This Is Us creator on Kate's huge secret and Rebecca's racist mother
'For Kate, this is a slightly more scary, loaded moment than it may be for others,' says Dan Fogelman
And now, for some unexpected news about who is expecting.
At the end of Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Still There,” viewers learned that Kate (Chrissy Metz) was not just overly concerned with fitting into a dress for her big gig at a bar mitzvah, but was actually trying to stay as healthy as possible because she was doing it for two. It’s true: Kate Pearson is pregnant — and has been keeping it a secret (for a few weeks). Her doctor reassured her she was taking all the right steps/vitamins, and that her poppy seed was now the size of a lentil. It’s a huge turn of events for someone who was trying to take things slow(er) with her fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan): They just moved in together and she is now beginning to aggressively pursue a music career.
Meanwhile, her twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), had similar focus on his burgeoning movie career, and he wasn’t about to let a new nasty injury to his old mystery bad knee — one that required a bit of surgery — keep him sidelined from the screen, even if he had to ignore doctor’s orders, push down the pain, and suck down a few more pills from the bottle that he tried to ignore. (Poor Toby spent most of the episode telling various Pearsons to take it easy physically.) In other sibling news, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) had their hands full with Deja’s head. Foster teen Deja (Lyric Ross) first wouldn’t wash her hair, and then she cut it off in spite after she felt betrayed to learn that Beth told her husband about their alopecia conversation. The problems here are much more than skin deep.
“Still There” also transported us to the late ’80s, where the Pearson household was brimming with activity — and the chicken pox virus. Rebecca’s exacting mother, Janet (Elizabeth Perkins), came to visit during a snowstorm, but it was her own force of nature, passive-aggressively burying everyone in her path. It was her awful commentary in regards to little Randall (Lonnie Chavis) — buying him another basketball, incredulous that he would be the Pearson child to get into private school — that pushed Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to the snapping point. She called her mother a racist, and a chicken pox-infected Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) began digging her car out of the snow to hasten her departure. Only on her way out did Janet start to see the light, which Randall smartly told her, “Took you long enough.”
Let’s run an oatmeal bath, own that itch, and dial up This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, who can offer up precious insight on the episode — and what to expect now that Kate is expecting.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Remember when Kate and Toby agreed to take things slowly? This is not taking things slowly!
DAN FOGELMAN: Whether they’re trying to take things slowly or not, life doesn’t always operate under the same timeline. Life has definitely thrown them a curveball here.
How long have you been planning this unplanned pregnancy?
Since early in season 1, we’ve been talking about [doing this] at some point in this season. There was slight debate of how early in the season and how late in the season we were going to do it, but this has always been part of our plan here.
As Chrissy points out, we haven’t seen a lot of plus-size pregnancies depicted on network TV. And near the beginning of season 1, Kate worried that if she got pregnant, no one would even notice. How do you balance the story of Kate wanting to live a normal life like everyone else but also depict her specific journey?
For Kate, this is a slightly more scary, loaded moment than it may be for others, even inside of her own relationship — and it’s something that she and Toby explore in next week’s episode together.
Right. This is being treated as a high-risk pregnancy, based on her age and weight, and the doctor assures her she’s doing everything she can. How will that dynamic and danger be explored in subsequent episodes?
Pregnancy is complicated and excited and scary and loaded for everybody, and it’s all those things wrapped in itself at once. If you’re a little bit older, if you have different things going on health-wise, everybody’s situation is different. Kate’s is very specific. So that’s a big part of where we’re going in next week’s episode and the rest of the season.
Did she keep this to herself — and not tell Toby yet — because she didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, including her own?
The first scene with Kate and Toby of next week’s episode will answer that exact question. But yes, that’s something that’s fair to read into this. It’s something that comes out of left field for her. It’s something unexpected for her. This is just her news for this brief moment.
I like the wink to the pregnancy with the poppy seed muffin at the beginning of the episode. If anyone figured that out, though, I’ll give them $100 million.
I’ve been very worried many times for the show that somebody might get ahead of a surprise or a twist. This is not one that I think people are going to see coming.
I imagine that Toby will be the most enthusiastic, let’s do this! kind of dad there is. Can you hint at his reaction to the news?
