Mandy Moore on ‘This Is Us’ Goodbye Episode: “What Is More Poetic Than That?”

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[This episode contains major spoilers to the May 17 episode of NBC’s This Is Us, “The Train.”]

“The end is not sad. It’s just the start of the next incredibly beautiful thing.”

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This Is Us viewers will, hopefully, find comfort in those wise words after the penultimate episode said goodbye to the Pearson family matriarch, Rebecca (played by Mandy Moore).

Though the episode leads into the series finale, it effectively served as an emotional ending to the series by gathering the entire family to say their goodbyes to Rebecca, whose health has been gradually declining ever since her early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis years prior. The hour toggles back and forth between the future timeline and a timeline that Moore describes as “mystical,” as Rebecca goes on a journey aboard a train, prior to crossing over, that sees her visited by all of her loved ones, before ending up in the caboose (a callback to an earlier episode) with her first husband, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia).

Among the visitors are her children throughout their lives, inviting back the young actors who have portrayed Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) Pearson; her daughters-in-law Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Sophie Pearson (Alexandra Beckendridge); her former son-in-law Toby Damon (Chris Sullivan); second husband Miguel (Jon Huertas), who passed away two episodes prior; and, in seminal cameo form, Randall’s biological father, William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones), and Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), the doctor who delivered Rebecca and Jack’s triplets.

When reading the script for “The Train,” written by show creator Dan Fogelman, Moore said she had a visceral reaction. And, for good reason. Six seasons ago, the singer-actress landed her first episodic TV role as Rebecca, a part that actually had the least screen time of the entire ensemble in the pilot — in an episode that would go on to launch the drama as a reigning hit for NBC (and broadcast TV). Now, after playing Rebecca across decades — from age 16 and up until her death in her 80s, and after more than 100 transformations into old-age makeup — Rebecca’s role as the heart of the show has been fulfilled, in the form of a touching and satisfying sendoff that delivered the show’s full-circle message of hope, complete with a memorable callback to the pilot.

“I have this intense personal connection to this character and this story,” Moore tells The Hollywood Reporter when chatting about the episode. Below, she unpacks the moving ending for Rebecca, goes inside her own emotional process to make the episode, and looks ahead to the series finale and next generation of beautiful things to come.

I am not OK. How are you?

I saw it last night for the first time and, I’m not OK either!

How was the experience of seeing it after you went through it?

I mean, it’s strange. I was sitting next to my husband watching it, and watching his emotions and feeling him made it even more emotional. It’s the end of an era. It’s saying goodbye to this woman I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and inhabiting for six years. And the fact that I’ll never get to do it again, it’s just this weird confluence of gratitude and sadness; it’s quite bittersweet.

In our cast interview for the 100th episode, Dan Fogelman said he always knew the part of Rebecca, despite having the smallest screen time in the pilot, was going to be the biggest role on the show. She’s the heart. Was that a part of your conversations when you got the role?

I had no idea! And I didn’t care. I really had no idea about the scope and breadth of this story, really until we got into multiple seasons. Then I realized, “I think this is a tribute to [Dan’s] mom. I think this is all about her.” It took a while for that to sort of dawn on me. I think I would have been so daunted by the prospect going into this if it was like, “Well, understandably, she is the mother; we find that out at the end of the pilot. But, she is truly the matriarch and this character is going to span a lifetime; 16 to her mid- to late 80s, and every juncture and chapter in between.” I definitely would have said, “Oh, I don’t know if I can do that!” So, I’m kind of glad that I had no idea what was in store, because the self-doubt would have just crept in so hard-core.

You didn’t even know how much you would be playing in these other timelines?

