Dan Snierson
October 03, 2017 at 05:50 PM EDT

Everybody was talking about Jack when the credits rolled on the Sept. 26 season premiere of This Is Us, but Mandy Moore may have been the MVP — Most Valuable Pearson — of the hour. In the role of fiercely protective matriarch Rebecca, she was working overtime, playing a key role in not one but three emotionally powerful scenes.

First, in a heart-to-heart with son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — who was having trouble getting his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) on board with his dream of adopting a child — she revealed that she herself initially didn’t want to adopt Randall in the moments after losing one of her triplets during childbirth, but ultimately “that stranger became my son.” Later in the episode, she played relationship superhero, pulling a drunk Jack out of Miguel’s apartment and into her car while assuring him that all would be okay. But it was the episode’s final sequence that truly stood out — and haunted — as Rebecca, no longer with Jack in the car,  pulled up to the Pearson home and unleashed an anguished cry as we saw the Pearson house charred down to the frame. Did a fire claim Jack’s life? The mystery, to be solved later this season, burns bright for now.

That traumatizing scene — which was shot two months after the rest of the episode to help protect the secret — even walloped the cast members, who knew it was coming. “We were all aware that people were going to be a little shocked and shaken,” says Moore. “But I didn’t know how it was going to be cut together until I saw it for the first time [last Tuesday]. It’s heavy. It’s so emotional. There was so much secrecy around it, and we had to really be careful in the way we talked about it, and we had a code word that we had to talk about the fire…. I think there’s a collective sigh of relief now that it’s out in the world. Even though that’s not the full story…. You don’t know everything.”

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The scene was littered with clues on which light will be shed over the course of the season. “I think all of the questions that were posed around it — the broken leg, the dog, the girlfriend — all of that is interesting,” says Moore. “What was happening in this family’s life at this particular moment in time?”

One thing that Moore won’t leave hanging in mystery: This clue won’t prove to be a bust or a cop-out. “Nobody’s pulling the rug out from anybody,” she says; “This [sequence contains] the reason that he passed away. But how the fire started, were they in the house? All of that remains to be seen and will be answered slowly as the season trickles along.” (She advises you to start thinking about why Rebecca is wearing a Steelers jersey, but is tight-lipped on why the possessions in the back seat — seemingly Jack’s? — were not burned.)

What was it like to film Rebecca’s episode-ending moment of pain? “It was shot over two different nights — me seeing the house was shot on one night, and us pulling up to the house that was the real house that we use as our the outside of our house,” she says. “It was shot over two different nights in two wildly different locations. I was most nervous about being able to emotionally get to the same point, and we shot the wail the first night, and they were like, ‘You’re done. You don’t have to get super emotional again,’ and I was like, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t look at the house until the cameras were rolling, and then I looked at the house and I lost it.”

Although there was eagerness to find out exactly how Jack died — and then frustration when those answers didn’t arrive — in the season 1 finale, Moore feels like the decision to play out that mystery in season 2 will only enrich the greater story that is being told. “It will absolutely be worth the wait,” she says. “I just think there are other elements of this family and their story unfolding that it’s fascinating and just as heartbreaking. That loss is something that has reverberated throughout the family and has affected everybody’s life in such a deep way. There are emotional ramifications that have already happened onscreen because of this death. You just hope that people are noticing those things and taking that into account that it’s not just going to be about the aha! moments, like, ‘Oh, so that’s what it is!’  That’s going to happen — and that’s fine — but I hope people aren’t missing some of the more nuanced parts of what the show is really about.”

As for that feel-good Rebecca moment that directly preceded the big revelation in the season 2 premiere, Moore was pleased to play a scene in which her character forcefully took the reins of the marriage and acted like, well, her spouse.  I felt like I got to have have my Jack moment,” she says. “He’s always the superhero and he steps up to the plate and makes the call and makes the big gesture and the big moves that we’ve all come to know and love and expect from him, and I’m glad that Rebecca finally gets her own version of that moment.”

Moore feels that splitting up the couple after the fight — even if it was extremely temporary — posed a new compelling question to the audience, as time starts to run out for Jack.”We know the clock is ticking at this point, and I find that all the more heartbreaking,” she says. “Just the way that somebody passes away — absolutely, that episode is going to break people’s hearts. Whether or not Jack and Rebecca were still together at that point and what the nature of their relationship was, to me, is all the more heartbreaking.”

Less than 24 hours after asking Jack to pack his bags and stay at Miguel’s, though, Rebecca found herself knocking on his door, fighting to mend this fracture with her husband. “Sometimes where you make those big moves and make those huge decisions, it brings into focus what’s most important,” says Moore. “And I think it allows them even just that little bit of distance for a couple hours or a day, and then in that perspective you go, “Wait, wait, wait, what? What is going on here? Fundamentally who are we, what do we want? Am I unhappy? Do I feel resolved or unresolved? Am I resentful about this my career never started back up again now that the kids are older? Does Jack give me what I need? Is he a great father? Is he a great husband?” I think all of these questions are mulling around in [Rebecca’s] head even in that span of a couple of hours. We were like, ‘Hold on. We’re potentially about to undo something that is the most brilliant shining beacon of light that has ever existed for either of us. We really need to take a step back and make sure we know what we are doing.'”

Rebecca will be tested in episode two — which airs on tonight (Tuesday) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC — as we delve deeper into the complicated relationship — both in the past and in the present — between Rebecca and her daughter, Kate. This week, Kate [Chrissy Metz] gets a big break in pursuit of a singing career at age 37, and it will stir up issues with her mother, who abandoned a singing career when she was younger to focus on the family (and tried to start again in the mid-’90s before Jack’s drinking problem came to an ugly head). “I actually am tearing up talking about it and thinking about it,” Moore says. “It really hit a nerve with me, and my relationship with my mother. They’re both to blame in their own ways. They’re both oblivious to the pain they’re causing one another, and where it emanates from, but they can’t really help themselves. And it’s so sad. There’s not a lot of resolution. This is not a story that can be encapsulated in one episode. There is a lot to unpack here.”

“It’s really beautiful, and I think it’s really powerful and it will be super relatable,” she continues. “This really hit a nerve, and I told Dan that. I was like ‘Dan! Episode two! I’m bawling!’ And he’s like, ‘Mandy, I think we have a toxic relationship because all I do is make you cry.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah — me and the rest of America, okay?'”

For more on the season premiere and second episode, click here for a Q&A with Milo Ventimiglia. Or right here for all sorts of intel about Jack’s death from creator Dan Fogelman.

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