EXCLUSIVE: The Spectacular Reinvention of Mandy Moore

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“I’m in a completely different chapter of my life, and I don’t begrudge anything.”

On a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, Mandy Moore lounges on a white leather couch in a corner of a bare four-star West Hollywood, California, hotel room, counting down the final minutes of a rare day of work during a picturesque spring weekend. Glam in a chic designer black dress and barely there makeup from a prior event, gone in that moment is any sign of the bubbly teenage blonde pop star singing about puppy love in “Candy.” In her place is a mature, fulfilled 33-year-old who has since demanded the world’s attention on This Is Us.

In NBC’s undisputed breakout family drama, Moore slips into the complicated world of Rebecca Pearson, wife and mother of three (twins and an adopted son), with a signature performance that’s deft and understated in its time-jumping complexities. Getting to this point in her career, though, didn’t come immediately to Moore, who at one point was best known for her pop music and teen roles in films like A Walk to RememberThe Princess Diaries and Saved!.

“It’s all led me to where I am now. I’m happy to acknowledge [the past], but also stay focused on the present,” she says honestly, referencing past credits in a candid conversation with ET. “I think it’s cool to have different chapters of your life and career and for there to be a portion of an audience out there that just knows me from [This Is Us]. I’m totally fine with it because there’s plenty of stuff in the past I’d like to forget.”

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In many respects, This Is Us represents a pivot point in Moore’s life. Before the acclaimed series came along, she was at a crossroads “in every sense” of the word -- both in her personal and professional life. (Moore’s divorce from musician Ryan Adams, her husband for seven years, was finalized in June 2016.)

“I’ve gone through my share of career lulls and rejections and disappointment,” she acknowledges. “I sort of feel like my life has hit on so many different notes that that collective experience [is something I can] bring to the table with a role like this and sprinkle a little bit of that into this woman.”

Moore credits This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, with whom she fostered a close relationship during 2010’s Tangled, for taking a chance on her once it came time to fill the coveted part of Rebecca. The gig wasn’t going to be the typical TV experience (“I was terrified of the prospect of working in TV,” she confesses at one point), with the premise calling for her to play the character from her early 20s to age 66. She embraced -- and aced -- the test.

“I tell Dan Fogelman every chance that I get that he’s changed my life. I was waiting for the opportunity for [something like this], where someone would allow me to challenge myself and stretch in a way I didn’t know I was capable of,” Moore says with a deep sincerity in her voice. “Dan did me the greatest favor in the world and really allowed me to do something that no one else has allowed me to do before.”

Photo: NBC

Moore points to several key scenes that have stuck with her the most, though having her pick is like asking her to name a favorite child. She lands on a handful of moments after taking a second to file through her memories: Rebecca’s speech imploring her husband, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), to be a “9” for their kids; Rebecca tearfully admitting to her unborn babies that she’s unfit to be a mother; and the devastating marriage-ending fight between husband and wife in the season finale. 

Of the latter, Moore freely admits she and Ventimiglia were deeply affected by Rebecca and Jack’s decision not to compromise, often having their own private discussions over the benchmark scene: “I expected them in any part of their marriage for one to go, ‘This is dumb. Why are we doing this? I love you. You love me. I can’t walk out that door. I packed a bag, but I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to fix this.’ They’re not going to let this happen. I was the most surprised by that.”

“The material that all of us have had is beyond our wildest comprehension,” she says, speaking more broadly of the embarrassment of riches she and her cast mates, who include Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz as her three grown children, are afforded. “We would get the scripts week to week and go, ‘How are people, first of all, going to emotionally have the constitution to handle what’s happening?’ God, you wait a whole lifetime, a whole career to be a part of something like that. It’s not lost on any of us.”

What also isn’t lost is the stratospheric rise Moore’s life has taken since This Is Us broke through last September -- and with experience comes a newfound appreciation for such a rare lightning-in-a-bottle treasure.

“Life has changed for all of us exponentially on every level. It’s indescribable,” she marvels about starring on a hit show, an experience she’s just learning to grasp. “I’d never been part of something that has resonated this deeply with people out there in the world, [or got] that sort of feedback in every corner of your day-to-day life, with people coming up talking to you.” And not just to say “I love the show,” the actress explains; they want to come up to her and talk about their life and how they relate to the characters on the show. Though not a mother or currently married herself, people treat Moore like she’s Rebecca and share with her their deepest insecurities or unexpected tribulations. “It’s really heavy stuff you wouldn’t expect a perfect stranger to come up and unload on you.”

The public’s immediate embrace of the Pearson family and, in turn, the actors who portray them, wasn’t something Moore initially expected. In hindsight, maybe she should have. “It’s very humbling,” Moore says of being that emotional safe haven for perfect strangers. “It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re a part of something that feels important.’ It means something to people in this day and age and this crazy world we live in where everything is forcing us to divide. We’re a part of something that’s uniting people.”

That resonance with fans is, in large part, why it’s become so wildly popular so quickly. “I am beside myself being a part of a show that’s garnering the recognition that it has. That’s my priority and that's what’s most important to me,” she says. “But you know what the most mind-boggling fact of all of this? Milo and I were sitting waiting with bated breath to see if the show was getting picked up this time last year. To be in this position now is beyond.”

And she’s taken advantage of the added attention during her hiatus, returning to her Tangled roots for a Disney Channel series and leading two films, I’m Not Here, opposite J.K. Simmons, and The Darkest Minds, alongside Amandla Stenberg and Gwendoline Christie.

“I’ve gotten better at saying no,” Moore says of what she’s learned as she gets older. “I was afraid to own my power. I felt I had to please everybody and to be genial and polite, and all of that is still possible while saying no, but I think that comes with time and the clarity and wisdom that come with age.”