Up until now, you’ve primarily known Jack Pearson as parent par excellence and the type of romantic spouse who prompts wives to angrily nudge their husbands and scoff, “Why can’t you be more like him?” (Besides that struggle with alcoholism, of course.) Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us opened a new chapter of the late patriarch’s life that had been only hinted at — and one that felt a little well, forbidden: the Vietnam War, of which Jack rarely spoke.
“Vietnam” reaffirmed what we had suspected — that Jack did much more in the war than simply serve as a mechanic. In unspooling his origin story, it also revealing much more about his painful childhood, which included living with an alcoholic father who abused his mother and protecting his little brother, Nicky, who, as we know, will later die in war. Jack’s overwhelming concern for his younger sibling — instilled by, ironically enough, his father — would help to form the Super Jack legend in ways we hadn’t previously known: When nervous Nicky’s number came up during the draft lottery, Jack transported him to the Canadian border to help him flee to safety; when Nicky (Michael Angarano) changed his mind, reported for duty, and revealed in his letters back home that he was struggling mightily, Jack conspired with his doctor to pass the medical exam so he could enlist in a war that nobody wanted to fight. There was no other option in Jack’s mind: He just needed to be near his younger sibling.
Viewers saw Jack — as a sergeant — lead a battalion that suffered an ambush in which he lost men, something that deeply impacted him, but like the other horrors of war he experienced, it would be stuffed down. After he was reassigned to another outpost, Jack found an opportunity to visit Nicky, who had been demoted to the lowest rank. “Hey, little brother,” Jack said, arriving at the scene and watching Nicky dump gasoline on a barrel of excrement. Hearing that familiar voice, Nicky chucked a match into the barrel and turned to face his brother. One look at Jack’s expression — and for that matter, Nicky’s — indicated that he had entered unchartered and foreboding territory.
Here to sift through that complex mess of emotions, star Milo Ventimiglia talks about how he readied himself for the danger zone, what he loved about the introduction of Nicky, and what kind of horrors lie ahead for the Pearson brothers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve known that a Vietnam storyline was coming since season 1. Was there a mix of anticipation and nervousness as it approached, given that fans would be watching closely, scrutinizing its impact and accuracy?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: My feeling is always excitement to play another side of Jack that we don’t know about. Jack in wartime is a huge moment in his life that informs who he becomes, so for me to play in the timeline of Jack’s creation was exciting. But also, you’re right, I knew it was going to be some heavy lifting, because it was a different version of the show than people had gotten used to. This isn’t Jack and Rebecca, this isn’t Jack and his kids, this is Jack on his own, as well as Jack with his brother that we really don’t know much about. So I think the only nerves were coming from allowing us, the storytellers, to be able to play in the world that is the unknown from what the audience normally sees every Tuesday night. But I feel like this episode was definitely a setup that left people wanting more.
How did you prepare for the combat scenes that we saw — and the ones to come? I know you mentioned that you were worn out, because I know you don’t quit.
I definitely don’t quit and I definitely was tired. We had a technical boot camp with a company called Sigloch. Matt Sigloch’s guys ran us through basic operating procedure of a solider, and a solider of the Vietnam era. Beyond that, emotionally understanding what was going on at that time in the world, but in particular in the U.S. — young men being drafted and really how this draft was going to drastically change someone’s life and put them on a course that a lot of guys just couldn’t recover from — that was something that was as much preparation as learning how to operate an M16 rifle, protocol in military, and battle scenes. For me, a lot of it always comes down to — and thank God for — the words that [This Is Us creator Dan] Fogelman writes and the direction that [director/executive producer] Kenny Olin gives me. There’s always an emotional touchstone that I have to be aware of within the technical aspect of playing war. Because of who Jack is and what he’s going through, I can’t just dive him into “super-militaristic guy with the golden heart”; he’s the guy with the conscience. But in this case, the guy with the golden heart is attached to a rifle.
We’ve talked before about your dad being a Vietnam vet, and you have Tim O’Brien [Vietnam veteran and author of The Things They Carried] as a consultant and co-writer of this episode. How much have you talked to them about their experiences, and how did they help you tackle this challenge?