I think that is the right take on Toby’s reaction. [Laughs.]
Rebecca backburner-ed her singing ambitions to raise a family. Now here’s her daughter, who just decided to wholeheartedly throw herself into a singing career, finding out she’s pregnant. How does this impact her focus? And is she thinking about what happened with her mother?
It’s definitely something we get into as we keep going. At this stage of Kate’s story, it’s not necessarily where your brain goes right away. As we’ll see in upcoming episodes, she’s very much keeping her singing career going. It’s slightly different in that she doesn’t have a fully-formed family just yet, and she’s just embarking on a new singing career, so it’s a slightly different situation than Rebecca’s was when she had to make choices. Whereas Rebecca was further down along a road and was at a point where she was getting ready to start a family, this is catching Kate by surprise right as she’s embarking on something new. So it’s going to take her a moment to find the balance with all of it.
Does this possibly push up plans for a wedding?
The wedding planning has always been slightly vague. For these two characters, it’s been purposely a slightly long and slowly gestating engagement. But this definitely changes the conversation. It changes it pretty quickly.
The past story brought the return of Rebecca’s mother. She’s back and more racist than ever! But the subtle kind of racism. Usually we see kids on TV being taught about overt racism. Was that something you were specifically reacting to? What interested you in delving into the challenge of these parents explaining to their adopted boy of a different race the insidious nature of casual, couched, entrenched racism?
All of this stuff — and generationally — is so complicated and so loaded. It’s something that is so complex that when you talk about it to a little kid, it’s even more complicated. I don’t have kids yet, and I’m not one that would be the first to be able to give a conversation on what it is to be black and to experience racism, nor are Jack and Rebecca. So they’re struggling with a complicated topic that they’re already in a difficult position to comprehend or explain in the right way. We tried to be really careful with it. We have a really diverse writing staff and we tried to attack all viewpoints and not turn this into an afterschool special. I’m really proud of the job that all the actors did and the way the writers handled it.
It’s heartbreaking to see little Randall (Lonnie Chavis) have his eyes opened to a crueler world than he thought he lived in, and watch him try to process what his parents are saying, only to leave the room defeated and sad. What do you remember about shooting that scene?
I’m glad that stuck with you. We actually had a much longer scene written and shot, and it was beautiful. There was a lot more conversation between Jack and Rebecca and little Randall there that went even further into detail, and as we were editing it, we realized less was a little bit more there, and you didn’t need to say a lot. Because the scene was really about this little boy’s eyes opening up to something he really wasn’t that aware of, and kind of turning the tables on him. [His] being sad and overwhelmed by it and just wanting to leave the conversation felt really effective to us.
By saying, “You’re racist and I don’t want you in our lives,” Rebecca took a massive stand here.
It is. And I think you have a couple of really complicated things happening here. We were playing with levels and how far we were going to take Mom, and a question of: Is Rebecca acting appropriately? Is she under-reacting? Is she overreacting? Should Mom have been out of that house the second she gave Randall his third basketball? Should Rebecca have given Mom a talking to but not been as severe? It’s a very complicated thing, and I find Elizabeth Perkins as the grandmother in a strange way really heartbreaking at the end of the episode as she’s admitting to a character flaw that she’s both aware of and unable to completely work through where it’s coming from in her own mind. That’s not to say you’re supposed to identify with her, but as she says, in her mind, hopefully this is the beginning of a breakthrough, for this character. It’s left for the audience to decide if that’s too little too late, if we accept that breakthrough, if we don’t want to accept that breakthrough, and where Rebecca and the family are going to fall on that spectrum.
Kevin is determined not to blow this big break, to the point of harming himself. How much does he feel like he can’t let himself down versus letting down Jack, who we saw in the episode gushing about his son’s athletic prowess and teaching him to push through the pain of chicken pox?
As we can see from watching the last two episodes, Kevin’s character in the present day is at a real emotional crossroads in a lot of different ways. We know where we’re heading this season with regards to Jack’s death. Obviously it’s at the forefront of Kevin’s present-day story — what’s informing it and what he’s thinking about. Anybody who’s lost somebody in a tragic circumstance knows that that person, if you were close to them, doesn’t quite leave you. There are periods of times where they are front and center, whether it be coming through in your dreams or in your subconscious or actively in memory. Kevin is having one of those times right now. And it’s a bit of perfect storm for him.