No. I had no idea what was in store for me or for any of us with telling this story. We all read this pilot script and auditioned for it, and it was just so fantastic, and my jaw was on the ground. I wanted to do anything to be a part of it, understanding that it was truly an ensemble. No one really explained that this story wasn’t going to be told linearly, either. It wasn’t even until we started getting the first few scripts of the rest of the first season: We jumped forward eight years for the second episode, and at the end of that episode, the character also appears in present-day; and then the third episode, we go back to these babies just being born and leaving the hospital with them; and a few episodes after that, they’re teenagers. So I really had no idea what was in store. Just the idea of doing 13 episodes of television in general was terrifying because I had never done episodic TV. I remember remarking to Milo [Ventimiglia, who plays Jack Pearson] just how wild it was to do a whole first season of television and how you must just pat yourself on the back after, never thinking in my wildest imagination could I see myself doing 13 episodes of the same show and same character — how do you find that? And then, here we are, 106 episodes later.

At what point along the way did Dan Fogelman fill you in that Rebecca was going to get sick and that it was going to be such a big arc?

I think it was definitely either the end of season two or beginning of season three that I knew. I had an idea of how it was going to end, but I didn’t know the full story at that point.

And did your self-doubt creep in then, or were you more comfortable at that point?

Sure. I think so many of us face imposter syndrome on a daily basis, and I definitely would elect to put myself in that category. I definitely have had those moments of, “How am I going to pull this off? How are we going to pull this off?” But, ultimately, I have such unending faith in Dan and our writers and our crew. I just knew that whatever story we were going to choose to tell and however we were going to choose to tell it, would be done with compassion and grace and discipline. I felt, “OK, I’m going to trust the process and know that this is all going to work out.”

Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) by their mother’s bedside, as they wait for Kate (Chrissy Metz) to arrive from a plane from London; meanwhile, Rebecca holds on for her daughter to arrive in “The Train,” directed by Ken Olin. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) by their mother’s bedside, as they wait for Kate (Chrissy Metz) to arrive from a plane from London; meanwhile, Rebecca holds on for her daughter to arrive in “The Train,” directed by Ken Olin. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

In the last episode, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) described Rebecca as being “magic” before she got sick, as she starts to slip away. To be a parent and be remembered as “magic” feels like the ultimate win. I asked Justin Hartley about that sentiment, and he said that in your scenes, you have so stepped into the role that it’s as if you, Mandy, also slip away in scenes. We see that in this episode, with you having almost crossed over as your children come to your bedside. What has that experience been like to toggle back and forth between the past, to play the “magic” of Rebecca, and then the future timelines as she fades away?

That’s the ballgame. I agree. I have a 1-year-old, and if that’s how one day my children describe me, I will know that I have won everything. I feel really grateful that there’s the balance because it’s so beautiful to be able to play the moments with our incredible younger actors and really cement and solidify the unsung, ordinary heroine that Rebecca and all moms are, quite frankly. I love that we’re able to show that juxtaposition, and I had so much fun. Being a relatively new parent myself, any chance to go back to that time with babies and 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds and toddlers, feels like magic to me because it’s a world that I’m personally stepping into, and it’s so thrilling.

I have found it unbelievably difficult to play the later stages of this horrific, insidious disease because there is no fighting it. There is heroism in sort of facing it as stoicly and bravely and with grace the way Rebecca chose to confront this disease, but in the end, there isn’t the same sort of fight as there is with other diseases like cancer, where people can come out on the other end victorious. It is so indefinitely heartbreaking for the loved one and the caregiver and the family members to sort of bear witness to this slow progression.

I found it really, really hard to not show my emotions. I had to go to a really happy, quiet place deep, deep in the recesses of my imagination because I thought, “What a gift that I’ll go through all of these hours of hair and makeup, and then I’ll just get to lay in bed with my eyes closed and get to listen to my friends say these really beautiful things about this character?” And I quickly realized with Susan [Kelechi Watson], who was the first person that I worked with [in the string of Rebecca bedside goodbyes], no, no, no. I had tears streaming down my face, and thankfully the camera was on her, and I realized that I cannot tune in at all. Because, as much as I’d like to, I can’t be crying. I can’t be present. So I had to put myself in the middle of the ocean on my own plane. And that was surprising to me. I thought I could be quiet and still and listen to everyone, but it was far more challenging than I expected.

You have said that when you read this script, you were so upset that you got physically sick. What hit you the most?

