On set with 'This Is Us': TV's feel-good megahit ups the stakes in season 2
"Just curious, who got [the part of] Kate?”
That question, posed in an email to This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman by his producing partner, hangs framed in Chrissy Metz's Los Angeles home, a reminder of the trajectory her life could have continued on.
When the actress first auditioned for NBC's family drama in 2015, she only had 81 cents in her bank account. She had been living off ramen noodles from a nearby Dollar Store, scraping together gas money with a résumé on which the biggest credit was "the fat lady" on American Horror Story: Freak Show. Fogelman's script, loosely based on his own sister's weight-loss journey, tapped into something that Metz had rarely seen, and she was desperate to be a part of it. "Here was this woman who was actually dealing with weight. Not like, 'Oh my God, I gained a pound,' " she says on a break this summer from filming the second season on the Paramount lot. "She was a real woman who was really struggling, and all I could think was, 'Oh my God, I'm Kate.' "
It would take a little more time for those casting the show to see it, too. By early November of that year, the network and studio, 20th Century Fox TV, had lined up the other members of the Pearson family: Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore as parents Jack and Rebecca; and Sterling K. Brown (tightly wound adoptee Randall) and Justin Hartley (unfulfilled Kevin) as two of the three adult children. But the drama, which hopscotches between flashbacks and present day as it charts the Pearsons' interconnected lives, still needed that third sibling, hopelessly overweight Kate. Then Metz got a call: "Could she come back in?" It was down to her and one other actress, and both would need to turn up on the Universal lot to audition before the network's top brass. The two women, who had similarly unremarkable credits, represented different ideas of what passes for heavy on television — and dramatically different directions for the show.
"The other actress was a sort of 'Hollywood overweight person,' " says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, "struggling with losing, maybe, 20 pounds." You need only channel surf for a matter of minutes to see this process typically ends with the thinner actress landing the role. But Salke and her counterparts at 20th TV were struck by Metz and the authenticity she could bring to the role. If they were going to live up to the title of the show, they would need to do so with an honest portrayal. On Nov. 30, news broke: Metz had been hired.
Now, nearly two years later, the 36-year-old actress not only is a breakout star on the highest-rated new series on TV but also a frontrunner to win a supporting actress Emmy at the Sept. 17 awards show. In that time, the series has morphed into a bona fide phenomenon, too, demonstrating that a family drama with a mix of body types — to say nothing of skin colors and life experiences — can generate both critical acclaim and mass appeal. In fact, This Is Us nearly doubled its closest rookie competitor (ABC's Designated Survivor) among younger viewers and regularly ballooned past 15 million once those who fell outside the advertiser-coveted demographic were factored in. NBC pre-emptively renewed the show for a third season earlier this year; and, with 20th TV, which inked a record-breaking pact to stream previous episodes on Hulu, rewarded the cast with $250,000 bonuses.
When This Is Us returns for a second season Sept. 26, it will have assembled an army of high-profile fans that includes Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who already has hosted Metz at her Montecito, California, home. And at least a few of them — Sylvester Stallone, Brian Grazer and season-one guest Ron Howard — will turn up in season two. (Production is heading to London to shoot around Howard's Star Wars schedule.) Now advertisers want in, too, which is how NBC was able to push its asking price for a 30-second spot in this month's premiere to a staggering $750,000 — and as much as $1.3 million for one in February's post-Super Bowl slot. For the remainder of the season, spots are running about $475,000, per ad-side sources, making This Is Us the most lucrative scripted series on television.
Replicating This Is Us won't come easy, though the development pipeline already is being clogged with self-consciously soulful imitations as rivals looks to reverse-engineer its success. Some credit the show's evocative tone for helping it to cut through, others its pitch-perfect casting. The only piece everyone, including Fogelman, seems to agree on is its significance as a cultural antidote. "In a time when you cringe every time you open your internet browser or get a news alert on your phone, it's refreshing for people to turn on a show where the message is inherently positive," he says. "The characters may be flawed, and sometimes deeply flawed, but they are inherently good." Later this month, This Is Us again will attempt to defy industry odds by adding a best drama Emmy — one of 10 categories in which the show is nominated — to its heap of awards. The last broadcast drama to earn so much as a nomination was The Good Wife, back in 2011. The last one to win? 24, in 2006.
But with outsize success comes outsize expectations, and a sea of cautionary tales, including that of broadcast's last serialized standout, Fox's Empire, which famously dropped in viewers and cultural cachet after a breakthrough first season. Outside of a handful of storylines teased in the season-one finale, plotlines for the second season are being cloaked in secrecy. The way in which Ventimiglia's Jack died — his fate often was referenced but never explained in the show's first season — has become a spoiler so fiercely guarded that script pages are being redacted and code names now are employed. To avoid even the possibility of anything leaking, everyone who sets foot on the set — from crewmembers to extras — has to sign a nondisclosure agreement; and scenes are being shot out of order to throw off potential paparazzi. The writers on the show say they live in constant fear that they're going to reveal something they shouldn't — "I'm anxious just talking to you," says one — and at least one of the actors admits she harbors the same concern.
