Jack Pearson in 'This Is Us' is Television’s Most Beloved Dead Man Walking
Milo Ventimiglia knows that America has been waiting months to watch him die. As Jack Pearson, the steadfast, selfless patriarch of NBC’s critical and commercial smash This Is Us, Ventimiglia has become TV’s most beloved dead man walking. Thanks to the show’s multiple timelines, we’ve known since early in the first season that Jack does not live to see the 21st century, and that his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and adult children Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K Brown) remain haunted by his untimely death. In tonight’s long-awaited, long-dreaded episode—so shrouded in mystery that NBC did not even release its title ahead of time—we finally saw the events of Jack’s death unfold. (Spoiler Alert: If you aren't up to date with This is Us, this is your last chance to turn back.)
When Ventimiglia called me in the early hours of Monday morning, moments after his post-episode appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, I did my best not to cry. Like millions of viewers nationwide, I was still processing the revelations of “Super Bowl Sunday”: that Jack did not perish in the fire that consumed the family home, but died a few hours later from a heart attack, resulting from complications from smoke inhalation.
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“He sacrificed himself without even knowing that he was doing it,” Ventimiglia said, noting that Jack went back into the burning house to save not just the family dog, but also a collection of precious family possessions. “He was pulling memories out of that house.” It’s a pure, cinematic hero moment: Jack comes striding out of the house, soot-covered but beaming, clutching both the dog and his family’s memories.
His death in the hospital, by contrast, is quiet and awful, so sudden that Rebecca flatly disbelieves the doctor who delivers the news. The decision not to show Jack’s body directly—we see it reflected in a glass window, fuzzy and distant—was important for Ventimiglia. “I truly believe that nobody wants to see this man laid out in front of them,” he said, “and seeing Mandy’s reaction, slowly understanding that her husband is gone, is such a powerful moment, without needing to get into the gore and darkness of what death is.”
That may be cold comfort for fans, but Ventimiglia was also quick to note that Jack’s death does not mean he’s going anywhere. “I’ve been dead from the get-go,” he pointed out, “and though we’re now showing the death, we’re still gonna be bouncing around in different timelines. This is not the end of Jack.”
I first spoke with Ventimiglia on the Friday before tonight's episode aired, a day that he spent “trying to prep for the bloodbath of this weekend.” He wasn’t referring to football, though the fateful house fire that kills Jack does in fact take place on Super Bowl Sunday in 1998, an extra twist of the knife for the Steelers-loving Pearson clan. “One of Jack’s favorite days,” Ventimiglia said wryly, noting that showrunner Dan Fogelman had planned on this date from the beginning and has teased out a series of clues about the timing and manner of Jack’s death throughout Season Two.
Morbid though all of this may sound, This Is Us has always been a show built on secrets and reveals; the twist ending of the pilot episode reveals that the seemingly unconnected people we’ve been watching are two generations of the same family, separated by a few decades. Subsequent episodes brought similar rug-pulls. The combination of that puzzle-box structure with heartfelt, detailed character writing has proved formidable. This Is Us has not only put broadcast television back into the awards conversation, earning Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG recognition for its cast, but it has become that rare example of a huge freshman hit that builds on its ratings, rather than falling into a sophomore slump. The show’s priority is satisfying fans and honoring their investment in these people through real, cathartic payoff, and it shows.
“It's a lot of hugs,” Ventimiglia told me of his encounters with fans. “People want to hug me, and they want advice. I guess I've taken over from Mr. Cunningham [of Happy Days] and Mr. Arnold [of The Wonder Years] as America's father, so people are often looking for that parental feeling.” The show’s earnest, heart-on-sleeve quality unlocks something, he explained: People will tell him about their own fathers, their adopted children, their bereavements. But for the foreseeable future, they will likely be talking to him about their fictional bereavement, because the loss of Jack Pearson feels so unusually tangible and raw.
Below, Ventimiglia delves into Jack’s inherent goodness and well-disguised demons, the events of tonight’s climactic episode, and his future on This Is Us.
When did you first see this episode?
We all as a group went to Dan Fogelman’s house this past Wednesday and watched it together as a family. Watching it for me was less about what happens to Jack and more about how the kids responded to the loss. I was personally just so blown away by what the rest of the cast had done, and the stories Fogelman gave to all of them in regards to Jack’s death. It was almost a proud father moment, just watching my TV family experience this loss.
And prior to that, at what point did you personally find out how Jack died?
