Jack Pearson’s heart may have given out last season, but the beat went on for This Is Us viewers — and so did Jack’s story line. Season 3 of NBC’s hit family drama will delve even deeper into the Pearson patriarch’s past, revealing how Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) overcame a troubled childhood to become Super Dad to the Big Three, what kind of relationship he had with his little-discussed little brother, Nicky, and exactly what happened to the siblings in Vietnam. Before you tune in to the season premiere on Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, read what the Emmy-nominated Ventimiglia has to say about Jack’s journey.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With the specter of Jack’s death looming over the series, season 2 was a somewhat heavier season, though the season 2 finale — with the wedding of Kate [Chrissy Metz] and Toby [Chris Sullivan] — was a little lighter. How would you characterize season 3 thus far?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: The heavy moments so far haven’t outweighed the joyous ones. There are definitely tears because we are This Is Us, but they’re not quite buckets of tears like when Jack died. It feels like they are heavy moments that are leading somewhere, but also they’re still hopeful and exciting and a lot of that comes through relationships coming together, i.e. Jack and Rebecca [Mandy Moore] in the beginning.
What themes are emerging in season 3?
Discovery of the past. New burgeoning love. I’ll stick with those two, respectfully, for Jack.
Jack has a lot of baggage from his past — including his time in Vietnam. Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] says we’re going to get a fuller picture of Jack this year. What is that picture starting to look like to you?
It’s starting to look like a pretty rough upbringing. What we’ve known of Stanley Pearson [Peter Onorati], he wasn’t a model father, and I think we’re going to start to uncover and unpack Jack’s childhood — up until his teens and early twenties — and how that upbringing impacted Jack and his brother. The things that cross his path and really cemented in stone this man who loves his wife and loves his family and really puts that at the front of his existence — we’re going to see the creation of that, from his younger years all the way up until the Jack that we met in the pilot.
Michael Angarano has been cast as Nicky. We’ve only seen Nicky as a young boy. What is young adult Nicky like? What is the dynamic of their relationship as adult brothers?
They’re very close. They had that shared experience of being raised by their father, so they really had to look out for another, but they also are different spirits. Jack is very much still the older brother that looks out for his younger brother. At the same time, in what I’ve read so far of those scenes, Jack leaves room for his younger brother to be his own man and to stand up for himself. But Jack kind of can’t help but always want to do better for his brother.
Kevin is off to Vietnam, presumably to learn more about Jack’s past. How would you characterize the revelations and surprises that are in store for viewers? When Dan first told you about it, you said that “Holy s—” was your reaction.
It’s still the same. It’s still a “Holy s—!” reaction to what’s going on with Jack and Nicky, particularly relating to Vietnam and how Jack lost his brother. It’s going to take a moment to set the character up, and really understand the challenges that he’s been through as an individual. We can only assume that he’s seen the same that Jack has seen, but they are individuals so it’s going to take us a moment to set that up. The first time we see him on camera is going to paint a pretty clear picture of what his demons are, and what his struggles in life are. But just like classic This Is Us, we’re going to bounce around in time and see a greater look at a new Pearson.
Where do this season’s emotional gut punches rank for you?
Definitely up there. Knowing that Jack, 36 and older, he’s a bit more stoic, so I have to imagine that as a younger man, you experience these things and you don’t quite have with your guard with regards to your emotion. There is a lot of emotion in store for Jack Pearson, especially around wartime, especially around his brother, and the circumstances that follow him home from war… War is war, there are people in the thick of it or the thin of it, but regardless if you’re wearing a uniform, you’re going to see the worst of it, and Jack definitely is in the thick of it, but at the same time it’s always been interesting to me to know why specifically Jack so casually says that he’s a mechanic. The thing that he’s really protecting his family from knowing — that’s the stuff that’s interesting to me.
Dan said that the show is going to focus an episode on Vietnam. What can you hint about that?
From the very last episode of the second season, you see Kevin and Zoe [Melanie Liburd], and Kevin holding the photograph of his father. It’s a journey of discovery for both Pearson men.
What were your first thoughts when Dan told you he wanted the show to spend a significant chunk of time on this Vietnam story with Jack and make it a significant part of season 3?
I was pretty grateful because there’s a lot to learn about Jack in his younger years that influence this father that we all love. We need to see that. We need to see Jack before Rebecca. We need to see a Jack that is in some happy times as well as some hard times. We also need to see the discovery of love [between] Jack and Rebecca. So playing the younger years of Jack, I’m just very much looking forward to.
What was the piece of research that you did that was most illuminating?
The most impactful — I did read Tim O’Brien’s book [The Things They Carried, and O’Brien is a consultant for this season], and those stories are so amazing and disturbing because they’re real. Also, I had my father — my father being a two-time Vietnam vet — I heard his experiences and he told me his stories, so I always had that growing up.
What was his reaction when you told him that the show was going to explore this story line?
I think he’s as interested as anybody else. And he has his view on his time spent just like any veteran would have their view on the time spent, as would any American who lived through that time in the ’60s and early ’70s. He’s curious to see how it’s all going to unfold for Jack. There have been movies about Vietnam, but I think the reminder [is] that war is something that is absolute destruction, for a good reason or an unknown reason. War is not a good thing. It’s a very hard, destructive process, and no one really “wins” in the end.
The season premiere shows the first date of Jack and Rebecca. What surprised you about this story?
What surprised me was the magic was there, but it took a while for the prestige to come to light.
There were some new mysteries dropped into the season 2 finale, not necessarily involving you. Was there a relief in that? Like, ‘Okay, you guys take on some of the mystery’?
[Laughs] To be honest, I’m thankful that the show’s mystery is a little more about other people, the dying question being, ‘Who is Randall [Sterling K. Brown] saying that Tess [Iantha Richardson] needs to go see?’ Thank god I don’t have to Fort Knox that secret this year too much. I’ll leave it to everyone else.
I’ll ask you one question. How big is this thing?
It’s pretty huge. It’s pretty great.
For season 3 intel from creator Dan Fogelman, head over here.
For even more hints from Mandy Moore, click here.