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'This Is Us’ star Griffin Dunne on balancing the ‘tragic and comic’ in Uncle Nicky

The actor reflected on the evolution of Nicky Pearson in an interview with TODAY.

When Griffin Dunne was cast as Nicky Pearson on “This Is Us,” he recalls thinking the family’s estranged uncle sounded like a “great complicated, tragic character who would probably transform into something else over the course of the show.”

Dunne began playing Nicky, a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD and alcoholism, in the series’ third season. Pearson patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) had told his wife and kids that Nicky died after the brothers had a falling-out during the war. But Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) later discovered that Nicky was alive, and he and siblings Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) tracked down Nicky at his trailer in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Since then, he’s become a beloved, if sometimes grumpy, member of the Pearson clan, even inspiring Kevin to name one of his twins after him.

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Nicky Pearson (Griffin Dunne) holds Kevin's son, Nicky, in the Season Six episode "The Guitar Man."NBC

“I think the most challenging part of playing Uncle Nicky has been to walk the line between ... an unsentimental person, and a certain kind of inner bitterness he fights within himself, and to also be funny,” Dunne told TODAY. “You know, it’s always been a balance of tragic and then comic and tragic and comic.”

Dunne said his favorite scene was the poignant monologue Nicky delivers to Kevin’s twins when Nicky unexpectedly travels to California to meet his great-nephew and great-niece in the Season Five episode “One Small Step...”

“That just hit me very personally, about him speaking to those sleeping infants,” he said. “And it was so beautifully written. And it meant a great deal to me personally, it just hit me home.”

He’s also enjoyed all the screen time his character has shared with Hartley’s.

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Griffin Dunne and Justin Hartley share a scene in Season Six of "This Is Us."NBC

“I’d say that the funniest times I’ve had on set both on camera and between takes, it has been with Justin. We just have a really great rapport and make each other laugh. And we don’t fall into, you know, a typical sentimentality. You know, our sort of edge toward each other plays against that. So, it’s been really rewarding to have so many scenes with Justin.”

Dunne said it’s been particularly satisfying to hear from viewers that Nicky’s story has resonated with their own families.

“I’ve heard from Vietnam vets,” he said. “And I’ve heard from soldiers and their families who have fought in our more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that they are, you know, thankful to see their trauma, post-war trauma portrayed, you know, is very meaningful to me. I feel very proud of that.”

Earlier in the show’s sixth and final season, Nicky went on a road trip to find his first love, Sally, introduced in Season Five flashbacks to his younger years. But at the end of that episode, we learn that Nicky’s future wife is actually Edie (Vanessa Bell Calloway), a flight attendant he meets on his return home to the East Coast.

“When I found out Edie was Nicky’s love interest, well, I was completely surprised. I — probably like the audience — thought it would be the woman I’ve been pining for for the past 47 years, and just assumed. I underestimated the writers again, just thinking predictably. So when I got to the scene of him giving sass to Edie in the airplane, I just smiled.”

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Nicky and Edie, seen at Kate's wedding to Phillip, have become an important part of the Pearson family.NBC

“Right after that episode, people would come up to me and go, ‘I am so happy for you, Uncle Nicky, I’m so glad you finally found love’ — like I was actually Uncle Nicky,” Dunne added. “But it just shows how satisfying I think that was for both Nicky and the audience that that surprise in his life happened.”

Dunne said he was happy with how Nicky’s story wraps up because “his part was sort of put to rest and, and we knew he’d be OK.” 

“And from then on, Nicky and Edie were suddenly a team and we’re just like a kind of fun-loving, smartass couple, you know, involved in all the family proceedings that would be coming ahead.”

Filming the final episodes of “This Is Us,” which comes to an end on May 24, was “very emotional,” the actor said.

“At the wrap, all the principals gave a very moving speech of thanks, and everybody was very moved,” he said. “A lot of tears were going around.”

In between filming all the tear-jerking scenes “This Is Us” is known for — recent storylines have involved Rebecca’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of her husband Miguel (Jon Huertas) —  the “This Is Us” cast also appeared to be having some fun on set. Last month, Dunne and his co-stars shared a video of the Pearsons performing the “Wobble” while dressed for Kate’s wedding to Phillip.

“I think a lot of people thought it was like a dance sequence at the wedding,” he said. “But it was just all of us, you know, doing the Wobble during our lunch break.”

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Griffin Dunne reflected on how Nicky, seen at Kate's wedding, has evolved.Ron Batzdorff / NBC

Dunne, also a director and producer, is known for other unforgettable roles, from Paul Hackett in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 dark comedy “After Hours” to Vada’s teacher/crush Mr. Bixler in the 1991 coming-of-age film “My Girl.” But he says these days, he gets recognized for “This Is Us” the most.

“My background as an actor has been mostly in independent films that are seen by a certain kind of more arthouse sort of audience, and the other films that I’ve done, I’ve been behind the camera as a director,” he said. “So I get recognized most, more than any other time in my career, as Uncle Nicky, because it’s a network show with a bigger audience than I’ve ever been involved with before. So, it’s definitely Uncle Nicky.”