This Is Us star Milo Ventimiglia breaks down Jack's mom's funeral episode and the line that 'terrified' him

This Is Us star Milo Ventimiglia breaks down Jack's mom's funeral episode and the line that 'terrified' him
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Tuesday night's installment of This Is Us was the mother of all episodes for Jack Pearson.

No, it wasn't the biggest Jack episode — that would be season 2's "Super Bowl Sunday," when America learned how the Pearson patriarch died — but it enveloped him in vulnerability and bittersweetness while laying bare his complicated, under-realized relationship with his mother, forged through shared trauma.

"Don't Let Me Keep You" dispatched Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) to Ohio to attend the funeral of Marilyn (Laura Niemi), where there was a "lifetime of loose ends to tie up," as he told wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Those words were true, but not in ways that Jack expected. (For example, she had already planned her own funeral.) He had always tried to protect his mother from his abusive, alcoholic father, Stanley (Peter Onorati), ultimately persuading her to leave him and start fresh. But after Jack drove Marilyn to Ohio to begin her new life, he put her almost as much out of mind as out of state, their connection tethered to a perfunctory phone call every Sunday night.

Thirteen years later, when Jack returned for her funeral, he embarked on the aforementioned journey of discovery. As he'd learn from cousin Debby (guest star Camryn Manheim!) — who was none too pleased that Jack had never visited — Marilyn had carved out a life for herself in Ohio, and that their weekly phone call still meant the world to her. And as he'd discover from Marilyn's bearded and rather primal boyfriend Mike (Jim Cody Williams) — yes, she had a boyfriend — the downtrodden Marilyn that Jack knew actually loved to laugh. Also, she had a cat named Cat Benatar.

It was a lot to process for the man who had walled himself to so much pain and found his own happy ending: he had missed so much of her life, and she of his. After overcoming his writer's block, though, Jack delivered a poignant eulogy in which he acknowledged their desire to escape their painful past and their need to build "a better house for a better life." He thanked Rebecca and the Big Three for giving him a new home, and Debby and Mike for doing that for Marilyn. The real gut punch was delivered after the service, though: Jack became so overwhelmed as his family relived his mom's skating dream and lunch ritual that he excused himself from the table. When Rebecca followed him in the other room to comfort him, SuperDad lowered one of his walls and tearfully declared to his wife: "I don't have a mom anymore."

Let's put on some scratchy mittens, lace up the skates, tie up a lifetime of loose ends, order a round of 7 and 7s, and invite the man who shined in his final showcase episode — Milo Ventimiglia — to step up to the podium to share his thoughts on "Don't Let Me Keep You." Don't let us keep you from scrolling down.


Ron Batzdorff/NBC Milo Ventimiglia as Jack

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long has this funeral episode been looming on your radar, and what were your first thoughts when [creator] Dan Fogelman pitched it to you as a Jack showcase?

MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I knew pretty early on. The first week of filming — maybe day 1 or day 2 — Dan's like, "Oh, by the way, Mi, you got a brilliant big episode coming up, episode 4. It's all Jack, it's about his mom dying." That was all he gave. So it wasn't until I read it and turned the page on that last scene with Jack and Rebecca, and it just… it kind of broke me. Here's this man who is a product of the 40s, of the 50s, of the 60s, very stoic, fought a war in the 70s, never let his kids see his emotions one way or another in the 80s, and experienced something that is so fundamental to just about every human — the loss of a parent. It [brought] up so many questions that ultimately can't always get answered.

It was a beast to shoot. I told my friends and my folks, "Hey, I'm deep on an episode right now, so I might be a little bit into the cave on this one. I'll talk to you guys when I get out." I was filming the episode, it was just extremely tough, and toward the end of it, I had a meal with my mom and dad. I hadn't seen them in about 10 days. I remember sitting there, just watching my mom eat, and she caught me. She looks at me, and she's like, "What's up, buddy?" I'm like, "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all."

Jack felt bad that he didn't know anything about Marilyn's new life and had missed out on it, yet she kept him as an active part of hers. But he also learned that she was happy in this life, which is all he wanted. How did you approach those conflicting emotions in him?

Jack is always putting other people ahead of him. But also, in this case, with his mother, it's hard for Jack not to think about himself and the fact that he truly wasn't there for it. He says it to Mike: He missed the whole thing. That's a very real statement, and it's kind of sad. I look at my life and I'm like, "Ah, I gotta go to work or I gotta wake up early, so I can't see friends or family." There's always an immediate excuse of why you can't do something. But I think it's a glaring reminder that we have to take those moments to live. You're going to find yourself like Jack, missing something that probably would've been pretty great.

