Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): This Is Us stars talk game-changing twist in premiere
It was the twist that made you shout: The pilot of NBC dramedy This Is Us, which aired back in September, unspooled the story of a group of thirtysomethings that shared a birthday. As it turns out, that connection — revealed in the final minutes of the episode — was far greater than candles on a cake. The show quickly emergedas one of the lone breakout hits of the fall. EW spoke with the stars to see how the ending of that first episode was a family-friendly revelation — and had them reaching for the nearest Kleenex box. Revisit that story below as part of our year-end coverage.
An actor who has an epic meltdown on the set of his hit sitcom. A perfectionist businessman who has just tracked down the biological father who left him as a baby at a fire station. A personal assistant who is ready to make some changes in her life, including the number on her scale. A man who is wearing nothing but a towel — a Terrible Towel — whose wife is about to give birth to triplets.
What do all of these people who are turning 36 years old have in common besides the same birthday? The series premiere of This Is Us just showed you in poignant, funny, and charming ways — as well as an extremely surprising one: They’re all related.
Yes, the NBC dramedy — which is the fall’s most buzzed-about new series — pulled off one of the most rewarding (and clever) pilot twists in recent years with this feel-good game-changer: Near the end of the episode, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), the couple expecting triplets, lose one of the babies during childbirth, but wind up adopting a baby who was brought to the hospital after being abandoned at a fire station. And when the camera pulls back, it reveals people clad in ‘70s clothes, while a TV set shows Walter Cronkite talking about Iran. The connections fired: Jack and Rebecca’s story takes place in 1979, and the three kids that they took home from the hospital that day were Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) — who were established earlier in the episode as twins — as well as Randall (freshly minted Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown). The episode took place in two different eras, unspooling a story about the parents at the same age as their children.
Perhaps you figured it out when you saw the firefighter offering Jack a cigarette in the hospital, with the three babies next to each other in the nursery. Or maybe it was when Kate prodded down-and-out Kevin to recall the proverb that their father used to repeat — “There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade” — which winked at the poignant consoling conversation that Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) had with Jack. Let’s hope that it’s not right now as you read this story. Whenever you had that moment of “Ohhhhhh!” you’re probably aching with questions right about now. Click here for illuminating intel and perspective from series creator Dan Fogelman, and keep reading to see the cast members’ thoughts on the twist and their teases about what happens next. In addition, executive producers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed the episode, dish a few secrets about the big reveal below. To get you started, here’s a promising quote from Brown: “Dude, what you’ve seen in the pilot is the very tip of the iceberg.”
On the moment that the actors figured out the twist:
STERLING K. BROWN: Reading [the script], it started to slowly dawn on me. I remember specifically reading the camera pulling back and seeing everybody was wearing ‘70s-style clothes and lapels. And then Kate says, “What’s that thing that Dad used to say to us… about lemons and lemonade?” I think right around there was when I was like, “Oh my god… I’m the third kid?” My jaw was on the ground. I was telling my wife, “Ryan, you’ve got to read this! You’ve got to read this!” and she was like, “It’s pretty damn special.”
JUSTIN HARTLEY: I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t washing over me at all, until… the end, when he offered him a cigarette. I mean, I’m not going to be one of those guys who’s like, “I have a sixth sense! I knew!”… I was like, “Oh, damn!” Now I want to know the whole story, not only going forward, but I want to know the story going back the other way as well. You feel like you’ve got the whole thing, and then at the very end, you realize you were in the middle. And you want to hear all the in-between moments and what happened when they were kids.
MANDY MOORE: I think most people aren’t clicking until he offers the cigarette to [Jack]. That’s the moment where you’re like, “Wait….” Even when I was reading it for the first time, I was like, “You can’t smoke in… a hospital!” That’s when I was like, “Oh, whoa!” Then they pull back, and you really see the television and what’s on the news…. I didn’t see it coming at all. Even seeing it for a fourth and fifth time — at this point when the reveal is about to happen, there’s that shot of him in the window, looking in the nursery, my adrenaline starts pumping and I start to feel this tingling in my body, oddly. And I know it’s coming, I was a part of this, but I have a very emotional response to it.
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: A, it was clever. B, it was something that was truly unexpected. I did not see that coming… When grown-up Kate says, “What was it that dad said about the lemons?” and then it cuts right back to Jack standing at the nursery window looking at the babies, you go, “Oh, wow. It’s a family. They’re all connected. This is how the show is going to work.” And knowing the lessons we learn as kids, the experiences that we have, the idea of having the parents the same age as the kids and that kind of mirror reflection of what they’re all going through, what they’re all experiencing, it’s a very genius move by Dan. I mean, he’s taking the most simple story — it’s a family — but then you’re going to see mom and dad the same age as all the kids, and then you’re going to see them at different ages.
CHRISSY METZ: It was when the paramedic came up to Jack at the window and he said, “Oh, we have a baby that was left at the fire station.” And I was like, “Wait, wait. What are they going to do with the baby?” And I was like, “Oh, I got it!” And of course, then I was trying to be Magnum P.I., trying to figure it all out. But that was the moment for me…. [It’s] about not letting a terrible situation affect you to the point where you are just handicapped for life. You make lemonade out of lemons. Because things happen for a reason…. It’s so beautiful on so many different levels for me.
On the attempts to throw viewers off the scent:
JOHN REQUA: We did some things to blur the line. We put period cars in the modern storyline just to blur the line a little bit. But I feel like nurses and doctors will be onto it before anybody else. I feel nurses and doctors will watch the show and go, “Oh, come on! They haven’t used that in 30 years!”
