'This Is Us': Justin Hartley on Kevin's Painful Breakdown & the Jack Scene That Crushed His Soul (Exclusive)

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Photo: NBC

Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Number One.” If you have, you may continue…

The first of three This Is Us episodes focusing on The Big Three put the spotlight squarely on Kevin -- and a trip to the glory days of his past became all but a nightmare.

Simply titled “Number One,” a reference to Kevin’s standing in the Pearson family as the first-born sibling, the first to walk and the first to kiss a girl, the former star quarterback returned to the Pittsburgh high school where he once ruled the hallways to collect an innocuous award (one he didn’t even want) honoring his life accomplishments. Deep in an alcoholic and drugged-out stupor, Kevin did everything he could to downplay his achievements, telling everyone in his speech (after hallucinating visions of his father, Jack) he wasn’t “worthy” of the recognition, all of which fell on deaf ears.

But that wasn’t the only moment of weakness for Kevin, who had an instance of self-doubt on the football field, the same one he’d ended his playing career on, as he laid into himself over all the second, third, fourth chances he’s blown in his life. Or the crushing breakdown at the end of the episode, after Kevin lost the only tangible thing he has left of his father. 

Ahead of Tuesday’s episode, ET jumped on the phone with Justin Hartley for a deep dive into Kevin’s desperate pleas for help, sharing a scene with Milo Ventimiglia for the first time, the significance of losing Jack’s necklace and that life-changing Kate development.

ET: How did you prepare for this episode?

Justin Hartley: I talked to people who have gone through it, heard their story and where they are now. It’s no joke. It’s like knocking on death’s door and bringing it on yourself. It’s a self-loathing moment. He’s depressed. He’s addicted. He’s wanting to inflict pain on himself in some way. It’s a really unbelievably dark, horrible, lonely moment. When you hear these stories, they hit home. A few of my friends have told me their personal stories and you have your heart beating out of your chest every time you hear your friends talk about this lonely moment that they were in, and you can see it on their face and they’re on the brink of breaking down. It’s hard not to have that affect you and want to tell a truthful story that’s meaningful and impactful about things that a lot of people are suffering from right now. I also went to a pretty dark place to get ready for it. We asked our audience to do that -- come along and ride with us, cry with us, and be emotional with us. It’s a heavy, heavy show. The least we can do is meet you there.

You mentioned Kevin’s depression. Is there a moment from his past -- Jack’s death, his career-ending knee injury -- where this all may be stemming from?

I think it’s a mountain of sh*t that has built up over the course of his life -- all of these horrible things that have happened. The fact that Kevin probably had a football scholarship on his way and then boom, his knee goes. He did have a great girl and boom, he messes it up. One thing after another, after another, after another. When his knee went, that was the moment where he couldn’t deliver on the promise that he made to his dad. Also, his dad dying when he did, they never had a chance to hash that out. Kevin never had a chance to say to him the things he wanted to say about his father’s alcoholism and how he made him feel. You go through these steps and I don’t know if there was a moment when they [got bad]. There’s probably guilt that Kevin feels about not being there for his father now that he’s gotten older and you look at things through a different lens. I don’t know if there’s one particular moment, but I know the style he goes about dealing with those big moments is to bury it and not talk about it and handle on its own, that style doesn’t lend itself to getting better, it lends itself to getting worse. Now we see him at a breaking point.

Photo: NBC

There seem to be clues suggesting that Kevin has lingering resentment and anger toward his dad. There’s a specific line where he says, almost bitterly, that he was able to walk again after his knee injury “just in time to bury his father.” What is your perspective on Kevin’s feelings toward Jack?

I think life didn’t go according to plan. Especially in this episode, and Logan [Shroyer] did a fantastic job, when you look at what Kevin is doing as a teen, he’s lashing out a little bit. He’s saying things for effect. He almost wants his dad to get pissed at him, so they can hash this whole thing out. Never in a million years would you think, “My dad is going to die, so I don’t have time to act this way.” He did everything for his dad, to try to be No. 1 and all this kind of stuff because that’s what his dad wanted and that’s who his dad was. To find out that his dad wasn’t the person who he proclaimed that he was, yeah, you would love to think that Kevin would have thrown his arms around his dad and been like, “I will be here for you.” But instead, he felt betrayal -- he’s almost 17 -- and he felt embarrassed, and he felt guilt for feeling that way. It’s a very, very difficult situation. It would have been wonderful if you could sit and say, “Man, I’m sorry,” but unfortunately Jack is dead. He’s not here, so you can’t say that and so you hold that guilt with you. In Kevin’s style, instead of talking about that guilt, he buries it, which makes it worse.