I found out pretty early on, maybe in the middle of the first season. Mandy and I were on set and Fogelman came over to talk to us and explained that it was a house fire, but we didn’t know how or when or why. We slowly learned about these other little things—Randall’s girlfriend, Kevin’s broken leg, Kate’s dog—that were going to tip off the audience, and once we got into the second season, it was kind of a harrowing thing to just keep everything under wraps. It became Fort Knox secrecy: photocopy-proof scripts, code words, secret locations. And we really couldn't talk about it outside the company.
Do you get as emotional about the show, and about Jack’s death in particular, as viewers do?
I get emotional over Rebecca and the kids. Crying for Jack would seem a bit ridiculous, because I exist as him and I wouldn't cry for myself. But understanding the impact that Jack had on his family—that’s where I personally get the most emotional. Everyone loved the question of why Jack died, but I think the most interesting part of the episode is how it impacted these four individuals.
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I found Justin Hartley’s monologue at the tree just as devastating as any of the flashbacks.
That was one take! He walks up and it’s just that profile shot, that was one piece. That moment speaks to how incredible Justin is, to be able to initially have a hard time walking up to that tree, and then have the presence to experience this moment with his father, and then have the levity at the end to say, “Oh yeah, and I worked with Rocky.” There’s such beauty in that scene, I was blown away with Justin. Chrissy had a great moment, Sterling had one, and I tell you, next week: Mandy Moore. She really goes through it in the next episode.
As the man behind Jack, what’s your take on Kevin saying that Jack “would be so disappointed in him”?
I really don’t think Jack would be disappointed, and I almost feel like maybe things would have worked out differently for Kevin if Jack were around. Not in a way where Jack could have steered him, but I think not being there at the moment his father died, and coming off of being in an argument, how do you reconcile that? How do you come back from that? Kevin shoving everything down that has to do with his father is understandable, because he didn’t get that moment [of closure] with his father that Kate and Randall did.
When Rebecca first learns that Jack has suddenly died, she takes a bite of the candy bar she’s holding. It’s such a strange, convincing human moment.
Yeah, it’s so human, so simple, just the disbelief. And if you caught this, when she’s at the vending machine, you hear Jack say “Bec?” I had recorded a lot of different versions of that, some that were a little more ethereal like I was whispering. You’ll have to ask Dan, but my belief is that it’s a presence. That was Jack saying “Bec?” She turns her head and everything.
That sequence in the burning house is legitimately terrifying. What were the logistics of filming that?
We had the safest team on the planet controlling the flames, and there was never a moment where I felt threatened, but there were several moments where I felt the presence of the beast of fire. We had a set that was built so far away from Los Angeles, because we wanted to keep the secret of what we were filming safe, but also we had to be in an area where we could have a very large, controlled burn, so we had flame bars, we had gel they would light on fire. The flame bars made this high-pitched hissing sound, almost like an engine without oil, and then when the real fire would kick in off the gels on the wall, it had this deep, furnace-like sound. It was intense. I remember the moment before I leave Kate’s room with her while I’m holding the mattress, I was about to open the door and I look down at one of our camera guys. He’s in full head to toe fire suit, goggles and everything, and I’m in my costume, which of course was fire-treated and I had Nomex underneath and everything, but I looked at him and we sort of looked eyes, because he felt that same beast of fire. It was terrifying, in the most controlled of ways.
We already knew from the last episode that a faulty Crock-Pot started the fire. They’ve had a rough couple of weeks since then…
Oh boy, they have, but we're hoping to turn that around. In all seriousness, one thing that was important to me—Mandy and I talked about this a lot—was that it was nothing that anyone did wrong, and it was nothing that anyone could have stopped. In Episode 13, when Jack is cleaning up the house at the end of the night and he turns the slow cooker off, it was important to me personally that I threw the switch, that I turned it off, that it wasn’t left on by one of the kids.
You’re not a father in real life, despite playing such an iconic one on television. Has the show changed your perspective either on your own parents, or on having a family of your own?
Not so much. I am truly one of the luckiest people in the world with the parents I got; my mom and dad are magical and I continue to learn from them, and that’s helped me a lot in playing Jack. I’m playing almost directly the era of when my parents raised my sisters and me; there were three of us, we grew up in the ’80s, I was a teenager in the ’90s. Everything [on the show] feels very close to how I was raised. The show hasn't inspired me to go have kids, I'll tell you that much, but I think the value of family—and not only the family you're born into but the family that you make and you create with your friends—that’s a message I’m often reminded of.
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This season has dismantled Jack’s perfection a lot more and delved more into his alcoholism when he relapses and then goes through AA. How did you approach that storyline?