He’s hurt the same leg that we’ve gotten the sense is a huge part of his story that took place when Jack was around. So naturally he’s thinking of his father a lot. As we’ll get into in short order, it’s an interesting time in the present day as it’s reflected on, when Jack passed away in the past, so that’s bringing a lot of stuff up. He’s battling some stuff — or about to embark on a battle with some stuff — that explores similar terrain as his father explored years ago, with regards to dependency. There’s a lot in play for Kevin that’s bringing Jack front and center for him, and it’s going to continue for a while now.
Kevin seems headed down a dark path, as Justin has said. What were those conversations in the writers’ room like about avoiding the pitfalls of the Hollywood-actor-with-a-pill-addiction trope? Is that tricky ground to tread on?
We’ve talked to a lot of guest speakers, we’ve done a lot of research, we’ve all seen the tropes on television and in film before. Kevin’s story to me is very specific and very different in that it’s very closely tied to our main story line we’re exploring this year, which is Jack’s death, and everything that went around that period, so they’re not just looking at a story of, if we go there, of addiction or dependency; what you’re looking at is a story that’s unique to Kevin Pearson, a guy who had all these factors in play that we didn’t even recognize for the first season and a half of our show that are now being drawn out in this perfect storm for him. So hopefully how we avoid the tropes is because you know this character and you understand how he’s gotten to where he’s gotten to, and where he might go.
For Justin, as an actor, he has always carried a lot of our fun and our funny, and often times a lot of our romantic story lines, and then surprises you when he hits you with the really raw, real heavy stuff. A lot of where we’re going next week — not just in terms of anything that may or may not happen with pills, and alcohol, but with everything — is he’s entering a really real place. And that’s a very scary thing for an actor — and I think it’s going to really surprise people and really impress people in terms of what Justin is about to start doing in the next few episodes. I know we are certainly very impressed and proud of him.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Randall has seen a kindred spirit as the adopted outsider in Deja, who wouldn’t wash her hair because she was hiding something, and, as it turns out, she did not know what alopecia was. Deja felt she could confide in Beth, as Beth assured her it was just the two of them talking. Can you talk about the betrayal that she felt that when she found out Randall knew? Is this someone who in the past who has felt exposed or betrayed before, and we’ll find out more what that meant to her?
She almost wouldn’t be able to vocalize what it is because, in the moment, she probably didn’t give any consideration to: “This might come back to Randall. I’m expecting that this is only a secret.” This wasn’t anything that was talked about. I think in a slightly more on-the-nose version of the scene she would say, “Don’t tell anybody about any of this!” and then Randall would accidentally betray and she’d overhear something. I think this is a little bit more loaded.
This is a girl who — and this young actress, Lyric, is exceptional — it’s very hard for her to take these steps forward of really opening herself up. And to do so with somebody and have this very private, quiet moment, and then realize after the fact that that was broadcast to somebody else — I don’t think she’s even able to process any of that. Se’s not even aware that she’s acting out, she just is. It’s really complicated, and it comes from a slightly traumatized background and upbringing. This is not going to be an easy journey but one of fits and starts. And that there’s not always going to be happy endings in every episode for this kid. It’s a slow march.
How do you repair a rift like that of someone who’s already on guard? Is it just going to be time spent and trust earned?
That’s what every person we’ve spoken to that deals with not just fostering but even various forms of adoption, but fostering particularly. It is a series of highs and lows and there’s no general bell curve that necessarily happens. And every experience is unique. Deja’s experience with Randall and Beth is different from every other foster kid’s. There are commonalities that happen, but we’re going to watch a story where one week to the next, we open this girl up a little bit and open their relationship up a little bit, and you never quite know where your happy moments and big moments are going to come — nor when your lows are going to come.
What is your one-sentence tease for next week’s episode?
It’s another one of our big ones in terms of what it tells you about the family — and specifically what it tells you about Jack.
To read what Chrissy Metz has to say about Kate’s pregnancy, click here.
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