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[This story contains spoilers to the May 3 episode of This Is Us, “Miguel.”]
When recently reflecting on some of the biggest watercooler moments of the series, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman said he very vividly remembered the audience reaction to the season one, episode two reveal that, in a future timeline, Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) would go on to remarry Miguel, the best friend to her feverishly beloved husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia).
Another person who very clearly remembers the fan reaction to that moment is Jon Huertas.
“There was [an] immediate kind of backlash: ‘Why is Rebecca married to this guy?'” recalls the actor who has played Miguel Rivas for all six seasons of the hit NBC family drama, which will air its final episode this month.
Huertas tells The Hollywood Reporter that audience reaction would actually go on to help shape the six-season arc that he and Fogelman meticulously plotted for Miguel, all culminating in Tuesday night’s full-circle hour centered on the man who spent decades — and an actor who waited patiently for years — to be fully accepted into the Pearson family.
The episode, titled “Miguel,” was written by Jonny Gomez and directed by Zetna Fuentes, the latter of whom was hand-picked by Huertas to authentically capture the Puerto Rican immigrant experience. The actor, who has inserted much of his own life into the character, even joined the writers room to break the episode, which follows Miguel through every stage of his life: As a young boy who moved with his family from San Juan to a hard-working young man who found success in America to the middle-aged man who reconnected with Rebecca, all the way to the aging caretaker of the Pearson matriarch as she declines from early-onset Alzheimer’s.
The end of the time-spanning episode reveals that Miguel passes away before Rebecca — providing the long-awaited answer as to why he was missing from the flash-forward to an older Rebecca’s bedside — and both his and Rebecca’s children come together to spread his ashes in a beautiful goodbye.
Below, in conversation with THR, Huertas opens up about making the Miguel sendoff episode — one that is sure to leave the audience weeping and regretting their first reactions — how viewers should interpret Rebecca’s absence from the ashes scenes and why seeing Miguel’s legacy come to fruition in the fourth-to-last-ever episode was worth the wait.
You are a patient actor. It couldn’t have been easy to play Miguel all of these years, someone who isn’t accepted into the Pearson family. Finally, you get your acceptance, and it comes in this beautiful hour, but you had to wait for it. At what point did you know this was your trajectory, and what have your conversations been like with Dan Fogelman about playing this long game to see Miguel’s full story?
We did have conversations about the long game. We thought it would be better to take our time, with how the audience first reacted to Miguel when he was first introduced. There was [an] immediate kind of backlash: “Why is Rebecca married to this guy?” We could have tried to turn him around with some amazing feat that Miguel does for the family or for Jack. But we discussed early on that it would have been a more exciting challenge to really take our time and make it measured on how we gradually get people to see Miguel’s position in the family as a positive one, as a necessary one.
And that’s what this episode does, the culmination in the end. Viewers will see in the next couple of episodes that Miguel needed to be there; he had to be there. He has always been there from the beginning; making sure Jack realizes how amazing this woman is, “Don’t mess it up by drinking too much,” and telling him, “Let me help you get a better job.” Really, everything that Miguel did was for the good of others all the way through the series. The reason he didn’t sometimes jump in and deal with some of the stuff that Rebecca had to deal with with her family is because he understands that a family has its journey. Every person has their journey and that’s why even Miguel had to take off and leave Rebecca on the porch and go on his own journey before he was ready to come back and explore this chemistry, this energy they had together.
Of course, you want people to like your character right away. You want all the meaty stuff. But I love the reaction people are having to this episode. I watched Sterling K. Brown watch this episode and the reaction he had — just this blubbering mess of a person laying there. (Laughs.) I like that it’s stoking that kind of reaction with people, and I hope our audience does, because it proves that Miguel was worth something to them. Ultimately, worth something to the Pearson family. His value was highly regarded in the Pearson family. Randall’s speech to him when he says, “Please let us take care of you know,” is kind of proof-positive that he was valued by the Big Three.
It’s fascinating to hear that some of the plotting with Miguel was in reaction to viewers. On a show like this, the most villainous you can get is trying to replace Jack. But even when the family is being tough on Miguel, his character has always shined through — especially in these later episodes. What have you tapped into in order to capture that type of resolve and play that role all of these years?
What I tapped into is, I grew up in a not so nuclear family. For me, trying to find my place, feeling like an outsider like Miguel. A lot of stuff that we put into this episode comes from my past and a lot of my personal story is Miguel, and that’s until now. So it was easy to tap into my own personal history and feeling like an outsider. I had parts of my family that didn’t accept me. And it didn’t mean that I didn’t have a family. It didn’t mean there weren’t others who saw me and saw that there was love there. Rebecca always saw that there was love there. The battle was sometimes thinking that Kevin [played by Justin Hartley] wasn’t accepting, but there were great moments between Kevin and Miguel leading up to this episode. And, of course what Kevin does in this episode [by reaching out to Miguel’s estranged son] is pretty special for Miguel.