I have a good amount of friends that have been through the program, and a lot of friends that have alcoholism in their family, and I think a lot of people are unaware of what alcoholism really looks like. I always saw Jack as a guy who would kind of “take the edge off,” and he was functioning. He was fine. I've seen people who are drunk and you wouldn't even know it, until you stand close enough and you start to see it. If you “take the edge off” all day, as we saw with Jack in our first episode of this season, it’s going to accumulate, and everything's going to slow down at a certain point. For me, the key was being honest about what that disease is, how it grips an alcoholic, and how it completely shatters everything around them.
Jack’s own father was abusive, which has clearly shaped him and the way he raises his kids.
Yeah, when I was younger there was someone I was close to that had a rough upbringing with their parents, and they were worried about the kind of parent that they would be. I remember telling them, “You're going to be a great parent, because you're aware. You're aware of how you were raised, and that gives you the opportunity to choose to be a better parent, or do something different than maybe what your folks were up against. And at the same time: Hey, forgive your parents. They're probably doing their best, and life is hard, and we don't always know what someone else is working with. Jack didn't strike me as a man who was deterred by the bad things that happen in life, like his upbringing, or the death of a child [in the pilot]. He was an optimist, he was hopeful, and he was inherently good.
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Miguel—Jack’s best friend, who ends up married to Rebecca many years in the future—gets a huge amount of hate from fans who just see that as an unforgivable betrayal. Do you feel the same way?
No, Miguel’s great! I mean, he was Jack’s best friend! One of my best friends in real life told me, “Hey, if anything happens to me, you're responsible for my family. Literally, move in: They are your family… But no business with my wife.” I said okay, got it, understood. That same friend hates Miguel, but I was like, “No dude, I am Miguel in that situation!” There’s a lot that we haven’t seen yet, so just be cool with Miguel. Jon Huertas is such a dynamic actor, too, he’s amazing.
You don’t often get the chance to play opposite your adult children in the show, except when someone’s hallucinating. How is it when you get those rare opportunities to play scenes with Sterling K. Brown and Justin Hartley?
First of all, god bless Mandy as a scene partner; any love that anyone wants to give for my playing of Jack, I just want to move it over to her. But when I get to be with the Big Three, it's a playground, it’s so exciting. We’re all friends, but I don’t usually get to spend time with them when the cameras are rolling. So those rare scenes when I do, the easiest way to put it is that I try to slow down time. It’s like William’s speech to Olivia early in Season One when she asks him what it feels like to be dying, and he tells her he’s just trying to hang onto these moments. I try to do the same when I get to play opposite Sterling or Justin or Ron [Cephas Jones], because it’s so rare and it goes so fast.
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This Is Us won the Screen Actors Guild Award last month for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. It was such a great moment because it seemed like you guys were genuinely surprised.
We absolutely were. I have a hard time with awards shows in general, because I've never been part of the conversation. I just show up to work and do my job because I love the job and I love the people I get to make TV with. When someone wants to applaud it more than just watching it, that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. But to know that a group of actors was celebrating our ensemble, it was a very satisfying feeling, because everybody on the show pulls their weight. And the actors are just a reflection of the crew; we have this amazing writing staff, amazing crew, amazing post-production. As I said in the speech, we have all of these people that are so hard-working and so talented, and they need to be recognized, because otherwise us actors would just be crazy people talking to ourselves on the street.
So, Jack’s not going anywhere. Now that we’re past the death bombshell, what’s coming up for him in the rest of the season?
There are so many questions with Jack. His upbringing, what happened to him in Vietnam, what happened to him after Vietnam before he met Rebecca? And those early days of Jack and Rebecca, I know is an era that Dan is excited to explore. His brother, I think is something that’s going to come up relatively quickly, and play out over the next season or so. There's still so much to know about this man, from all the eras, so I'm excited to focus on how Jack lived as opposed to worrying about how he died.
My last, and most important question: Do you own a Crock-Pot, and what is your favorite recipe?
Yes, I do. Is it unplugged? Yes, it is. I’ve got a really nice lentil stew that I like to cook in mine, and I have to be honest, I have two. I have a Crock-Pot, and I have an all-clad slow-cooker—I have two different ones. The all-clad is larger, for maybe a gang of people, and my Crock-Pot’s a little smaller if I’m just making something for myself. I have a slow-cooker cookbook—like, it’s legit, it’s no joke. When I went to my mother and father’s house for Christmas, I walk in the door and I go right into the kitchen, no one’s around, and the first thing I see is a slow-cooker making chili. And I had just filmed all of that! I was like, You gotta be kidding me. This is weird. I took a picture and sent it to my whole cast. So yes, I enjoy the heck out of a good slow cooker. Crock-Pot is innocent!
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This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.