“This Is Us” fans have been obsessing over Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and the mystery surrounding his death since the show began. But through it all, there’s been one character who’s had to shoulder the burden of keeping the family together after that tragedy: the Pearson family matriarch, Rebecca, played by Mandy Moore.
Thanks to elaborate hair-and-makeup tricks, Moore navigates the character across four decades — from a young woman first meeting the love of her life, to the mother of teenagers, and then a 60-something widow remarried to her husband’s best friend.
“I think she tries her level best at every phase,” says Moore. “She’s a woman who didn’t know whether or not she wanted to get married or have kids and I think she’s just been out to prove something every step of the way. And she’s a lot better than she gives herself credit for. And I think she’s a lot better than people give her credit for as well.”
Here, Moore talks with Variety about why she thinks Rebecca is an “everyday superhero,” why Rebecca married Miguel, and what’s ahead for the finale.
How do you change your mannerisms for Rebecca at different ages? Is that something you think about?
I think I thought a lot about it more in the beginning than I do now. It’s almost like just it becomes more instinctual. When I put on the wig and go through the process with hair and makeup and I’m around my kids, it becomes second nature in a way. I just think about the life lived and the sort of stillness that comes with getting older and the clarity and the wisdom that comes along with it. She knows who she is and she’s really lived a life and she doesn’t give a s–t. She doesn’t have to impress anybody. She loves her kids. There’s just that sense of calm that I think isn’t as evident when she was younger. It’s half a beat, slower, quieter, stiller because I’m pretty gregarious in my real life and so I just try to go a little bit more inside of myself when I’m thinking about older Rebecca.
Given that you’re not a mother yourself, what helps you get into that headspace?
Honestly, it was like my utmost concern at the beginning of the show, but now I don’t really think anything of it because we all have established such a rapport and a relationship and I feel like I have this real shared history with all of the kids at different ages that I don’t think about it. Not anymore.
What helped you get over it?
I remember being on set the first day [director] Ken [Olin] coming up to me and saying, “You don’t ask permission as a parent” because I kept saying, “Excuse me, can you please do this for me?” He’s like, “You’re being too polite and you’re asking permission. Parents don’t do that. You tell the kids what to do and they listen to you.” I was like, “Oh, OK. That makes sense.” That was such a rookie move! I can’t wait to be a mom one day and so maybe there’s some sort of natural maternal side that’s able to come to the surface because of this role.
You’re being asked to play, though, not only a mother of teenagers and also adult children. Those are two very different things.
It’s all [showrunner] Dan [Fogelman]. it’s all in the writing. It really makes all of our jobs so much easier. There’s such a sense of heart and warmth and compassion in the way that he writes. And especially I feel like in the way that he writes women, you can tell he loves women. There’s nothing not on the page for us. It makes it so easy.
There’s been so much attention about Jack and his death, but there’s also pressure on you as the one character who interacts with every other character. Do you feel that pressure?
I don’t. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, but it’s such an honor to be the glue of this family. I’m the one little link and thread that brings the past to the future to the present day. I’m in all of it in a way that nobody else is on the show. And I relish that opportunity. It’s amazing. I talk with Milo about these days when we’re all working together, present day with the kids, the adult big three, he doesn’t ever get to experience that. He doesn’t know what that’s like. And I always tell him it’s a completely different show because it does feel like we’ve been the architects of the show and what we’ve sort of managed to construct with the kids. Even the littles and the teenagers feel so far and away like just a different show from what I’m doing present day. Which is great. I think it speaks to why the show has such a reach and such a broad appeal. But it does remind me how lucky I am that I get to dip my toe in all of those different decades.
Do you think that there’s one thing that defines Rebecca in each of those different decades?
I think she tries her level best at every phase. She’s a woman who didn’t know whether or not she wanted to get married or have kids and I think she’s just been out to prove something every step of the way. And she’s a lot better than she gives herself credit for. I think she’s a lot better than people give her credit for as well, which I feel like moms oftentimes are the unsung heroes of the family. You do all the grunt work, you get the kids up, you keep the ship running, get them to school and dad gets to swoop in and be the hero. And I feel like that’s very much the case on this show. And that does not negate how much of a hero Jack and how wonderful Milo is. But I feel like Rebecca is her own version of a superhero, an everyday superhero. And I love playing her.
But she has made her mistakes.
She’s not perfect. She is fallible and I love that we get to explore that too. And that’s sort of why people, I think initially, were really like, she makes some questionable choices. She makes choices that I don’t necessarily agree with. I don’t think in the same situation I would have kept my child away from his biological father, but I understand and I have compassion for her. So I feel like she’s made some unpopular decisions and it really sort of held her back from being able to win people over for a long time. But I think that shifted this season. I think that this season was really her time to shine as a parent.
There was so much build up to finding out how Jack died. How does it feel now to be on the other side?