The storyline we explored with Jack, particularly the region where Jack is, it was probably more close to what Tim O’Brien had experienced in war than, let’s say, what my father experienced in war. But I guess I kind of mashed up everything that I knew in speaking to my father and Tim, as well as just what we needed to accomplish in playing Jack in war. It’s not Tim’s experience, it’s not my father’s experience, it’s Jack’s experience. It was one of those things that just had to inform how he is with his family. So prepping for playing this side of Jack, it felt like I really just needed to strip away experiences that I’ve had as Jack and get down to fundamentals, and remember what it was like being 25 years old and maybe in charge of a group of guys — or 25 years old and not quite knowing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life — but taking a direction, and being a little bit afraid of things. But at the same time, putting myself in an uncomfortable position and pushing through it. Jack’s circumstance just happens to be war — and life and death.
There’s a shot of Nicky to open the episode and a more revealing one at the end. This seems to be a man who has been changed and broken by this war. Does Jack have any idea of how far gone he is? Jack seems to flinch ever so slightly when he sees him.
Jack knows his little brother. Jack knows how serious things are, from the letters that his mom is receiving. He can understand that his brother isn’t doing well in the theater of war, but I don’t think it is until that moment that Jack seems him that he realizes just what he’s up against. We do continue that moment in later episodes. Jack signed up for war to go get his brother, so there’s the very real possibility and threat of death, but even more so, he’s got to pull his brother out. He now has a bigger job than just surviving a war. He’s got to survive the war, hopefully for him and his brother. We kind of know how that works out; he loses his brother at war. But I don’t think Jack knew how bad it was until he saw him. Jack’s spirit, though — he’s not one to fold easily, he’s not one to break, so I think it was important to not really be crushed by seeing someone you love so broken. Jack has to be the hope, he has to be the light, he has to be the beacon at the other end of the turbulent storm to say, “No, no, no. We’re going to get you out of this.”
There’s a mix of emotions on Nicky’s face, too. How should we read it? Is it anger? Pain? Relief? Is there a little bit of, “Oh look, Superman has come to save Lois Lane again”?
I think it’s everything. No matter how much Nicky loves his brother Jack, there’s got to be resentment that he couldn’t take care of himself. Even the moment where they’re little boys and Jack is asleep and Nicky goes down to confront their father in an argument with their mom, and then finally it’s Jack who steps in — I don’t know what that’s like, I never had an older brother. I had older sisters and two loving parents, so I’ve got to believe that no matter how much Nicky loves his brother, how much he’s probably grateful that Jack was always there standing up for him and his mom, there’s got to be some resentment. There’s got to be some anger. When we do see Nicky at the end of the episode, and we see him as broken as he is, there are a ton of emotions attached to that. We do continue that in later episodes and see all of that. We understand Nicky’s pain moving forward.
You had worked with Michael on Wild Card, right? What made you think he’d be right to play Jack’s brother?
We only shared the screen once, but what I loved about just being around him was he was this amazing actor at such a young age, and he was just so full of life in reference to everything theatrical. He grew up in the theater, he grew up on films, he grew up around dance and song, that I just thought, “Here’s this rare breed of actor that truly lives as an artist.” I was just so impressed with him eight years ago when we were working together and he was only 22 years old, and now, seeing how he’s matured and grown, and how his art has become deeper and more meaningful. Like Mandy [Moore], I get that front-row seat with Michael. I can just sit there with him and see the truth in his eyes as he’s delivering this character and delivering this — I don’t even want to call it a performance — just this truth that is so real. It breaks my heart every day because they are brothers. They are quite literally the same DNA, the same blood, cut from the same cloth. Their experiences are so closely entwined that I feel deeply for what Michael is doing on camera.
Nicky shares a brotherhood with Jack, but he’s also more of an external processor. He’s wearing his emotions on the sleeve, he’s vulnerable — kind of the opposite of Jack. What were you expecting from the character, and what surprised you?
