'This Is Us' Star Griffin Dunne Breaks Down Nicky's 'Deserved' Love With Surprise Reveal (Exclusive)

NBC's groundbreaking family drama This Is Us is bidding farewell with its sixth and final season this year and to say we're emotional over the end is a true understatement. While there are no amount of tissues in the world to hold in our feelings about the intergenerational family saga's last goodbye, we've still got plenty of loose ends to tie up — like who is actor Griffin Dunne's Uncle Nicky Pearson married to in the future? First hinting at a relationship in a flash-forward during the Season 4 finale where fans spotted him with a wedding ring, social media initially went crazy trying to decipher clues across the seasons. But as tonight's second episode of the final season proved to audiences, nothing is what it seems and one chance encounter can change your entire life. [Spoilers are ahead for Season 6, Episode 2: "One Giant Leap."]

In an exclusive interview with PopCulture.com about the second episode of Season 6 titled "One Giant Leap," Dunne dives into the Nicky-centric chapter that finds his character on a road trip with his sister-in-law Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and her husband Miguel (Jon Huertas). With the hopes to confront his former love, Sally after initially standing her up and joining the Vietnam War, Nicky comes face to face with his past over a meeting he has pined about for years. But he soon learns Sally is married, though unhappily. She has let go of her photography dreams and expresses feelings of being trapped in a strained relationship with her husband, Eric — something she mentions during the "most awkward meal of all-time" between the Pearsons and Eric. While it seems at first Nicky and Sally might rekindle their relationship after 50 years apart, the two reminisce under a moonlit sky but go their separate ways with mutual love and respect for each other, teasing they'll meet up in another half a century. 

However, the biggest reveal of Nicky's chapter occurs when he is seated on a plane after telling Rebecca and Miguel he will be heading out east to finish work on the Pearson cabin Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) wanted to build for the family. It is then audiences see him flirting with a vivacious flight attendant named Edie, who just so happens to also be — surprise, surprise — his wife, who we see in the flash-forward pulls up to the Pearson home as they all gather round for Rebecca's last moments. She exchanges a few words with Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and grown-up Deja (La Trice Harper) before turning to Nicky, with who she shares a kiss. 

Nicky's big love affair reveal

(Photo: NBC / NBCUniversal)

Dunne tells PopCulture the reveal was a shock to him too, but one he was pleasantly surprised by. "I sure didn't see that coming. I just got a big smile on my face," Dunne said. "We're kept in the dark about what happens. I think they really like to surprise us. And, quite honestly, I was considering a whole huge Sally arc. I thought that would be a long-running thing. I love being upended in my expectations. Reading it the first time, I got a real chill and a smile going on when I saw that they connected on that plane. It was such a great surprise."

With the tease of a relationship filled with flirtatious, sweet banter, it is no doubt an arc most deserving of Nicky Pearson's heart according to Dunne. "I think also it's so beautifully laid in that he's got just low expectations of life and doesn't think his time will come, and the people around him who love him try to dissuade him of that notion. And he punishes himself for not following through with his unrequited love for someone from 30 years ago or more," he said, adding how all those around Nicky, including Rebecca, believes "there's something bigger at work" for him — an element that plays true to real life. "You're not looking for love, and looking to each face on every date, you're going, 'Is this the one? Is this the one?' You're imbuing your own neuroses and expectations on someone and it's been my experience, the very serious relationships I've had in my life, I didn't see them coming. I didn't plan for it. And I think that's the way it goes. The way it should go."

When describing what Nicky's relationship with Edie will be like, Dunne tells PopCulture it's one that is "deserved" for a character like his. "It's been fought for and won, and possible that people — I play a character in his seventies, and that there's a chance for everyone to find someone," he said. "There's something incredibly beautiful about a man finding the right one in these August years and I think that's a trait I can safely say without giving anything away that it's Nicky's deserved chance at life."

