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Heading into Tuesday’s midseason finale of This Is Us, “Last Christmas,” there’s lots of family drama on the table. Between Kate (Chrissy Metz) announcing her desire for a gastric bypass surgery, Kevin (Justin Hartley) sleeping with Sloan (Milana Vayntrub) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) learning that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) knew William’s (Ron Cephas Jones) identity for all these years, it’s bound to be a Pearson Christmas for the books.
To slow things down and explore Christmases past, however, THR caught up with star Milo Ventimiglia. Here, he discusses the return of Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), the evolution of super-dad and what it’s like to play a character whose fate he already knows.
Now that you’ve played Jack for a while do you have a favorite iteration of the character to play?
Even from the very beginning I knew who he was and who he was on his way to being. Just when I get settled into one version of him, we change decades and there’s something new to learn or discover. No matter what, there’s always a fresh nature of learning something new about him and playing him. The different sides of the struggle of what he goes through with his family and marriage…. I wouldn’t say there’s a favorite, but I appreciate the variation of the decades. They’re all pretty fun. I like playing them all.
How much more will viewers see of how he becomes super-dad?
I have to believe that Jack continues to impact his kids while he’s alive to the point where they are still in their adult lives…he holds such a large place in them as adults. I have to imagine that Jack continues to impact these kids until the time he’s no longer around. Super-dad? I think he’s already there based on what we’ve heard from the adult kids about their dad. But that’s the fun part of what’s to be discovered and displayed to the audience. What are these family happenings where these great people are sharing with the world, how their dad impacted their lives.
Are there any iconic TV dads that you’ve based your performance on?
I haven’t based my Jack on anyone that I’ve watched. A friend of mine the other day said I’m in the running with Mr. Cunningham (Tom Bosley) from Happy Days as the best dad on TV. There have been so many great fathers that naming one would be a disservice to any others. But I kind of looked at my own dad. When I was a child he was the coolest and most fun, and he taught me the lessons that I needed to learn to make me the man that I am today. I’m forever grateful. So I kind of just tapped into my own life and my understanding of what fatherhood means from my own family. I don’t have kids myself, so I was understanding who my father is as a man and was to my childhood; that’s what I’m trying to do honor to.
Heading into the midseason finale, what can you set up? What does a typical Christmas look like for this family?
It’s going to get bloody. Yeah, it’s going to get bloody. That’s about all I can say.
Dr. K is back for the episode, what can you tease there?
Dr. K is kind of responsible for The Big Three. He by chance found himself involved in the birth of Jack and Rebecca’s kids, and when one of the babies died during delivery, the speech that he gave Jack in the hallway was something that moved Jack to keep the desire to bring home three babies and adopt Randall’s character and keep that idea of family alive. Visiting Dr. K several years later, having him pop up in the story, he’s a man that holds great weight with the family and has a deep impact. Given the circumstance that we meet him again [in the midseason finale] and find them together, hopefully they can have an impact on him as well.
What was it like being directed by Helen Hunt?
It was amazing. Actors do make really wonderful directors because they can speak actor, and they can speak crew and they understand budgets. Helen is a legend. She’s been in the business for years and has been a part of some of the biggest TV shows and movies so her experience with that long, wonderful career being applied to telling human stories was great and a lot of fun. She is as beautiful a director as she is a performer in front of the camera.
Moving forward, how will Jack and Rebecca’s relationship be tested by her new bandmate Ben (Sam Trammell)?
A lot of people always want to go to the eye wanders scenario and that’s kind of the disillusion of a marriage or what pulls people apart. As time goes on and things change and go in different directions, keeping your family together and keeping the partnership together — that’s not always dependent on an event or something happening. Life itself is hard enough to remind yourself that you have the best possible life you could have. Certain things we know and others we aren’t privy to as actors yet, but I think it’s always going to be the exploration of the ballad of Jack and Rebecca. These are two people that love each other so much, and even in their differences there’s still a great, great connection between the two of them. They’ll always be Jack and Rebecca.
What was it like filming the push-up scene with young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) last episode?
I think the total push-up count for the filming day was 200-something with Lonnie on my back. But it was an easy price to pay for a beautiful moment between a father and his son. It’s literally taking him on his back through life and the symbolism and imagery behind that. It was something that was needed for Jack and Randall because Randall had been so focused on the issues with his mother that he never knew what he really had was a great relationship with his father who was always nurturing him, looking out for him, protecting him. It was a really beautiful way to put those two characters together and have a shared experience of love and support.
Did you always know there was a possibility of filming a scene with Sterling K. Brown in present day?
I knew when we were filming the pilot that Jack had passed, so it was one of those things that was a little heartbreaking for me, knowing I might not work with my grown children. So when Dan had this idea of a moment of discovery for Randall, it was perfect. To be able to be in a scene with Sterling was a really exciting time and a great day.
Does that open the door up for potential scenes with Justin Hartley or Chrissy Metz? Especially as Kate potentially goes under anesthesia for surgery?
There’s always going to be that want. The satisfaction of that might come, it might not. But that’s the great idea with this show, is understanding that even though characters like Jack have passed, there’s still potential to put him with his kids or anyone else and have a satisfying story.
Would viewers ever see Jack as a teenager or young boy?
It’s possible. We’ve jumped to Jack’s grandfather jumping off the boat. And there are moments with a young Rebecca in the fifth episode. It’s absolutely possible to know what their younger lives were like. Given that Jack and Rebecca jump around, decade-wise, it’s also possible we’ll see them as their younger selves and maybe their origins story.
Do you know the how and when of Jack’s passing?
Yes, I do know how. Yes, I do know when. But I don’t consider it. The how and the when is less important to Jack’s journey of life with his wife and his kids. I think about that in real life; none of us know when our end will come. It’s inevitable that we all pass away, so what do you do with your life today? How do you impact the people that you know and care about, and how do you extend that to anybody you pass on the street, anybody who is the opposite of who you are? There’s something to understand and learn about life in accepting that one day we’re not going to be around. So how do you want to impact the people that come around on a moment-to-moment basis? Those are the things I consider and think about with Jack. I don’t think Jack is looking at his end and thinking it’s going to come early or late. He just wants as much time as he can possibly get with his wife and kids. It’s really simple when you think about it, it’s a life well lived.
It’s pretty rare a show increases week to week in the numbers. What’s your take on the show’s success?
People want a human story, people just want to connect to something they can see themselves and their families in. The show is so inclusive, of race and gender and socioeconomic and age. There’s something inherently appealing to all in human stories, and it’s accessible. It’s something that belongs to everyone and I think that’s why people are connecting to it and watching it and talking about it. It’s strangely similar to their own lives.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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