"It wasn't like this last year," says Moore, 33, seated in her trailer on an August afternoon. "It's like suddenly we're on Lost."
In the spring of 2015, This is Us was just another script collecting dust in a drawer.
Back then, Fogelman had had considerably more success on the big screen (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Cars) than the small one (remember Neighbors? or Grandfathered?), and this project, building toward the "reveal" that eight disparate people actually are grown-up octuplets, was aimed for the former. Fogelman felt pretty confident about the characters he'd created, but each time he sat down to write, he found himself coming back to the same paralyzing question: "What's the fucking point of this?"
So, those 80 pages ended up in the drawer, only to be retrieved that summer when he jumped from a production deal at ABC Studios, where he'd had an underwhelming experience, to one at 20th TV. With a massive eight-figure deal, he needed a few strong TV ideas to offer up. A light bulb went on: What if that cute twist at the end of his movie was instead the setup for a TV series? The characters he had created wouldn't need to have a beginning, middle and end — or for that matter, a "fucking point." A series would allow them to simply go about their lives.
Within 24 hours, he'd ditched a few siblings (a soon-to-be divorced sister, a hotshot movie-star brother), brought the script down to 45 pages and fired it off to the studio. "I remember it came in and all I could think was, 'How does Dan do this?' " says 20th TV creative affairs president Jonnie Davis. "He blends these tones in such an effortless way where you're crying one minute and then laughing the next." The hype machine immediately went into overdrive, curtailed only briefly by a decision at 20th TV's sister network, Fox, not to keep the series for itself.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Television
Those inside say there were concerns that the show lacked the kind of obvious hook that Fox hits from X-Files to 24 are built around. "We all thought it was a great script," says one, "but it was going to be hard for us to market." Unlike NBC, Fox didn't have platforms like The Tonight Show, The Voice or the Olympics to help push a quieter character drama into the conversation. A decision was made to move forward with Fogelman's other project, Pitch, which had that desired hook — the first female baseball player to join the major leagues — and allowed Fox to lean on its MLB partnership. According to sources within, the fact that Pitch quickly fizzled while This Is Us became a runaway hit for another network was not lost on those with the last name Murdoch.
Though ABC made a play for This Is Us, NBC was widely seen as its ideal home. From the moment Salke got her hands on the script, she's been the series' most vocal supporter. "You'd have to be in a coma to not respond to this show," she says, chuckling. Salke promised that it would be showered with marketing money and promotion, along with a plum spot behind The Voice. But the first taste of the series' potential came before any of that, when the trailer — a two-and-a-half-minute tearjerker of a clip reel, set to Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up" — was released in May 2016. Within 48 hours, it had hit 15 million views on Facebook alone. "We knew it was going to crush people," says Ventimiglia, "but that was crazy." Of course, a heavily cited opening shot of the actor's rear end didn't hurt.
The irony is that when Fogelman was writing the pilot for This Is Us, that glimpse of Jack Pearson's backside was supposed to be funny. "In the way a shot of my butt would be funny," jokes Fogelman. "I didn't imagine that that was going to be a thing that would blow up the internet. I joke about it a lot, but really, my initial conception of that character was that different." He had been looking for a doughier actor for the role, designed originally to be a version of himself and his regular-guy buddies, when casting pushed him to consider the former Gilmore Girls heartthrob. Once he saw Ventimiglia read, he says it was over, and he set about recalibrating the part. (Moore had it a little easier, having worked with Fogelman on the movie Tangled.)
Much already has been made of the cast's chemistry, but it should probably be noted that the actors have navigated the series' success remarkably well, too. Despite a dizzying schedule and globs of press attention, there has not been so much as a whiff of diva behavior or the kinds of personality conflicts that often accompany a hit of This Is Us' size. As No. 1 on the call sheet, a responsibility Ventimiglia, 40, takes seriously, he deserves at least some of the credit for setting that tone. "I study the call sheets so that I know everyone's name," he says earnestly. Ventimiglia also turns up on the days he isn't shooting and can't seem to walk 10 feet on the lot without doling out a handshake or a hug. He fastidiously checks in with the show's sprawling cast and manages a series of show-related text chains (there's one for just the Pearsons, one for Fogelman and the actors), which mix business items with pictures, potshots and memes. When he returned from the show's summer hiatus, he had made trucker hats with Jack's Big Three Homes logo for everyone on the cast and crew.
The lack of backstage drama allows Fogelman to focus on the scripts, for which there inevitably will be more scrutiny this season. But if he has any concerns about a sophomore slump, he isn't letting on. Instead, Fogelman boldly suggests that the first episode back is "as strong as any" the show has done and insists he already has mapped out several more seasons. That swagger wanes only when it comes to the show's ratings, an area in which he knows he has considerably less control. In truth, Fogelman still is getting comfortable with the idea of Nielsen figures being cause for celebration. "I'd just come off of four years in a row of doing network TV where every time the ratings came out, it was like a shot in your gut," he says. "So sure, [This is Us] hit a point where I guess you could be like, 'I no longer have to really think about this,' " he pauses, "but then there's the neurotic in you just waiting for it all to fall."
