This Is Us: Sam Trammell warns the tension between Ben, Rebecca, and Jack turns up 'more than one notch'
And the 'True Blood' alum is preparing for the potential hate mail and tweets: 'I'm terrified, frankly'
[Warning: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “Jack Pearson’s Son.”]
The Rebecca-Jack relationship is not only at the emotional core of This Is Us, it’s sacred ground to fans of the NBC dramedy. Enter this restricted area — which is guarded by dogs, barbed wire, and lasers — at your own risk. (See: Early fan reaction to Miguel, Jack’s best friend who’s been married to Rebecca for an indeterminate period of time.)
The latest man to venture bravely into hallowed territory is Ben, Rebecca’s old bandmate who reappeared in last week’s episode. As we — and Jack — learned in this episode, the connection between Ben and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) wasn’t just restricted to the notes in a treble clef; they used to date when Rebecca was 19 years old. At a time in the ’90s when Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s bond has been tested — and from the looks of a drink-downing Jack at the end of Tuesday’s Valentine’s Day-set story, plus Rebecca’s “I need to have something for myself without you getting in the way” heat-of-conflict admission, it’s about to be put under a helluva lot more stress — Jack clearly feels threatened by Ben, as well as Rebecca’s decision to pursue some mothballed musical dreams and embark on a five-state tour with his jazz group.
Before the band hits the road, let’s check in with the man who plays the man who plays the keys, as well as the man who plays a key role in Jack and Rebecca’s marital discord: True Blood vet Sam Trammell.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So… I don’t know how much you know about this Jack and Rebecca relationship, but the fans are known on occasion to have a somewhat passionate opinion about them. How did you feel about signing on to play a source of tension in their marriage? And are you prepared for hate mail and tweets?
SAM TRAMMELL: I mean, I’m terrified, frankly. I’ve heard that fans are extraordinarily supportive and loyal to that couple, and I completely understand it and empathize with them. I watch the show, and they’re an amazing couple, and Jack is like the ultimate father/husband. He sets the bar so high, you know? He’s wonderful! So, of course, any kind of person that might create tension I can imagine might get the ire of a lot of fans. Yeah, it could be really bad. Am I prepared? Probably not. [Laughs.]
Have you talked with Jon Huertas [a.k.a Miguel] about forming a support group for the men who play Rebecca’s past or future romantic partners?
That is a fantastic idea. I saw him once when I was working and met him. He’s a great guy. But yeah, I think we will. We’re going to have to join together, just to survive the flurry.
What was your first reaction when you were asked to join the show, and how much of Ben’s story were you told at the time?
I just think this show is one of the highest-quality shows being written out there. The writing’s amazing, the acting’s amazing, so I had a lot of respect for it. I was immediately interested and excited about it. And I was told a fair amount by one of the writers, but this was way back in October, so they were still figuring things out. But they were excited about my arc.
You were in bands growing up and played the piano. But in this episode, you’re also singing. Did you used to sing? And if not, did Mandy offer up any advice?
I have never sung until this episode. Music had been part of my life growing up, so my agent asked if I would sing, and I said, “I just don’t sing,” because I was scared about taking that on. But then I felt like, “Aw, I probably should’ve said I could, because I probably can. I don’t know.” And then [This Is Us executive producer/director] Ken Olin called me the next day and said, “Do you just want to try it out? If it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it.” And I was like, “Yes! I definitely want to try it out! Yes! I’m so glad you called!”
I got a singing coach and worked on it. I worked with the composer who lowered the key of it to fit with my voice register. I worked on it, worked on it, and we got up there on the day of, and Mandy wanted it to sing it in a higher key [laughs], so the composer agreed to do that and winked at me and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” and I was like, “Oh, god!” I sat and watched her sing in the booth, which was incredible because she’s very talented. Then she came in and she sat and watched me, which was slightly nerve-wracking, but I somehow pulled it off. That singing coach was very helpful. We shot it the next day, and they played the track, and you sing over it, and it was so fun. We got to look at each other while we were singing — it was a total blast.
Rebecca and Ben do some passionate singing together on Etta James’ “Bring it on Home to Me” with lyrics like “If you ever change your mind about leavin’/leavin’ me behind/Oh, oh, bring it to me/ Bring your sweet lovin’.” There’s some meaning to be read into that about the past, if you want to. Miguel assures Jack that they’re just playing it up for the crowd. But is their connection stronger than just a musical one? That eye contact is intense. It might not even be malicious on Ben’s part, or maybe not even something that Ben is willing to admit to himself.