I love that. I think that’s an amazing direction for the character, for Nicky, to be just different from Jack, because siblings are different. One of my sisters, we’re very much our father’s kids, and my other sister is our mother’s daughter. People are just different, and I think Jack has a little more stoic attitude toward things. I love that Nicky is a lot more vocal with his emotions and his processing. But that’s also Jack being the oldest and Nicky being the youngest; they’re falling into their roles quite easily. My oldest sister was a little more quiet, whereas I was a little more emotionally vocal as a kid. So it makes sense.
We know that Jack doesn’t like to talk about what happened in war, and that it changed him. How much of it is trauma — seeing the horrors of war and experiencing loss, including his brother — and how much is guilt, whether it’s founded or not?
All the above. First and foremost, war is a horrible thing, and you witness things that you just can’t unsee. And then beyond that, war is ever-changing, and there is no real game plan for the perfect victory, because there’s always going to be loss. So I think knowing that, there’s always the question: What could I have done better, differently, to create a different outcome? What I do know of Jack’s not discussing Vietnam, not discussing the war with people, is: Jack doesn’t want to put that on anyone. He doesn’t want anybody to have to shoulder that or be concerned for him, because Jack and who he is and being a man of that era, I think he bottles it all up and he shoulders it. He gets through it for himself. He doesn’t want anybody else to have to help him deal with it. He just will keep it concealed forever, which ultimately he does. Kevin doesn’t know anything about his father’s time when he was being interviewed on NPR. Had no idea. So Jack never told anybody what he experienced in war, which is sad in many ways because I feel like he never moves through it. Everything that he’d experienced, he hung onto it. Leaving questions for kids is always a very sad, sad thing, but at the same time, how can the kids really truly understand what Jack went through?
We see Jack enlist in this horrific war just because he has to be there for his brother. Will this Vietnam storyline build the Super Jack myth and break it down at the same time?
I think that’s really accurate to be building it up and breaking it down. But knowing what’s to come, Jack doesn’t lose himself in war. Jack doesn’t lose himself in a lot of situations. The only time where Jack really lost himself was to the bottle, when he actually attacked Rebecca’s bandmate, that old boyfriend. But who Jack is as a man, as a source of light, as a source of hope, he is that exact same way in war. There isn’t anything that he comes up against that rattles his fundamental core or makes the audience question behavior that could potentially could happen in war. He’s still Jack, he’s always Jack. The storyline will reaffirm what we know of him and help us to understand why he made choices in regards to his family life and what he really wanted. That speech in the grocery store, where he talks about wanting his mom to be okay and have a family and maybe a house that doesn’t resemble the one he grew up in, the events of war have caused Jack to think very simply, you know? Very, very simply.
There are smaller but powerful gut punches in this episode. We learn about Jack’s heart condition, which had been diagnosed to some extent. If only they had monitored it more closely!
Yeah. Again, different era. When Jack was growing up, mom and dad were smoking in the house.
And we see that if Nicky had been born just 120 seconds later — a random piece of luck — he wouldn’t have been drafted. There’s also the “breathe” moment with Robinson that Jack took with him in his parenting journey. What was a smaller moment from this episode that resonated with you?
Gosh, so many of them. I think the breathing moment was big, just because we know how that impacts him and his kids. Definitely losing two guys, even though we didn’t see a whole lot of Squirrel or Robinson — addressing the fact that Jack was in command and lost some guys, I think that’s a weight that is going to hang over Jack for a long time. And just knowing what he has to do to get his brother out of this bad situation and then get himself out of this bad war is just a tall order. Those are the things that kind of grabbed at me. It’s so funny, when I watch these episodes, in terms of something that “gets me,” Jack’s story stuff really doesn’t. And I think that’s because I’m too close to it. If Katie’s going through something or Kevin’s going through something or Randall’s going through something, that’s where usually my heart starts to get tugged on. But if Jack is going through something, I’m like, “No, man. Toughen up. You’re going to be fine.” [Laughs.]
