Michael Angarano (‘This Is Us’) on ‘specific and ambiguous’ Nicky Pearson [Complete Interview Transcript]

Michael Angarano earned his first Emmy nomination this year for playing the younger Nicky Pearson on “This Is Us.” Angarano is nominated in Best Drama Guest Actor alongside his fellow “This Is Us” guest star, Ron Cephas Jones.

Angarano spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria before the Emmy nominations about getting into the role of Nicky, working with Milo Ventimiglia and how he remains unrecognized on the street after “This Is Us.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Michael, what was the most challenging part of bringing this guy to life?

Michael Angarano: When we meet up with Nicky when he’s in Vietnam, not only is he a physical shell of himself but we assume that he’s been overseas now for a little over a year and he was a medic and we also assume that he’s been taking some sort of pills or something that he’s prescribed himself to cope with the trauma and the anxiety that he’s been going through over there. It was that mental headspace that Nicky’s in when Jack comes to see him and when Jack sees him for the first time, there’s really no amount of research and experience to match that because the Vietnam War was such a traumatic and specific and horrific war for these young guys. What Nicky has seen and gone through, it was articulated a little bit in the story and in the script. We certainly see some of it but one can really only imagine or guess what that level of trauma and anxiety and fear was really like. It was a little bit all of those things. On top of that, it was also this brother dynamic appearing in the middle of a war. So there was a lot to play. I would say that was the most difficult part but that was also what made it so rich and complex.

GD: Nicky is obviously suffering from some form of PTSD, which is very common for veterans and he’s also serving in the actual war itself and you’re playing it in real time. I’m wondering, even though you’ve alluded to this being not necessarily that easy to research or prepare for, what were the elements that you had to take on and what kind of direction were you taking on to try to make this guy as authentic as possible?

MA: There was a consultant on the show, this guy Tim O’Brien, who wrote a book called “The Things They Carried,” and Tim also co-wrote the script in which Nicky was drafted, with Dan Fogelman. There’s a lot of material in Vietnam and Tim O’Brien himself is very outspoken. He’s done a lot of talks. The Vietnam War as we learn it in school and as we’re educated about it growing up, there’s a lot of information out there and we know a lot more about PTSD and what that was like for people coming back from war but it wasn’t quite as well understood back then. It’s also the way in which Nicky was raised and the way you see it manifested in somebody like Jack. The household they were raised in, these guys came from a very specific childhood. They had an alcoholic father and the way they dealt with their childhood is specific. That’s where we meet them. We’re sort of meeting Nicky at this fork in the road where him and Jack are gonna become very, very different men. That fork is really the Vietnam War. For me, it was not only having an understanding of what it was like for guys coming back from the war but also what that was like specifically to this guy and how his upbringing and his relationship with his brother and his family form that. That was all really in the script. Like I said, we were talking earlier but it was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, that first script, and all of them, really. The writers do an incredible job of bringing all that to life in a very short amount of real estate in the script.

GD: That’s a blessing to have the words on the page to read and to bring to life. There’s a lot that I think the actors do need to do. You alluded to working alongside Milo Ventimiglia as your brother, Jack, on the show. What did you both decide to do to prepare for how they would interact with each other? There’s a familiarity, obviously, between them but there’s also this element where they’re estranged.

MA: It’s really all in that first moment when they see each other for the first time in about a year, when Jack comes to Vietnam and Nicky’s shoveling shit from the latrine and Jack says his name and he turns around and it’s the first time they’ve seen each other. It’s this realization for Nicky that his big brother is here, his hero is here, his protector is here, his savior is here. Also, the realization that it’s probably the one person who is most dangerous for him because Nicky, with the help of whatever he’s been taking in Vietnam and wherever he’s put himself mentally, he’s put a really strong guard up and he’s just coping, he’s just trying to get by. When he sees Jack, that’s something that’s gonna penetrate him. Jack is gonna be something that reminds him of where he is and where he’s not. It’s gonna be the one thing that really makes him feel and Nicky can’t afford that. So it’s this really complicated relationship. I also think Nicky’s decision to go to Vietnam in the first place was partly due to Jack, partly due to the fact that Jack’s been Nicky’s older brother and his protector his entire life and the need to prove himself as a man, really. That was something that was also pretty clear on the page but the dynamic with Nicky and Jack and the way Milo and I approached it, that was something that was slightly unspoken. It was just in the chemistry between us and the fact that we knew each other beforehand I think really informed a lot of decisions that we made consciously or subconsciously in how we approached these two guys.

