By Samantha Simon
Updated Nov 20, 2018 @ 10:15 pm
Credit: NBC

When it comes to a holiday episode, This Is Us never disappoints. And this week, fans of the NBC series got to see one of the Pearsons’ most unforgettable holidays yet: their last Thanksgiving with the family’s patriarch, Jack Pearson (played by Milo Ventimiglia). It’s an occasion that should come across as joyful — and it would, if viewers weren’t already painfully aware of the family tragedy set to occur just months later on Super Bowl Sunday. And according to Hannah Zeile, who portrays the teenage version of Chrissy Metz’s character, Kate Pearson, the episode’s significance wasn’t lost on the cast, either.

“It was definitely a bittersweet feeling when we were filming, because it's so prominent how important Jack is to his family and how much this family just loves and adores him,” says Zeile. “Of course, we know that this is one of the last moments that they're all going to have together, and that it’s Jack’s last Thanksgiving. And on top of that, we have Miguel over, who's struggling with his separation from his wife. He's feeling a little empty, because he sees how much Jack’s kids love him and he wishes he had that sort of family feeling.”

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

In true This Is Us fashion, the episode is a tearjerker, but it’s also meant to be a celebration of life. “I think there are a lot of really warm, beautiful moments that will probably remind you of happy traditions with your family,” says Zeile. “The last Thanksgiving episode we did was with the younger generation [of Pearsons], so it's exciting that we got to do the teenage generation now. But we do a lot of the traditions that you saw with the younger generation, like the 'Pilgrim Rick' hat. But also just because we do time travel in this show, we also know that, flash forward a little, and everything's kinda falling apart. So it's an emotional one, I think.”

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

For viewers, there’s certainly the underlying sadness of knowing what’s to come for the Pearsons. But Zeile prefers to focus on the more joyous aspects of the episode. “I'm just excited for everyone to see our generation have some happier and more lighthearted fun,” she says. “When we were on set, Niles [Fitch, who plays teen Randall], Mandy [Moore], and I were talking about how fun it is to just have some camaraderie and have some fun scenes rather than a lot of the darker stuff that we do.”

Zeile’s character in particular has been going through tough times this season. Now that we know exactly how Jack died —running into the family home, which was on fire, to save Kate’s dog — she’s been understandably depressed, and turning to food for comfort. “This season has obviously been different than last season now that we’ve revealed how Jack dies,” says Zeile. “Going into it, I knew that we would be dealing with having such an important member of the family gone. For Kate, when her father passed, that's when she started emotional eating. So, yeah, Kate is definitely going through it right now.”

To bring this physical transformation to life on Zeile takes time. “Working with prosthetics this season has been a cool experience,” she says. “I got to go do a whole-body cast to get a prosthetic chin and a whole suit. The chin itself takes about an hour and a half to put on. But that’s not bad — Mandy [Moore] has to sit for three hours or so for her aging makeup.”

We asked Zeile to give us an inside look at what it’s really like on set when filming an episode of This Is Us. Scroll down for her exclusive photo diary for InStyle.

Home Base

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“Our trailers are all in one, so it's like ‘Teen Kate’ and then next door is ‘Teen Randall’ and then ‘Teen Kevin.’ So this is what the outside looks like. Chrissy's trailer just says ‘Kate,’ so then I'm ‘Teen Kate.’"

Total Transformation

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“Since this episode flashes back to before Jack died, my hair is curled. In the episodes after Jack has passed, Kate's hair is straight. The change in her hair is really just part of building onto how Kate has kind of let herself go. She doesn't really have motivation anymore, because her dad was her world. Those are just details that add on to the whole effect. Getting into character is a full transformation, and altogether it takes about two and a half hours. The last thing I do is put in my contacts; my eyes are brown, but Chrissy's are blue. It's the same with the younger version of Kate, as well. We both have brown eyes, so we wear blue contacts. Both younger versions of Kevin have blue eyes, so they actually wear brown contacts. We always joke that we look like huskies with only one contact in.”

First Act

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“Honestly, we don’t get the script that far in advance of filming the episode. It’s probably a week beforehand. Every time a new draft is made, because something was edited, we get a new copy. That’s the reason that this one is pink — it’ll be a white one and then a blue one, and then this was the pink one. They’re always printed and left in our trailer for us, so when I came to set, they actually have the full printed copy waiting. I just study on my iPad when I'm at home. We get the script for the whole episode — they give us little sides that are just the scenes we’ll be filming that day — but I have to be so careful with it. When I'm done with the script, I have to shred it. I can't leave it anywhere. They're so top secret with everything, so I definitely have to guard it. Plus, my name is watermarked across the script, so if I accidentally let it out, it wouldn't be a big surprise who did it!”

Style Central

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“This is the wardrobe trailer. There's also a whole wardrobe department building where we do the actual fittings, and that’s where they keep everything that needs to be brought in and out of the trailer. Instead of doing a fitting per episode, we usually do one big fitting towards the beginning of the season. So Teen Kate already has her own closet, and then the wardrobe team can just pick through all the things that we already know we like.”

Ready to Roll

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“This is me in costume. You can see a little bit of the inside of my trailer here; there's a mirror, couch, TV, and microwave. I'm really good at napping, so I usually just nap in there when I'm waiting to film.”

Puppy Love

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“In the show, Kate’s dog is Louie. But his real name is actually Zeke. He's so awesome — I'm always amazed at how well trained this dog is. He hits all his marks, and he always performs perfectly. He's a super popular guy on set. Everyone loves when Zeke's on set! It’s a reminder of the family’s happier times. Even while we were filming this episode, we were joking around and I remember Mandy being like, ‘Well, here's one of the few happy times we have together.’ Because we're always filming such dark stuff.”

Inside Jokes

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“This is me with Niles and Logan [Shroyer] just hanging out in our chairs before we were called onto set. Niles had actually been laying across us for a video, and then I shoved him off. We were all just laughing at us being goofy, which is typical. We're always laughing. Whenever we’re not filming, we're either at our chairs or probably, most likely, at craft services.”

Family Ties

Credit: Courtesy Hannah Zeile

“Other than Zeke being around, another sign of the flashbacks to another time is when Kevin's still in his cast. In this picture, I'm actually wearing the ‘Pilgrim Rick’ hat from their Thanksgiving tradition. All of us were just hanging out while Randall reads us his college essay, so we're his audience. And no, I didn't ask [Milo] to do a peace sign! I was just holding it to take a selfie, and then he threw up the peace sign, as well. I didn't even notice until I looked back on the photo!”