Nicky's evolving relationship with Rebecca

(Photo: NBC / NBC Universal)

While many fans will credit Rebecca for pushing Nicky to meet Sally just so that he could hop on a plane and meet the love of his life, Dunne says the dynamic between him and Moore's matriarch will certainly grow deeper this season, especially as her health begins to decline. After all, a part of Jack that Nicky never knew will be slowly dying with her as her memories fade due to the plaque buildup from her Alzheimer's diagnosis. Dunne said the on-screen relationship between Nicky and Rebecca is one that plays very personal to him in light of his aunt Joan Didion's death last month. "I was very, very close to [her]... And she was very sick, and she had Parkinson's and when her husband died quite suddenly over a decade ago, my father stepped in to become her protector. And when my father passed on, I became her protector. I think that about Nicky — that he is the next in line," he said, sharing how in the flash-forwards we see Nicky by Rebecca's bedside, alluding to a much deeper relationship between the two.

"Whatever his problems with alcohol and PTSD, they're sidelined by just giving the love back to Rebecca and I don't know the details of everything that brought him to that bedside, but what I imagine is that he stepped up as the only remaining generation, as the one in her generation to be by her side," he said. "I can't wait to find how that happens, but if you ask me how I think that that happens, I think it was his turn in the line of life. It just — Jack died and then whatever happened to her husband after that, it's just there was Nicky, ready and available."

With Dunne and Moore having incredible chemistry that makes their on-screen dynamic all the more admirable, he tells PopCulture how he hopes the remaining 16 episodes of This Is Us' final season will illustrate a deeper connection growing between the two. "I'm hoping because Mandy and I — we really, really do enjoy working together. We just have a simpatico that's happened from the first day and it's so funny to work with someone as young and beautiful as Mandy playing a tier as a senior citizen," he said. "That's really all I've seen of that and so every time I see her at a public event, or sometimes I might run into her at a restaurant, I have to adjust my eyes. 'Wait a minute. God, you're so young and beautiful. My God.'"

Admitting that Moore has the "earliest calls ever" on set because of her dramatic makeover chronicling Rebecca's years, he goes on to share how every time he has seen her, he is reminded of his mother, Ellen Griffin. "I can't tell you," he said in awe. "I adored my mother and their vibe is so similar, and the warmth. So I always feel — whenever I see Mandy and she's in that makeup — a part of my heart always melts."

Kismet's charm

(Photo: NBC / NBC Universal)

As This Is Us plays most eloquently to the wonder of kismet and destiny, a landmark theme rare on television today, Dunne tells PopCulture that is one of the biggest draws to his own interest in the show's powerfully emotional allure. "I think that's one of my favorite things about the show and being part of the show. They're not hammering it into the ground that there is a kismet," he said. "I'm of a certain age where I can look at my parents from a different perspective, and I picture them as young people, where, when I was younger, I never could before. And I'm aware of their struggles as a young couple raising children, and I see how that reflects on how I've been as a father, for better or worse."

Stating how he has the "kind of life" where he is "bombarded by coincidence and things that make sense much later," Griffin recalls the time he had a "signal" years earlier that pointed to aspects of his life today. "The connections I have and the coincidences — things happen. I think maybe everybody feels this way, but they seem to happen to be me much more than normal. But also because I'm open to it and I just notice it," he said. "So kismet has been a very familiar theme in my life, and that's why I enjoy it being laid out so beautifully on the show."

With such worldly themes of serendipity and fate intertwined through beautifully heartwrenching performances and writing that packs an emotional wallop, Griffin admits he responds to these stories held together much like the audience and his fellow co-stars. "I think all of us, we love being surprised by the scripts as they come in, and I came to the show halfway through, and so they were already a well-oiled machine, but I just fit right in the first 10 minutes of being on the set," he said. "I think that we all look at each other's characters, we all know who each other are so clearly, and there's very little self-doubt or questioning about our relationships to ourselves and to each others' characters. It really does feel like a family within a family and it's like everybody sees the same vision that Dan [Fogelman] had when he first came up with this show."

Looking back at This Is Us

(Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

When looking back at his own journey with This Is Us and the final episodes that will conclude this intergenerational saga that has warmed the hearts of millions, Griffin is more curious about how is he going to feel next rather than what he does. "I do feel like I've got this. I have more members in this family on television than I do in real life," he laughed. "I will miss everyone terribly, and as we get closer and closer, it becomes more and more emotional. I think all of us just stay in the moment and not think too far ahead, because it'll be pretty heavy when it's over."

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC and is available to stream on Peacock. (Get your trial subscription here!) For more on
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