I would agree. Ben’s a human being, Rebecca is beautiful and very talented, and that song is a sexy song. I think there definitely is some attraction at that point. You just can’t help it. I would say for Ben, there is a little more. It starts off very much like, “Join the band, help us out because we’re floundering,” she helps out, we start doing really well. But then it’s one of those things where it’s like summer camp — you start spending a lot of time with someone, things change a little bit, and yeah, for Ben it’s probably not strictly platonic at that moment when they’re singing, because it’s, you know, sexy. But I say to Jack that she’s beautiful, and she’s so talented, and he’s a lucky man. So that says it all right there.
NEXT PAGE: Trammell answers the question: How much should we trust Ben?
In the previous episode, Ben questioned Jack’s love to Rebecca, saying that if he really loved her he’d understand that she’d want to go on tour. This week, in the conversation he had with Jack at the bar, he mentioned in passing that he used to date Rebecca. How much of that, if any, was designed to get under Jack’s skin?
That’s a great question. I didn’t play it those ways at all. I don’t think that Ben is trying to manipulate the situation and play Jack. I think he just puts his foot in his mouth. In the previous episode, I think I just said something — I don’t understand families because I don’t have kids myself, so I don’t understand the complexities and how you can’t just say, “Oh, yeah, go on tour!” It’s a lot harder than that when you have a family. When I said, “If he loved you, he’d let you do it,” I don’t think I was manipulating her. And then when I mentioned she was my ex — Ken and I talked about [that moment], and we were definitely not playing that as me messing with Jack at all. That being said, you’ve seen the episode, and sometimes these things can come across, and you can lean into things however you want. I don’t know how it came across, or if people are going to start thinking I’m an operator. That was not my intention in playing it.
Do you view Ben as an obstacle for Jack and Rebecca’s marriage? Or is it more that he represents a musical road not followed by Rebecca, as Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] has indicated?
I see it as a little bit of both, honestly. I’m definitely a conduit for Rebecca’s musical dreams and ambitions, for sure. I asked her to join the band because I wanted her to sing, not because I wanted to hook up with her again. Even though my intentions are good, I do represent tension for them. Because Jack is at home with the kids and Rebecca is off, and that’s tough. And I’m sure he’s jealous. I have twin boys, and when the kids are young… I’m not sure exactly how old her kids are in ‘96…
They’re about 16.
Oh, they’d be 16? Oh, okay, forget it. What’s his problem? [Laughs.] I’m kidding. I’m taking her away from him, just time-wise. And the thing about it is, it’s probably a new thing for that marriage. He didn’t really sign up for that. So I can understand why Jack would be jealous. So whatever happens with me and Rebecca, just the fact that she’s with me, that creates tension, obviously.
How much should we trust Ben?
[Pause.] Oh, boy. Wow. It’s hard for me to answer because I only know so much, and there’s probably only so much to be known. But Ben didn’t start with wanting to take Rebecca away from Jack. It’s not about that. But you know what? She’s on tour, we’re singing, music is an emotional thing. There are potential problems… Ben starts with good intentions, but he is a homo sapiens, and she’s beautiful, so…
What was the bigger problem here: Jack’s jealousy, or for Rebecca to not tell Jack about her history with Ben?
It’s tough… To my character, [Jack] definitely seems a little extreme, a little jealous. For Rebecca, there is nothing going on between me and her, so I could understand why she wouldn’t tell him because it just creates tension that doesn’t need to be there, you know I mean? Because she’s not interested. She’s not doing anything. She just wants to sing. There’s a part of me that’s like, “That’s not a problem.” We all have things that we don’t reveal just because they’re not necessary to reveal. Revealing that secret is just not helpful. So I don’t think her not saying anything is a problem — unless it gets revealed. And then now it’s a problem, obviously.
What can you tease about what’s to come?
All I can say really is that it gets turned up a notch to, if you want to call it, a triangle. Nothing has obviously happened between me and Rebecca at this point in the show. But the tension gets turned up a notch. That’s what I can say. I know it’s vague but it’s also accurate.
Would you say one notch or multiple notches?
[Laughs.] If we’re at a five, it goes to between seven and ten. It goes up more than one notch.
There are three episodes left in this season. Which of them will you be in? And is there already talk that you’ll be back next season?
I haven’t heard about next season, but I am in the finale. That’s where I reappear. So, there’s more to come. More to come.
Final question: Can we find someone else nice for you instead? Maybe there’s someone else in the band or in a different band?
I need to get a woman drummer. That’s what I need.
To find out why series creator Dan Fogelman says you should “buckle up” for these last few episodes, click here.
And for more This Is Us scoop, follow @dansnierson.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.