In L.A. or Vietnam, director Ken Olin is at home behind the camera for NBC’s favorite family drama.
Outside a house in Glendale, California — on a street doubling for Pittsburgh — NBC's This Is Us is about to shoot a scene.
Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) and her adopted brother, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), are sitting in a car near the site of their childhood home, which burned down at the end of season one.
Reminiscing about their late father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), Kate recalls a night when he let them order a pizza and tipped the delivery guy 20 dollars on a 20-dollar order. That may have happened the same day as a family sequin fight — but she can't be sure.
Executive producer and director Ken Olin steps away from the monitors to confer briefly with Metz; he quietly encourages her to tell the story as if she's sure of the memory. On the next take, Metz seamlessly shades her reading, adding a subtle emotional underpinning. "And, cut!" Olin shouts, pleased.
It's hard to imagine a show better suited to Olin's sensibilities, and it marks a nice symmetry to his career arc. Thirty-two years ago, he became a star on one of the most celebrated ensemble dramas of the late 1980s — thirtysomething, to which This Is Us is often compared.
Now he's working with a new generation of talented 30-somethings, but this time he's behind the camera. It's where he feels most at home.
"When I direct, I let go of a lot of self-consciousness and doubt," Olin says. "With acting, I always felt a little self-conscious, a little artificial."
This Is Us is something of a unicorn. It's a bona fide broadcast TV hit, in a genre — family drama — that in today's boundary-pushing streaming universe can feel as antiquated as rabbit ears. It's the rare network show that's both a critical and commercial success, "the perfect combination of an independent film and the high-end of network TV," Olin says. "It's like a saga — intimate, but big in scope."
An unabashed, tug-at-the-heartstrings weepy that asks viewers to check their cynicism at the door, the show straddles a fine line between sincere and saccharine. More often than not, the tears feel earned, reflecting the tastes of both Olin and creator–showrunner Dan Fogelman (Crazy Stupid Love).
"There are those who will find our show more sentimental than they can handle, and others who feel they could handle 10 more degrees of it," Fogelman says. "Ken and I have a very similar meter for that sort of thing — we know when it's in a danger zone."
"We always look for the most truthful performances," Olin adds. "Dan is brilliant at writing things where people identify with an emotional need — and it often winds up being expressed in tears."
Back on set, the crew breaks for a one-hour lunch, and Olin adjourns to an outdoor table.
As he digs into a plate of pasta, it's easy to see him as Michael Steadman, the angst-ridden adman who captured hearts on thirtysomething, the ABC drama that aired from 1987 to '91. His dark hair is flecked with gray, he sports a salt-and-pepper beard, and his bearing reflects the latter side of middle age, but the brooding good looks are still there.
Though he's put acting in the rear-view mirror for the most part, he does occasional guest spots for writer friends — "because they think it's funny," he says.
In fact, his prior career is a source of amusement to the young cast and crew of This Is Us. Some find it hard to believe their director was once a heartthrob to millions of women who fantasized about finding a husband as upstanding and hunky as Michael Steadman.
"Ken has this routine where he thinks none of us are aware of who he is," Fogelman says with a laugh. Olin once snuck himself into a waiting-room scene, only to have Fogelman promptly cut it in post. "It feels like it'd be wildly distracting in the show to have him as an actor," he explains.
Before This Is Us, Olin was in a creative lull. He'd completed a less-than-satisfying directing stint on Fox's Sleepy Hollow, and he and his wife, thirtysomething costar Patricia Wettig, had sold their Santa Monica home and were spending a lot of time on Long Island.
"I had reached a point where I was a little frustrated by some of the people I had worked with and was a little sad about it," Olin acknowledges. Then Fogelman sent him the show's pilot, directed by executive producers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
An hour later, Olin was raving to Wettig about it. "I thought it was one of the best pilots I'd ever seen," he recalls. "The acting and directing were so confident and Dan's voice was so authentic. It didn't feel like a manufactured product."
The pilot, which aired in September 2016, begins on the day when four seemingly unconnected characters are celebrating their 36th birthdays: Ventimiglia's Jack Pearson, whose wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), is about to give birth to triplets, plus Kate, her brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall.
In the pilot's famously time-tripping last scene, it's revealed that Jack and Rebecca's story has been taking place in the 1980s and that they are Kate and Kevin's biological parents and Randall's adoptive parents. (One triplet did not survive.)
"I didn't see it coming," Olin admits. "It took me half an hour — oh, wow, that's what that is." The show was an instant hit; more than 10 million viewers tuned in. With the country polarized by a profoundly divisive presidential campaign, this emotional show about a close-knit family struck a deeply resonant chord.
"We're at a time in the country where people need to have an outlet for feelings that are more tender," Olin says. "It's a wish fulfillment of the show to be understood, to be loved — where kindness is something to strive for."
Having directed 17 episodes of This Is Us, Olin has earned a glowing reputation as an actor's director, one with an ability — drawn from experience — to speak their language. It's no accident that the show's three Emmy Awards have been bestowed for acting. (One went to Brown, and the others to Gerald McRaney and Ron Cephas Jones for guest roles.)
"There's something mysterious about the personality of an actor, the sensitivity and energy, that can be intimidating and make a director self-conscious," he observes. "When you're in sync with an actor, all you're trying to do is free them and motivate them. Sometimes just the sound of your voice can help the actor get to a place they need to be."
