This Is Us producer breaks down Kevin's heroic road-trip rescue and… Robert De Niro?
Well, at least the hope of seeing him onscreen. As for Kevin's journey, "we wanted to throw him into a situation where he really was tested," says Isaac Aptaker.
The man who was once the Manny has been on a mission to prove himself in Hollywood, to prove to himself (and his deceased dad) that he — the boy who was once a promising quarterback before blowing out his knee — has something special to offer. This same man has also been on the search for epic love, for a partner with whom he can build a family, much like his deceased dad did. Sometimes for Kevin Pearson, these two things are at odds with each other. Earlier this season on This Is Us, on his way out the door to film an indie movie in Vancouver, Kevin (Justin Hartley) was asked by his pregnant-with-twins fiancée, Madison (Caitlin Thompson), to reconsider the concept of "all-in." And in Tuesday's episode, "There," Kevin seemed to choose his path. He just, you know, had to make a heroic pit stop along the way.
There was Kevin, pursuing his career with a conflicted heart, filming the legal thriller Glass Eye with Robert De Niro and an adversarial director named Jordan (Stephen Friedrich), when he received the call that Madison was going into early labor. Although Jordan tried to persuade Kevin to stay for one more day of filming (and with apologies to Mr. James), Kevin couldn't wait: He quit the movie and began an arduous journey to make it home for two very important birthdays. He battled through bad cell connections and sold-out flights and Miguel conversations and plan Cs, even losing precious time by rescuing a severely injured man (Josh Malina!) from a car that ran off the road. After dropping the man off at the hospital, he arrived just in time for his flight. There was one problem: He had no ID. (He'd dropped his wallet while helping this stranger.) As the episode drew to a close, Kevin was doing his darnedest to overcome a final obstacle: a TSA agent who did not seem charmed by the pleas of this self-proclaimed "public figure."
While Kevin tries to figure out if he's got gate, let's order some New York strips and a code red, rev up our chocolate-covered Teslas, and cross-examine Robert De Niro, or at least This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker about the key events in this episode. Yeah — we're going "There."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode played with tension and viewers' expectations, especially in the wake of that car crash promo and all during Kevin's repeated distracted driving. But instead of getting an accident, he rescued an injured man from one and continued an amazing race to make it to the airport. What appealed you to about telling — as Kay Oyegun put it — an "action-adventure" for him?
ISAAC APTAKER: This episode is so much about Kevin — on the precipice of becoming a father himself — can't stop but compare himself to Jack [Milo Ventimiglia]. So we wanted to throw him into a situation where he really was tested and forced to become a hero in the most literal sense of the word, in a way that we've seen Jack be a hero before. And let him ask the question of, "What do I do when I'm confronted with this impossible choice? Do I go help this stranger in a life-or-death situation, even if it means jeopardize being there for the birth of my children?"
I did not have Josh Malina as Side of the Road Car Accident Victim on my This Is Us guest-star bingo card. How did that casting come about?
One of our writers, Kevin Falls, was on Sports Night with Josh way back when. When we were brainstorming the perfect car crash victim for Kevin to rescue, Kevin Falls pitched him. We knew he was good at walk-and-talks, we wanted to see how he'd do at a drive-and-bleed.
When Kevin decides to ditch the movie and start his journey home, this seems to be the spark of the all-in moment that Madison was talking about. Is it?
That's something that we're going to be speaking to in upcoming episodes, as you see whether or not he gets there and what his interactions with Madison are like when they do meet again. But we realized after that in having Kevin walk off this movie, he's going to get quite a reputation because he's now walked off of a play to go save Randall [Sterling K. Brown]. And then in our pilot, of course, he walked off The Manny because he's had it. He's going to become known as the guy who storms off his own projects… He's going to be uninsurable if he's not careful.
Previously for Kevin — notably with Sophie — the question of his being all-in was about whether he could show up for his romantic partner. In this episode, with the flashbacks showing Jack being "there" for his son, the decision to be all-in seemed to be more about being there as a parent. As it now pertains to Madison for Kevin, are showing up as a romantic partner and showing up as a dad the same thing? What are the distinctions?
You're asking the exact right questions. Because the order of operations of how he and Madison got together was so unconventional and mixed up, it is a little tricky to suss out what [part] of this is romantic love? What of it is paternal love? What of it is responsibility and wanting to be a good person? That's all jumbled up inside of Kevin, and he needs to do some introspection to kind of tease out what's what.
After his dramatic departure from the set, one wonders: Is he really gone from the movie? And more important, how mad is De Niro?
[Laughs] When you're deep into a movie like that, and you walk off towards the end, it's pretty difficult and expensive to redo the whole thing with a different actor. So in that sense, the odds are stacked in Kevin's favor. But if you're going to pick people to walk off the set from, I would say De Niro is definitely up there in nightmare situations. So it's not great for Kevin.
We don't actually get to see De Niro. [This Is Us creator] Dan Fogelman has the connection to him, having written Last Vegas, which starred De Niro. Similar to Chekov's gun, you don't introduce a De Niro in the first act unless you plan to use him later, so… any chance he'll actually guest-star?