She was a four-hour car right away, which is not close. But I think Jack was so focused on his own kids that he forgot about the kid that he himself was to his mother. As my parents were getting older, I was trying to get them to live a little closer to me, just so that it would be more convenient to spend time. I remember saying something to my mom, and she was like, "Well, you don't worry about us. We're fine." I said, "No, no, no, but you guys are my family." She goes, "No, we're your parents." I go, "No, you're my family." She goes, "No, no, no, we're your parents." She said, "At some point you're going to meet a woman and you will have kids, and that is your family, but we are just your parents." It was like this perspective shift where I know my mom was like, "Hey, you don't have to take care of us — that was our job to take care of you. We sent you off into the world; now it's your responsibility to be the one taking care of someone that's going to outlast all of us." It's a very conflicting thing, particularly for Jack — this idea that he wasn't around for it, for his mom.

When Jack angrily calls his dad, he says: "Even after she left you, you were always there, hanging over us, keeping us apart… She had a real life out here, I never saw it and now she's dead and I missed the whole thing because of you." How much of that anger is justifiably directed at his dad for all the damage he did, and what part of it is deflected guilt that Jack felt over not being more proactive with his mother, where it's just easier to put it on his dad?

It's definitely easy to put that anger onto his father, knowing that maybe that was the catalyst for his mom being so far away from him — this horrible relationship that his father and mother had. I think it was also a little alcohol-induced. Jack had been out drinking with his mom's friends and boyfriend, and got back [home with] a little bit of a buzz and a little bit of bravery, just to pick the phone up and call. Jack's desire to let his dad know and also just give him a piece of his mind — that's just so very Jack. I think in a sober state, he wouldn't have called, he wouldn't have said anything, he'd probably be a little dispassionate about the whole situation. But when you have a little bit of truth serum flowing through you, you're just going to let it fly.

Jack's coping mechanism is to compartmentalize and wall himself off. We understand why Jack would feel bad about not being a more active part of her life, but as Mike said, getting her out of the house was the most important thing that he could have ever done for her, which set her up on a path of happiness.

Yeah. I mean, it's classic Jack. He's always wanting to do better. He's always wanting to do more. He's always wanting to make sure that everybody is good. And I feel like in those moments, when he's hearing about his mother having this whole life that he wasn't a part of, that's 82 precent for him. It could have been 100, had he been involved.

How should Jack feel about not being more present in her life?

I don't know if it's guilt for not being around, because [of the good] he did for his mom in saying, "Hey, we're removing you from the situation." Jack kept saying, "Hey, when are you going to come see your grandkids?," and she's like, "When things settle down." I mean, if you think about it from when he moved her out, post-Vietnam, to when the kids were born, that was about five years. And the kids were seven when she passed. So, there was plenty of opportunity, but I think the burden can't lie on one person. It's got to be both. I'm sure he and his mom probably could have done a better job. But it was also Marilyn ... not wanting to be a burden. The fact that she arranged her own funeral. I don't know if there was guilt so much as just, "I should have factored her into my life more." That's what it ultimately becomes. Not this guilt of, "I wasn't there," so much as it is, "I should have done this." And I think that also plays into Jack's wanting to always be there for his kids. The things that maybe he didn't quite have or the things that he really enjoyed, he wanted to lean into more…. He didn't have the childhood that was quite ideal; he had the one that he had, which turned him into the man he was. But he's able to give something different to his kids, show them a different side of fatherhood than maybe he had.

When Jack tearfully shared with Rebecca, "I don't have a mom anymore," where did that rank on the Jack Vulnerability Scale for you?

I'd say pretty high. But also completely understandable. I think the most vulnerable we've ever seen Jack is in the car with Rebecca, season 3, when his world has just kind of crumbled and she's the singular bright spot and she sings a song to him and he has his break and they kind of move forward in life.... When he has to admit to his daughter that he has a drinking problem in season 2 — I take it back. That is 100-percent the top, because her dad's her hero, and he's got to admit to her he has a problem. I'd say this one may not be a bronze medal, but it's not quite a gold. [Laughs]

It's understandable. It's the loss of a parent, you know? That line broke me. I read it once. I knew immediately I would never forget that line. I never had to look at it again. I didn't speak it until the cameras were rolling, and that's basically what you saw in that episode. And I was terrified of it. I was terrified to say it because of that break. I knew that what I was experiencing for Jack was going to be painful. For him, for me, for anybody that was watching, for anybody that can understand and has been through that or is expecting to go through that, it's a painful, painful thing. That line terrified me.

How did you land on that delivery? Did you try it a few different ways?