I think it was just the combination of everything. It was saying goodbye to this character and in a way that I didn’t expect. I was so blown away by the beauty of this script and Dan’s writing, and just this general idea and theme of being on a train. There is something so almost psychedelic about this idea at the end of our lives to be able to have the opportunity to see different iterations of the people that we love, and have a chance for them to say something to us and for us to say something to them, and to have this very natural sort of exchange of love. I was so moved by that concept and the idea that, maybe that’s how it can be for some of us in the end. And for this woman to be given this gift to be able to go out the way that she does. Maybe there is this silver lining of her brain placing her on this train with the only thing that mattered in her life, which were the people that she loved. And this is really her legacy, it’s her family. And how she helped form them.

I was so moved by them and seeing the people from her past. That scene with Dr. K especially got me. To have someone who was such a seminal part of her life, although a very small fraction in the scheme of things, right? He was part of something monumental that was a gigantic fracture and fissure in her life that she carried around for the rest of her life, losing a child in childbirth. And he was there, and he saved her life, more or less, and the lives of her two other children. Being able to see him and for her to tell him, “You always mattered to me.” And for him then to reveal, “I thought I was going to lose you [in labor], and I think you knew that too.” And also, to give her permission. To say: “Look at this beautiful, messy, crazy thing you made out of life. Even though you were handed such a dose of tragedy, you made something really beautiful out of it and now it’s OK, it’s time for you to rest. You really deserve that.” That just really punched me in the gut.

Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) is the first of the family to say their goodbyes. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) is the first of the family to say their goodbyes. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

I loved the concept of toggling back and forth between the reality of what was really happening to Rebecca and her family sort of filtering in to say their goodbyes, juxtaposed with them being on this train and her imagination in their finest form. She saw Beth in the image she wanted to remember her, more present-day in 2022 and her as a teenager. And seeing her children at all of these different seminal ages, and Miguel. It was everyone’s fantasy of what it’s like at the end of your life and this beautiful cast of characters coming out to wish you well on your journey.

So much is accomplished in this episode — not only is it saying goodbye to Rebecca, but it’s saying goodbye to the show. There are cameos and callbacks, and new reveals that tie everything together. It’s the message of the whole show wrapped into this journey of Rebecca’s passing. What does it mean to carry that mantle?

I think that’s why I have such affection for this episode, because it really is a love letter to the show. It’s a love letter to mothers. To Dan’s mother. As much as the final episode is special, and there’s obviously a finality to it, I feel like this one has all of the things that people love and know of our show the most. It’s all chock-full of everything you’ve come to expect from just a classic This Is Us episode. From that regard, it holds a different weight to me.

There’s even a callback to the pilot, with Dr. K’s lemon story now applying to Rebecca’s end of life.

The lemon metaphor, of course.

The episode spends the majority in sadness before getting to the end with her and William (Ron Cephas Jones), where he explains that it’s not sad, because every end brings about the next beautiful thing. When you read that reveal — that out of Jack’s death sprung this child being saved, a child who then went on to help treat Alzheimer’s — did that missing piece help to change anything around your feelings around Jack’s death or help you reconcile what this family has been through?

I thought it was just the most Dan Fogelman detail. It’s so beautiful and so unexpected. And sort of what we’ve come to love — that surprise about our show, that everything is connected. There is a balance in life. I loved that detail. It’s just beautiful.

When you pull back and look at the big picture, Rebecca has reconciled every relationship; with Randall first, now her relationships with Kate and Kevin have become just as full; and even Miguel finally being accepted into the family. What hope do you take away from seeing how life can change in the second or third act?

I guess it’s hopeful for all of us, right? That’s the trick of the show. There’s so much specificity in these stories and yet, we’re all able to see ourselves in some sliver of someone. And to be a part of that kind of legacy that allows people, gives them permission to see themselves, feel their feelings, to be vulnerable and honest with themselves and their loved ones is just incredible. We’ve been able to see that in the evolution of all of these characters. I don’t think that by any means says that everything needs to be tied up in a perfect bow, because I don’t think that’s what’s happened here at all with any of these stories or any of these characters. I think it’s an example of imperfect people trying their level best to be the best version of themselves on a daily basis, and sometimes they get there and sometimes they don’t, but it’s all a part of life. This story keeps on going. For people to have this expectation that a show like this, or any show, quite frankly, would be able to wrap everything up neatly is sort of silly because that’s not the point of life, and it isn’t reality. Randall’s children will go on and have children, and their children will have children. Life keeps cyclical, moving on and moving forward. People evolve. So I love that there is room and there are question marks and there’s unfinished business, because that’s just the reality of the human condition.

