There’s a quick scene with the young boy having trouble being placed in the foster care system. How soon will this boy enter Randall and Beth’s life, and what can you tease about him?
This is one of my favorite journeys. There’s a significant payoff to this story line, and I can tell you that you’ll see it manifest in our Super Bowl episode, and that’s the only thing that I can say about it without Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] getting really pissed off at me.
Speaking of Pearson children, we tend to view Randall’s kids as drama free, so it comes as a bit of shock when Tess tells Kevin that she hates her home. She seemed very welcoming to Déjà and genuinely sad when she left. What can you hint at on why she’s so unhappy that we’ll find out? Is it a lack of attention, as there’s been so much activity in that house over the last year with the new family members arriving in the form of William, or in Déjà?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of things happening. New people introduced, et cetera. The only thing that’s constant in life is change, but for children, stability is incredibly stabilizing, for lack of a better word. Routine gives us comfort, and Randall’s constantly shifting routine on his daughters, especially his older daughter who’s conscious to it. At a certain age, we’re pretty good at going with the flow, and then at a certain point we’re like, “All right, now I’m ready for things to just kind of remain the same.” I think Tess is in that place where she’s like, “All right, can we just have something stay the same, for a little while, please? Without you dealing with something else?” So I think it’s of that nature.
Which scene from the episode was toughest for you to crack or calibrate?
Probably the goodbye. And what I can say, thankfully, and I appreciate it when [Ken Olin, who directed the episode] said that there’s a couple of takes where I was, like, bawling — bawling uncontrollably because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Déjà — and he’s like, “You can’t leave her with that. Like, you have to keep that to yourself.” And I was like, “You’re right. I have to keep that to myself.” And so just finding the right calibration on that and being present for her and giving her the fondest farewell possible and wishing her well, while silently grieving her loss. That was probably the toughest in that I just had to pull back; it wasn’t a question of having to dial it up. I feel like me, as an actor in general, is about turning it down. I try to give you everything that I can, and you’re like, “All right man, just ease back. You can give us a little bit less.” I’m like, “Okay. I’ll give you a little less.”
The episode gave us a key moment that we never saw before, which was William explaining to Randall how he almost came back into his life. How many complex emotions, Sterling, is Randall processing hearing that story knowing that his father found him again and could’ve tried to be in his life, but decided not to, ultimately out of deference to Rebecca? There’s something really noble in William’s decision, but also incredibly heartbreaking — even frustrating — that he actually could’ve made that contact, but actively decided not to. Say, as if he’d been in the cab and run out of money, and he just was never able to find Rebecca.
It’s a lot. He got hit with so much at Thanksgiving last year that he’s like, “Whoa! What the what?” The fact that Rebecca knew and then that Rebecca covered up the fact that she knew, and then that William also covered it up, and then he just kind of put it all together. So William lays out what could have been. Except for the fact that was it his place? He asked Rebecca, and she said, “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” and then he saw those bikes, and he saw nine years of a life that he had nothing to do with, and he says this thing at the end of the scene, “Who am I to insert myself into your life against your mother’s wishes?” So Randall’s left with, “Man, now you could have, but you didn’t. I understand that mom didn’t want it and now here I am, the present day. Here I am with an opportunity or the possibility of breaking a mother and a child up, and who am I to do that? She had 11, 12 years with this woman, before I even came into the scene for the past few months. Do I have that right?” And ultimately he says no.
The final moment of the episode is framed as a very peaceful one with everyone gathered in the living room. Jack smiles at Rebecca and everyone’s together, but Randall’s game of Pac-Man ends and the screen reads game over. We get this sort of ominous sense of dread, that this is a lovely scene, but that the end is nigh for Jack. So, how nigh is it? How should we read that ending?
Before the season is over, we see how Jack dies. So I can say it will be within the next eight episodes of This Is Us…. What I love about the show, in this particular regard, is that we’re able to take the mundane, the routine, the ordinary, and are able to create something that is epic, and larger than just life itself. And life is big, and it has all these different twists and turns, and this Pac-Man analogy that sort of echoes throughout the course of the episode and Randall talking to Beth about life. His life is a game of Pac-Man and the game doesn’t change. Players may change, but the outcome is always the same, and then we just do it all over again. You can take that and mean it like, I have my family just like my dad had his family, and then my children will have their families, and we’ll keep on keeping on, and that’s a positive sort of thing. And then there’s this idea like, “What is there to be done differently?” All you have to do is enter into the game and do your best recognizing that the outcome is what it is. You just try to get a high score. You know there’s no beating the ghosts. You’re never going to conquer them. You can only coexist with them for as long a time as possible before they ultimately catch up to you.
This Is Us returns to NBC on Jan. 2. To see what executive producer Isaac Aptaker revealed about the fall finale and what’s ahead, click here.