Michael Angarano wasn't afraid, and he has "Will and Grace" to thank for that.
The actor faced the daunting task of playing a kind of man out of time in joining the ballyhooed ensemble of the intensely-followed "This Is Us."
"It wasn't actually the first time I'd come onto a show when it was really popular," he said. "When I was 13 I was on 'Will and Grace' at the end of Season 3, when it was really big, and it was this sort of big reveal in the season finale … so I had a little experience coming onto a show that was already up and running, already sort of this like cultural phenomenon.
"But on 'This Is Us,' it was really easy because I was working with Milo [Ventimiglia, who plays main character Jack] a lot; I'm friends with Milo beforehand, I'm friends with Chris Sullivan [who plays Toby Damon], it was a really welcoming group and it was this great material."
Angarano sat down with the Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara for an Emmy Contenders chat in The Times' video studio to talk about his turn as Nick, the presumed-dead brother of Jack. The older Nick (played by Griffin Dunne) turns out to have survived harrowing experiences in the Vietnam War; Angarano plays the character during the time of his military service.
The actor, now 31, is far too young to relate directly to the experience of being drafted; his father is also too young to help contextualize it for him.
"There was something, actually, I found that helped a little bit. It was this website that you put your birth date into and it would tell you if you would have been drafted. I found out that I would have been drafted and Milo would have been drafted. What really drove it home was when I realized my younger brother, who's 19, would have been drafted as well.
"That sort of two-second moment when my stomach sank … that's really where it helped me realize what this was and the effect that it had on these guys' lives at such a young age."
Angarano found it easy to research the time and circumstances – perhaps too easy. He settled on a few resonant sources and focused on the personal.
"There's so much material about Vietnam, and yet you feel like it doesn't come close to what it felt like. There's also this book called 'Dispatches,' that Michael Herr wrote," he said of the journalistic novel that inspired parts of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket."
"That was an amazing book that sort of gave you the sensation, or the feeling of what it was like for the sleep-deprived, traumatized, drug-riddled mind … Nicky's mind and his personality was that of an addict. Jack has also had his issues with alcohol on the show; so it was the history of how they grew up in an abusive home with an alcoholic father."
Angarano called a horrific, pivotal scene involving a child, a boat and a grenade "surreal" to shoot and "personal" to Vietnam journalist and "The Things They Carried" author Tim O'Brien, who served as a consultant for this season.
"I know that story came directly from Tim O'Brien," he said. "And you know it's personal when it isn't even in any of his books. … That entire sequence was surreal. That last episode — all those episodes were intense, but that was particularly a blur as far as like the things that were going down."
The character of Nicky was actually split into three roles: Young Nicky (Donnie Masihi), draft-age Nick (Angarano), and older, withdrawn Nick (Dunne). Dunne and Angarano had also known each other for about 15 years before being cast as different ages of the same character.
"People thought Griffin and I had gotten together to work out character traits or gestures or something like that, and we didn't. It was something that was inherent in the writing … people told both of us that day, 'You guys are eerily doing each other.'
"There was a day when all generations of Nicky were on set at the same time … it was bizarre."
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