So, just tapping into that and also into the idea of what it means to be someone’s caretaker was important to me. I recognize a lot of what Miguel is doing for Rebecca in what my wife is doing for her own mom, and what my sister is doing for our mom. You become this caregiver when your parents or your spouse start aging, or when people have freak accidents. I see it with a great friend of mine, a co-star on our show Timothy Omundsen [who plays Kate and Toby’s neighbor, Gregory]; when Timothy first had his stroke, to see what his wife does for him as his primary caretaker. All of those things resonate inside of me, and that allows me to tap into it and say: “Let’s see Miguel being that person for Rebecca.”
This episode shows Miguel’s struggles with feeling like he doesn’t belong, and being torn between his Puerto Rican family and becoming the man he made for himself in America. You had a heavy hand in this episode — you joined the writers room and picked Zetna Fuentes to direct. Was this always the backstory you told yourself to play Miguel and then, when the opportunity came with this episode, what was most important when filling in the blanks?
From the beginning, Miguel was originally named Mike. From what I saw in the last auditions for the show, I was the only person of color in there. They made a conscious decision to cast me and then change the name to Miguel. From the beginning, they allowed me to kind of help create who Miguel is and what he is to the family. I’ve been able to bring into his story from my own personal story — from his ethnic diversity to his ambitions, all of these things kind of came from a lot of who I am. In season one and every year, I would have a conversation with Dan and [co-showrunners] Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger]. We were working on this episode, and they let me come into the writers room.
So many writers had so many great ideas, and I came up with my own based on my past and how they might correlate with Miguel’s life. Jonny Gomez, our writer, had amazing ideas — I thought that two or three of the ideas from the day we broke the story in the writers room would make it in, but he was able to get everything we talked about into the episode in some form or shape, which is a testament to his talent. This episode is a testament to how special Dan Fogelman is to allow me and Jonny and all of the writers to really create this multidimensional character in Miguel that is so evident in the episode.
I said to Dan after I watched the episode, “It’s remarkable how you take ideas someone came up with and are somehow able to tie a string from that to something else we’ve already seen in an episode.” Whether it be directly related to that character or to another character. I said, “I just see all of these strings that lead to this episode from six seasons of the show.” It’s mind-boggling how Dan is able to do that. He knows the show and these characters so well.
When you acted out the scene that is ripped from that casting story (Miguel applies for a job under the name “Mike” so he won’t be overlooked, and then he gets the job), did that feel like a full-circle moment?
It did. When we were shooting that scene and I was sitting there and everyone else in that room in the episode was an Anglo-American white guy, it was exactly like my auditions. That was such a defining moment for me as an actor. And Miguel gets picked. Miguel gets picked. Oh my God, I’m getting emotional right now — I never get emotional. (Pauses.) They picked me, and I didn’t think I was going to get picked. That was the reaction that I’ve been used to, I guess, in this business over many years. Of course, I’ve gotten picked for great jobs. But the times that I didn’t get picked, those are the ones you remember. And [with This Is Us], they picked me, and it’s special, and I got to be a part of this amazing show, this amazing six years of storytelling. That scene, and the fact that you noticed and just brought that up, it’s so poignant and meaningful to the episode and to me, and to me specifically in this role.
At the heart is Miguel’s love for Rebecca. This episode gives them a decades-long love story, all the way up until Miguel is her primary caretaker and never leaves her side until his death at the very end. Why do you believe that Jack would approve of their love story, now that we’ve seen how their story ends?
Because he already knew that Miguel would be the person that would stand up for him when he wasn’t there. He asked him long ago, “If anything happens to me, look out for my family, look out for my wife, look out for my kids.” Because I think Jack saw something in Miguel that Miguel didn’t even see in himself back then. When Jack died, his kids were teenagers. Rebecca wasn’t a breadwinner, she didn’t have a job or work experience. But if he were to look at what his kids have accomplished, with regards to love, their professions; where Miguel and Rebecca are living, which is in the house that Jack dreamed of building, he would have to know that Miguel had a hand in getting that family to where they are today. I think he would be proud to know that he made the right decision asking Miguel to look after them.
In the final scene, Rebecca and Miguel’s kids come together to spread ashes in two spots: at Rebecca and Miguel’s tree outside their house, and on the baseball field where Miguel played as a young boy. Rebecca isn’t present in either setting. Are we meant to interpret that as the children spreading both Miguel and Rebecca’s ashes, and that Rebecca followed Miguel shortly after his passing?
We’re supposed to wonder where Rebecca is, for sure. If you noticed in the episode, she was already at the point where she couldn’t be left alone for a second without Miguel. She’s at that place where she absolutely has to have Miguel near her, around her at every turn and every second. And so I think we should wonder, where is Rebecca? How soon was the decline after he was gone? We know from reading and seeing when people lose their loved ones at a certain age, they can go rapidly and follow them. Sometimes people die together or hours apart. It’s also very poignant when they spread his ashes on the apple tree and the baseball diamond — to see the two boys who felt like there was the greatest rift between them and Miguel: Kevin and Miguel’s firstborn son. For those two to come together to [spread his ashes at the baseball diamond] was poignant and meaningful. It needed to be just those two in that moment to show how much love those two boys could actually find for this man.
