Laura Niemi creates a seminal force in NBC’s megahit This Is Us.
In NBC's This Is Us, Jack Pearson is something of a mystery.
The show, which jumps back and forth in time telling the story of the Pearson family, has only slowly revealed the backstory of the family patriarch, Jack Pearson, played by Milo Ventimiglia. The audience is slowly learning more about his youth, including meeting his parents, Stanley, played by Peter Onorati, and his mother Marilyn, played by Laura Niemi.
Niemi, for one, is happy the show is letting the audience in on what makes Jack tick. She says, "I think everybody's kind of interested ... how Jack became Jack, all the stuff that makes us who we are, all the developmental stuff that comes at the earlier ages. I'm glad that they're tapping into that, because it really answers a lot of question marks into how he became who he's become."
The Pearson family dynamic of Jack's youth was not the happier family Jack created with wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and their triplets. Jack's relationship with his father is problematic at best, and often adversarial as he tries to protect his mother and younger brother Nick from his father's tirades and abuse.
The family deals with addiction as well as abuse, and Niemi lauds Dan Fogelman, the show's creator and showrunner, for tackling these difficult subjects.
"What a great testament to the writing and the players involved. In these complex times we live in, everybody's resonating to pulling on heart strings a little bit, and really being able to have an experience of seeing their own stories, having that catharsis of being able to see how other families are struggling, and just life. Dan has this wonderful ability to get right at the heart strings of who we are as people and what families are about."
And the struggles of this family are some of the most difficult and pervasive.
Niemi says, "It's so needed right now to be able to have that experience of being able to see yourself in these different characters. Problems with fertility, and the problems in adoption, and fostering, and all these topics that people are dealing with. Abuse, there's a little bit of that in obviously my storyline. Domestic abuse and addiction and all these real life grownup things that people deal with in their family.
"I'm really glad that they're leaning into that. I think that really is why it resonates so much with everybody. Because everybody, I think, can relate."
With so many storylines, the series has not really explored Jack's youth much before the most recent season. Niemi has had little to work with in terms of building her character, but she takes that in stride. She notes, "Well, luckily the writing is so incredible. It's been kind of fleshed out, my character in particular, this past season a little bit more.
"But it is challenging; you look at it on the page and that's the skillset of an actor to be able to interpret why this character's written in this particular episode, what they're trying to say and kind of maneuvering and mapping it out through them. And that's what actors do, and so I've just been more practiced at it from the years that I've been doing it.
"But again, I can only draw on my experience. This character very much spoke to me, so even from the gate when I auditioned for it, it's something that I just knew where this character lived.
"I really felt a sense of ... 'oh I've been there before,' and I think a lot of women can recognize that, men, too, but most women understand being in a dysfunctional marriage or relationship and having that moment in your relationship when things aren't working out.
"I'm drawing that from my own personal life, too. So, yeah, it definitely resonated with me which I think why the stars aligned on this one as well."
Exploring the family dynamic has also brought a great many of Jack Pearson's issues into focus, as well as issues with the children Kevin and Kate. Niemi sees the links coming into focus through Jack's backstory. She says, "The codependency and the addiction was something that I was familiar with in my life, you know having addiction run in our family.
"I think everybody has, so I'm glad that they really brought that to the surface. It is a family disease. And so, it affects every member of the family; that's the other thing we're starting to see here, and how that manifests.
"So it's just been wonderful to be able to walk in those shoes and tell that story. Because so many need it, need to know they're not alone and this is a topic that a lot of people are dealing with."
Another thread of the series has been the Vietnam war and how that affected the family. In the series, Jack has always been loath to speak about his experiences, as many who fought in the war were, and the series took on that topic by flashing back to, not only Jack's experiences with the war and his brother, but also his mother's reactions and the effects the war had on families at home.
Niemi says, "I think it's really interesting, especially going back into some of the history in the different decades that we've been going into. Nothing's changed in terms of the way families deal emotionally and whatnot. Addiction still looks like addiction, families still have their problems the same as they do now.
"But also diving into war time and what that looked like. I mean that was gut-wrenching for me to be playing during that time. It was thinking about women, you know mothers and wives sending their men off Vietnam, it was a very, very challenging time.
"We were so lucky because Tim O'Brien, who wrote The Things They Carried co-wrote that Vietnam episode, which I thought was so beautifully done. Just everything from top to bottom. The shots that they got, they shot some of that in Vietnam, so it was just such a special episode.
"I was incredibly moved from reading it the first time, I had a lump in my throat just reading it. But then seeing it, they just did an incredible job. Just an incredible job."
Although Niemi is not working with the cast all the time, she still feels very close to them. "It's a beautiful cast. It's just a beautiful cast, and it's a family, I just want to be on that set more and more, obviously as a working actor but just because I enjoy these people. I enjoy these people on the set, it is like a family. I feel very lucky.
"[They are] very gracious and just talented as all heck. This is the actor's life. You get so many moments where you get to be affiliated with incredible, incredible work.
"And so, this is that moment. It's just where the stars aligned and you just get to be able to share that which is so wonderful. And also my family, I mean my family, every member of my family are huge This Is Us fans. So, I mean how exciting is it that Tuesday nights everybody gathers and it's just great.
"And my husband and I were talking about how years ago you'd stand in line in a movie theater to buy tickets, and you'd start talking to people in line, you'd meet people in line. And you just have this experience, everybody's excited to go see the new movie. And now everything's online, it's just keeping us more and more separate.
"So that in a nutshell is really I think what This Is Us is, bringing people together. They're communing ... like a family."