In the fall of 2016, something miraculous happened to Dan Fogelman. The This Is Us creator was flying to visit his family for Thanksgiving, and the show’s latest episode was playing on every seat-back screen of the plane. “It was on DirectTV,” he says of the live broadcast of their first Thanksgiving episode. “There were pictures online of people, row after row, watching. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is getting out of control.’”
There were early signs This Is Us would become a watercooler hit, and that the NBC family drama starring Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia would make Tuesday nights spent with the Pearson family appointment TV — whether on your couch or 35,000 feet in the air, BYOT (bring your own tissues). For the network, the first tip-off was when the trailer broke viewing records and became a viral sensation. Then came the audience’s feverish reaction to the time-jumping pilot and second-episode twist that Rebecca (Moore) had remarried, prompting the “What happened to Jack?!” question that would loom over the show and Ventimiglia’s fate for two seasons.
The principal cast of the reigning No. 1 broadcast hit — still in the middle of production on its final season — gathered with Fogelman on Zoom in March to celebrate the 100th episode (“Katoby,” airing April 12) and reflect on the drama’s historic run as they prepare to say goodbye. And for them, the moment they first felt a spark is a quieter memory. After their first table read, “We all congregated on the side, in a little kitchen, and it felt immediately comfortable,” says Ventimiglia, who recalls thinking, six seasons ago: “We’re going to have an experience on this one. We’re gonna laugh, we’re gonna cry, we’re gonna battle, we’re gonna support each other. We’re gonna do all the things.”
Dan, what was your elevator pitch?
Dan Fogelman: I didn’t have one. I wrote the script and was sending it to people, and the main question I got was, “Well, what happens now?” At the end of the pilot, everything was upended, and so the elevator pitch then became this very complicated one that I would be long-winded about, about what would happen in the course of a series.
Sterling K. Brown: The original conception was a flick, right?
Fogelman: Yes. It had six or seven people born on the same day, and then the twist at the end was going to be that they were all related to the Jack and Rebecca characters. But 80 pages in, I was like, “I don’t think this holds.” So I gave up and put it away for a while.
The show was originally titled 36; how big was the debate over the name?
Fogelman: There were a lot of titles. I named it 36 because I didn’t want it to be untitled, and then I hated it. It had been the source of huge frustration for me over early parts of my career, where I would not be able to choose a title and so we would make these films with “Untitled Fogelman Project” signs all over town. Once you don’t have a title for something, you’re screwed. Because no one is ever going to agree after the fact. I started really fighting for This Is Us once we started making it.
How did you come up with This Is Us?
Fogelman: I liked This Is Us lyrically. And I knew the show would, hopefully, be a reflection of a lot of different people and a lot of different lives. There was a huge movement at one point to name the show Happy Birthday, which we all banded against.
Milo Ventimiglia (Jack Pearson): We had a photoshoot at Universal, and I remember there was a birthday cake, and Dan said to me, “They’re going to try to take a [promotional] photograph of you with this cake.” When we were all together and they had the cake, I was just like, “No, absolutely not.” All of us we’re like: We’re not doing that.
Fogelman: On my previous shows, they would make you do goofy poses, and then you show up at upfronts and that’s the picture on every piece of the show.
Ventimiglia: Or, you’re doing karate poses with your shirt off when you’re 18 [for Gilmore Girls.]
Fogelman: The network and studio were fantastic to us throughout, but this title was a weird opening. The pilot opens with a paragraph about how many people share a birthday, and I made sure the words “This,” “Is” and “Us” were in that text so it would shrink down into what became our logo. I figured if people liked the pilot, they would start getting their heads around the title, which is pretty much what happened. But late in the game, somebody came to me with research that showed the title “It’s All Just Getting Started” had tested much higher. And I had to do a whole, “Guys, I’m sorry, I just don’t understand how that’s a title of a show!” But we held firm and got through it.
Chris Sullivan (Toby Sullivan): That person doesn’t work in television anymore.
Fogelman: No, they do. (Laughs.)
Who has a great audition story — was there anyone who said, “If I don’t get this part, this will be the end of acting for me”?
Chrissy Metz (Kate Pearson): Well, I didn’t really have an acting career. So, it was really going to start my career. I was a talent agent when I got the call from a friend who asked if I wanted to audition for this “Dan Fogelman Project” as a series lead. I had had like three guest roles and an arc on American Horror Story. I had an awful audition; I felt it was terrible. I laughed and cried all the way home. But then they called me back to test — I remember seeing Justin [Hartley] and thinking, “I don’t look anything like him. They’re not going to hire me.”
Fogelman: Do you guys remember back when it was less humane [auditioning for] pilots, and you had to read in-person for the executives and you’d be in a waiting room with the other actors? Now it’s all done on tape; that had started right around This Is Us. But, because Chrissy was kind of new and because the network had early on targeted Kate as a big breakout role, she read old school-style. Then she read with Justin. I said, “That’s our girl.” And I knew Chrissy had it. And then I called you in the parking lot and you couldn’t hear.
Metz: Mackenzie was the other gal’s name. All I could hear was the “ee” so I thought, “Oh, God, does he think he’s calling Mackenzie?” It was so incredible and life-changing. And I remember Glen [Ficarra, who directed the pilot with John Requa] calling me and saying, “By the way, can you be in your underwear in the pilot?” I was like, “What? Sure!”
Ventimiglia: At least you got an article of clothing. My first day on set, I walked into the trailer and saw a bunch of flesh-colored pieces of cloth in different sizes: “I guess I’ll pick one of these.”
Metz: If I had a tush like yours, I would be like, “I’m not wearing drawers!”
Milo, that was for your first scene in the pilot with Mandy, the two of you in the nude flashback, and Chrissy, when you stepped on the scale in the pilot?
Metz: It was the second shot, I think, that we ever did. There was a boom guy in the bathtub who said, “Are you ready to take off the top?” People said I was so brave and I’m like, “You know what? It’s going to change a lot of peoples’ lives and yes, I’m going to be brave.”
Sullivan: Breakout role!
Brown: I was doing The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and they called me in to have a meeting. I remember reading the pilot at the attorney’s table, sitting next to [O.J. co-star Sarah] Paulson and I said, “This is the best network project I’ve ever read.” Anytime you get a father-son type thing for your boy who lost his dad when he was 10, it just cracks it open.
Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth Pearson): I did a normal audition with a reader. I had just bombed a play audition, so I was suffering from embarrassment. And I saw amazing actresses in that room. Then they called me and said, “Do you want to send your tape or do you want to go out to California and read opposite Sterling? You’d have to get on a plane in the next seven hours.”
Brown: I didn’t know you had the choice!
Watson: I was in New York and wasn’t sure. They said, “Well, what do you think of the script?” And I was like, “Did y’all send me the script?” So they sent it to me, and by the time I got to the end, and we find out that the kids are actually Mandy and Milo’s, I said, “What time is the plane? I have to be in this room.”
Brown: Being Black in this business, we all kind of know each other. There were three women auditioning. Everybody was so good. In hindsight, it couldn’t have been anybody other than Sue. The magic we’ve been able to capture over the last six years is undeniable. Best TV wife I’ve ever had.
Fogelman: After we cast Chrissy, she read with like 14 guys because we really wanted that right match. And then, at the last minute, Sully became available. Chrissy was like, “Which of the guys did you pick?!” And I was like, “You’ll meet him at the table read!”
Metz: It couldn’t have been anybody else, that’s for sure.
Ventimiglia: After the table read, I remember feeling grateful. In the process of casting Jack and Rebecca, I read with a couple different girls and I remember Mandy Moore walking in. We had just met, and here I am about to be nuzzled into this stranger’s neck and play this dynamic married couple’s scene. I remember asking, “Is it OK if I’m in your neck?”
