How Mandy Moore Escaped 'Candy'-Land To Become America's Primetime Matriarch

The former teen pop star almost went back to school before she landed the part of Rebecca Pearson on "This is Us."

I’ll be forever yours. Love always, Mandy. 

If you were a teenager in the ’90s, chances are you know exactly where that line is from: Mandy Moore’s debut single and Hot 100 hit “Candy,” released in August 1999. 

Remember? Mandy Moore, currently of “This Is Us” fame, was a bona fide pop princess when she began her Hollywood career at 15, touring the country with boy bands *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys before “competing” with the likes of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. But after a few years of so-so success in the music industry, Moore decided to transition to acting. First she appeared in 2001′s “The Princess Diaries” as Anne Hathaway’s on-screen high-school nemesis. She went on to crush hearts as cancer-stricken teen Jamie Sullivan in 2002′s “A Walk to Remember,” starring in com-dram after rom-com thereafter: 2003′s “How to Deal,” 2004′s “Chasing Liberty” and “Saved!,” 2007′s “Because I Said So,” 2010′s animated Disney film “Tangled” and 2011′s “Love, Wedding, Marriage.” 

As the 2010s trudged on, however, Moore’s career hit a lull. Despite landing gigs on some TV projects, nothing quite took off. “I really seriously contemplated, maybe this is it. Maybe I had my moment, and I was lucky to find some sense of success as a young person, and that’s all that was in the cards for me,” Moore told me during a phone call this week.

That’s when the script for “This Is Us,” now one of the highest-rated network series on television, plopped into her lap. The show was greenlit in 2016, headed to NBC Upfronts that May and debuted a few months later to a ravenous primetime audience. 

Moore was cast as the Pearson family mom, Rebecca, who ages from her 20s to her 70s as the series unfolds in flashbacks and present-day narratives. Everything revolves around Rebecca’s marriage to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and their decision to adopt abandoned child Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown, Niles Fitch and Lonnie Chavis) and raise him alongside their biological twins, Kevin (Justin Hartley, Logan Shroyer, Parker Bates) and Kate (Chrissy Metz, Hannah Zeile and Mackenzie Hancsicsak). Their family dynamics fuel a taffy pull of discussions on parenthood, race and death.

America’s confection princess no more, Mandy Moore was suddenly a matriarch with seasons of television runway at her feet.

I spoke with Moore ahead of Emmys season to discuss her escape from “Candy”-land, the back sweat she gets just thinking about touring with the Backstreet Boys as a kid, and that time she almost went back to school before she claimed her spot on the primetime throne.

How has your break from “This Is Us” been? I see you hiked Mount Kilimanjaro!

[Laughs] I feel very rested and rejuvenated after a crazy season. This is the way to enjoy the hiatus, just do a bunch of personal stuff. We go back in mid-July, so a few more weeks to soak it all in.

Congrats on such a successful second season, and an emotional one at that, what with the reveals about Jack and his death. Was that freeing for you as an actor on this show, to finally let people in on this part of the story?

It was really freeing. I think it relieved a lot of pressure for all of us. It was so unexpected, the interest people took in that specific detail [about how he died], and I just always had this underlying fear that I was going to sleep-talk or something and let the cat out of the bag. 

What it was it like to finally get to portray that moment in Rebecca’s life?

Because I knew in the back of my mind that that moment was coming, I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to deliver, considering this was obviously such a pivotal moment and we’ve been building up to it for almost two seasons.

I sort of closed myself off from the world for those couple of weeks because it felt tremendously demanding emotionally and physically ― I went into my own little cocoon. We were shooting a lot at night, so that kind of makes it easier to check out from the world a little bit because you’re working very bizarre hours. I’ve never done anything quite like this before, episodically speaking, where we built this history and this family. There’s so much familiarity between Milo and I now that it really did feel like I was mourning the death of someone. Entirely bizarre. A very, very unfamiliar feeling.

Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia as Rebecca and Jack Pearson on "This Is Us." 
Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia as Rebecca and Jack Pearson on "This Is Us." 

Rebecca Pearson is one of those television roles an actor waits for, and it came at a somewhat slow period for you in your career.

It’s not lost on me. Every day I’m grateful. I think we all are ― we had no idea what we were stumbling into in that regard. But, sure, it’s the natural ebb and flow of this crazy industry and being an actor. There are slow times and there are celebratory times, and up until the point where I found myself reading the script for this particular project, nothing could get firing.

