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Best Performances: Inside Denis O'Hare's This Is Us Role

The veteran actor's role was brief, but powerful

Malcolm Venable

In a season full of shocking surprises and all-out sobfests, This Is Us kept many a trick up its proverbial sleeve -- part of the reason NBC's drama is nominated for 11 Emmys. One of its most stellar weapons was the veteran actor Denis O'Hare, who had to do the not-enviable job 0f ramping up an already intense family drama in the middle of the season. And though his presence as Jesse, the "friend" of Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) birth father William (Ron Cephas Jones), was brief, his piercing portrayal of an anguished lover abandoned without explanation was outstanding enough to earn him his own Best Guest Actor Emmy nod.

O'Hare entered the fray after the show's Thanksgiving episode -- you know, the one where Randall learned his adopted mom kept the identity of his birth father from him his whole life -- and stunned audiences as a jilted ex who had to make peace with finding his old flame and learning said ex was dying at the same time. "My character Jesse is sitting in an (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting and listening to William talk about how wonderful his life is," O'Hare said in his talk with TV Guide. Jesse was "absorbing all that, knowing that he destroyed my life - that the happier he is, the worse my life is."

​Denis O'hare, This Is Us

Denis O'hare, This Is Us


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One of the many things that makes his performance so moving is his sense of composure; caught with a double-whammy of Earth-shaking news, O'Hare-as-Jesse remains dignified -- Zen, even, as he reunites with the person who broke his heart and is also living out his last days. And it happens in a recovery meeting, of all places, the very place that people in the most vulnerable place they've ever been are supposed to feel safe. "I loved the fact that it was bitter, I loved the fact that it was funny, I loved that it was somebody covering a lot of stuff," O'Hare said.

Somewhat miraculously, Jesse is re-integrated into William's life: meeting his grown son's wife and children (who are stunned as we are to learn William is not heterosexual as we assumed) and included in future plans. Of course, William has no more future plans. Although we'll continue to see William in flashbacks, there is no set plan as of now for how Jesse will be returning. But his shadow will loom over the series in Season 2, as William's family will continue to grapple with losing a man they were clearly only beginning to know. Given that culture at large is just beginning to understand the complexities of human sexuality, O'Hare -- himself gay and married with a child -- said he approached his role with a sense of duty, but sensitivity too.

"I approach my characters at their essential core," he said. "Yes it's important that Jesse is a gay man in a relationship with another man but it's also just important that he's a human being going through a struggle with self-acceptance and anger. That's the greatest strength when [sexuality] becomes the least important aspect of the character, and the most important aspect becomes their personal struggle."

This is Us returns to NBC on Tuesday, September 26 at 9/8c.

Additional reporting by Alex Zalben.