This Is Us is an epic family saga that spans many decades, and, thanks to a couple of season 4 flash-forwards, you can add the 2040s to the era-hopping mix. The season premiere gave viewers disorienting introductions to all sorts of new characters whose ties to the Pearsons were illuminated later in the episode. One of the bigger jolts involved the lineage of a confident, struggling-yet-driven blind musician who eventually achieved great professional success, performing the song “Memorized” to an adoring crowd at L.A.’s Greek Theatre. (“Memorized” — which was written by This Is Us composer Siddhartha Khosla and Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith — resonated with viewers after the episode ended, rising to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes soundtrack chart and into the Top 20 of the all-genre U.S. song sales chart.)
This charismatic character, played by Blake Stadnik, turned out to be… the grown-up offspring of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), the previously introduced baby Jack who was born with retinopathy, which only allows him to make out blurry shapes and bright lights. Jack Jr. not only found fame, but he also found a wife, marrying the thoughtful waitress, Lucy (Auden Thornton) with whom he crossed paths in a diner, and she would later reveal to him on the way to that big gig that she was pregnant with their child. The Nov. 19 fall finale featured a brief catch-up with the pair: they were seen honoring the Pearsons’ peculiar Thanksgiving traditions by readying not just hot dogs but five pounds of shrimp for their soon-to-arrive guests.
The 27-year-old Stadnik — who has Stargardt Disease and is legally blind — has certainly arrived in his first Hollywood role. He’s no stranger to acting, though. Born, appropriately enough, in Pittsburgh, Stadnik is a New York-based thespian whose credits include the national tours of Newsies, Sweeney Todd, and 42nd Street, and was appearing in a Colorado regional production of Guys and Dolls when This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman came calling. “He’s exceptionally talented,” Fogelman told EW earlier this season. “It was important to us to not cast a sighted actor here. It was also very important to us that we have somebody who can hold the screen and sing, and Blake just checked a tremendous amount of boxes…. He was being asked to do a tremendous amount of high-degree-of-difficulty stuff very quickly on a very, very high scale of season premiere of a very popular show and carrying a lot of weight. And he was one of those guys that was just never flustered by it.” Let’s pull back the curtain and get to know the new Jack on This Is Us.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You get a call informing you that Dan Fogelman wants you to join one of TV’s biggest shows. Your immediate thought is…?
BLAKE STADNIK: “What???” My mind is blown. [Laughs] My first thought was, I had to call my mom. I was over-the-moon excited.
Were you a fan of the show?
Well, I had seen a couple episodes, but it wasn’t really something that I was sticking with. I don’t know how that happened, because once I got the part, I binged the whole first three seasons in, like, a week and a half, and laughed and cried my eyes out. And being from Pittsburgh and I have a very diverse family, I have no idea how I wasn’t already a huge mega-fan. But now I definitely am.
Were you intrigued by the idea of playing a character who overcame obstacles — or rather, never even viewed them as obstacles, thanks to the way that Kate and Toby raised him — and realized great success?
The line that Kate has about Jack living a life without limits — I have tried to embody that in my life. When I was diagnosed, I was six years old [and my mom] said to me, “I never want you to use this as an excuse and I never want you to let this stop you.” And when Kate said that, that reminded me so much of my own mother. I am so proud to be playing a visually impaired character that is so strong, and it is so successful because it gives a great example to children with disabilities of someone in the mainstream culture that they can look to and say, “If he can do it, I can do it.”
What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the page? How did you help them shape this character?
One of the things that really affects my eyesight is glare and bright light. My eyes are very sensitive to light. And in that first scene that we see Jack… when he wakes up and looks out the window, not only is he hung over but that light — we talked about how [he would react]. Then you see the montage of Jack and Lucy’s relationship; there’s the scene where she is reading to him in bed. Ken [Olin, the TIU exec producer who directed the season 4 premiere] asked me when we were on set, “What’s something that you and your girlfriend do together?” Because they wanted to feature that. We pick a book. Right now, it’s The Name of the Wind, it’s this fantasy novel that she will read to me in bed. It’s a really special, intimate time for us. And I was glad to bring that to Jack and Lucy as well.
You described yourself on Instagram as an “advocate for disabled artists.” There’s been a lack of representation on TV. What was your experience growing up trying to find relatable characters in pop culture and how much progress has been made?
Right! That’s the thing — I didn’t really have anyone in the popular culture that I could really look to and emulate. There were some characters that were blind, but they were being played by fully sighted actors. So there definitely is progress being made. But Jack is really the first character on network television that is being played by a visually impaired actor. It’s very important for me that we have proper representation — the most important reason is because kids with disabilities are looking for people to emulate, and I’m so proud to be that for these kids.
You’re off to a great start, especially with “Memorized,” which shot up the iTunes charts. What were your expectations for the song when you recorded it?