I mean, I did three or four simultaneous pilot seasons with nary a job taking off and I was... not frustrated but sort of beside myself with just confusion as to what I wasn’t doing or what was wrong. I really seriously contemplated, maybe this is it. Maybe I had my moment and I was lucky to find some sense of success as a young person and that’s all that was in the cards for me. I was just ready to figure out what the next chapter was, because I just felt like I couldn’t get momentum going anywhere.

I was thinking about music, I was thinking about maybe going back to school and it coincided with real [exhale] ... I was going through a divorce [from singer-songwriter Ryan Adams] and the personal side of my life was a complete mess and I was heartbroken and honestly didn’t know which way was up. So “This Is Us” couldn’t have come along at a better time, because I don’t think I would’ve been ready for a job of this magnitude any sooner. I don’t think emotionally I would’ve had the capability to take it on. I don’t know if there was room for it in my life on a personal level before. It’s funny, when I started cleaning up all the other aspects of my life, the sun came back out again and this part came to fruition. It’s pretty crazy how that stuff works out sometimes.  

Is that the hardest part of being a singer and actor, facing those highs and lows that you experience in your career?

Yeah. [Laughs] It’s really not the fun part of the job. You know that it comes with the territory, but I think it sort of all piled on at a certain point in my life where I felt overwhelmed by it. The rejection and the personal side of my life firing ― it all felt like too much. Normally ― I’ve been doing this since I’m 15 ― I’m used to the narrative of you win some, you lose some. And it doesn’t normally knock me off, but I felt very discombobulated by it at that point. I feel like I’m in the wrong business in that sense, because I don’t feel competitive and I was never someone who looked at somebody else like, “I wish I had that.” I’m an honest believer in things happen for a reason and there’s room for everybody. But as an actor, it’s only natural to feel like, “That’s my last job, so! Better appreciate it while it’s happening!”

[Laughs] I may never be in this situation ever again.

I don’t think I would’ve been ready for a job of this magnitude any sooner. I don’t think emotionally I would’ve had the capability to take it on. Mandy Moore

To go from a teen pop star to a successful actress is not an easy feat, yet you pulled it off. How did you navigate that transition?

I think it’s because I didn’t have a tremendous amount of success musically speaking. It allowed people to maybe see me as an actor and not just as, say, Madonna on screen. Some of my other contemporaries, the nature of the degree of success that they had, it just made it that much more of a challenge to segue into another part of their careers without people automatically questioning them. In my sense, it was great because I wanted to be Bette Midler ― I wanted to do Broadway and music and television and movies and float between all of them and see what things I would be allowed to do. So although the music thing took off to a certain degree, it still gave me the freedom to kind of dip into different things.

You are the same Mandy Moore who toured with The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and grew up a pop princess. When you look back on those days, what do you remember?

[Laughs] Oh my gosh. It feels like a totally different life ― not even a different chapter, a different book! I just remember being excited and never overwhelmed by it. Finding success at a young age was probably better for me, because I would be overwhelmed by it now. I think I would question myself now. The older you get the more you feel like you haven’t risked, and when you’re young, you’re fearless. I would get onstage and open up for those guys in front of thousands of people screaming in an arena with glow sticks and I wouldn’t think anything of it. I was just excited to have an opportunity that I wouldn’t even think about being nervous. Now, getting up in front of a room full of 100 people gives me back sweat! I want to go back and hug that girl and ask her, “What’s the secret to being young and clueless?”

It was just a different world without social media and people following or documenting your every move and your every thought. I don’t know how young people do it nowadays, like navigate those waters. It’s a tough business, even tougher now than I think it was 15 years ago or whenever I started.

I recently spoke to some of the members of *NSYNC for their Walk of Fame ceremony and they said the same thing ― that they were lucky to have been youngsters in the business without social media.

It’s just a completely different world now, the music industry especially. It’s nothing like it was when I was first starting out. The influence of radio and MTV and music videos, all of that had the biggest say in whether or not you had a hit. It could make or break or alter the course of your career, and now I feel like none of those things really matter. People put out records themselves or release a single and a year later they’ll maybe put out a record. There are not the same sorts of rules, I guess.

Was that time in your life difficult at all? 

[Pauses] That’s a good question. Honestly, I feel like I had the best of both worlds. I was still regarded as a young person, and I had friends and relationships and went to the mall and the movies and out to dinner with my friends. I was able to live that life simultaneously with being very much in an adult world and having the responsibilities of an adult. I made decisions for myself, along with my parents and managers, but I always had the final say. I always felt like I was in control. Nobody ever made me do something against my will. I don’t know how I stumbled into that fortunate situation because you hear those horror stories and I just had a completely opposite experience. I was able to be a teenager and don’t feel like I missed out on any aspects of normal life, for someone going through all that at my age. It was different, yeah. I didn’t go to prom, I didn’t go to football games, I didn’t go to college. But I just had a different track and I always acknowledged that and was totally fine with it.