Thinking about the man that Jack is — knowing that he wants to never let his kids see that break in him; he always wants to be this symbol of strength and fatherhood to his kids — the only thing that I knew was: "Get away and keep my back to the room." I remember Mandy saying to me, "Mi, what could I do? What do you need?" And I just said to her, "Hey, just let me know that you're there." I walked away and she walked in, a beat after me, put her hand on my shoulder, and I just turned around and… there it was. Jack doesn't even want his wife to see it in him. He just wants to have a private moment — you know, the dog goes out on the field alone to die kind of thing. He's not alone, though. He's got a wonderful wife and these amazing kids, and his wife has always been there for him.

What was the biggest challenge in bringing these few days in Jack's life to the screen?

Jack has evolved over the course of series. We learned so much about him in the first three seasons and they were very Jack-centric storylines. And then in seasons 4 and 5, it kind of shifted, where we knew all we needed to know about Jack, and the discovery was with his kids. The discovery was with his wife. The discovery was with people that he left behind when he passed away. Or people have moved on when he passed away. So to go back and truly hit the brakes on everything else, to have a story about Jack that everyone can relate to — I think the biggest challenge was making sure it wasn't so abrupt that it was taking away from anything else.

But also the real challenge was knowing that I was going to have to play a beat that I don't play very often. It's one thing when you're playing a pretty emotional character, and you're conditioned for it, and you can sink into that and settle into those emotions quickly. But when you're out of practice of it and you're playing the rock — not Dwayne Johnson, but the foundation of a family, the stone of the family — it's terrifying to think that you've got to go to that place. Then you hear your mom's voice and it's like the chances of you succeeding far outweigh those of you not. So… it was a wonderful, horrible experience.

Camryn Manheim is a great addition to the extended Pearson family. How did that casting come about?

I mean, it was a surprise for me! I didn't know until I got the script and I saw her name and I was like, "Oh, you gotta be kidding me! She's wonderful!" And she lived up to it. I'd always loved what she'd done on camera, and then to sit and go through a scene, and go through breaking down a moment in and seeing the honesty in her eyes when she's delivering every single line and moment — and when she's not even talking, just looking at you and studying you as a character — it's pretty wonderful.

Was there a shared moment that sticks out as a favorite?

God, there was so much. Even look looking across the table at her in a moment when we're having drinks at that bar — just knowing everything I need to know about their relationship and the way she's studying Jack in this moment and the whole experience of losing her cousin, who she was close to. The opening scene, having that conversation and Jack really has no clue about his mom. And for me, just sitting off-set when the cameras aren't rolling, and she throws a riddle out to the group of us actors, and I just couldn't figure it out. Mandy got it [laughs], and Mandy whispered it to her. And then myself and Jim, who played Mike, we're sitting there going, "Wait a minute, hold on a second now." We just couldn't figure it out. I think that might have been the moment that was probably the most fun.

What was the riddle?

Um, let me see…. A man walks into a bar, asks the bartender for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a gun, points it at him, the man says, "Thank you!," and leaves. What's the missing element?

What is it?

You gotta figure it out! We sat around in the tent, just asking questions, like, "Okay. So… was he happy about having a gun pulled on him?" "Did he ever get the glass of water?" "Was the water dirty?" "Did he owe the bartender money?" There were all these questions, and she's like, "No, no, no, no, yes, no, yes."

In addition to cousin Debby, you have a few nice moments with Marilyn's cat, Cat Benatar. By the way, do you think Cat Benatar would have been friends with Clooney the cat?

I'm sure. Oh, yeah. Probably would've made a whole bunch of little cat litters and all that. I mean, the wild part is, I'm pretty allergic to cats, so at one point, the cat's away from me, then the cat's at my feet, then the cat's sitting on my chest, and I'm carrying the cat. It's not like my throat closes and my eyes swell. It's just, I will start sneezing. I will get very uncomfortable. But the cat was wonderful. I mean, it's a beautiful cat, very trained, and knew exactly what to do. And even in moments, I'd sit there and I'd pet it, and people are like, "Milo, what are you doing?" I'm like, "I'm about to touch the cat anyhow. I may as well pick up a little bit of its scent just to make sure that I'm not completely wrecked." But it was a lot of Benadryl, it was a lot of Claritin, it was a lot of any antihistamines, a lot of different t-shirts to change into once I'd have the cat hair on my t-shirt.

Now people know the sacrifices that you make for your craft! This will be a welcome episode for fans who have wanted to see more of you, given that Jack has played a more supporting role in recent seasons. Is there one last showcase to come before the show ends?

Do you remember the photograph of Marty McFly from Back to the Future, where his brother's fading slowly and his sister's fading slowly, then he starts to fade slowly? That's kind of been Jack. He's passed away. We've learned everything we can learn about him from a logistic standpoint. Kids are growing up. Can't freeze time. So I don't know if we'll get much more of Jack for Jack, but I know he's still going to be around — just kind of faded a little bit.

He's still in the picture. Still in the painting.

Still here. He's in the Kevin painting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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