“It’s a pretty big answer,” Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack in the past, tells ET of his character’s fate. “Now comes all the questions, now comes all the speculation. For all of us on this side of things, now comes the moment where we get to open the story up and really let people into the lives of Jack and Rebecca and the kids.”
Ventimiglia admitted to getting emotional at several key moments during the episode, saying he “cried maybe three times” over the course of the hour. “It’s really moving television and it’s not because I know these characters, but in the assembly of these episodes, they’ve done a really incredible job of making people feel,” the 39-year-old star says. “I’m not outside of that.”
Ventimiglia jumped on the phone with ET to chat about the big Jack bombshell, whether he knows when and how his character died and why he describes an upcoming moment as a “punch to the heart.”
ET: In tonight’s episode of This Is Us, we finally found out definitively what happened to Jack, and it’s heartbreaking! Are you sad that he’s dead in the present day?
Milo Ventimiglia: It’s something that I’ve always known about Jack. I always knew that it was going to happen this way. Originally in the pilot, there was a line where Randall says that his father is not around anymore in a conversation with William. His father says, “He must have been very proud.” I knew it was coming. I think now that the audience knows, though, now pay close attention to what this family has got to go through. What are the highlights and the painful moments that they’re going through?
Knowing what happened to Jack from the very beginning, did you view that as a gift? How did that color your portrayal of Jack in the past?
It’s funny, it doesn’t really impact me. I don’t think people walk around with an overarching thought that we’re going to die until we really accept it, that at one point we will. So how am I using my days here? How is every conversation that I have or every hug that I share or every laugh that I have an impactful moment? How can you inspire the people that you’re around? I don’t think Jack knows -- even though we do on the production end that he’s going to die -- but I think Jack is someone who lives positively through life, lives fully through life. He’s not a sideline kind of dad or husband, he’s active and present. Now that we know that Jack is not around in the present day, I think about how he must have been as a father to impact those kids to where they’re still talking about him regularly in the present day or possibly how great he’d been as a husband to where Rebecca’s still wearing the necklace he gave her.
The scene where Kate reveals to Toby the urn containing her father’s ashes was the first real moment where Jack’s whereabouts in the present were addressed head-on. What reaction did you have reading that moment in the script for the first time?
I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily visceral, but it was impactful. I imagine someone gets out of surgery and surgeon took a photograph of your heart and then later on showed you that photograph of your heart. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, and you can’t feel it. But you know it’s there, you know it’s beating, you know it’s pumping. So that idea that Kate has this deeply solemn moment where she shares with her father these football games as they did when she’s a little girl and she still does that with him, she is literally pulling her father in her arms as they’re watching the Steelers play. It means that her father must have had a great impact on her life. It’s less about the physical and more about the emotional. I think about that -- how do you impact the people around you, so that when you’re not around anymore, they can get through the tough moments, they can laugh, smile as opposed to being heartbroken.
Kate also mentions 2006 as the year she began watching football again with her father. Is that a year we should keep in the back of our minds as to when?
(Laughs.) Oh yeah, look there’s going to be all kinds of theories about when it actually happened and I know everybody’s talking about 2006. You know what? Don’t worry about it! All you have to know is Jack is not around in the present day and wherever he is, he is on Kate’s mantle wearing a Steelers hat.
Do you know when and how Jack died?
Oh yeah, I know how and when. I know it all.
Will we learn a potential timeline of Jack’s death?
(Laughs.) I think when [creator] Dan [Fogelman] wills it, when he decides that it’s right for the audience to know at what point Jack stopped being a teacher for his children or being a husband to his wife.
Before tonight’s episode, there had been many fan theories on what happened to Jack -- some believed he and Rebecca were divorced, others thought Jack had Alzheimer’s. Did you read any of the theories fans had?
(Laughs.) No, no. Not that I shied away from it, I think maybe I just didn’t really ever consider it. Speculation is one thing that I’ve never really put too much stock in as much as understanding truly what the reality is. It’s like when people asked me in the past, “Hey, have you ever wondered where Jess was the last eight years that he left Stars Hollow [on Gilmore Girls]?” I have no clue. Or Peter Petrelli [from Heroes]. I’ve got no idea, I don’t wonder. When people are gone, it’s gone until somebody gives a concrete fact as to where a person may be or what a person may be experiencing or they’ve been through. All we know right now is Jack is dead in the present day.
Jack’s death seems to have impacted his children in different ways. Kate keeps their Sunday tradition alive, Kevin seems to be dealing with it through his play, and Randall’s going through a similar situation with William. Is the way that they’re coping in the present a mirror image of their relationship to him in the past?
In episode five, Kevin says his dad’s not around but he’s with him all the time, and we know that Kate is the bearer of his physical ashes, [but] Randall is different. Randall’s connecting with his present day. Did that mean that maybe his connection with Jack wasn’t as real or does it just come from a want of [knowing] where he comes from, his origins? Jack had deeply different connections with all of his kids, but that’s also what’s to be discovered over the course of the series, is how do the events of the past impact these people in the present day.
We don’t know what Jack does professionally. Is that something we’ll get answers to?
Episode six [titled “Career Day”]. People would say, “Is Jack a cop?” (Laughs.) I don’t know, he doesn’t strike me as a cop. I think he’s an authority figure, but we get into it in episode six what it is that Jack does professionally for a living.
There was a line in an early episode where Jack mentions that the car seats are “cop-approved,” so that might explain the origin of that theory.
It could absolutely come up again, or it could not. It’s speculation without any real foundation of fact. I think the good news is people want to know more about the Pearsons, people want to know more about this family. I think that five episodes in, we’ve been able to as a group, collectively, jump into the hearts of an audience that has tons of television programming to pick from. They want to know that we’re not going to let them down.
Now that there is an endpoint to Jack’s story, is there a question that you still have or hope to explore further?
No, I try not to get too far ahead. We have a pretty good idea of where the Pearson family has been and Dan is incredibly inclusive letting us know when they’re working on future episodes, but I sit and I wait as it comes to me as opposed to leaning so far forward I’m leaning out of my chair.
Oh always. There’s so much to be discovered still of not only Jack and Rebecca, but Jack himself and Rebecca herself, Kevin, Kate and Randall. That’s the nice thing about the television platform, you get to tell stories week in and week out and it doesn’t just end. It’s exciting to know that the world is going to open up a lot more.
Speaking of Rebecca in the present, we saw Mandy Moore aged up with prosthetics. Have you made a similar trip to the makeup chair?
(Laughs.) I mean, there is a level of makeup that Jack sees himself in between now and the urn. So again, all will be discovered.
Creator Dan Fogelman told us recently that there could be “incarnations” of situations where you, Mandy, Chrissy [Metz], Justin [Hartley] and Sterling [K. Brown] are interacting in the same scene. Has that happened yet?
As an actor, I’d love that to happen just because I see these great actors that I share credits with that I haven’t shared scenes with just yet. I, of course, want that to happen. When it’s [the] right [time] to happen, it’ll happen.
What has been the most emotional moment on set for you?
Wow. Outside of the pilot episode with Dr. K in the hallway [with the lemonade speech]… (Pauses.) I can’t talk about it yet, Jack has one coming up that’s kind of a gut-punch, sorry, more like a punch to the heart -- not a gut-punch. It rips him up.
What do want to say to the fans out there who may not be able to recover from Jack’s death?
It’s going to break a lot of hearts. Just stick with it because Jack’s not gone, he’s just a memory.
What did you think about Tuesday's heartbreaking episode of This Is Us? Tell us in the comments below or by tweeting us at @etnow!