‘This Is Us’: Griffin Dunne Talks Nicky’s Future and Working With Mandy Moore

This Is Us - Season 3
Spoiler Alert
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 3, Episode 12 of This Is Us, “Songbird Road: Part Two”]

Griffin Dunne has made a splash as present-day Uncle Nicky in This Is Us‘ third season. The actor brought Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) estranged brother to life in the final moments of the midseason finale, and was center stage for recent episodes “Songbird Road: Part One” and “Part Two.”

TV Insider caught up with the actor whose other credits include The Romanoffs, Frasier, Alias, House of Lies, and I Love Dick among others. After the February 12 episode “Songbird Road: Part Two,” there’s plenty to discuss. Find out what the actor had to tell us about sparring with Mandy Moore in Nicky and Rebecca’s big scene, how he and Michael Angarano accomplished an uncanny likeness in their performances, and much more.

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The episode left viewers with uncertainty. Is this the last they’ve seen of Uncle Nicky?

Griffin Dunne: My answer to you is going to be open ended. I’ll say I hope so, I can’t say more beyond that.

Nicky’s trauma from the war is very apparent in your performance; did you do any research or draw on personal experiences to approach the role?

Yeah I did, in fact before, when the producers first told me Tim O’Brien was one of the writers, I was just so excited because I read everything he’s ever written. I’ve had a fascination with that war since my early teens. I came within a hair of being drafted… I’ve seen every Vietnam movie and read just about every book I’m aware of, both fiction and non-fiction, about Vietnam.

And so I came to it with a kind of understanding of the horror of that war. The conditions that the kids were in… were absolutely terrifying. So Vietnam as a state of mind, and that war was already a part of me. As far as the trauma, and understanding PTSD, I have a family member who has suffered from mental issues and isolated himself for many years so I had a personal connection to that.

There’s a documentary that John Huston made after the second world war, Let There Be Light and it’s an incredible short film that was paid for by the war department that introduced people to what they called shell shock then. And it shows the exchange between the military psychiatrists and their patients. These soldiers that’d just come back who’ve seen such horror and the expressions in their face and the way they try to talk was really helpful as an actor to sort of see and approximate that behavior and understand it.

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How much did you discuss the character with Michael Angarano? It’s almost hard to believe you’re not the same person.

Well that was just a magical accident because we did not have time to get together and study each other’s movements but I had played Michael’s father in a movie called Snow Angels by David Gordon Green about 10 years ago. I was able to see an episode that he was in before I appeared but it just sort of happened organically in a really good way a lot of people give us a lot more credit for our research [and behavior] than we deserve.

Nicky covers a wide emotional range in this episode; does that make the role more appealing for an actor?

Oh yeah, I think one of the things that was the most exciting for me and I’d not been asked to do [that kind of character] before but there was a wonderful inner turmoil and conflict of Nicky. Wanting to be left alone and afraid of being left alone, reaching out and then pulling back, being curious and just wishing [the family would] leave. Then seeing part of myself in Kevin, you know, Kevin seeing that in me and it was just so rich I couldn’t believe how complex and how much there was to work with with this character.

Michael Angarano

Your character finally meets Rebecca in this episode. How was it filming those emotional moments with Mandy Moore?

It was easy and I don’t mean that in a facile way. She’s so present and empathetic and the way she looks at you, it breaks your heart when I hurt her with what I said about her son. And then in such a way that it felt very natural to be motivated to try and explain myself later as best I could. We kind of nailed it really quickly and I was really looking forward to that scene in particular, I’ve never filmed with Mandy, she’s just a dream to work with.

Kevin tries so hard to do right by Nicky, but is driven to drink by the resistance he’s being shown. Should fans be worried?

I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I think anyone that relapses [is a source of worry].

What drew you to this role? Were you a fan of the show prior to being cast?

I was indeed. When I got the job, I binge watched everything all over again, so I was up to speed with what the family had been through.

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Have you received any kind of fan reaction to your role? Your final moments in the first episode had plenty of people in tears.

Yeah, I was asked to log in to [Instagram] and answer questions. I mean, comments just kept coming in that were such heartfelt, deep reactions from viewers. I didn’t hear from any actual veterans, or anything, but people who you know, had personal experiences with family members or with mental illness in general, and it was really powerful to elicit such powerful emotions from so many strangers.

Where would you like to see Nicky’s character go next if he returns?

I would like to [return], I’d love to be a part of the fabric of the family. I have no idea what the future is though, but you know, I can tell you how Nicky would feel. After the family left, he was left feeling more alone than he did before they arrived and kind of longing to return but not knowing how to do that. But I think he’s… there’s so many conflicting emotions about what he wants and what he should or should not do about it.

This Is Us, Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC