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September 21, 2018 at 12:46 PM EDT

Rebecca is about to meet Jack. Rebecca is trying to move on without Jack. These are two of the Rebeccas that you will see at the beginning of season 3 of This Is Us. The season premiere of NBC’s hit family drama (Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. ET/PT) will whisk you back into the ’70s to attend the couple’s first date at a carnival after their chance “Moonshadow” meeting before showing you the grieving struggles of the can-do matriarch as she tries to keep her three teenage children from imploding. What kind of figurative or literal rollercoaster ride awaits Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) on their first official date? What’s in store for the Pearsons in season 3? What’s the moment in the premiere that viewers won’t stop talking about? Is this the year of Miguel (Jon Huertas)? These answers and Moore await you, as Mandy Moore takes on questions about season 3 and leaves you asking, “Whaa….?”

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What themes already seem to be emerging this season?
MANDY MOORE: I can really just speak to my character, but it’s the journey of young coupledom — of Jack and Rebecca’s courtship. That is juxtaposed with starting life over at square one again three months post-Jack passing. It’s tempers, and bad behavior from the kids, and disconnection — emotionally stunted, not really evolving past the point of just utter grief for some family members. Rebecca is trying her level best to just push forward and pick up the pieces of their shattered life. Trying to get everybody on the same page when they’re teenagers and everybody has different ways of dealing with grief is just an impossible task.

How would you sum up the tone in the four episodes that you’ve filmed?
It’s all across the board. It’s a good mix. It’s like we’ve all kind of switched places a little bit, because I feel like we’re carrying some of the levity, and the lightness, and the sweetness, and the romanticism with the early Jack-and-Rebecca years, but obviously, then you bounce right back into the months post-Jack’s death, and that is just, ugh. It’s a s—show at home, and everybody is off the rails. Life is not going smoothly. Everything’s falling apart. Then there’s turmoil for some characters that might have had some lighter moments, especially towards the end of the season, that you’re like, “Oh, okay, yeah, this is real life.” I maybe wasn’t expecting that, but I feel like we’re all exchanging roles in some senses. The lightness you’ve come expect from some characters may be plagued with some heavier themes this season and vice versa. I like that because it’s true to life. I know that every show always says, “Well, this is the best season yet!” but I kind of feel like it is.

How much will Rebecca be tested as she attempts to push her family through this grief and rebuild their lives? Is this a major proving ground for her?
It’s a major proving ground not just for her, but for all of the kids. This is that juncture in their lives where everything matters all the more now. Who are they ultimately going to be? Are they going to take this horrible tragedy and try and build their life for the better from the smoldering ashes, as it were? Are they going to continue their plans of pursuing music, and going to a good school, or Kevin finding his path again and his next joy in life? It’s a proving ground for all of them, especially for Rebecca, because I still think that she really grapples with, “I have to do this. I have no choice. I need to be the parent that Jack always was.” But I don’t think it comes to her as easy as it did for him because she wasn’t the fun parent. She wasn’t the parent that was good at making the speeches. She handled the practicalities of their life. In that sense, she’s able to continue paying the bills, and finding them a place to live, and figuring out what the next house is going to be, and getting groceries. It’s dealing with the bigger crises that arise in the kids’ personal lives that she’s maybe not as adept at dealing with.

Jack’s death loomed over much of season 2. Is it refreshing to be exploring this era — to be on the other side?
It’s very refreshing and exciting. I also just think that it’s such an important time because it fundamentally affects who these people are for the rest of their lives. It’s such an important part of their growth and their evolution as humans and, ultimately, who they are when we meet them [in the] present day. These months, and this short amount of time afterward, and how they choose to cope, is so indicative of where they find themselves still to this day. I find it a really juicy, interesting time. There’s so much to extract from it.

But I have to say it is so daunting and heavy and almost harder to walk around feeling that grief than playing the grief in the moment. Playing the shock of losing somebody, you want to get to that point where you feel it and you are on the verge of tears, but then you pull back from it, so all day sitting in that kind of frame of mind is like blehhhhhhh. It’s awful. It’s almost more daunting than playing the pain of losing someone. That’s been a surprise to me…it’s not something that you can just pop out of, and not to say that the other is either. You’re in that world, and you’re sitting in that emotional stew all day, and you just have the pot on “simmer,” so you’re like, “Okay, cool. I got to turn it up to high heat now because we’re ready to shoot.” With this, it’s like turning it up to almost high heat and then backing it down a little bit because you’re not in the throes of that abject grief anymore, but it is your constant companion. It hasn’t left you, and it won’t leave you for a good amount of time.

NEXT PAGE: Moore on the “WHAAA…?” season premiere twist

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