The star of the NBC family drama breaks down the biggest hint about his character
You knew that the Sept. 26 season premiere of This Is Us was going to tackle the burning question of how Jack dies. What you didn’t know was just how burning that answer would be. Near the end of the emotionally power-charged episode, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) showed up at Miguel’s place and tried to reconcile with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), only for him to share with shame that he was drunk right now and wanted to tackle this drinking problem on his own, only for her to knock on the door a second time and order him to get in the car because they were husband and wife, and they were in this for life. “In a few months from now, everything will be back to normal,” she assured him.
Alas, tears of relief soon turned to grief: As they drove off, the scene melted into the near future, revealing Rebecca driving alone with a numbed-out look on her face, two of the Big Three in mourning with Miguel (Jon Huertas), seemingly oblivious teenage Kevin (Logan Shroyer) making out with Sophie with his leg in a cast, and Rebecca again, now pulling up to the Pearson house, where she let out a chilling wail as we realized something horrific: The Pearson home was a burned-out skeleton of a house. Did Jack die in the fire? That’s the first and biggest of many questions marks scattered along this mystery trail.
Creator Dan Fogelman dropped all sorts of intel on that brutal ending right here, and now the Emmy-nominated Ventimiglia — who surely will be at the red-hot center of many gut-wrenching moments this season — is here to enlighten and comfort you.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What kind of reaction have you been getting on the street over the last few days? Lots of poignant and teary hugs? Has anyone tried to throw flame-retardant gear on you?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: It’s a lot of “Still, we don’t know what happened.” And there was even a little bit of clarity that they were asking me for. They were like, “Wait a minute. You were in the front seat, and then you’re not in the front seat, but your stuff is in the seat but your stuff wasn’t burned, so that doesn’t mean you were in the fire or you were out of the fire? What was it? What happened? How did you die?” So, I still have not escaped the question, but I think at least people feel like we’re on the road to resolution — or on the road to understanding how is that Jack died, and how this burned-down house is a part of it.
It seems that fire is what killed Jack. If we asked you, “Are things as they seem?,” what would you say?
I would say nothing is as it seems on this show. But we’re not ones to lead people astray, so showing the burned-down house and a wailing Rebecca is definitely an indication of what happened possibly that night. Or what it has to do with Jack’s death. We’re not into misleading people, but if we gave everybody everything right now, what would the [mystery] be about? … I think everybody is wanting that itch scratched right now, and it’s like, “Guys, be patient. It will happen when it’s supposed to.”
How big of a clue will that last sequence prove to be? How would you characterize the level of clue that we just received?
I would say on a major level — as any Hasbro board game in the ‘80s. You’re going to discover things, you’re going to get clues that will lead up to it. I know Dan has said it, but if you look at that last segment with the teen Big Three and Miguel — there’s a dog. Whose dog is it? You never heard about a dog. Randall being comforted by a pretty redhead: Who’s the pretty redhead? We haven’t met a pretty redhead in his life yet. When teen Kate says, “I need to find Kevin, I need to tell Kevin,” we see him making out with a teen Sophie, and he’s in a cast. I don’t remember Kevin’s leg ever being broken. He’s a star athlete with the busted leg. Does that change his course in life? Because even little Kevin in the Thanksgiving episode talked about wanting to play quarterback for the Steelers when he grew up. Was that really a possibility? And is that how his life and world changed and [set up] the path that he took to get into acting? There are a lot of those things. You have to pay attention to these things being introduced to the story, and then you’re going to understand the timeline. I think at this point that people can understand that the burned-down house has to do with Jack’s death, but more importantly is [the question]: How much time does he actually have?
The ticking clock.
The ticking clock.
What feelings washed over you when you watched this sequence?
I was heartbroken for the family, I was heartbroken for Rebecca. I definitely felt that this was a fracture moment that sent the kids in a different direction. It was just… I was pained, personally. Pained by what I was seeing in relation to the Big Three.
You know how he ultimately dies, but what was your first reaction when Dan laid out this scene for you?
I remember all of us — at least Mandy and I — when we heard it were like, “Holy s—, this is huge.” Like, “This is going to be pretty massive.” And it’s a very well-put plan of storytelling. I was personally excited about it because I think it’s a good way to unfold the history of the family. It was something that I was looking forward to being a part of.
Going back to those clues… Last season, we saw a flashback where Jack was interested in a fourth kid, or at least a dog. Rebecca, not so much. I believe you half-jokingly said, “Oh, yeah. Jack’s getting a dog.”