Which scene was most emotional for you to shoot this episode?

That’s tough. All the stuff with Dr. K. and William. Everything initially was incredibly emotional, and I allowed myself to feel it. I was very worried because I read the script four or five times and every time, my eyes were puffy and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was so overcome and so overwhelmed, and I kept thinking, “How am I going to shoot this without just betraying how much it’s affecting me?” And it shouldn’t affect Rebecca quite as much. I think there is real levity to the sort of mystic quality to her being on the train. She’s excited to be there, she’s surprised at all of these people who are sort of making appearances. I didn’t want to portray my own emotions as Mandy, so I allowed myself to feel, to listen and be present and have some tears, and once I got a take or two out of the way I was like, “OK, I got that out of my system, and now I can do what I need to do!” I was surprised that I felt that way about pretty much everything in this episode.

Randall (Brown) saying his goodbyes in the reality timeline, while Rebecca goes on her own journey on the train. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Randall (Brown) saying his goodbyes in the reality timeline, while Rebecca goes on her own journey on the train. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Working with everyone on the train must have felt like this big reunion and yet also emotional goodbye. What was it like to go through that parade of moments and have it all lead up to the final scene with you laying in bed with Milo Ventimiglia — how did this feel different as scene partners?

It did feel different. There was real finality there. The beauty in that moment, of course, is that she is fearful, doesn’t know what’s ahead of her laying in this bed, but she knows it’s part of the process and that as soon as she does and turns over, there he is. What is more poetic than that? In that moment, it was very special. I think Milo and I both knew that this was a real moment and a real testament to everything we’ve built together.

This is not the final scene that you two shot together.

No, no. The final scene that we shot together [for the finale] was not at all anything emotional. It’s just a boring scene from the finale — thank goodness! That’s what I was hoping for. I didn’t want anything that had any real weight or bearing on things because I thought it was going to be really hard to get through. And thank God they gave us a scene where I was like, “Yes, we’ve done these scenes a million times. I can do that!” And not feel like I’m going to lose it.

Will the finale continue this episode’s message, and show the start of more beautiful beginnings?

Yes, I think you can expect that, for sure.

It feels like this episode is a finale and that will be the epilogue.

That’s kind of how I viewed it, too; that’s a great way of viewing it. We’ve been through a lot, but we’re not going to end on that particular note. We’re going to inject a little bit more joy in your life to say goodbye.

When we spoke at the midpoint of this final season, you said you hadn’t yet wrapped your head around Rebecca’s legacy. What about now, what do you hope Rebecca is remembered for?

I feel like it’s a question I’m going to be asking for a while and processing. I just think her family is her legacy. I have just so enjoyed this journey and this evolution of this woman who went from not even sure that she wanted to have children to being the unsung hero of this family and the real glue of this family and these stories. I have not always agreed with the choices that she’s made and, in fact, I just love how fallible she is, and how fallible Jack is. And, quite frankly, every character on this show. They are human, and they make mistakes. But I love that she admits it. She owns it. She recognizes and acknowledges. She picks herself up and tries to do better, and keeps trying to put one foot in front of the other. And I find that way more aspirational and inspirational than any sort of seemingly perfect veneer that I think people sometimes mistakenly attribute to any of these characters. I love that they’re flawed. She’s not a perfect mother by any means. She’s remarkable in her own ways and, to me, she will remain on a pedestal of who I want to try to be. Like you said, if one day my children refer to me as magic, I will know I’ve done something right.

You portrayed early-onset Alzheimer’s on TV, and you also tackled the concept of end-of-life planning. We ran a column praising the rarity of that. Are you proud to help tell this story as part of Rebecca’s legacy?

