall, too.
When the role was first presented to Brown, he was still filming his Emmy-winning part as Christopher Darden in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson. The pilot’s directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, had worked with the actor on the 2016 war dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and urged Fogelman to consider him. That 20th TV, a producer on O.J., had already seen what Brown was capable of allowed him to whisk through the process. Brown was ecstatic to be cast. “The perception in the country is that black men are absent when it comes to their families,” he says, “so this is a wonderful image to put out into the world and an opportunity I don’t take lightly.”
Of all the actors, Brown is best known for adding poignant flourishes that, in his case, speak to the microaggressions of the upper-middle-class black experience. Early in season one, when Randall and his brother, Kevin, hear police sirens after getting into a fistfight in Times Square, Brown dropped in the line, “I’m still black; we gotta go.” When his character turns to acknowledge a couple who has come out to see him arguing with his father in Randall’s predominantly white neighborhood, he threw in, “Just your friendly neighborhood black man.” And though Brown insists he has no aspirations of joining the writing staff (his sights instead are set on directing and producing), he regularly pops by the writers room and occasionally pitches ideas, too.
One storyline he recently suggested is about how Randall and his wife, Beth, first got together, which the writers plan to tackle later this season. “Very often, you choose somebody who looks like your mom, but Randall makes this conscious choice to be with a black woman,” says the actor, “and I really want us to explore that.” Of all of the sensitive subjects that the This Is Us room takes on, race almost always is the one that requires the most discussion, according to recently upped co-showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who, like Fogelman, are white. “Our black writers [of which there are three on a staff of 10 this season] get a bigger voice in those stories,” says Aptaker, “but we’ve really, really tried to make the writers room a place where we can have those kinds of conversations — the kinds you don’t have permission to have in your daily life.” Berger chimes in: “The goal is that it’s a safe enough space that a white writer can be like, ‘Wait, do black people need to wear sunscreen?’ ” (The latter informed a particularly poignant scene in season one, and the pair says the subject of caring for black hair should do the same in season two.)
Knowing that these are the types of stories This Is Us would need to tell, Fogelman, with Aptaker and Berger, assembled writers as diverse in race, gender, age, body type and life experience as the characters they write. They each have personal stories — about obesity, sobriety, adoption, racism, illness, loss — that have inspired or at least informed storylines on the show. And when the series wades into sensitive areas where the writers lack firsthand knowledge, they invite speakers to share theirs. A handful have been brought in on the subject of transracial adoption. There was a black woman, raised by a white family, who revealed to the room how, at 18, she found herself instinctively moving to the other side of the street when another black person walked toward her. A white woman, who had adopted a black son, opened up about the process of preparing him for the challenges that come with being a black man in the U.S.
A powerful speaker from Overeaters Anonymous came in early on, too; but to capture the weight-loss journey as truthfully as possible, Fogelman still relies on his sister, Deborah. In fact, he has enlisted her as a consultant on the show. Though she and Metz have yet to meet (they are Facebook friends), Deborah reads every script, with a careful eye on Kate’s storyline, and sends notes from her home in Rhode Island. “Let me tell you, there’s nothing better than telling a roomful of professional writers, ‘My sister had a note on page five,’ ” jokes Fogelman. In truth, it was Deborah’s hands, as much as his, on the famous “it’s always going to be about weight for me” monologue that still haunts Metz. “I remember reading those lines like, ‘I’m always going to be afraid of a chair breaking underneath me’ or ‘whether people will be able to recognize if I’m actually pregnant,’ ” says the actress, “and going to Dan, in tears, like, ‘These are my fears.’ “
When This Is Us returns later this month, Kate Pearson will have stories about subjects that have nothing to do with her waistline, beginning with her budding singing career; but, as that powerful season-one monologue revealed, weight will continue to be a major issue. How the writers handle Kate’s struggle will be dependent on how Metz handles her own, and though she has been shedding pounds since the series began, there is no target weight detailed in her contract. “Thus far, the plan we had for the character and what Chrissy’s been doing have been working in tandem, with a talk once a year of, like, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re thinking,’ ” says Fogelman. “So we have a general long-term plan that we’ve all talked about, and we will adjust the plan as needed. I mean, that’s life, right?”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.