How 'This Is Us' Discovered the Blind Actor Who Plays Kate and Toby's Son
By Philiana Ng
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday's season four premiere of This Is Us.
Meet Blake Stadnik, the newcomer playing Kate and Toby's grown-up son on This Is Us.
The fourth season of NBC's family drama kicked off on Tuesday with three seemingly disparate storylines introducing several new faces. There was Malik (When They See Us' Asante Blackk), a teenage father that Deja meets at a party in Philadelphia. There was Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison), a war vet at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where Nicky throws a chair through the window and gets arrested. And then there was a visually-impaired singer, who finds the love of his life (Auden Thornton), gets married and is expecting a baby.
But it's that last "new" character who has a direct connection to the Pearson family. As revealed in the closing minutes of the season opener, the singer turns out to be none other than Kate and Toby's adult son, Jack (Stadnik), named after Kate's late father.
Creator Dan Fogelman shared that it was always the plan to have Jack, whose premature birth was explored last season, be blind. The decision wasn't made lightly.
"We’ve always known for a while now that Kate’s son was going to be born prematurely and blindness retinopathy is a very common thing that would come from that. It wasn't a debate about what type of thing may or may not happen. It was always part of the character and the story that we were planning on telling," Fogelman told a handful of reporters, including ET, on Tuesday. "But certainly, music has always been a big part of this family's story generationally and it continues on down the line."
So, who is the actor playing grown-up Jack? Stadnik is a theater actor who is legally blind. This Is Us, as Fogelman noted, is Stadnik's first on-screen credit ever. He is also one of the first visually-impaired actors to play a major character on a network television show.
The process in finding Stadnik for the character was laborious and long. Fogelman revealed that the casting department for This Is Us began scouring for the right actor during hiatus between seasons three and four.
"It was an interesting casting process because we wanted to cast a blind actor. We had started our casting process very early, even in our off-season. I was looking for a leading man who was without sight and who could be funny, charming, accessible and sweet," Fogelman told ET, adding that he was "worried" about it. "One of the wonderful things about our casting department was it wasn’t like they only found Blake. There were a bunch of really viable, wonderful casting choices that came through our casting department. Blake, when he came to us, was clearly the guy."
A veteran of musical theater, Stadnik has starred in productions of Newsies, Sweeney Todd, 42nd Street and up until recently, the Colorado-based show, Guys and Dolls.
"He was actually in a local production in Colorado that we had to get him out of in order to shoot the order, but he had never acted on camera before," Fogelman said. "We wanted to find an actor who could be a leading man and [was] very handsome and very funny and looked great with his bare abs on national television, but also be able to stand in the Greek [Theatre] in front of a live audience and actually perform and sing a song. There were a lot of boxes to check."
"Blake’s first day of shooting was literally walking completely naked in the bed and then having a six-hour makeout scene with a young woman opposite him and going up to the stage at the Greek in front of thousands of people during an intermission of a concert to perform," he marveled. "It was quite a trial by fire for him and he just blew us away in every possible way."
While This Is Us has already fast-forwarded to the future with a salt-and-peppered Randall and a bed-ridden Rebecca, the introduction of an adult Jack in season four moves the timeline several years after that moment. Fogelman confirmed that Kate and Toby's son would be about 12 years old, or "in his teens or pre-teens," in that period with Rebecca and the "her" mystery. "What you're seeing is about 10 years-plus after that," he revealed.
"When we talk about the endgame of that storyline that's already been established with 'her,' it's kind of where this story for our Pearson family -- the immediate family of the Big 3 -- and the family heads toward," Fogelman said, "but it doesn't mean it's the endgame in terms of timelines."
Though Fogelman remained coy about the next time we'll see Jack as an adult again, he teased that the character "will be returned to" this season.
"We're in love with the actor that we found. It's a difficult period to go to all the time because we're pretty deep into the future and it presents production challenges. We do plan on returning to it," he reaffirmed. "Right now, we're telling stories in the beginning half of the season that focus a little bit more on the present-day stories. But it is a place we're heading towards again multiple times, especially because we had a young man who was acting on camera for the first time in his entire life. Sometimes the parts get even bigger than you were planning on making them."
As for the new characters setting up the rest of the season, Fogelman promised that they are all people "who are going to have massive impacts on our main family's lives."
"They are massive parts of the season. They’re not just in a one-off episode as the person who was in the room when Nicky threw a chair in the window. Or to meet Deja at a party. It’s going to go far beyond that. It’s a slow build," he told ET. "Part of the intent here was to establish these characters so that you met them pure and outside of the purview of the Pearson family. Now you really are inside of these characters’ stories and now we slowly start building them into their world and see how they affect and really change their lives."