GD: We were talking offline, I was familiar with some of your work before and watching the show, I saw your name in the credits and I was like, “Michael Angarano, who’s he playing? Who’s that?” And then I realized that you’re playing Nicky. You did have to go undergo quite a transformation to play this guy and you were unrecognizable to me and probably to other people. What does that mean to you to take on something that is completely different on a very high-profile show? What does it mean to you personally and professionally?

MA: It was a great gift. I really looked at it as a huge challenge. It really was unlike a lot of roles that I’ve been able to play before. Not that I haven’t been able to play complicated characters, but this character was both really specific and ambiguous. I think any actor would’ve had a very different take on it but the script called for something very specific. There was no ambiguity in Nicky’s voice or the fact that he was very different from Jack. Jack is very earnest and present and direct and Nicky is a little bit more cerebral and over-analytical and emotional. That was very specific and that was very clear, but yeah, I don’t get recognized for “This Is Us.” Beforehand, when I got the part and when people knew I was gonna play Jack’s brother, people who had watched the show came up to me and said, “You’re gonna get recognized like crazy, like you never got recognized before.” That happened once. People don’t recognize me from the show, which I take as a huge compliment. I think that’s a great gift. I also attest that to the script and yes, I had to look physically different, but that’s the fun. That’s the mask that you get to put on on a huge show like that. It always allowed me to go into it in a very grounded way because the two or three hours that I had to go through hair and makeup and wardrobe and then the scenes that we were doing, Milo and I were so specific and intense that it allowed for my personal experience to be really grounded and a real inside out approach, which really helped me, which I really, really was grateful for.

GD: There’s a lot of scenes that we can talk about specifically, such as your final episode, which is kind of at the tail end of your particular part of Nicky’s story but for me, I’d love to know what the day was like when you were filming that pivotal scene with the local Vietnamese child in the boat because obviously it was that event that I think, speaking of forks, was another fork in Nicky’s life and impacted him greatly. What was that day like and did you find that particularly difficult as well?

MA: That day was one of the last days on-set for me and we filmed that somewhere in California. It was cold. The cold water and the cold weather actually really informed that day. It was pretty upsetting. That scene is horrific and that was one of the first conversations I had with Isaac Aptaker where he told me what Nicky’s storyline was and it was this story about grenade fishing and how it was Tim O’Brien’s idea. There’s a little bit of it in his book but not a lot. You know that this has happened. You know that this is real and as for the people in the time and the place, it’s slightly different, but this story or this iteration of stories is Nicky’s story, but something like it has happened before. There was a lot of care and respect put into it by everybody involved and it felt like one of those days that we were very isolated on this boat in the middle of this lake and it just felt like we were really paying tribute is a weird way to say it, but it felt like everybody took a lot of care to make this part of the story work. Because of that, it was almost very focused and a blur at the same time. I don’t remember a lot about filming that day, which is funny, other than that it was very cold

GD: It didn’t look cold, so that’s interesting. I had no idea. My final question is a question I think you’ve answered before but for people who don’t know the background as to why you only played a certain part of Nicky’s life, on this show that spans decades, some actors play older and younger while others don’t, like Ron Cephas Jones doesn’t play his younger self and you handed over the reins to Griffin Dunne to play the older Nicky living out his pretty miserable life in a trailer. What’s it like to hand a character over to another actor?

MA: It felt appropriate, especially with a character like Nicky who’s seen a lot and has experienced a lot. I played Nicky from when he was 19 to 44 and fair to say that he’s a very different person either ends of that spectrum and Griffin plays him I think when he’s 70 and maybe even a little older. So to me personally, I thought it was very appropriate and I was slightly relieved when they got Griffin because Griffin is one of my favorite actors. “After Hours” is one of my favorite movies and I’ve known Griffin personally for almost 15 years. He played my father in a movie. Funny enough, Griffin and I only overlapped on one day of filming. We didn’t really get a chance to speak to each other before but we went out to dinner that night when we overlapped and also people were coming up to us on-set that day and saying they thought we were really mirroring each other’s gestures or that we were doing each other and that there was something going on. It was just the writing. We hadn’t done anything. I don’t know if it’s because we knew each other and had worked with each other before. I’m sure that had something to do with it, but again, it’s just that the writing was so clear. This character always had a very, very specific perspective. Just again a testament to how good the writing is on this show.

GD: Absolutely. That’s so interesting. Michael, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

MA: Yeah, man. Thank you.

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