On paper, Fogelman — a 41-year-old Jew from New Jersey, only now beginning to explore having children with his wife of two years — has little in common with the character of Randall, a black executive and father of two who was adopted as an infant and raised by a white family.
And yet, as the show progresses, Fogelman has found he has been writing more and more of himself into the role. "Our backgrounds couldn't be more different," he acknowledges, "but we're both a little goofy and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be good, and so I find myself identifying with him and pulling the most from my life for him." The additional layer of irony is that 41-year-old Brown — who like his character is a successful black man as well as an adoring husband and father — has been infusing more of himself into the part of Randall, too.
When the role was first presented to Brown, he was still filming his Emmy-winning part as Christopher Darden in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson. The pilot's directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, had worked with the actor on the 2016 war dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and urged Fogelman to consider him. That 20th TV, a producer on O.J., had already seen what Brown was capable of allowed him to whisk through the process. Brown was ecstatic to be cast. "The perception in the country is that black men are absent when it comes to their families," he says, "so this is a wonderful image to put out into the world and an opportunity I don't take lightly."
Of all the actors, Brown is best known for adding poignant flourishes that, in his case, speak to the microaggressions of the upper-middle-class black experience. Early in season one, when Randall and his brother, Kevin, hear police sirens after getting into a fistfight in Times Square, Brown dropped in the line, "I'm still black; we gotta go." When his character turns to acknowledge a couple who has come out to see him arguing with his father in Randall's predominantly white neighborhood, he threw in, "Just your friendly neighborhood black man." And though Brown insists he has no aspirations of joining the writing staff (his sights instead are set on directing and producing), he regularly pops by the writers room and occasionally pitches ideas, too.
One storyline he recently suggested is about how Randall and his wife, Beth, first got together, which the writers plan to tackle later this season. "Very often, you choose somebody who looks like your mom, but Randall makes this conscious choice to be with a black woman," says the actor, "and I really want us to explore that." Of all of the sensitive subjects that the This Is Us room takes on, race almost always is the one that requires the most discussion, according to recently upped co-showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who, like Fogelman, are white. "Our black writers [of which there are three on a staff of 10 this season] get a bigger voice in those stories," says Aptaker, "but we've really, really tried to make the writers room a place where we can have those kinds of conversations — the kinds you don't have permission to have in your daily life." Berger chimes in: "The goal is that it's a safe enough space that a white writer can be like, 'Wait, do black people need to wear sunscreen?' " (The latter informed a particularly poignant scene in season one, and the pair says the subject of caring for black hair should do the same in season two.)
Knowing that these are the types of stories This Is Us would need to tell, Fogelman, with Aptaker and Berger, assembled writers as diverse in race, gender, age, body type and life experience as the characters they write. (See page 108.) They each have personal stories — about obesity, sobriety, adoption, racism, illness, loss — that have inspired or at least informed storylines on the show. And when the series wades into sensitive areas where the writers lack firsthand knowledge, they invite speakers to share theirs. A handful have been brought in on the subject of transracial adoption. There was a black woman, raised by a white family, who revealed to the room how, at 18, she found herself instinctively moving to the other side of the street when another black person walked toward her. A white woman, who had adopted a black son, opened up about the process of preparing him for the challenges that come with being a black man in the U.S.
A powerful speaker from Overeaters Anonymous came in early on, too; but to capture the weight-loss journey as truthfully as possible, Fogelman still relies on his sister, Deborah. In fact, he has enlisted her as a consultant on the show. Though she and Metz have yet to meet (they are Facebook friends), Deborah reads every script, with a careful eye on Kate's storyline, and sends notes from her home in Rhode Island. "Let me tell you, there's nothing better than telling a roomful of professional writers, 'My sister had a note on page five,' " jokes Fogelman. In truth, it was Deborah's hands, as much as his, on the famous "it's always going to be about weight for me" monologue that still haunts Metz. "I remember reading those lines like, 'I'm always going to be afraid of a chair breaking underneath me' or 'whether people will be able to recognize if I'm actually pregnant,' " says the actress, "and going to Dan, in tears, like, 'These are my fears.' "
When This Is Us returns later this month, Kate Pearson will have stories about subjects that have nothing to do with her waistline, beginning with her budding singing career; but, as that powerful season-one monologue revealed, weight will continue to be a major issue. How the writers handle Kate's struggle will be dependent on how Metz handles her own, and though she has been shedding pounds since the series began, there is no target weight detailed in her contract. "Thus far, the plan we had for the character and what Chrissy's been doing have been working in tandem, with a talk once a year of, like, 'Hey, here's what we're thinking,' " says Fogelman. "So we have a general long-term plan that we've all talked about, and we will adjust the plan as needed. I mean, that's life, right?"
This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.