Olin is accustomed to forming strong bonds with actresses he's directed, from Calista Flockhart in Brothers & Sisters to Mandy Moore now, but This Is Us is the first show on which he's forged a similar connection with his leading man, Milo Ventimiglia.
Olin credits his daughter, Roxy, a staffer on the show, with facilitating: "She told me Milo was hungry for that relationship." Oddly enough, in an appropriate real-life twist, Ventimiglia once played a young Olin in a flashback sequence on EZ Streets, a 1996 series.
Lauded for his deep, dimensional portrayal of Jack, Ventimiglia says, "The dynamic that Ken and I have, and what he's brought out from me as an actor, would not be the same if I were doing this with anybody else."
He's also learned to master "Olin speak." The director admits that he talks in a rapid-fire set of incomplete sentences, thoughts tumbling from his mind faster than he can process them. "He has so many feelings, he wants to get all of it out, to arm us actors with the emotion and intelligence we need," Ventimiglia explains.
This season, Fogelman says he's seen Olin grow as a visual artist. "Ken and [cinematographer] Yasu Tanida have developed the ability to shoot the most intimate slices of life in the most beautiful fashion. Especially with the Vietnam episodes, he's put a degree of scope into TV shot-making that I haven't seen for quite a while."
Season two largely focused on the impact of Jack's death on his wife and children. Early in season three, the show explored Jack's backstory with a trio of Vietnam episodes, all directed by Olin. The first, "Vietnam," plunges viewers into the thick of the war, detailing Jack's tour of duty as a young sergeant trying to protect his troubled younger brother Nick (Michael Angarano).
The latter two episodes — "Sometimes" and "The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning" — juggle storylines in the past and present, as Jack's grown son Kevin journeys to Vietnam with new girlfriend Zoe (Melanie Liburd) to solve a mystery about his father.
While Los Angeles doubled for many Vietnam locations — battle scenes were filmed at Lake Piru, just north of the city — the production did spend four days on location in Vietnam, a massive logistical undertaking that Olin helped spearhead.
"We don't have a Game of Thrones budget," Fogelman notes. "We don't have $5 million an episode. Ken had to figure out how to believably execute the scope of Vietnam, deal with complex story material and figure out how to frame shots so we could replace some stuff using visual effects. Plus, he had to match L.A. for Vietnam and know what to shoot in Vietnam to make all of it look seamless."
"We wanted to go there, because we always try to put the show in the most authentic context possible," Olin says. "We didn't just do big establishing shots of the central market in Saigon. We were there ; we were in the countryside… everywhere you look, you're seeing Vietnam."
Novelist and Vietnam War vet Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried) came on as a consultant and cowrote the "Vietnam" episode with Fogelman. "He brought layers of texture and experience," says Olin, who vividly recalls 1972 as a defining time in his life. He also prepped by immersing himself in music from the period and watching Vietnam War documentaries.
Ventimiglia, whose father served in Vietnam, says, "It was great having Ken around to comment on where the country was, what it was feeling, what it was like, knowing how these young men's lives were changed by the draft lottery and how heartbreaking that was."
Olin grew up on the North Shore of Chicago. His father worked in the Peace Corps; his mother was a prominent lawyer. He directed his first play while in college at the University of Pennsylvania, which Olin remembers as "the most thrilling experience of my life. But directing was so consuming, it kind of scared me," he admits. "I had committed to being an actor."
He studied acting in New York, where he met Wettig on a production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
In the early '80s, they moved to L.A. with their newborn son after Olin landed his first TV role, on Steven Bochco's short-lived Bay City Blues. Then, in one of those serendipitous Hollywood breaks, Olin met producer Marshall Herskovitz at the preschool their kids attended.
At the time, Herskovitz and partner Ed Zwick were looking to cast the pilot of their new show, thirtysomething. The handsome Olin was not who the producers originally had in mind for Michael Steadman.
"They initially thought Michael would be this nebbishy guy married to this beautiful shiksa," Olin recalls. But he won Herskovitz over after a field trip to Disneyland with their kids; Wettig was also cast as Nancy Weston, the wife of Michael's business partner, Elliot (Timothy Busfield).
"[The series] came at a time when people in the Me Generation were coming of age and struggling," Olin observes. "They'd had a prolonged adolescence, and now they had to take some personal responsibility. It was the culture of narcissism."
With Zwick and Herskovitz serving as mentors, the show launched successful directing careers for Olin and costars Peter Horton, Melanie Mayron and Busfield. Olin received accolades for helming a three-episode arc about Nancy's battle with ovarian cancer that won the actress her third Emmy; that led to his directing an Emmy-nominated 1992 Fox TV movie, Doing Time on Maple Drive.
After thirtysomething ended, Olin acted in some TV movies and series like L.A. Doctors, but his passion lay behind the camera.
His directing credits now include more than 80 episodes for shows like Alias, Brothers & Sisters, The West Wing and the limited series The Slap, among others. (Though his two Emmy nominations are as executive producer of This Is Us, which competed for outstanding drama series in 2017 and '18.) He no longer misses acting, which he confesses "was always a little torturous for me."
Olin calls himself "incredibly fortunate" to be working on This Is Us. "This is my favorite job ever," he says. "Those intimately observed moments, great acting and great writing about people are what move me."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 5, 2019