Let’s break down a few key moments. First, there’s the speech Kevin’s former high school coach gives honoring his accomplishments that turns into Kevin hallucinating Jack speaking proudly of his son and how “strong” he is -- though Kevin doesn’t believe it himself. What did you make of that scene?

That’s the one thing that Kevin probably wanted to hear from his father. I’m sure there were many moments where Jack told him how proud he was, but if he could just hear it… (Pauses for a second.) It’s so heartbreaking. It’s hard for me to even talk about because you’re like, “Man, if I could hear it one more time.” This was one of the things I was thinking about during that particular scene -- Kevin’s definitely drunk and he’s on drugs and he’s hallucinating -- but he’s seeing his father say “that kid is tough as hell” and I remember hearing a story about this man whose wife passed away unexpectedly; it was tragic and fast. He would call his wife just to hear her voicemail over and over again. He started leaving messages on the voicemail and it would be like his therapy and he would do that over and over and over again. Then, the voicemail was full so he would continue to call just to hear her voice. But eventually, he called the number and somebody picked up. That’s got to be the worst [feeling] in the world. To be in that place where you’re hallucinating -- I didn’t want to make it about the drugs -- and you’re imagining your father saying this one thing one more time. I also heard another story, and I was thinking about this as I was doing the scene as well, where people forget what people look like in memory so they need to reach for photos because they’re horrified that they won’t remember what they looked like or sounded like or what their breath smelled like or how their laugh sounded. These are horrible things that we all deal with in life, but nobody talks about. It’s strange, isn’t it? 

Yeah, it is.

I ended up in a really deep place with you. Sorry!

That was also the first time you shared a scene with your TV dad, Milo Ventimiglia. Was this the ideal moment for you guys to finally get to act opposite each other?

I was a little disappointed with his rule; he said, “Everyone else can look me in the eye except Justin.” I thought that was a little rude, but other than that… No, I’m kidding! I’ve long been an admirer of his work, especially on this show, and I’ve always said that’s the one thing that bums me out, [is] that I don’t get to work with Milo. We finally got to do a scene together and it was done in a really great way. The writers came up with something that was wonderful and I don’t think it was done for the sake of us working together as much as it was for good storytelling. Selfishly, as an actor, it was cool to work with Milo. That was neat.

Another standout moment was Kevin’s big meltdown at the end of the episode when he’s crying out for help and pleading for someone to help him. Was that as emotionally draining as it looked to film? 

Now that I’m talking to you about it, I’m a little disturbed by the fact at how easy that was for me. (Laughs.) Here’s the thing though, I’m a very emotional guy -- maybe not emotional as I am a sensitive guy. I get Kevin and I love Kevin and I really, really do want great things for him. To read what’s going on with him and have to do that and walk through it and actually live it, if you’re doing what you say you’re doing on stage, no one is able to say that you’re not doing it. But that means you have to do it. He does everything he can. He’s literally told people, “Don’t love me. I want you to help me,” yet people applaud and cheer -- no one’s listening to him. People want to see what they want to see. What a horrible, lonely experience that would be and we just went there [in the scene]. I trusted everyone around me; I’ve got great writers, a great director, a great cinematographer, great editors, [creator] Dan [Fogelman]’s vision and everyone went there together.

Why does Kevin turn to Randall for help? Is he that person for Kevin?

Yeah. Jack would’ve been the guy, but he’s dead. Do you think Kate would be like, “OK, let’s get a handle on this drug problem that you have, you’re obviously a drug addict”? Or do you think Kate would be like, “You’re not a drug addict. It’s fine. We’ll get over it the same way Dad got over it”? She’ll enable it. I think Randall would say, “OK, let’s send you to a hospital.” That’s what Kevin’s thinking. I don’t know if that would actually happen, because it didn’t work out that way. In my mind’s eye, that’s why he went to Randall and not Kate.

He seemed to be ready take the next step and tell Randall what’s been going on with him, until Randall breaks some unfortunate news about Kate. Is Kevin ready to face his issues head on? Is he ready to go rehab or therapy?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. Without giving you any spoilers, I will tell you that it’s not in Kevin’s personality to reach out and ask for help. It’s Kevin’s personality to bury things and try to deal them on his own. I know people who have gone through this kind of thing and this is not something that you can possibly kick on your own. You need a group, you need help. For him to think that he can kick this on his own is a bit much.

