Michael Angarano is in a unique position on “This Is Us.” Although his character, Nicky Pearson, is one of the adult characters on the show — and one of the ones who is alive in the multiple time periods the series covers — he does not portray the role at every age. Instead, Griffin Dunne portrays the present-day Nicky, in a move that Angarano feels was “really, really right.”
“I think it benefits the show and the part to have an older actor playing the older version of Nicky. You’re playing a man who’s seen a lot, who’s lived a really hard life, and I think it’s really appropriate to have an actor with the appropriate amount of life experience to play the part,” he tells Variety.
After hearing of the role, Angarano got on a call with series co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker, he says, who laid out Nicky’s storyline and how it would play out over the third season episodes, as well as the various time periods. But, Angarano says, he assumed he would only play the youngest version of Nicky, when he was drafted into and then served in the Vietnam War.
“I thought it was one extreme or the other,” he says. “The sidenote was there was potential that I would go through a makeup process to see if I could play an older version, but they were going to look for an older actor — and most likely choose the older actor.”
The show did that with Dunne, an actor with whom Angarano had actually worked before. (“He played my father in a film called ‘Snow Angels,’ which was  years ago,” Angarano points out.) Angarano never ended up going through the full old-age makeup test, noting it was only a possibility if they couldn’t find anybody to take on the older version of the character.
However, there was still some middle ground in the form of Nicky in his 40s, post-Vietnam, living in a trailer and sending his brother Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) postcards as attempts to reconnect. This version of the character was introduced in the Jan. 22 episode “Songbird Road Part One,” and Angarano ended up undergoing minor aging, in addition to beard work, to portray him.
“I think it’s one of the most difficult things to accomplish: to age somebody convincingly,” Angarano says, “and this show does it so well.”
It was Ventimiglia, Angarano says, who tipped him off that they would be playing opposite each other in this way, when Angarano originally assumed Dunne would be in the scenes. It was also Ventimiglia who Angarano “took the most from” when it came to how to carry the younger Pearson in his later years.
“Milo doesn’t do a lot physically, and what he does is subtle, but you feel a big difference from him when he’s younger on the show to when he’s in his 40s or 50s. I think there’s a stillness and a sort of ownership of your voice and your physicality. It’s small, but I think the second you start hobbling around as if you have a bad back or something’s ailing you, that’s when it starts to feel inauthentic,” he says.
Because Jack kept the truth about his time, as well as his brother’s fate, in the war a secret from his family, the only “This Is Us” regular with whom Angarano shared scenes was Ventimiglia. In fact, he shares, he didn’t even meet some of the other Pearsons until he was almost finished shooting. “I think it was my second to last day of shooting where I was on the Paramount lot and I see Sterling [K. Brown] walk across the basecamp, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Sterling, I finally feel like I’m on “This Is Us”!'” he says.
But he believes being able to “work with Milo so intimately [and] have that estrangement from the rest of it…really helped the story and our performances.”
Nicky was a reluctant soldier — one who began using pills to cope with the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam. His big brother enlisted as a way to keep an eye on him, managing to bring him into his platoon for a short stay to try to get him into fighting shape. During that time, though, Nicky took a local boy fishing, using grenades to kill and catch the fish, and an accident with one of the grenades caused the boat — and the boy — to explode while Nicky dove to safety. His older brother never learned exactly what happened on that boat, instead cutting off contact with his brother for years until Nicky sent a postcard to Jack’s house. Jack didn’t want his family to find out his brother was alive, so he visited him but basically just reiterated what was said in Vietnam: that he was done.
“Not only does he have to deal with the death of this young Vietnamese boy, but now he also has to deal with the judgement of his older brother and dealing with the love that he’s not getting from his older brother anymore,” Angarano says. “Once Nicky realizes that Jack doesn’t want to offer him that forgiveness, it’s similar to how he felt when Jack first came to Vietnam: that his presence is actually going to hurt him more.”
Angarano says he and Ventimiglia shot a few different versions of Nicky and Jack’s trailer reunion, some in which they “yelled at each other — where the characters got more upset, more emotional.” But in the end he was glad to see what made the final cut were the “quieter” versions.
“So much of the emotion is what is not said,” Angarano says. “What [Nicky’s] feeling is a lot of regret and shame and guilt, and that is something he carries with him his whole life.”
Exactly who Nicky had in his life post-Vietnam remains a mystery — something that Angarano would be interested to explore in the future, in part because of “what the culture was like and how unwelcoming it was to Vietnam vets.” But the actor would also be interested to further explore younger Nicky’s time before Vietnam more fully — “what his relationship was like with Jack before all of this, when they were just two young men and probably really happy and had a lot of love for each other.”
“The war changed Nicky, and part of what happened in the war was the disintegration of his relationship with his brother,” Angarano says. “And it’s sad because Nicky’s version, it doesn’t seem like he had something to cling on to give him that relief that Jack has in Rebecca and the rest of his family.”
“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.