Mandy Moore (Rebecca Pearson): He was so gentlemanly. I’m like, “Yes, handsome stranger, get on in there!”
Ventimiglia: Then when it was done, she got up and said, “OK. Thanks a lot!” And she just bailed.
Moore: I hate auditions, I was so nervous! I auditioned early on in the process and I remember hearing, “They liked you, but they’re going to read women in New York and Chicago.” I sort of forgot about it and, six weeks later, I got word they wanted to bring me in for a chemistry read. I remember Milo was the guy to beat; they loved Milo. Then I went in and read with him and thought it was either a good thing or a terrible thing that they only had me read with this one gentleman. I beelined out of there.
Ventimiglia: I remember turning and looking at John and Glen, who are smiling, and it’s like Christmas morning for Dan. It was meant to be.
Fogelman: There were two parts that were pretty underwritten in the pilot. Rebecca and Beth were much smaller in terms of screen time and amount of dialogue. Rebecca has that opening scene and then she’s in labor for a lot of the first episode. I knew how big the part [of Rebecca] was going to be, but there was one woman who was coming off a show who said, “I won’t read; I want to hear what your plan is for the character.” I had this whole meeting with her and said, “It’s going to be gigantic. It’s going to be like, the whole thing.” And she said, “No, I’m not interested.” Now it’s six years later, and Mandy is playing like 17 different ages and getting 16-hour monologues, and I think about that person who wouldn’t read!
At your recent 100-episode celebration, 20th TV president Karey Burke said This Is Us “became the gold standard for drama anywhere”; Lisa Katz, president of scripted for NBCUniversal, called it a “unicorn” as the No. 1 broadcast drama six years running. Do any of you remember the moment it felt like lightning struck?
Fogelman: The trailer blew up, and I remember getting that information. I remember, obviously, the night of the pilot airing and then the second episode had the big twist with Rebecca being married to Miguel [Jon Huertas] at the end. Personally, I was dealing with just chaos, and so I was not very present emotionally, but it was around episode eight of the first season that it had cut through the culture and landed in such a major way. It was Thanksgiving; Milo was doing the push-ups. I remember going to visit my family. I flew on a Tuesday and it was on every screen on the airplane.
Brown: I had several instances of people saying to me, “I don’t watch anything live, especially network television. But my family and I get together every Tuesday night and we watch this show.” My cousin, who is a plus-size adopted woman, after episode four, which is the pool, she said, “Sterling, I know the whole O.J. thing was a big deal, but let me tell you about This Is Us.” She said, “I am Kevin. I am Randall. I am Kate. This show sees all of who I am.” And then Fogelman writes the fifth episode and, after I read [Kevin’s painting monologue] I was like, “This is the captain I will go anywhere for.”
Fogelman: That was a big one for us. I think the show hit a different gear. Myself and our writers felt like, “All right, we can really do stuff now.”
Brown: I also think that was our last table read; we did five table reads.
Justin Hartley (Kevin Pearson): We will tell you, as performers, that you’re as good as the dialogue. Oftentimes, not even. There is not a better-written show. And to sustain that for six years? It’s a testament when people ask why it’s ending. Because nothing has slowed down; it’s ramped up. You savor every single moment because you don’t know if you’ll ever have this opportunity again. So, thank you, Dan. I also remember life changing for me when people start asking for money.
I imagine that kind of reception helps you to say, “OK, we can do whatever we want.” Was there anything you had to fight for? A big risk or swing with the network that paid off?
Fogelman: To their credit, they really supported everything we wanted to do. All the people here were my first choice; I never had to fight for them. When they talk about those early days of the table reads, you realize, “Wow, so many things break right for this thing to go right.” It becomes a combination of really good, small decisions that everybody makes. I do remember when Milo told me he was going to have a mustache.
Ventimiglia: Dan went through the office asking, “Do you like him with it? Or, do you not?” In a more explicit term.