Yes. It’s a real legacy of this show. We’ve tackled so many challenging, difficult topics, and I feel like we have always found a way to do it where they’re always grounded in reality, and there’s a lot of respect and care and consideration around whatever given subject it is, and I think Alzheimer’s is no exception. I think it’s a really tricky conversation, but it’s also something that millions of people around the country are dealing with and living with on a daily basis, and are caring for loved ones. And they feel so isolated. And the fact that, at least with the breadth and the scope of telling a story like this, and the reach that a show like ours has, it’s helping people feel less alone and more a part of a community and less of an anomaly. And I didn’t realize that initially. Not until I started delving in and doing my own research because, by some fortune, this is not something that has touched my life personally. So I really had a lot of homework to do and once I realized, good gracious. I cannot imagine how isolating it must feel to be in the midst of caring for someone who is in the throes of this disease, it’s pretty mind-boggling. I definitely stand in awe of the writers being able to tell this story and helping people feel represented and seen in this story in particular.

Is there one thing you will take away from playing Rebecca and working on This Is Us?

So many things! It’s hard to really distill down. In many ways, it’s overwhelming. There is so much to take away from each character and story. I’m also still in the midst of processing everything. It’s so beautiful and also overwhelming to be part of something that has, from the jump, touched people and elicited such a reaction. And it has done the same thing for all of us. I don’t think any of us have ever been immune. We’re all human beings, and we’re stumbling through life and making mistakes just like all of these characters are, and it’s a testament to the writing that we’re all able to show up and try to be the best version of ourselves. I feel like there’s so much to learn and absorb, and I’m still in that moment.

In seeing how the show is ending, a reboot future seems slim. Dan Fogelman joked the spinoff could be “What happens if Jack survived?” But with how satisfying and final this ending now feels, does it weigh on you more that there’s only one more This Is Us episode left?

Kevin (Hartley) and Randall (Brown) in the penultimate episode. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Kevin (Hartley) and Randall (Brown) in the penultimate episode. - Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Look, I say, never say never. I’m sure there’s a way for us all to get together again. And maybe it’s just a reunion where we talk about the show and the impact. But this is a family that I have made for life, and the great thing about art is that it exists forever. I’m excited as a fan of all of my friends’ beautiful work that I’m able to go back and watch these episodes at some point and just marvel at what we were a part of, and it will live on forever. So, yes, I’m sad because what a ride and what a gift. And this is once in a lifetime.

But I have to subscribe to William’s theory: If things are sad when they’re ending, it’s only because they were beautiful while they were happening. And the gift of this particular job is that all of us were never asleep at the wheel. We always realized what a special, special project we were a part of, and it allowed us to be present the entire time. So I have no regrets. I think all of us, all of us appreciated every single chapter. Every single day showing up to work. It was never lost on us. So, in that sense, I’m really satisfied, and I’m trying to live in the gratitude and, sure, process my feelings and, it is sad that this group of people will never be together in quite this way again and that’s disappointing, but we’re going to be in each other’s lives no matter what. No one can get rid of me. I’m just going to be that annoying friend on text like, “When are we hanging out? When’s the next group dinner?”

You’re “mom” now.

Right! I was mom before I was a mom. Now I’m an actual mom, and it’s strange. It’s like, I know this role — kind of, sort of. And my son is definitely going to be in therapy for all of the pictures that I took of him nursing while I was in my old-age makeup.

I read that singing on This Is Us revitalized your interest, and now you are releasing an album and about to go on tour. What’s next for you with singing and acting?

I don’t know! I am giving myself a little distance to really take in this six-season journey and then figure out from there, and just not giving myself the pressure of, “What’s next in this given moment?” We’re going on tour for a couple of weeks and will have a fun summer, and then I think I’ll sit down and say, “What do I want to do that I won’t just constantly compare to this last experience?” I’m excited to find something completely different and challenging in a way that I didn’t get with This Is Us. I don’t know what that is right now, but I’m excited at the prospect of figuring out what it is going to be.

Interview edited for clarity.

The series finale of This Is Us airs Tuesday, May 24, at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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