On the tail of their first season finale, the cast and producers of This Is Us took to the Dolby Theatre stage in Hollywood on Saturday night for PaleyFest 2017. NBC’s hit family drama makes its viewers laugh, cry and ugly cry on a weekly basis while following the travails of the extended Pearson clan. The panel discussion caused the same reactions, with some in the audience shedding a few tears during the session. (You’ll read why later.)
The popularity of the series was clear even before the event began, as the queue to get into the theater wound around the Hollywood & Highland Center. Moderator Kristin Dos Santos of E! News told the crowd that it set an all-time attendance record for any PaleyFest event. The conversation that followed didn’t disappoint, as the cast and several previously unannounced guests kept things lively and unpredictable.
The season finale, “Moonshadow,” featured a knockout fight scene between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), one of our favorite TV couples. “It was painful, it was intense,” Moore said. “We separated our chairs to opposite ends of the stage,” Ventimiglia added. “No, you did,” Moore, corrected. Ventimiglia continued without missing a beat: “I felt that Jack and Rebecca needed separation; they couldn’t be together.” For the record, the two actors played off each other and finished each other’s sentences throughout the night—just like, well, an old married couple.
The audience also learned that the scene was rehearsed and choreographed for one take, a long, continuous shot. “That’s what [series creator] Dan Fogelman and [writers] Ike Aptker and Elizabeth Berger had wanted,” Ventimiglia said. Moore explained that the scene that aired came so close, but included coverage (shots from other camera angles).
Because their fight—about sacrificing dreams and careers for spouses and kids—left so many fans heartbroken, Dos Santos tried a little marriage therapy for Jack and Rebecca. She asked the actors to do a cold read of a scene between one of the greatest TV couples ever—Coach and Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights—so that the Pearsons could learn from the Taylors. Moore channeled her best Tami, reading this fitting line from the FNL finale: “It’s my turn, babe. I have loved you and you have loved me, and we have compromised, both of us… for your job. And now it’s time to talk about doing that for my job.”
Of course, Executive Producers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra didn’t say much about the upcoming season. They told the crowd that the writers don’t reconvene until June, so nothing’s set in stone. “We got to see Jack from a certain perspective this season, and I think we might get into another perspective, [or] in other characters more,” Ficarra said. “It’s kind of like an endless canvass.” Sterling K. Brown, who surprised fans by flying in for the event from a movie shoot, wasn’t buying any of the producer-speak: “Appreciate the specificity,” he cracked.
Chrissy Metz knows that her character, Kate, wants to sing, but Metz isn’t sure if “it’s going to be a coffee shop or a mini-tour. Who knows?” Both Metz and Moore said they’d be open to singing as mother-daughter next season. “I’ll slap on the prosthetics (that age her) in two seconds,” Moore said. “Anything to sing with you, Chrissy.”
Several cast members know how Jack dies, and moderator Dos Santos asked them to discount at least one of the death theories floating on the Internet. They immediately nixed the idea that Jack dies on September 11th, but kept mum on the others. “The ‘plane crash’ theory popped up because of Kate’s fear of flying, and Kevin mentioned in one episode that he obliterated the model planes he made with his father. And there was a real plane crash in 1994 that killed 132 people in Pittsburgh, where the show takes place,” Dos Santos said. She rattled off other popular death theories: Rebecca killed him; Miguel murdered him; suicide; he got sick; house fire; “or the ringer… he’s not actually dead.”
Jon Huertas (Miguel) was another surprise PaleyFest guest (along with Gerald McRaney, who plays Dr. K). Miguel, Jack’s best friend and Rebecca’s new husband, isn’t that’s popular with the This is Us fan base. In his defense, Huertas said, “It’s a very important character. We’re going to see what happens with Miguel later on, and hopefully, he’ll prove that he’s just as dedicated a husband as Jack.”
“I want to know when this all transpired [between Miguel and Rebecca],” Brown added. “I want to know where his kids’ at! Are we cool with them?”
Brown’s real-life wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe, has appeared on the show as Yvette, an African American mother who befriends Jack and Rebecca. She gives them support and advice about Randall, the only black member of a white family. “Sometimes, we play Randall and Yvette at home,” Brown quipped.
“Some people might know that I was a talent agent for some time, and I actually represented Hannah Zeile (the young actress who plays 15-year-old Kate),” Metz said.
Sullivan stars as Kate’s fiancé, Toby, but he was also part of another 2016 mega-hit: Stranger Things. Although Sullivan’s Benny the burger guy met his end in episode two while protecting Eleven, he feels lucky to be part of two special shows. “The Duffer Brothers are doing something very unique on television. It was wonderful to work with them. And to be a part of this,” he gestured to the packed audience, “is kind of hard to put into words, especially on a night like this.”
The last episode left Randall approaching Beth about adopting a child. “It’s clearly the beginning of a conversation between a husband and wife,” Brown said. “It’s something that’s on his heart when he reflects back on the loss of William, and then being raised by Jack and Rebecca. [He’s] realizing what a true gift he had, in being raised as a Pearson, and wanting to bring that back full circle.”
Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Randall’s wife, Beth, said that her character might feel a little differently about adding to the family. “I don’t know how much she is ready for an adoption… For Beth, it might be at this stage in her life where she wants to do other things and maybe not start again with having a child, a baby. [But] if he’s like 16, then we’ll talk.”
An audience member talked about Jack Pearson making husbands and fathers everywhere look bad and asked about the inspiration for the character. “My father,” Ventimiglia said, pointing to his dad in the audience. “And my mom is right next to him, too.
“Dan Fogelman, by way of all the producers and writers, wrote this man who loves his wife and loves his kids. It’s really simple as that,” Ventimiglia said as he choked up. “And I saw that with my own father. And there’s not a moment in my life where I don’t think about how he raised us—my sisters and I—and what he gave me as a man. So, my dad.”
On that note, the This Is Us panel ended like so many of its episodes—leaving half the audience cheering and the other half in tears. The series has been renewed by NBC for Seasons Two and Three.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.