‘This Is Us’ Creator on Mandy Moore’s Transformation, More Flash-Forwards and ‘Emotional’ Season Finale

THIS IS US -- "The Wedding" Episode 218 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Sullivan as Toby, Chrissy Metz as Kate -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

There’s just one episode left in the second season of “This Is Us,” and creator Dan Fogelman knows the pressure is on. But while last season’s finale was a heartbreaking one, he promises this year’s season-ender will be a happier one.

But it wouldn’t “This Is Us,” after all, without a few tears. Even the crew broke down when they were filming the final scenes, he reveals.

One of the highlights for this season for him as been watching Mandy Moore take center stage, as Rebecca faced some of the biggest emotional challenges, coping with Jack’s death and delivering the news to their children. Fogelman is full of praise for his leading lady, calling her work this season “exceptional.” “I think she deserves to be sitting in the category with our fanciest actresses who were doing work on TV right now,” he says. “I genuinely truly believe it. And so it’s nice to see people recognizing that.”

Ahead of the season finale, Fogelman talked to Variety about asking Moore to play Rebecca at so many different ages, moving forward past Jack’s death, and what’s ahead for next season.

Moore gets put through her paces in the hair-and-makeup trailer every time we see older Rebecca — the process takes up to three hours. Did you have any idea when you first came up with this idea what it was going to entail?

I’ve never done age makeup that extensively in my career. I’ve watched it, but I’d never really been involved in it. Initially I thought we were likely heading towards a place where we’d be casting two different actors more traditionally. And then as we started getting into the first episode and Mandy had also gotten into the part by doing a big heavy duty monologue, I was just seeing how gifted she was. I started thinking that that was going to be the way to go.

“The Crown” has obviously gone the other direction, having Olivia Colman replace Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth. What was it about Mandy that made you feel that she could carry this through such a wide age range?

It was honestly just a gut instinct. We’ve done some casting where we have found doppelgangers of people and using two different actors in a role. Rebecca felt like in an ideal world if we could get the makeup right, that it would be such an interesting way to see the kind of growth of the family, seeing the family through a long lens by watching the same actor actually go through the growth of aging and being part of a story in two different time periods. So it felt important if we could accomplish it well. It was going to be partially, “can we get the makeup right,” but then do we have the actor for it, and we felt we did.

It’s not just about the makeup; Moore also transforms herself physically when she plays older Rebecca. Is that something you directed her to do?

Her gestures are completely different. Her voice changes a little bit. Her shoulders carry the weight of a life, lived hard, not in terms of drugs or alcohol, but in terms of there’s been a fair amount of tragedy and sadness in her life and she carries it all. And that was not something I ever discussed with her. That was something that the first time she walked in to her full hair and makeup and costume tests, she was carrying herself that way. She’s extraordinary. I think Mandy is a heavyweight, serious actor who happens to be both blessed and cursed with the face and personality of a real charmed star. And so I think people can occasionally overlook how serious a dramatic actress she is. We just shot the finale where you’re seeing a dream version of her life if Jack had survived. And it’s older Rebecca, but it’s a third, different character. She carries herself differently in that. When you watch the footage of it, it’s stunning. I don’t know if it’s something that Mandy is consciously doing. I don’t know if it’s something that she just does as she inhabits the characters, but even the way she carries herself in this fictional dream version of her life where Jack had survived is completely different than the version of older Rebecca at the same age when he hadn’t. It’s not like that’s written in the stage directions of the script. She just does that, and it’s exceptional.

How far can you age her? Are we going to see even older iterations of Rebecca?

Yeah, it’s possible. We have some big plans in how we play with time, but Mandy has such a classic face and look that strangely it allows for aging in a really interesting way because she would always remain classically beautiful in a way that’s not typical or normal. And she also has the ability to get a very young very quickly because she’s so pretty and she has such good skin. So it’s this very malleable tool we have at our disposal. I think in the near future we would continue just progressing old Rebecca linearly, so it’s not like she’s suddenly going to get much older, but we do have plans to go deeper both forward and back.

There’s been so much emphasis on Jack’s death, but so much storytelling burden falls on her as the only character who exists in all of the show’s timelines.

That was what was so nice about our Super Bowl episode where we had the entire country watching the story. It was such a showcase for Mandy, because of the high level degree of difficulty stuff she was having to do in those episodes as the whole country was watching. Rebecca has never been the showy character and other characters get to be funnier. They get to be lighter or they get to be more winning. And she’s the steady matriarch of a family — the wife with the amazing husband who also was the one who carries the burden of the secret of Randall’s adoption and has had to deal with a father’s death. And remarried her husband’s best friend, which the kids haven’t always loved. Her character traits aren’t always ones that people will naturally decide as the happiest or the most accessible, but in many ways, she’s the quiet, sad soldiering on hero of the entire family. And that’s a very challenging thing to play.

Going forward, how much more of her journey are we going to get to see?

There’s a world where you look at this entire series as Rebecca’s journey when you’re looking at the big picture out. This young woman who wasn’t even sure she wanted to have kids and sacrificed dreams of her own and has experienced the loss of a husband and has experienced her kids as babies, as teenagers, as 10 year olds, and gone through the spectrum of life. So in many ways, I think this was really Mandy’s season of the show. I think you could look at the series as a very much a story of Rebecca’s life and in the same way you could look at it as a story of Randall’s life or Jack’s life or Kevin ‘s life or Kate’s, but this season was very focused on Mandy. And I thought it was very successful for us. So we’re certainly going to be doing more.

We’re starting to see other characters get older, like future Randall. Are we going to be seeing more of that going forward?

It’s a big part of where we’re going. How much and when is a bit of a surprise. But part of what this show is about is the experience of being in a family and generationally seeing how the sins of our parents affect us as children and then how that gets passed on to the next generation. So in order to do that, you want to expand our world between just two generations of people, and you’d like to ideally go both forward and backward. So I expect we’re going to be doing a lot of stuff with aging, a lot of stuff with facial hair to continue to be able to tell the story effectively.

How does it feel to finally gotten the revelation of Jack’s death behind you?

It was never behind me quite in that we’ve known this and working on it for awhile, but it’s cool not having to stress about our scripts getting leaked or a paparazzi guy taking a picture, which is really what we’ve been up against as we’ve been making the show the last couple of months. It’s a layer of degree of difficulty that you just don’t want to have to deal with, so that’s really it. But I also know we have more stuff coming up that’s going to be very big in that way again and so it’s exciting to be moving forward with new stuff that’ll hopefully get people buzzing and talking. We’re deep into season three already right now and I think in a lot of ways it’s going to be our most exciting season.

How does this season finale compared to last season’s?

I have high hopes for our finale. I think our hope was that we could round out this season and give a sense of completion to the stories we’ve been telling in terms of the big arcs and have a bit of a happy kind of breath of relief at the end of the season as we simultaneously launched forward with our new stories that hopefully we’ll have people interested to come back next year. So that’s the goal. There was a part of filming the finale of the show where I wasn’t there, but I was told our crew, even the big camera guys and grips and gaffers, were crying so hard that people having a hard time being on set. And I hadn’t heard that before from this group. There’s been some crying, but there was one day that was the most emotional day we’ve had on set for the crew.