Oh, I would love nothing more! I feel like if it weren't for a pandemic production and De Niro's in Tribeca, I believe, there was a chance we would have taken the shot. But we don't want to ask a national treasure to fly across the country to do a 30-second cameo in the middle of a pandemic. So maybe when things calm down, down the line, we'll get a little De Niro face time, but I think he has to live off screen for now.
So Kevin rescues this man and shows up at the airport without his ID. Obviously, he has a good sob story. But is there a bit of celebrity privilege baked into his interaction with the TSA agent at the airport?
I think he does have the celebrity privilege baked in, but if you look at how that plays out, he's not exactly getting the celebrity response. She's pretty stuck to the rules of TSA, which is: It doesn't matter if you're Brad Pitt, if you don't have that photo ID, I can't let you on this plane. Our next episode will pick up with where this one left off and we'll see whether or not Kevin is able to appeal to the higher authorities of air travel, or if he finds another way to get there —or if he fails to make it in time.
We've seen a pregnancy scare already with Madison. We've seen a miscarriage and a premature birth with Kate [Chrissy Metz], and we've seen a baby die when Rebecca [Mandy Moore] gave birth to the triplets. How rocky will this delivery be?
Any delivery is always fraught. What we're really interested in exploring — we've actually had a number of people in the This Is Us family go through it — is what it's like giving birth during the pandemic. We've had a lot of birth on the show, [but] it's a very different and unique experience giving birth right now. And since we have had many people who can speak to it directly on the show — including Dan Fogelman — we're going to really explore what a unique time it is to be having to be a baby.
Madison lives an insular life, feeling like she only has Kevin and Kate to lean on. In a moment of vulnerability, she finally lets Randall and Beth [Susan Kelechi Watson] help her on the phone, when she really needs it. How much of her insistence of maintaining a stable family unit is rooted in some trauma from her past that we'll soon explore?
Yeah, it definitely is. And we're going to get into Madison's origin story deeper into the season. It's interesting because you have Kevin, who came from this really picture-perfect in a lot of ways nuclear family; they have their flaws, but those parents couldn't have been more committed. And he's trying to live up to that and replicate it in a sense, and Madison is kind of the opposite, and we'll learn more about her background. She's trying to create something that she never necessarily had for herself — and give that to her children.
In the flashbacks, Jack realizes that it's not enough to be there with his son, he has to be there for his son, and he tells off the coach for calling Kevin stupid. But he doesn't tell Kevin. Short of his Uncle Nicky omission, he's honest with his children. Can you walk us through the decision to have Jack not tell Kevin what he did? But Kevin knows, right? Especially when he makes that "I like it a little bloody" comment…
Yep. Jack's decision not to tell Kevin what happened there is actually a very cool move. And it speaks a little bit to the fact that Kevin is growing up. Parker [Bates, who plays young Kevin] is really maturing, and he's treating him with a newfound adultness in that episode. They're sitting at the bar like men and they're ordering the steaks, and he's also opening up to Kevin about his own father, which is super-rare. And I think that's really the most sophisticated man-to-man conversation we've ever seen him have with Kevin at that age. So the decision to not baby his kid and not infantilize him by letting him know, "I took care of it! I talked to your coach!" speaks to that more mature dynamic that we're seeing develop between them.
It is another lovely moment for Jack, who realizes he's repeating the sins of the father, and later sticks up for his son. Jack hasn't been as dominant a presence in stories recently, and Milo has talked about moving into more of a supportive role in all senses of that word — including servicing other character stories — which he said he likes. What kind of challenge has that been in the writers' room to find these stories for Jack, and what's left in store to tell about Jack?
The challenge is: Milo is so exceptional and he's such a part of the heart and soul of this show that when we do stories where he's a little bit light, you feel it. You feel the absence of him. So whenever we can come up with these seminal moments where he gets these hero-dad moments with the kids, we're so, so excited to put them in. And this is one of my favorite stories for him we've done all season. It's seeing him interact with one of the Big Three in a totally new way; you have that great moment in the bathroom, and he just killed it. So we're always looking for those.
But we still feel like we have a lot of Jack's life left to explore, especially in the early courtship period with him and Rebecca. When we walked away from that, things were really pretty rough between him and Rebecca's parents. And we know that that obviously they wind up getting married and having a family together. So we still feel like there's that big hurdle that we haven't touched in terms of: How does Jack get acceptance or a lack of acceptance by Rebecca's father and move forward with his future?
Looking ahead to next week, Kevin is racing to be there with Madison, who's about to give birth. Ellie [Annie Funke] is also getting ready to give birth. Will there be dual birth stories to tell in the next episode?
Yeah, it's a really exciting one. It's a lot of giving birth. [Laughs] It's asking all the questions: Is Kevin going to get there? What's going to go on with Kate and Ellie? We're going to look at the really, really specific dynamic of what it's like to give birth during COVID, where a very limited number of people are allowed in a hospital room. So there's a really special Toby [Chris Sullivan] story about what his experience is like not being able to have a front-row seat to this, but still participating in it. It's a really special one that speaks to how a lot of us are finding ways to connect even when we're physically isolated.... Many new Pearsons will enter into our world next week.
(To read what Justin Hartley had to say about the SERIES FINALE of This Is Us, take this detour.)
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.