GLENN FICARRA: The equipment is all out of date, and the costumes are fairly out of date, but as TV viewers, we accept a wide range of mistakes in shows… Originally, we were just going to shoot everything really tight — and Dan wrote very carefully — but the more we were shooting, the more we’re like, “You know what? Just show it all. I don’t think we’re going to have a problem.” You’re just not expecting it. I think that’s also in large part to do with the setup as saying it has to do with people with the same birthday, so you’re thinking along those lines, and it’s a really good misdirect.
On how today’s retro-hipster vibe also helped to hide the twist:
MOORE: Everything I was wearing, it was all vintage maternity stuff. The bra that I had on top of my T-shirt was vintage, like, deadstock. Everything was pretty period-correct…. I mean, I probably shouldn’t have, but when Milo and I were doing our fittings and we were taking still photos to use as set decoration, I took a picture of us and I put it on Instagram. I think I said something like, “1970s or hipsters? What do you think?” It was a bit more of a spoiler than the network probably wanted, but everybody was like, “Yeah, hipster.” “Hipster.” “Hipster.” I love that John and Glenn didn’t necessarily go out of their way. If you’re looking for it and paying attention to what’s going on around us, it’s pretty obvious that we’re in a different decade.
VENTIMIGLIA: People are just like, “Oh, wow. Denim on denim. A beard. Long hair. Yeah, this guy must live in Silver Lake.” There was definitely a kind of timeless quality, but yet, it worked today. And I know that was the thing even in the script that Dan had written: We didn’t want to give away, any nod, anything that was going to be telling that we were in 1979. And then I think working to our favor is just Mandy and I look like some cool, hip kids. [laughs]… When I got the job, knowing that we were going to be going back to the past — and I’d already walked into the room with a beard and my hair was already longer — Dan had said to me, “Grow your hair, grow your beard out, stop working out.” I think the idea was to not look too modern, so I was basically like, “Yes, yes, no. I got to work out just for my own well-being, sanity and health.” But I just kept eating.
On planting clues throughout the episode:
FICARRA: Every scene was set up as Easter eggs all over… the Terrible Towel. The [box labeled] ‘79 photos. I think there’s something in every scene because we had specifically instructed people to put an Easter egg in every scene. So even in [Randall’s] office, I don’t think we see them very much, but there’s pictures on the desk, and there’s an autographed picture of [Steelers great] Franco Harris.
REQUA: We have to tip our hat to the hipsters of the world. Because in their bedroom, they have a vinyl record player. And [Jack’s] hair and his beard are exactly period, and his clothes and her clothes are exactly period. I live in Los Feliz; there are people dressed like that on the street every day. Hipsters really saved us.
NEXT: “You start to see this codependence that’s maybe a little unhealthy.”[pagebreak]
On the relationship between the three siblings:
METZ: They’re all three very different. But you notice that Randall and Kevin might not be as close as Randall and Kate. And you find out later on because there’s a bit of a competition, and just as with any parent or with any family that adopts someone who is different, parents just instinctively want to pay more attention to them and whether they feel like they need to or if the child needs it or not, the parents overcompensate. And then the biological children may feel a little slighted and neglected in that way, and there’s a bit of resentment potentially.
HARTLEY: Early on, you get a glimpse of just how close [Kevin and Kate] are, and in the coming episodes as well we touch on things like this phenomenon where twins will feel pain when the other one is hurt, or they feel stress when the other one is going through something. And I think you start to see this codependence that’s maybe a little unhealthy.
On the show delving into issues of race with a white couple in Pittsburgh adopting an African-American child in the late ‘70s:
BROWN: I have a friend, African-American, who was adopted at birth by an all-white family. And so I immediately reached out to him, in terms of what his socialization was like. Did they raise him as African-American? Did he feel connected to his culture/community? What did he have to do in order to gain access to that community? So, I’m very interested in charting that journey for Randall as well. It’s going to be really interesting, as they go back in time, and see him as a young boy, see him at eight, see him at 13, and how and when he grows into the culture from which he came.
MOORE: That is a focal point for Randall’s character and [Jack and Rebecca’s] relationship with him. But having an adopted African-American child being raised by a white family in Pittsburgh in 1980 — it’s not Los Angeles, it’s not New York, it’s not a more cosmopolitan area.
On the relationship between Jack and Rebecca:
VENTIMIGLIA: Everybody talks about “best friends,” what not. They’re great partners. They’re pieces that fit together. They’re very loyal to one another and loving to one another, and supportive of one another. They’re a unit, but they’re getting ready for a very, very difficult time with three babies and it’s a different era. We’re not living in the world of night nannies and all that.
On the flashback device:
FICARRA: It gives you such a wider palette because you can see echoes of the past, what informed certain things. Sometimes they’re just interrelated thematically; sometimes there’s a direct cause and effect.
REQUA: We’re working on an episode right now where you really get into Randall’s character, and you see a guy who just recently got in contact with his father, and so here’s this certain guy who was raised in a white family, and is a high-achieving guy, and he suddenly has this connection with this father who’s been living poor, and a difficult life with addiction and disappointments and tragedies. And then, at the same time, you’re discovering in the past how he has began to develop his black identity as well, and how his mother and his father saw that, began to realize that that was an important part of their job bringing him up as a child. So you’re getting the full picture of a character, and the elements of a character.
BROWN: [They] help to inform how the children, in the present, came to be the people that they are. The ways in which the past helped to shape the present. It just goes deeper. It’s a show that doesn’t fan out, it just becomes more deeply rooted into the earth.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.