SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Super Bowl Sunday,” the special post-Super Bowl episode of “This Is Us” that aired Feb. 4.
Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) was a heroic man — and ultimately it cost him his life.
Not only did he make sure he safely got his family out of their burning house, he then went back in to save the new dog and some sentimental family items. The amount of time he spent breathing in the smoke from the fire ultimately doomed him, though, causing a fatal heart attack just hours later, as he sat in the hospital after being treated for burns on his arm.
Ventimiglia had known the details of Jack’s fate for quite some time, but viewers learned the details of Jack’s untimely demise in the special post-Super Bowl episode of “This Is Us” that aired on Feb. 4. (The episode pulled in just over 27 million live viewers, making it the top-rated post-Super Bowl entertainment telecast in six years.)
After the emotional episode, Variety spoke with Ventimiglia about the slow cooker, Jack’s safety skills, and why he doesn’t cry for Jack.
Let’s start with that slow cooker. When you got that script, what was your reaction to the fact that Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) were still using that old thing?
Reading it was not a surprise. We knew what it was — we knew it was an older appliance, something that the family enjoyed for years that just happened to be faulty. So we knew when reading the script that that was going to be the ultimate thing that sparked the fire. But there was human error in that as well — not getting the batteries [for the smoke detector] at the mall when they were there that day. To be simply put, appliances like that, it’s best to just unplug them. We have a family home in my [real] family, and whenever people are coming or going, all of the appliances get unplugged for that very reason.
Jack knew a lot about fire safety. Did that come from his time in the military, and when will we see more of that time in his life?
Jack’s a man of action. He’s a man of immediate response — anything from the emotional duress of his children or his wife to a household fire. I think it’s in his core of who he is to be a protector. It’s in his DNA. He’s someone who doesn’t need a plan — he can formulate a plan and adapt very, very quickly. [His time in] the military is something that’s still to be defined. So it’s a possibility [to define it soon]. We’ve been at every age with Jack and granted, we’ve only known the man for 32 hours of television, there’s still a lot of room to know who this man is.
How much of the fire was practical, and how did that add to the emotion of filming the scenes where Jack was running around, getting everyone to safety?
There was no imagining needed. It was getting everyone behind me, putting myself in front of one of the kids, and just playing the moment. There was no special, “Hey, this is acting, I have to pretend scared because they’re going to put in a wall of flames.” No, I was facing down the wall of flames in the safest possible way. The first thing was to recognize the level of production, not only for safety, but also for security — creatively but also for the crew filming. It was, in my mind, very, very satisfying. Our production team that put together that set and made sure we were in a place where we could have a very safe, controlled, seemingly dangerous fire — my hat is off to them. But the fire itself, I was standing next to a wall of six-foot flames that were controlled but was still fire. There was fire right in front of me. Standing feet away from it, there were moments where the hiss of the gas line of fire — it’s kind of a high-pitched whine — would be completely overtaken by the score of real fire, which is deep and booming and angry and something that I hope many, many people never have to face.
The audience didn’t see Jack die on-screen, but did you film an actual death scene?
What you saw on-screen was exactly as it was scripted.
There’s a moment when Rebecca is standing at the vending machine and it sounds like Jack calls her name. Can you confirm if that was real?
The moment at the vending machine where you hear “Bec,” that was something that was questionable if it was something ethereal or something that was real. That’s something that I think is up for interpretation by the audience.
How did you interpret it personally? Did you record multiple options?
I’m not the authority on that but yes I did.
Jack wasn’t coughing that much in the hospital, but he did seem like he knew something beyond the burn was wrong with him.
[Series creator Dan] Fogelman and I talked about that a lot — [executive producers] John Requa and Glenn Ficarra and I talked about that a lot. We didn’t want to tip our hand and say what was going to happen, so John and Glenn had this great idea to — instead of having the cough and the discomfort of that — kind of turn it into the clearing of the throat. It wasn’t all too frequent, but it wasn’t infrequent. In the edit they backed off of a lot of it. Fogelman was telling me, “I can’t help but think that that last look that you gave Mandy before she walked out the room was maybe Jack knowing and sending his wife out so she didn’t have to see it.” I think Jack absolutely knew something was wrong.
How do you rationalize why he wouldn’t say, “Hey, maybe I need to see another doctor and get more thoroughly checked out”?
I think there comes a time where acceptance happens. Maybe Jack was sparing his wife the emotional stress of not being there in a final, violent moment. I imagine that is possibly what Jack could have been thinking, but I’ll never know. It’s the way the show gets edited, and I think it’s a beautiful reminder to say you love people when they’re around.
What was the most emotional part of this episode for you during filming?
It was probably laying on a table as still as I could, hearing Mandy really break down in the room and knowing that the best thing I could do for her is absolutely nothing. That was a hard moment to film just because what Mandy and I have been able to do with these characters and with these words is build a real, real couple — a real head of the family, patriarch and matriarch — and it hurt. It’s hard — it’s hard to hear my friend suffer, and she was that day.
Was that the same part you found yourself getting emotional over when you watched the episode?
I had moments with all of the characters. I don’t cry for Jack — that is just what happened to Jack. I cry for Rebecca in that moment where her husband has died. I cry for Kevin in the moment where he’s talking to his father — and my God, Justin Hartley! That one single take sitting at the tree — that beautiful spectrum that starts in one place and completely lands in another with the heart and disappointment and emotion and then some levity, that made me cry. The moment with Randall, where he reflects on his father and sudden loss and all of that. Randall is always a character of strength, and when he’s having that conversation with Tess and he’s talking about his father Jack and the family and whatnot and how he wanted to be a good day, and the second Tess was born that was automatic and he didn’t have to try, that was a really beautiful moment. And the same thing with Kate: Kate’s constant hounding of herself because she feels responsible and finally transferring that over to Toby — he saved her. Those are beautiful moments, and I feel like any father would cry for his wife and his kids.
Jack’s death is a tragedy for a lot of reasons, but do you feel the timing of it is a big part of that, considering he was just finally about to embark on his own company, and his kids were about to hit a milestone of graduation?
There is a lot that Jack was on the road to, but that doesn’t discount the goodness and the hope and the love that he left behind. His life expired when it needed to expire, and that’s sadly the way it is, but he had fulfilled what he needed to fulfill on this Earth.
“This Is Us” airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.