Fogelman: I asked, “Would you fuck this man with a mustache?”
Ventimiglia [sporting Jack’s mustache]: It was split, 50-50, right? It was not very encouraging! But it was the ‘80s. I remember the second episode script read, “Jack walks into the kitchen as Rebecca packs the kids lunch. Eight years have gone by and he’s clean-shaven.” I told Dan that if you shave my face clean, I’m not going to look eight years older. So, I fought for the mustache. I think it’s worked out OK.
Fogelman: It worked! With this show, there is a little bit of that, “Oh, it’s network TV” mentality. But we jumped eight years from the pilot in the second episode. Ron Cephas Jones became this beloved character — we killed him in the first season. Jack was the patriarch of the family — we killed him in the second season. Those were all big choices. To your question, we never really had to fight for it. I think the only place I really put my foot down was in the second season when they wanted to move us off the time slot. I kind of went to war. I was like, “Just leave the show alone! We finally have something!” And we won that battle.
When did all of you get clued into Dan’s six-season plan?
Brown: Dan said it from the beginning. He said, “I think I’ve got like six years of story.”
Watson: I thought he said five.
Ventimiglia: Five years.
Hartley: I thought it was five.
Watson: And the studio wanted the sixth.
Fogelman: I was actually contemplating four at the very beginning, probably before we even talked about it. I was thinking about when Jack was going to die, and I knew we were going to run out of real estate with the kids’ age. But then when the show blew up, I was like, “I have six in me. But that will be the max.” And we got picked up that way. We were doing a TCA event and the president of NBC [Jennifer Salke] came over and told us she was picking up the show for two seasons. I remember it vividly, because the day before, Ron had shot his death scene! And then we got picked up for another three because — that was a whole complicated thing — and I said, “That will take us to the end.”
Dan has spoken about the early narrative of the show being about the twists and turns — like the mystery over Jack’s death — but now it’s back to its emotional roots, about the little things of growing older and looking back. The Big Three trilogy of episodes that lead into the 100th (“Katoby”) illustrates many different types of families. How would you say the show is getting back to its heart?
Metz: I think it’s a blueprint for life. How do we deal with life on life’s terms? And Dan and all of the writers do it so beautifully because none of us knows how. We’re just in the present moment trying to figure out the next moment when it comes. And that could be through divorce and paternity issues, weight issues, social injustice — everything that’s current and present and important.
Sullivan: I think one reason our show has connected with so many is because, especially in this country, we’ve had the wrong conception of what the typical family is. Our show has gotten so specific that if you wrote out this family, you’d think, “This doesn’t apply to anyone.” But [the audience] says, “This is us. I cannot believe we are onscreen right now.” That’s the magic that’s been revealed to me over six seasons: In this great specificity, we’ve managed to reach the broadest number of people.
Metz: Someone shared with me that they watched football with their father’s ashes.
Ventimiglia: Specific and also incredibly simple. Mandy and I just shot a scene where we are sitting on a couch. The only reminder I need about the importance of the show is to look Mandy in the eyes and deliver a scene about this married couple, who has had their struggles and who has had their glory, and it’s incredibly simple.
Fogelman: Those early twists and turns, and the things that would get people talking, was the stuff you do to keep a show titillating and give it propulsion in this day and age. And it was a little bit of the magic of storytelling. And now in this final season, we’re able to sit a little more linearly in that other stuff. Because we’re heading to those places we’ve teased all through the years, and the way we’re going to tell the story this year, the answers that people are waiting for will all be had by the end so that we can sit in the simplicity when we finally finish.
Brown: “Katoby” is fucking nuts. And in the Big Three episodes before that, which were directed masterfully by Milo and Mandy and Justin, you get a chance to see these young people getting older and coming into their own: Kevin as a dad and that whole journey of not wanting kids or responsibility and then stepping into and owning it; and then Kate and Toby, with the complexities of what love should look like and, even if something doesn’t work out, love can still be present; and then Randall, being this person who holds things together, having to redefine what his purpose is now that his brother and sister are grown up and capable. And it’s about growing into a place where you can say, “I don’t have to carry it all and things won’t fall apart.”