It is a relief for all of us because we were holding in this secret and I thought at any turn like I’d be overtired and I’d misspeak to somebody and tell them or somebody would get drunk at a party and spill the beans. Man, we all collectively held that secret for the better part of two years. And I just was worried that it was going to take one person slipping up for it to get out there. That wasn’t the case. We had so many people working on this for such a long time, but everybody took it seriously, but it’s a relief that it’s out there and I think it’s hopefully satisfied people’s curiosity in regards to that particular question. But now it’s paved the way for us to move on and say that’s not the most compelling question of this show. It’s not what makes the show tick. In a way I understand people’s fascination and curiosity because this family’s fundamentally changed moving forward for the rest of their lives by the loss of their father. But, it’s what happens after that I think is more interesting than the event itself.
Why do you think she married Miguel (John Huertas)?
When you’re widowed, you want that companionship and I think Miguel offered something entirely different to her life and they were able to sort of come together in their grief and their love for this person and find something that sort of works for them. But it’s not the great love of her life. I think it’s like a very sweet, steady, stable, staple in her life, but not anything beyond that. They have fun with each other. He makes her laugh. They love to go to the theater together. They have a sweet life together and they coexist really well together, but I don’t think that it’s a great love by any means.
Why do you think she ended up being closer with Randall?
I think he always took the position of being very protective of her. I think he saw more so than the other two, how much she did for the family and I think he just had an emotional maturity to him that the other two didn’t and he was really able to recognize that and appreciate it for what it was. With Jack and Rebecca’s fight at the end of last season, I think he managed to observe some of that without us knowing and really took my side in it and not dad’s side. And I think it’s just something he’s carried throughout his life. Mom doesn’t get the credit that she deserves. I think it’s just as simple as that. He’s a mama’s boy, he loves his mom. I think she doted on him. Being an adoptive mother, I think she felt the pressure to deliver and to figure it out on the fly. She didn’t bond with him initially because she wasn’t sure that she could take care of him and once she made that decision to fully invest herself in it, I don’t think she ever came up for air. I think she was just in it, and he felt that.
Going forward, what are the big questions for you?
I think some of the bigger questions for me are what happens in the immediate aftermath of losing Jack because there’s a 10 year chunk of time from this season where we met the kids at 27, 28 and when they lost their father at 17, 18. That’s a really formidable period of their lives where they were supposed to go off to college and Kate was going to study music and who knows what genius thing Randall was going to get up to, and I feel like it really derailed everybody, like to varying degrees. So I want to know how that fundamentally impacted them, as individuals, but also our relationship. There is a deep estrangement between Rebecca and her two biological kids. They moved off to Los Angeles and I want to know when and how and what the circumstances around that were and why. I want to know how Beth and Randall met… I want to see Jack and Rebecca’s courtship. I want to see how they met, how they fell in love and we’ve seen a little bit of their wedding but I’d love to see that engagement, all of that sort of stuff that makes you tied into their love even more. It makes it all feel that much more bittersweet.
How far do you think you can push the boundaries of what ages you can play?
Sterling [K. Brown, who plays Randall] and I were just talking about that. I don’t know. I can get consecutively older for the rest of the run of the show. That’s not going to be too much of an issue. But I think if they jumped forward into the future too much. I don’t know [if I could do it], unless I’m confined to a bed or something. I feel like I could probably just handle the neck up, but beyond that, I don’t know. I will be happy to have somebody come in and play the 90 year old version of Rebecca. I am so down for that. I don’t want to sit through seven hours of prosthetics for that.
Do you think there’s another iteration of Rebecca that we haven’t seen yet?
I do. I would never discount Dan. I can see the wheels turning. I think he has got some more tricks up his sleeve.
What was your advice to Sterling when he found out he was going to play future Randall?
We didn’t really even talk about it. If you know that you’re not going to be doing it in a reoccurring sense, it’s more exciting. It’s like, Ooh, what’s this going to feel like? It’s just the unknown. He was I think more excited to jump into the process, knowing he doesn’t have to do it every episode.
Of all the ages you play, which is your favorite?
Milo and I say our favorite ages is when the kids are 10 because it’s the least amount of work. He’s already got a mustache and I don’t have to wear a wig or anything crazy, so it’s really easy. We’re in and out. So that’s what we judge it based upon — how long were you in hair and makeup for. 45 minutes? I can do that.
What are you going to do during your hiatus?
I think maybe write some music. I just moved, so get settled into the house. It’s so hard. This show set such a high bar for the kind of work that’s out there and we have such a finite little window of time to try and fit something in that I don’t know. I feel like unless it’s really different or challenging in its own way… Dan loves writing this beautiful character. He’s written this really fully formed, fleshed out mother and wife and it feels like such a step back to go and do something when you’re just playing like a cardboard cutout of a woman. That’s a lot of that is what’s out there, and I just don’t know if I want to do that.
How would you describe the finale?
I think it’s bittersweet. It’s a bittersweet finale. There’s a duality to it that I think people are gonna appreciate.
Does it leave questions open for next season?
It does. It leaves at least one question, a question that you wouldn’t ask yourself before the episode, like perhaps an introduction to somebody that you’re like, oh, that’s interesting what’s happening there? But nothing like last season where you’re like, what are they breaking up? There’s nothing like that. I think we put people through the ringer enough with this season that we’ll leave it on a quasi happy, hopeful note. America has been tortured enough.