Ron Batzdorff/NBC
October 16, 2018 at 10:01 PM EDT

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?
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.

NEXT PAGE: Ventimiglia on what happens next to Jack — and where he keeps Nicky’s letter

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