Playing an expectant mother to triplets was already daunting for Mandy Moore. But playing a 66-year-old mother to three thirtysomething children? That was not something she was prepared to do.
"There are no YouTube videos for that!" Moore, 32, says, emphatically enough to make you wonder if she actually tried searching for some.
In NBC's breakout freshman hit "This Is Us," Moore stars as Rebecca Pearson, a wife and mother to three children — twins (a third baby did not survive the delivery) and an adopted son who was born on the same day.
Time is a crucial component to the family drama, which makes use of a nonlinear narrative to explore the characters at different phases in their lives — hence the sporadic aging by 30-plus years for Moore's present-day look as a grandmother.
"Initially, I was taking selfies like crazy," Moore says "But now I'm like, 'eh,' it's old hat now."
This is the Moore of 2016. The former squeaky clean teenage pop star who once crooned about missing a gentleman friend like "Candy" in the late '90s against the backdrop of brightly colored Volkswagen Beetles is now playing a wife and mom on a hit TV show that has emerged as a rare broadcast drama to strike a chord across the country with its feel-good tone.
"I was ready to play a wife and mom," Moore says. "I'm ready for that phase in my actual life, so it feels very natural."
On a brisk November day in downtown Los Angeles, Moore sits outside a coffee shop on a day off from production. She talks excitedly about the midcentury modern home she just purchased in Pasadena and the joys of flat shoes. At one point, she scrolls through the casts' group text message chain from the Thanksgiving holiday (there are photos of cheese-wrapped hot dogs — a nod to the show — and videos.)
"I forgot what this life is like," Moore says of the challenges that come from steady work and being on an in-demand show. "I love it. Getting back to work, I was like, 'Cool, I know how to do this. I'm good at this. I'm good at being busy.' "
Moore first branched into acting in the early aughts with roles in such films as "The Princess Diaries" and "A Walk to Remember." Over the years, she racked up a number of starring and supporting roles in film and television, but a signature, breakout role proved elusive.
In 2012, she starred in "Family Trap," an ABC comedy pilot about newlywed restaurateurs. She followed that up with a CBS legal pilot called "The Advocates." She was also signed to star in ABC's American version of Sharon Horgan's "Pulling" but ultimately dropped out.
"Trying the pilot process for a couple of years was brutal," Moore says. "It did sort of make me question, 'Should I do something else? Should I concentrate on music again?' I didn't know which end was up sometimes."
Moore says "This Is Us" came at an important juncture in her life. She was in the process of divorcing singer-songwriter Ryan Adams after six years of marriage and felt like her career was stuck in idle.
"My personal life had taken an unimaginable turn," she says. "That part of my life felt like it was in chaos. Add to that the fact that I just felt like I couldn't get my career moving again. I had intentionally taken a break to be a married person, to nest. I'd been working since I was 15. It was the first time I took a conscious step away. Trying to start the cogs of the machine back up again, it just wasn't clicking for a while. When I read this pilot, I was like, this is it."
"This Is Us" reunites Moore with Dan Fogelman, the creator of the show who also wrote Disney's animated feature "Tangled" (2010), which featured Moore's voice work. Fogelman's pride in Moore's growth as an actress was apparent during a trip to his office over the summer ahead of the show's launch. He was eager to share rough footage from an episode that featured Moore's Rebecca telling her then-husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) to curb his drinking — it was a monologue that had originally been part of her audition process.
"I've always felt that there's a deep, romantic melancholy to Rebecca that Mandy brings out — and that's what brings the character to life," Fogelman said more recently by e-mail. "This is a woman who has lost a child. And eventually, a husband. She's sacrificed personal dreams for her children, and for her family. So here's Mandy, with this perfect face and the flawless skin, but when you watch her play Rebecca in the show, you somehow also feel that you're watching a woman who has really led a sometimes difficult — and occasionally very sad — life."
A life that, at one point, included singing. Fogelman was interested in exploring what Jack and Rebecca did before the main thing that defined them was their children. For Rebecca, that was singing.
"I'm always excited for the opportunity for music to be factored in," Moore says. "I miss music. I miss singing. This is a perfect marriage of both those things. Because I have put music on the back burner for the last seven, eight years, and Rebecca's put it on the back burner for most of her adult life, I definitely can relate to that, to that feeling that there's a piece of my heart that is not being exercised.
"I am this woman," adds the Orlando-bred Moore. "I know who she is. I understand her. And what I don't understand yet, I'm learning. It is a true challenge and it's something that is never lost on me. I think about it all the time because I am not a mother. I can sometimes be overly concerned with making sure my character feels maternal enough."
Like when she had to change diapers. Ventimiglia recalls a moment from an early episode when Moore, much like her character, was intimidated by the prospect.
"She literally had no idea what to do," says Ventimiglia. "And she's looking at all of us. And she just had to learn. And she did. She's come a long, long way. She can now change a diaper and swaddle a baby like a champ."
Moore expects the unknowns to continue. It gets her talking, cryptically, about Tuesday's Christmas episode — "I was like, 'I did not see that coming. I love this development.' It doesn't have to do with my character, but I loved it." The series, she says, has been a lesson in being malleable because each script locks in another piece of the puzzle.
"I felt overwhelmed at the start of the season," she says. "I was like, 'I have to know the answers to everything. I have to know what happened in every single moment in Rebecca's life from 27 to 66.' Then I was like, 'No, I don't.' I can do my due diligence and do my homework ... but I have to be open to things changing. It's about having as much information on a need-to-know basis answered so you can do your job."
It's the approach she's learning to apply to her own life. She says other acting opportunities haven't begun to flood in since she began the show, but she's open to that changing.
"I hope that's the case when the hiatus comes around," Moore says. "I love to work. I want to work on music and I'll be moving. But I want to work too. That's all I've ever wanted. I want to keep it up, keep the ball rolling."
'This Is Us'
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)