[Laughs] So you’re now wondering if I was actually telling you something that I already knew.
I’m wondering. Could this be the dog that you were talking about?
This is the dog that I was talking about in reference to Jack getting a dog. I feel like every father wants to have something loyal that’s going to stick around the house when everybody else goes to leave, so whether you want to call it Jack’s dog or the family dog, this dog that appeared in the lap of Kate is the dog that I was referring to when we spoke last year.
Rebecca was wearing a Steelers jersey, which has sentimental meaning. Is that possibly an encouraging sign that Jack and Rebecca had fully reconciled when he died?
Yeah. At the same time, the Steelers have always been important to her. That fifth episode when she wanted to learn about football, that moment right here is, she’s as much a fan as he is. But her wearing it, that’s not a jersey that we’ve seen before. That’s another clue that we’re going to have to wait and see when that possibly gets introduced.
Should we be thinking about the connection between Jack battling this alcoholism and this fire?
I don’t think we need to think on it any more than we don’t need to think on it. (Laughs.)
Dan said there will be several more reveals leading up to the big one later this season. It’s a process of discovery. What can you say about the next one?
They are not all reveals that have to do with Jack’s death. They are reveals that inform these people we’re getting to know better — Kevin, Kate, and Randall, as well as Rebecca — but also inform the past, potentially earlier days of Jack and Rebecca, younger versions of them. It’s opening up the story wider than just the mystery of how Jack died.
Does this revelation — which is very meaty — satisfy those obsessed with the how-Jack-dies mystery for the time being? Or does it add fuel to the fire — pun intended —and activate their imaginations even more with all of these clues suddenly planted? A little bit of both?
I think it does a little bit of both. Had we not addressed it in some way, then I think people would be upset. But because we did — if you read between the lines, the wailing wife without her husband in front of a burned-down house and the kids are crying saying they need tell a third sibling — we know what all that is relating to. So because of that, you’ve got to know that the burned house has something to do with it. There’s a mild satisfaction but also not a complete resolution or answer. But I think when we come to that moment, like death itself, people are going to have a hard time with it. They’re going to have a hard time accepting it, or saying, “Wait, a minute, that’s it???” There are going to be people that are going to think that possibly that this end of one of the beloved characters is maybe too grandiose — or not big [enough]. That’s life. We never know how our ticket is going to get punched. It could a big story, it could be a small story, but the finality of what it represents is all the same.
How challenging will it to be to shoot The Scene? Is it something you’re dreading in a way? I know you’ve said that you don’t look forward to the death of a beloved character.
I think it’s going to be more painful for other actors than me. Only because [after] filming the final moment, the kind of ripple resonance that happened after you leave, that’s up to everyone else. I think it’s going to be difficult only because we’re dealing with a sensitive subject, but once Jack dies, it’s much more difficult for everyone else than it is for me. I’m just a dead body. Possibly.
Well, there are theories that you’re still alive.
I know. Everybody keeps asking me, “Nah, but he’s still alive,” and I’m like, “Nah, but he’s not.”
Before that sequence, Rebecca makes a big, heroic move to save the marriage — and help Jack. Were you surprised that she acted so fast in trying to save the marriage after she asked him to stay at Miguel’s one episode earlier and they just started taking time apart?
It didn’t take me by surprise. I thought it was a noble effort on her side. We had always seen Jack fighting for things relative to this family, fighting to adopt this baby, fighting to keep everything together when he knew it was going to be an uphill battle, so I think it was great to see Rebecca fight for the marriage. Sure, she’s still hurt, and there are things that they’re going to have to work on, and she addresses that, but they got to do it together. I think it was a very noble thing to put feelings aside and say, “That’s not us. That’s not how we do this. We always do it together.” If people watching this show could put a little bit of that into their lives, then I think couples would be a little stronger, because it’s not two individuals on their own track, it’s people coming together and making a decision to say, “No, we’re doing this together. I’m supporting you as much as you’re supporting me.” I thought it was really brave of Rebecca to do that, and I admire her.
Dan said the moment that struck him as the least viable, though it was intended, was when Rebecca asked Jack to leave the house in the aftermath of the fight scene in the finale, because that’s not how they solve problems.
It’s funny too, because even when we were filming the scene from last season — and you don’t see this in the edit — right before [Rebecca] said that, in my mind, I’m thinking to myself as Jack, “I need to step away from this house for a moment.” I started to open my mouth, but it’s Rebecca that delivers the news and the blow: “I think you should stay at Miguel’s for a little while.” Meanwhile, we never saw Jack’s side of it, previous to that [comment], so we never knew that Jack — and this was in my mind and my heart — was probably going to suggest he step away, too, to figure this out. Because he doesn’t want to expose his family to it. Again, I feel like Jack and Rebecca are always on the same page.
This was Mandy’s “Jack” moment. He was too proud to ask for help, and Rebecca has to be the one to reach across the void and say, “We’re getting you out. This is our problem.” It sounds like she was excited to get to play a scene like this.
It was a lot of pressure. Those moments are not, let’s say, Rebecca’s specialty. They’re more like a “Jack moment,” but it doesn’t mean that it can’t carry the same impact and weight that it would if Jack were doing that. Mandy and I — thank God for her — we really do have the best time breaking down this marriage and understanding who these people are. I was looking forward to that scene, but I also knew that I had some heavy lifting to do in that scene as well. So I had to look at it from Jack’s side and the absolute humiliation that he had in admitting to his wife that he’d been drunk for weeks and he was, in fact, drunk standing in front of her. She makes this big noble gesture to get him back and get him in the car, and I thought it was the most beautiful moment when she so calmly quietly says to him, “Get in the car, Jack.” And then she steps inside the door and whispers into his ear, that’s compassion. Jack is in pain. Why is he drinking? He’s probably in a lot of pain. That’s stuff that’s going to get unpacked this season as well, but Jack is better because of Rebecca.
How hard was it for Jack to admit that Rebecca that he was drunk and had been drunk for weeks? There’s this mix of shame being drunk and that he had this problem, but also pride, in that he was too proud to ask for help and felt that he needed to do this on his own. Keeping this secret from his wife and kids must have taken its toll, and we know he’s struggled with it in the past. What were you thinking about when you were filming that scene?
It was a mix of the physical and the emotional. First, Jack is drunk. There were other moments through the day that we never actually saw in the episode but we filmed where we see Jack taking a drink before he goes into the club, taking a drink when he’s in the kitchen, taking a drink when he’s by himself waiting for the phone to ring. So how was it that Jack dealt with keeping this from his family? But also when did the wheels come off? Because in the late-’80s, Rebecca said, “You’ve got to knock this off, baby,” because she won’t have it in her house. What did Jack do back then to put a lid on it? I mean, it’s in his DNA, it’s in his compositional makeup, that his father was an alcoholic, and we’ve seen that too, his father drinking. There’s the physical element of dealing with that as well, it’s like, “How drunk do I play it?” If Jack is a professional drinker, no one’s ever going to know that he’s been drinking. People just won’t notice it. And then, you’re right, it’s mixed with shame. And Jack is someone that white-knuckles it. He doesn’t want to make his problem anybody else’s problem. So it begs the question of: How did Jack do it the first time? How did he keep a lid on when pressure was mounting?
Should we not be fooled by the speed of this baby step toward reconciliation, because he’s got to deal with his alcoholism, and it’s going to be a very bumpy, twisty road to recovery for him and for them?
Absolutely. It’s absolutely going to be a long road to recovery for them — and for him. But the moment when she goes and collects him, the night of the morning that she asked him to leave, he’s going to be back at the house. So how does that impact not only his relationship with Rebecca but how does that impact his relationship with his kids? What did they understand of why their parents are not together together? Kevin seemed proud that his dad was in a fight, and Kate is upset, and Randall is actually pretty upset and it looked like it was directed at his father. So are they upset that Mom and Dad are taking a break? Is it something else? Is there something to be learned or discovered about what these kids are going through that we don’t even know yet?
What can we expect to see in the story of Jack and Rebecca in this next episode?
Episode 2 picks up almost immediately of where episode one kind of left off — before we went into a time jump and saw a burned down house and crying kids. It starts to address Jack’s drinking, what it meant to get through it the first time, where he finds himself in the late-’90s of having done what he had done and been drunk to the point of getting into a big argument with his wife. We start the second episode with a deeper dive into Jack and his history of dealing with being an alcoholic.
I think the second episode is as emotional as the first one, if not more. In a different way. There’s the disparity of the burned house and what we know that represents to Jack and the family. There are other things still left to be serviced that are going to be heartbreaking in a different way. I still think that there’s a lot of tears to cry over the next several weeks.
To read the hints about Jack’s death that creator Dan Fogelman revealed in our Q&A, click here.