This Is Us has already shown viewers, two weeks in a row, that it can elevate and devastate with a twist at the end of an episode. But the NBC dramedy has also demonstrated the art of disorientation at the beginning of the episode. Episode 2 opened with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) with the Big Three in the kitchen for breakfast, but not as you were expecting to see them. Not only did the kids look slightly different than they did at the end of the first episode — instead of newborns, they were now eight years old — Jack, who was last seen in a beard and denim, was now rocking a mustache and a tie.
If the new look threw you for a brief loop, you weren’t the only one. Series creator Dan Fogelman did some handwringing and chinstroking about Jack’s mustachioed makeover while plotting out that scene.
“It’s an ambitious thing for a network television show to do: ‘Here’s the series, we have this twist. Oh, the series isn’t quite what you thought the series was,’” explains Fogelman. “Now we’re going to take these two characters — even if you got your head around the twist — we’re going to jump them forward eight years, completely change their looks and put them in a very different space in their marriage. I wanted to do it without saying what the date was [onscreen]…. Milo was determined to have a mustache, and I was not sure it was a good decision for our show.”
So, his mustache was controversial?
“It was controversial for me and for some around here at first,” admits Fogelman, who did a little focus-grouping around the office. “Milo was very adamant: A, it’s period correct and B, that it looked good. And I was just like, ‘It’s such a bold choice. And I’m worried we’re taking my handsome leading guy and we’re putting this slightly out of fashion facial hair on him.’ But we made the decision. It was Milo saying, ‘Let’s be bold, let’s make the right choice for the TV show, and it works.’ It really works for him, and when he’s got the beard he’s at one state, and when he’s got the moustache he’s at another. It’s so clean that way.”
Which was precisely Ventimiglia’s thinking. “It’s an easy device if anything to help the audience completely understand where these people are at a given time,” says the actor, noting how the show journeys through various decades to chronicle characters’ lives. “Also, it was just one of those natural things where I was like, ‘You know, guys, I’m going to have to change. Let’s accept that change, and let’s be bold and strong in that change, and feel like we’re making the right moves out of confidence, and not out of fear that people won’t accept it.’ I think I might have even said to Dan, ‘I’ve got so much confidence in what you’ve written and what we have made together that I think maybe it’ll throw people off for two seconds — and then they’re going to get used to it and no one’s going to think twice about it. I think that’s what happened.”
Ventmiglia wasn’t trying to make a statement about Jack’s station in life with the ‘stache, other than that Jack was firmly ensconsced in the ’80s. “I think about Don Mattingly, the baseball player, I think about Tom Selleck or a million of the icons that I grew up with, and the different roles that they played,” says the actor. “For me, I don’t think it lends itself to anything than showing the character in a different state. The reason I fought for it was twofold. I knew I was going to have to dance between decades, even greater than just the ’70s and the ’80s. And personally, I didn’t want to act in a full fake beard because they never really feel right. So I had a chat with our makeup artist and she said, ‘What if we hung on to your mustache? I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ One, that’s period correct. Two, it leaves my upper lip out of the equation when I’m putting all the fake stuff on my face. So there was the practical side of it. But then there was an automatic visual representation for the audience to say, ‘Oh, Jack looks different. He doesn’t have his beard. This is a different time. It’s 1988. Great.’ You don’t have to see eight-year-olds to know now you’re in a different decade. You’re in a different time of this man’s life.”
When Ventigmilia got a shave and haircut, and saw the upper lipholstery for the first time, “I looked in the mirror and went, ‘Holy shit, there’s Jack in ’88,'” he says. “And I saw it right away. I knew exactly who this man was in 1988. And there was the, ‘Oh, s—, did we really just shave his beard?’ It was a Mustachegate kind of moment of clarity, and then we figured it out. It was one of those things where we all put our heads together and we all laid out the pros and cons and we all talked about it. When the decision was made, I think everybody was happy and moved forward confidently. Now I just tell people in my life, ‘Hey, what if I get used to a mustache and I’m wearing one the rest of my life? You’re in trouble.’”
While you consider that possibility, let us leave you with a tease for one upcoming episode: The action will skip ahead — or flashes back, depending on your perspective — to 1993, when you will see another facial hair look for Jack. Hope you like goatees.
But wait, there’s more: See the cast of This Is Us at EW PopFest; more information here.