Watson: When you meet people at a certain moment in their life, you can make a snap judgment. And this show has always been an example of not doing that. One of the greatest examples is when Miguel showed up with Rebecca. There’s more to be explored; there’s more to understand. If people can take away from the show that people are not the sum total of one moment, but that there’s breadth to who they are and how they got there, I think that’s a really amazing thing. That exploration through the minutiae and nuance of life has filled this series from the beginning, and I’m sure Dan and the writers room will continue to stay faithful to that until [the series finale].
Dan, you recently said you are seeing this group do things they’ve never done when filming the final episodes. Can you elaborate?
Fogelman: The characters are becoming fully realized. Chrissy and Sully are going to a place their characters have simply never gone. I’m doing these two episodes right now where Mandy and Milo are so funny. We have lived in the heaviness of Jack’s death, and it’s returning to that first season where it was just nice to be in that home and with that couple. Justin’s character coming of age in his 40s is finally happening and it’s so rewarding to watch. And there’s this episode with Sterling and Mandy that is just insanely moving. I will really miss writing for these guys. It won’t happen again in my career. And I’m kind of acknowledging and accepting that.
Ventimiglia: The show is not just impacting one particular person or group or age, it’s impacting everybody. So I agree that is going to be very hard to capture again. If you’re repeating it, then you’re just trying to be This Is Us — and there’s only one This Is Us.
Watson: My niece and nephew are in elementary school, and they said the kids get together and have a table every Wednesday where they discuss This Is Us. You would think this show would be a certain demographic. And then you find out there are kids in elementary school who are having their little watercooler moment.
What do you hope This Is Us‘ legacy will be, and what is a piece of advice you would give yourself 100 episodes ago?
Ventimiglia: What this show has created in conversation — among very different people who find themselves incredibly similar — I hope that continues; where we are looking at the people across from us, not fully realizing the whole picture and trying to bridge that gap.
Sullivan: When people enter my life, they already have a story. And when they leave my life, their story will continue. And for this period of time, I get to be a part of that, and that’s an honor. I wish I had known that earlier in my life, and I hope that’s what people take away from the show.
Fogelman: I believe the show will remain timeless. It’s what makes me feel OK about doing six seasons and ending it. It will live on whatever platforms television shows live on. And I believe that young men and women who watch the show in their teens and early 20s will maybe one day watch it with their kids when their kids get old enough. And I think the legacy of the show will hopefully be that.
Moore: I feel like I’m still fully digesting Rebecca’s story, but I hope that people continue to find catharsis and an emotional outlet.
Metz: Six years ago, we didn’t see plus-size or fat people on network television, and now you see them all over the place. It’s not even about that part of the story anymore. People just get to tell their stories, and they happen to be a different body shape. Dan was so instrumental to even have a person like my size on TV. It’s such a big deal. That is a legacy of moving forward in a progressive time. It’s a new way of making art for people who want to see themselves. I knew I was going to cry!
Brown: Dan said something earlier in the season about how time moves, and he wrote something recently about the speed at which things go, and really doing your best to be in the moment and enjoy each and every bit of it. And I think I have, for the most part. But you can probably always do it a little bit more. Because you’ll be upset or frustrated at little things, but if you say, “This is the only moment that will exist right now” — make the most of that shit. That’s part legacy and part what I would tell myself.
Hartley: I think it’s very cool that we have been a part of a show that shows how, whether you are in grade school, or in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, it’s never too late to find yourself. Hopefully when people watch 10 years from now, the heart and spirit of what we do and why we’re here won’t change at all. I think that will always be a part of This Is Us — whether you watch it now or in 2040, it’s timeless.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.