As Dan noted, this episode explored the idea of the sins of our fathers being passed on. You see what Jack inherited — the alcoholism — and what he sought to avoid. It’s interesting to learn more about what cycles were broken or what adages were adopted, say, that line about a big brother’s only job being to take care of the little brother.
Totally. There have been so many moments throughout shooting this Vietnam storyline that I realized every moment that is happening to Jack in Vietnam is a moment that we’ve already played later on in his life. In later episodes, when we’re doing more Vietnam stuff, things will happen, and I’m like, “Holy sh—. I remember when I was filming this one scene from his 50s or his 40s, and this totally informs that.” Eerily so, to where I feel like these things just soaked in through who Jack is and really, really formed him. With his dad saying to him, “You’ve got to be a big brother” — how that reflects back on Jack talking to the boys after they got into the argument in the car when he’s teaching them how to drive. He’s like, “You two are the only ones who are going to know what your existence is like. You and your sister. When that’s not there, it’s gone. And you can’t talk about it with anybody else.” There were a lot of moments like that that were always going back to me remembering what we filmed already, but yet, were in the future of the current version of the character that I’m playing. Yeah, that was trippy.
The show returns to Vietnam in episode 7, much of which will be shot on location in Vietnam. You are truly going there. How are you gearing up for that, and what excites you about that journey?
Gearing up… let me see. I’ve got a typhoid pill, I’ve got a malaria pill, I’ve got a whole bunch of inoculations and shots. [Laughs.] Other than that, I still feel like we are this small family drama, so to get an opportunity to go and put boots on the ground in the place where his history actually happened, I think is a really big deal. It’s a very big deal for the men and women that actually experienced it, and hopefully, they can look at the show and that will give a little bit of relief, kind of loosen that valve of pressure just a bit more to say that in telling our story, we walked the ground that you guys walked. That’s what I’m hoping.
How much should we be thinking about Nicky’s words: “I know I’m not getting out of here alive, but it’s not going to be on anyone else’s terms”? How haunting will they be as we head into this journey?
I don’t know how much this will answer your question, but every day when I’m gearing up, when I’m on set and I’m putting my uniform on and I’m grabbing my rifle, I also take that letter, and that letter’s in my pocket. I imagine that Jack has read that thing so much so that he’s memorized it. I feel like those words echo in his mind so often, that his brother’s in trouble, that he has to find a way to get him out of this, and he has to get him to a safer place. So you can’t read into it, but at the same time, I know that it’s constantly on Jack’s mind.
You’ve called this a “journey of discovery” for both Pearson men, meaning also for Kevin [Justin Hartley], as he heads to Vietnam to learn about Jack. How would you brace people for what lies ahead?
I think people know something ominous is coming. And of course, we all know the result: Jack lost his brother. In true This Is Us fashion, we all know Jack dies in his 50s, but leading up to that moment where we actually witness it and see it, it’s much the same with the Vietnam stories. I think people should be prepared for the casualty that happens in war, the emotional innocence that’s lost, the physical family that’s lost, all of that. War is a nasty, nasty thing, and it puts people on different paths because of it. We all know how Jack’s story continues beyond it, but we just don’t quite know what happened to him in war — and we’re going to find out.
[This episode] felt like the standalone origin story. It felt like we’re just kind of setting up where we’re going, that Jack is stationed at this fishing village and it’s supposedly a cush position, having been out in battle and out in combat. I don’t think anything about war is cush, no matter what, no matter where you find yourself. I think people should brace themselves for that.… [Episode] 7 is a really beautiful episode that shows more of Jack in war, and also Jack following war.
What’s the one word or phrase that we should keep in mind as we’re headed further down this Vietnam storyline?
I can’t remember the name of the photographer [Horst Faas], but it’s that image we’ve all seen: It’s the solider with “War is hell” on his helmet. That’s the thing to remember: War is hell. There’s nothing positive about war. There really truly is no winner.
To read what Michael Angarano, a.k.a. Nicky, had to say, head over here.
This Is Us Creator Dan Fogelman breaks down what’s to come over here.