In what capacity will we see Miguel in the final three episodes?
Miguel is a time-traveler — and this is This Is Us. (Laughs.) So, we know that people die on this show and we sometimes see them again. But everything is symbolic as well on this show. So we’ll have to wait and see if there is some actual physical appearance of Miguel, or a symbolic appearance.
Was there another scene from this episode that you will always remember filming?
The last scene, when Rebecca asks, “Who are you?” and Miguel says, “I don’t know. That’s a good question. Ask me again later.” That scene, especially in the context of watching the episode and where it’s placed, it meant a lot to watch it. Any time I get to work with Mandy, because she is such a great scene partner, is amazing. But because of where this scene is placed, it ends Miguel’s story in a way where you kind of play with the audience a little bit. Because he’s dead, it makes me feel like the audience will be asking themselves who Miguel was in a way that might make them start thinking back over the years to all the different moments that Miguel has that maybe they overlooked because they were so focused on the Big Three or on Jack and Rebecca and say, “Oh my God, he said this” or, “He did this for them,” or “He was a great man for this family; he was a great stepfather, he was a great husband for Rebecca.” Having them ask that question is just a gift for the character and I felt like when we shot that, it was a way to give this beautiful sendoff gift to Miguel that would hopefully allow people to ask themselves about him moving forward and maybe even watch the entire series again.
You accomplished this six-year feat of almost releasing this secret of how amazing Miguel is at just the right moment. Particularly, the earned moment of seeing Kevin and Miguel come together in the end. To wait and wait and then to nail that storytelling in the end, how does it feel?
It feels great. It’s one of the reasons that I audibly blubbered at the episode when I was watching it, because it felt so good. It’s a combination of being so sad to say goodbye to the character but feeling so good that we did it. That we made it across the finish line in the right way. And, like you said, it’s taken all this time and maybe this character was overlooked. Over the last week, I’ve been speaking to more people like you who didn’t really speak to me before like this, because they weren’t as enamored by the character. And part of me loves that, because I’m a very private person; I look forward to the work and love to be under the radar. But I love that people are talking about the character. I love that people are talking about Miguel right now. It’s just proof-positive on how talented Dan Fogelman and the writers and our director are. They put together an amazing cast and they took me off-leash — sent me into the dog park. (Laughs.)
Now seeing the big-picture story of Miguel, what do you think his legacy will be now that the show is ending?
It’s a hard question. Legacy questions are always hard questions, aren’t they? I think that Miguel’s legacy will be quiet strength. People will remember that Miguel always carried himself with a quiet strength and that’s what he used to take care of his wife, to ensure that her kids had the kind of mom and life and relationship with their mom that they needed.
And to show that you can get a second great love story.
Exactly. I guess people don’t always want to see a great sequel to a story, to a book, to a movie. But every once in a while, that second book is just as good as the first. And sometimes better. I’m not going to say Miguel and Rebecca are better, but just as powerful of a story can be told in your second love story.
As part of the show’s legacy, you and the main cast recently launched the fund Nosotros, a Latinx-focused scholarship to bolster Latino artists. How did this come about and what do you hope to accomplish?
Each one of us got an incredible gift at the beginning of the season [in final season bonuses], and all of us wanted to do something to pay it forward as a group. We knew that we were going to be going off the air and we thought, “Besides an amazing series, what else can we leave behind?” One of the reasons sometimes the Latinx story isn’t told as quickly, or is not as developed as it can be, is because, traditionally, we don’t have a lot of Latinx writers in the writers room, we don’t have a lot of Latinx showrunners, we don’t have a lot of Latinx executives at studios. I think all of those people can come from a place of higher education, like our partner at AFI. First, we just talked about giving a bunch of money to charity, and then I had this idea to invest in the future. And it’s not just about giving it to a Latinx writer, it’s a writer who happens to be Latinx. We’re looking for great writers who will meet the qualifications that AFI put forward. So the fact that we wanted to have this thing that means This Is Us, Nosotros, we thought was a way of paying it forward, letting someone get a leg up so they don’t have this mound of debt, and let’s just continue to find great storytellers.
Are you prepared to say goodbye to this series in a few more weeks?
I am. I’ve definitely come to terms that we were able to tell the story we wanted to tell, and we were able to end it the way we wanted to end it as a group. We’re not saying goodbye to each other, we’re saying, “See you later.” Because this is a small town, and we’ll all cross paths again.
What will you do next?
Right now, the first thing I’m doing is a narrative fiction podcast called The McGuire Incident, which is based on an urban legend out of New Jersey centered around McGuire Airforce Base. And then I’m kind of taking a break because I’ve been working 15 years straight since Generation Kill on HBO, then Castle and This Is Us. I have not had a break from television, and I’ve played three characters in the last 15 years. I’m going to see what the next thing is and make sure it’s something great and good, and a very positive character for me to play.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The final season of This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Head here to read THR’s retrospective chat with Dan Fogelman and the ensemble cast about the series and final season.
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