Were you nervous to take that leap into acting ― with the role in “Princess Diaries” and then “A Walk to Remember” ― and leave music behind for a little bit?

No. I guess because I knew music was always going to be a part of my life. I wasn’t selling tens of millions of records and I wasn’t torn by my self-image, so the machinery of a pop career wasn’t fully realized for me as it was for some of the other girls I was kind of compared to. And I really wanted to act. I grew up doing musical theater and, like I said, I loved Bette Midler and wanted to try it all. I was just lucky the door opened because of the music industry and I was able to go on auditions and take meetings with people and have opportunities that maybe, if I was just a regular actress at 15 or 16 starting out, I wouldn’t have been afforded with. So in that sense I recognize how lucky I was, but I was never nervous because I always knew I’d go back to music and it would always be there for me. And I did! I kept making records for the next couple of years. It’s just that I found more success with the acting side of things more immediately than the music.

And then finding a role in something like “Tangled” allowed you to mesh both those worlds.

More than that, being a Disney princess was my 6-year-old fantasy life realized. It still remains one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. It was so, so, so much fun.

Didn’t you win a Grammy for “I See The Light”?

I didn’t because I had no part in writing it, but Glenn Slater and Alan Menken, who wrote the song, won a Grammy. And we got to perform on the Oscars! All types of crazy bucket list things fulfilled because of that movie.

I wasn’t selling tens of millions of records and I wasn’t torn by my self-image, so the machinery of a pop career wasn’t fully realized for me as it was for some of the other girls I was kind of compared to. Mandy Moore

Speaking of award season, it’s coming back around beginning with the Emmys shortly. How do you mentally prepare? Are you someone who thinks about recognition in that way?

I go with the flow and if it happens it happens. I’m just flabbergasted to be in the conversation at all. It was never something that ever crossed my mind growing up, and even now it’s crazy. A win is getting a job and keeping a job. The fact that you’re a part of a show that has gone multiple seasons, statistically speaking, it’s so unheard of and so rare. 

How does it feel to be on a show that makes viewers cry and feel good at the same time?

[Laughs] It’s very humbling. We’re all very humbled that people are able to feel alive and be filled with emotion. It’s a really turbulent time in the world and we’re all really proud to be a part of something that is positive and culturally unifying. It helps us be reminded of the things we have in common and that the differences we may have are really what makes us unique. It’s overwhelmingly hopeful, cathartic entertainment. There’s not enough of that these days.

Do you think the anxiety-ridden time we’re living in right now helps a show like “This Is Us” succeed, as it addresses everything from miscarriage to death to strained familial relationships?

I imagine, yes. Timing is key for everything in life and I think our show found an audience at the right moment where people had a lot of mixed emotions and needed a place to put all of them. What better way to do that than to take an hour a week to really hold a mirror up to yourself and your life ― asking yourself the tough questions and revisiting things that maybe aren’t the most comforting. Push the bruise a little bit; maybe it hurts but it’s nice to know that you still feel something.  

Looking at yourself, what are the moments you revisit during the show that help you heal in a way?

It definitely makes me take a closer look at relationships with my own family and my own parents. You know, relationships I had, maybe the smaller moments in life where you start to doubt yourself and check yourself ― all of that. Just like a big melting pot. Not necessarily you sit there and ruminate on one particular part of your life ― it’s more like flipping through a photo album of all these different experiences that you had.

The actors of "This Is Us," winners of Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, pose at the Screen Actors&nb
The actors of "This Is Us," winners of Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, pose at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January.

As you think toward the future, what are some of the things you hope to do on the show ― and maybe even off it?

I’m open to whatever the show’s going to push me to do. I hope I get to cry a little bit less this season. [Laughs] Season 2 wiped me out! And I would love for music to still be a common thread in the show. I’d love to be able to sing with Chrissy and do a duet with her at some point. I wanna slap on those prosthetics and sing a song with her!

But in terms of the bigger picture, I’d love to do a musical on Broadway, I’d love to perhaps do a musical adaptation on film and I want to make more music in general, make another record. There’s a lot still that I want to do. I want to have a family and I want to make sure to have a good balance between the personal and professional.

A year back you said you were working on another album. Do you still have those songs ready to go in your back pocket?

Oh, yes! I still got all of the songs and I just have to figure out how and when and all the details. I feel like the show has opened up a whole new audience of people who didn’t know that I did music, so I got to get on it and strike while the iron’s hot!

This interview has been edited and condensed.