Photo: NBC

The meaning behind Jack’s prized necklace that Kevin wears also explained how significant his father was in his life. We learn from Jack that it symbolizes “purpose” and that he received it during a period in his life when he was lost, assuring a teenage Kevin that he would find his purpose too. When Kevin loses the necklace, can that be read as a metaphor for him losing his purpose in life?

You are so smart! That is exactly right. There’s that scene in the hospital where Jack gives Kevin the necklace and he explains what the symbol means and he tells his story about where he was when he got the necklace. He doesn’t say who gave it to him. He doesn’t say what exactly happened, but he says what frame of mind he was in when someone gave him the necklace. Kevin wears this thing throughout his entire life and he leans on it, this physical object that reminds him of that moment that he has with his father. In a strange way, it’s him reminding himself on a daily basis that there is something else out there. His dad told him. And then he loses that and it’s like he’s lost his purpose. 

I really hope he finds the necklace!

I do too! I love how jacked up you are about this storyline. I love this. This is great.

When Randall breaks the news that Kate lost her baby, what is going on in Kevin’s head at that moment?

Whether or not he makes the right decision, he leads with his heart. When he gets that information, the first thing that goes through his mind is shame and disappointment and hating himself for not being there for his sister. He didn’t even know. The one time she really did need him, he was MIA and drowning in his own problems. It’s complete shame [on his part].

That scene in particular also seemed to cement that Kevin’s present-day problems are “less than” or brushed aside when it comes to the family. Is that an accurate read?

That’s what it is. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. He has a massive depression and an addiction. This man’s on a bad path and when I say a bad path, I’m not talking about he’s going to do more pills. These people don’t live very long, but yet it’s this familiar pattern of this has to wait and somebody else always has the microphone.

The state of Kevin and Sophie’s relationship is also in peril, after he breaks her heart by saying a future with her is “a nightmare” and that he’s saving her from “40 years of disappointment.” Why does he believe he’s incapable of being a father or a husband?

He’s afraid. Remember, he has the knowledge of what his father left his mom with and if he is his father’s son: “I’ve seen this story before and it doesn’t end well.” He truly believes that she deserves a better person than him and he starts to go down that hole where he believes he’s not a good person. That’s the only time things start to become clear to him: Maybe I’m not a good person. Now it all makes sense. That’s why everything falls apart all the time, because I’m not good. When he’s in bed with Charlotte and she tells him he’s a good person, he’s confused. He’s lost his identity. Is he trying to be the villain? Is he trying to figure out who he really is and get back to that person he believes is good at heart? I believe he is. Or is he trying to redefine himself? He’s also doing this under a cloud of alcohol and drugs. It’s a horrible place to try to operate from.

If Jack were still alive, what would Kevin want to tell him, ask him, say to him? What is he seeking from Jack that no one else can provide?

Gosh. There’s a reason why you’re not supposed to bury your kids and there’s a reason why you’re supposed to be an old man when you bury your parents. There’s a lifetime of knowledge and love… (Trails off.) I think of things that happened six Christmases ago that were impactful to me in my personal life between me and my parents and if I would’ve lost my mom or my dad when I was that age, how different everything would be. It’s too hard to put into one question. I don’t know if there is a question. Jack never got to see Kevin be a successful actor. He never got to see him work on this movie with [Sylvester] Stallone. He never got to see him repair his relationship with Randall. There are so many things that he’s holding onto that he’s never dealt with or tried to deal with. It’s probably too much than just one question. I don’t even know what that would be.

What was the most gut-wrenching scene for you to film?

I always say this to people when ask, do you cry on set too? I always tell people, yeah! If I’m asking you to watch a show that I’m in and feel the things that the characters are feeling, then damn, I feel like that’s the least that I can do is to walk through that. The scene on the football field was [tough] -- there were a couple of moments where it was hard to talk because I was crying. The necklace scene, that was another one. There was a moment with Charlotte where she said, “You were nice to me,” that was really difficult. So much of it. It was a deep dive. It’s a labor of love and I enjoyed every minute. I’m so happy that they trusted me with this episode. I’m really proud of it.

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Tell us your thoughts by tweeting Philiana Ng at @insidethetube!

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.