Chrissy Metz is in tears. It’s a Friday night in Los Angeles, and the Golden Globe nominee is screening the latest episode of NBC’s breakout hit, This Is Us, alongside her TV dad, Milo Ventimiglia. In this episode (which airs January 17 on NBC), Metz already knows what happens, but she’s watching—and reacting—as if she has no idea what’s to come. On the other side of the room, series creator/writer/director Dan Fogelman is watching—but he has a completely different reaction to the scene playing out on screen. His smile is as wide as someone who just won the lottery, which, let’s be honest, he kind of has.
It’s been two years since a broadcast network has generated as much watercooler (or social media) talk as This Is Us. The prior hit, of course, was Empire, with its catchy songs, elaborate sets, and larger-than-life characters. This Is Us may feel like a vastly different show, but there are some similarities: Both are about family, love, and following your dreams, not to mention those Lost-worthy twists. And the cast now finds themselves so universally beloved that they can’t go anywhere without fans stopping to offer congratulations or to tell a story of their own.
“I love the actors,” Fogelman tells me. “It always surprises me what they do. And to feel an audience roll with a show and laugh at the right points and get the sniffles [at others] is very rewarding.”
During the series’ first half of the first season, I’ve paid several visits to the set and met with the cast at numerous events. The result? 10 facts about the show and actors you’ve never heard before. The Big Three? More like The Fascinating 10.
1. The Original Title Wasn’t This Is Us: “It was originally called 36, which is the age they’re all turning at the beginning,” Fogelman reveals. But he wasn’t a fan of the title. “I didn’t like it. I had done a series of movies where I had never titled them and no one can agree on the title. I threw 36 on it, and then I never liked it. Nobody ever liked it. I came up with This Is Us, I think, when I was in editorial. I decided I liked how it looked at the beginning [of the show], and I put it in there. But, there was a lot of debate over what the title of the show was gonna be.”
2. The Sentimental Reason Behind Dr. Katowski’s Name: Gerald McRaney plays the beloved ob-gyn, who is named after two important people in Fogelman’s life: “I’m a huge New York Mets fan, so [ballplayer] Dwight Gooden was Dr. K (because the symbol for a strikeout in baseball is a K), and I always thought, That would be a funny thing to nickname a doctor.” Also, “my wife’s father’s side of the family are Katowskis—Polish—and I always liked the name. So, I put that name in there for [her] side of the family.”
3. The One Request From NBC: The network lets Fogelman make the show he wants to make—rightfully so—but they did have one request before the last new episode of 2016 aired. “They always said early on, ‘When you go off the air around Christmastime, if there was some sort of cliffhanger that can lead into the break, that would be good,'” Fogelman shares. “We had always known this thing with Toby was gonna happen around that time, so that was a little guided by that. For the most part, though, [NBC’s] notes have been kind of small and smart.”
4. Fogelman Knows How the Series Will End: When asked if he knows how the series will eventually conclude—ideally after a very long run—Fogelman says yes. “I do, yes,” he reveals. “[But it won’t be] 10 [years from now]. I’ll be dead if I do this show 10 years from now ’cause it’s really hard! But I think I kind of know what the next four or five or six seasons look like of this show. I don’t have every single moment planned out, but I know where the big moves are for the show in every season. Because this show plays [with] time so much, you need to have a plan.”
5. The Real Life Inspiration Behind Kate: Breakout star Chrissy Metz plays Kate Pearson—a role that has very close ties for creator Dan Fogelman. Says Metz: “Kate is loosely based off of Dan’s sister and their relationship, where he was very successful as a writer and she was struggling with some issues.” While Metz and Fogelman’s sister haven’t met in person yet, the two are actually friends on Facebook.
6. The Downside of Aging: Mandy Moore plays Rebecca at age 27, 66, and everything in between, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. “At first I was really excited and selfie-ing it up,” she says of playing Rebecca as a grandma. “Now, it’s like, ‘Here we go again!’ It takes about three and a half hours. It’s not an easy process. But I’m so grateful. Who gets to play a character from 27 to 66? I feel really lucky.”
7. Did Jack Almost Live? In the pilot of This Is Us that was sent to TV critics over the summer, there was a reference to the fact that Jack was not alive in present day. But when that episode aired in September, the line was taken out. So, was there a chance the producers almost had a change of heart? “No, Jack was dead from the beginning [even though they removed that line in the pilot],” says Milo Ventimiglia, who plays the beloved patriarch. “But life happens, death happens. Having Jack be gone in the present day gives so much to the [adult] kids [to play].”
8. Milo Ventimiglia’s Facial Hair: The Gilmore Girls alum reveals that it’s not in his contract that he can’t shave Jack’s mustache, but it’s something he’d never do without permission. “I would never do that to the hair and makeup department,” he says. Still, viewers won’t always see the actor with a mustache. “We will see a different version of Jack,” Ventimiglia explains. “We will see clean-shaven Jack at some point.” There’s one look, though, that viewers will never see on Jack. “He’ll never be soul-patch Jack,” the actor jokes.
9. The Actors vs. Their Characters: The This Is Us cast occasionally notice aspects of their own life that seep into that of their alter egos. Chris Sullivan (Toby) tells Glamour that “when the producers found out Chrissy Metz could sing, they immediately had to put that in. She sang live on-set twice, they recorded it, and that’s what you saw on television.” As for Justin Hartley, he started to wonder if creator Dan Fogelman was following him around. “There’s a lot of similarities [with me and Kevin],” Hartley admits. “I was like, ‘Is Dan following me around?’ I think Kevin is afraid of heights, and I’m afraid of heights. He gets seasick; I get seasick. He’s annoying to be around; I’m annoying to be around. [Laughs]”
10. Getting High: For that scene that required Beth and William (Randall’s biological dad) to eat pot brownies, their real-life counterparts—Susan Kelechi Watson and Ron Cephas Jones—got together on their day off to rehearse. “Ron and I were nerds and got together that weekend [prior] and just talked about the scene,” Watson reveals. “We did not eat pot brownies together! There was no pot in the brownies on-set, either!”
New episodes of This Is Us air on NBC on Tuesdays at 9 P.M. ET.
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