I had no expectations whatsoever! I mean, it’s a fantastic song. I rehearsed it with Sid a couple of times and we collaborated on it, figured out where it fit in my voice. And then when we recorded it, it was stuck in my head the whole time. But I had no idea that it was going to have the independent success that it did on the iTunes charts. And now I’m seeing people on Instagram — like, it’s the first dance at their wedding and things like that. It’s absolutely mind-blowing.
We saw Jack struggling to create music before he went to the diner, and there were scattered empty alcohol bottles in his bedroom. Alcoholism has been an issue for generations of Pearsons. Have you talked to Dan about that idea? Is your understanding that this will be something he might struggle with?
That hasn’t come up yet. I’m sure it’s a possibility, but it’s nothing that we’ve put into solidity yet.
Are there any clues in your few scenes this season that viewers should rewatch and focus closer on a particular detail?
There aren’t any clues in that [Thanksgiving] scene. It’s just to show that Jack and Lucy are continuing the traditions of Nicky [Michael Angarano/Griffin Dunne]. And we do mention the hotdogs at the beginning of the scene as well, so we’ve got the traditions of Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] and Nicky both still continuing on down the decades. And it goes by really quickly, but if you can pause and see Auden in her beautiful dress with her pregnant belly, I think that’s a really, really sweet image. [Laughs]
I asked Isaac [Aptaker, This Is Us executive producer] about it and he said that we may revisit that Thanksgiving meal — and who’s at that meal — or something in that era…
Right! Who’s coming?
So you don’t know either?
I can’t say. I’m sorry!
When can viewers expect to see you return? Sometime later this season?
I love being on the show, but I can’t say when or if I’m going to be back. The show uses twists and turns so much as a wonderful tool for storytelling, I really can’t give anything away.
Is there one hint or question viewers should be asking about Jack?
I would really like to find out about Jack in early years before he met Lucy, growing up. And what sort of challenges did he have as someone as a kid or a young adult with a visual impairment? Because while Kate and Toby are incredible parents and are filling him with such self-confidence, the world can be cruel sometimes, and I’m sure he’s met some adversity growing up. It’d be really fascinating to explore that.
You come from the theater and this is your first Hollywood credit. Do you plan to shuttle back and forth between the theater and film/TV world?
I still live in New York City, and we’ve got some things going on out here that I can’t talk about yet. But yeah, I think I’ll always have a love of the stage as well as film. They are both equally gratifying but in different ways.
What is the dream scene that you’d love to film on This Is Us?
Well, probably the dream scene — I don’t see how it could ever work storytelling-wise — is for the two Jacks to somehow interact. It would have to be some dream or something like that. But I do admire Milo and Mandy [Moore], and all the Big Three and spouses. They’re incredible actors and everyone has been the most welcoming on that set. They’ve really made me feel like I’m part of the family. So if I got to do any scene with any of them, it would be a dream.
Isaac also talked about how it’s tricky to show too much of the deep future because “we don’t want to be a show that has robots and flying cars.” If my math is right, that would put adult Jack in the early 2040s. What do you hope life is like then? Do we survive these trying times?
Well, personally I would love to find a cure for my eye condition. But in the greater sense of the world, I really hope that we can find some sort of resolution to the climate crisis. I do have faith in humanity and the love that we all share that we can put aside our differences and find some common ground and learn how to work together towards some sort of greater good.
That’s very noble. Is there anything smaller that you’d like to see, perhaps a cool invention?
I’m really looking forward to self-driving cars, I gotta be honest. Because I can’t drive and I love cars. [Laughs] The irony there is astounding. I would love to have my own self-driving Mustang that I could go around in.
Given that “Memorized” did so well, is there any talk of recording a follow-up song that will put you back on the iTunes charts, whenever you return to the show?
[Laughs] I can’t say anything about whether there’s more singing to be had. I can tell you that Sid and I loved collaborating on a song together. We both spark inspiration in each other. When we got into the recording studio, the creative juices started flowing. I would sing something and then I could see the light bulb go off in his head and he would start going on his keyboard. If there were to be a revisiting to the singing, I’m sure Sid will crank out another awesome song and it will be a blast to sing it, because I just love his music so much.
Rebecca tried to pursue her musical dreams, as did Kate — the music runs in the family — but Jack Jr. is the one who’s actually realizing their dreams. How did it strike you that your character was the Pearson that finally broke through?
As you’re saying it right now, I’m still having chills. It gave me goosebumps the first time I read it and when I saw the episode, the same thing. I think it is so incredibly beautiful that the namesake of Jack and the grandson of Rebecca — it’s like he’s a fusion of those two in a way, and he’s the one realizing Rebecca and Kate’s dreams of being a singer. I just think it’s beautiful.