The actor opens up to ET about the biggest moments from Tuesday's emotional episode and that shocking surprise.
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, titled "A Hell of a Week: Part Two."
"It's the ending everybody wants and nobody will see it coming..."
The theme of endings was prominent in Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, the second part of this season's Big Three trilogy, which focused its attention on Kevin as he traveled back to his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to attend the funeral of Sophie's mom, Claire (guest star Jennifer Westfeldt), after she died from multiple sclerosis. Kevin and Sophie's (Alexandra Breckenridge) reunion was fraught with unfinished business, bringing up a slew of questions about their decades-spanning romance and revealing just how far Kevin's own (sometimes rocky) relationship with grief has come.
After all, there was a reason Sophie turned to Kevin instead of her own fiance, the faceless Grant, for comfort. He'd been through it before with the sudden death of his father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), years prior. So when Kevin took Sophie back to the site of the bonfire they went to as teens the night he'd learn his dad died (after a screening of Good Will Hunting cut unceremoniously short), the exes -- each other's first loves, high school sweethearts, life-long soulmates -- had their deepest heart-to-heart in a long time. "This place still makes me sad, but I'm not afraid of it anymore," Kevin says to Sophie, who's struggling to move on after losing her mom and unsure how she can frequent their favorite coffee shop without her. "You're going to be able to go back to that coffee shop, Soph, you will. Just take some time."
The two decide to finish Good Will Hunting, the ending better than Kevin could've ever imagined. While things ended on a positive note for Kevin and Sophie, Kevin made a knee-jerk decision to visit Kate -- only she wasn't home with baby Jack, someone else was, leading us to another surprising revelation. Following the episode, which co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger called "nostalgic," ET spoke with Justin Hartley about Kevin's breakthrough, if this is the end of Kevin and Sophie's story, the surprising reveal of the mystery woman in bed with Kevin (seriously, Madison?!) and more.
ET: You've had such rich moments to play this season as Kevin. What has been the most satisfying part of being on Kevin's journey so far this year?
Justin Hartley: I think probably for me, specific to satisfied, I like the idea that we're seeing him grow and we're seeing he's a flawed human being. He doesn't do everything right all the time. We see him getting better. We see him trying and you see this guy who's got a plan, he's got a focus, he's trying and we see how good he is. He's actually starting to realize things that he's good at, which is kind of nice. He took appreciating himself a little more than he ever did, which is so good to see.
A lot of the attention has been on your storyline and the mystery surrounding who Kevin's pregnant fiancee is. How surprised are you by the fan intrigue surrounding that new mystery?
That's the beautiful part of what these writers do. The way that they structure the show and how they decide to tell our stories is... you see something and you get a taste of something that you want and then you go, "Oh, I like that. I want that for that character." Then you go on a journey with them and try to get all of that stuff; you are there with them. It's been amazing, it's been great. I really love the fact that Kevin finally has a plan or an idea of what he wants his life to be. He's going to go for it, be brave about it and understand that he's going to trip and fall along the way, but see what happens. I don't think he's going to leave anything out there. He's going to go for it and be like, "This is all of me and whatever happens, happens." I really dig that about him.
Kevin definitely goes "all in" when it comes to every aspect of his life.
Very much like Jack.
Let's dive into tonight's episode because this is your hour. First of all, did you have to prepare yourself emotionally for the weight of these scenes?
For me, it was a heartbreak. Here's this guy who, at specific times during the episode, has everything he ever wanted, everything he wants, everything he wished for within an arm's length of him physically. And also, the heartbreak is he had it and he blew it. Watching this guy at the grave site talking to Sophie's mom and explaining what it is that happened, he's talking to himself as well and I feel like he's allowing himself to forgive himself. That's one of the things that we didn't see Kevin do before because he never forgave himself. He was always beating himself up. He was always perceived as a clown and we're starting to realize that this his waters run deep and he's a deep thinker and he's very thoughtful. He's a deep one.
And you didn't realize that in season one, I think. Now you're like, Oh Jesus, he really does think about things, care about other people and starting to care about himself, which is nice. I thought it was a really beautiful moment when he talks to Sophie [in the car], and when you're watching it, you almost want them to kiss, but then you're like, It's a little dirty. You can't do that, she's engaged! He's already broken her heart a couple of times. But he does the gentlemanly thing and he doesn't; they act like adults -- the way people should act -- and nothing happens. But that is the love of his life so far. She was there when his dad died and he's sitting here watching this woman go through this thing that is such a familiar, awful thing that he went through that you wouldn't wish on anyone.
Before we get to that conversation between Sophie and Kevin in the car, do you think Kevin is in a much healthier place mentally and emotionally when he decides to be there for Sophie?
Yeah, I think he's a little more self-aware. He's always been self-aware, but even more so now than he was. I think he's looking at the way his life has gone, the people that he's encountered, the friends that he's had, the relationships that he has had, the women he has met and the common denominator? Like, none of them have worked. It's him. Initially he goes in the scene like, I'm the problem, right? I'm the f**king problem. I think he's realizing that maybe people do change. Maybe people do grow up, you know? And maybe he can learn from his mistakes and actually be a better person and then forgive himself and be OK. I think it's a beautiful story. I keep going back to how we found him when the series started and where he is now. It's like, wow, what a journey. What a complete journey.
I feel like Kevin's covered the most ground in terms of growth from the pilot to where we are now. It's astounding at times.
Yeah, I think so too. I remember the writers telling me, and [creator] Dan [Fogelman] specifically saying at the very beginning of the show, "The journey who makes the most distance in between, like where we find him with a series and where it ends up when the series is over is probably Kevin." And I thought, "Wow, that's interesting." Let's see where this goes. But I do agree with you. He has changed so much and for the better, right? We've literally seen this guy grow up right in front of our very eyes. Most people grow up when they're in their teens. He took a little longer to kind of start the process. But he's doing it and it's beautiful.
Let's break down that conversation in the car because Kevin returning to the place where his "childhood ended" is triggering. Was that the most difficult scene for you to film in regards to keeping your emotions in check?
Alex is an amazing actor, so it wasn't difficult. It's interesting, it is difficult in the sense that the work is hard, the show is hard. When you're acting with somebody like that, who has literally given you everything they have, it makes it a lot easier. You forget about everything that's going on around you. She's such a gifted actor that it really does make my job a hell of a lot easier. Honestly. I've always had this motto -- it's not mine, I stole it but it makes sense to me -- "If you want to be believable as an actor, then why don't you just do what you say you're doing. If you do what you say you're doing, then no one's ever going to be able to tell you they don't believe you because you're doing it." There's no acting. And so that's my approach.
You touched on this a little bit, but there seemed to be a moment of regret for Kevin in that moment. Does he regret how things played out between him and Sophie -- that they didn't get their "happy ending"?
That's the heartbreak of the whole thing... timing is everything. People say that all the time and if he wold have met that woman six months ago, a year ago, I think they would have a different relationship. He would have been able to handle things a little differently. He's changed and he's grown and that's what he was saying to Sophie's mom at the grave site. It's like, man, timing really was... it was off. He did the best that he could and he did everything he knew how to do and he just couldn't figure it out. And now he's ready. But yeah, that was tough. I just kept thinking about this guy sitting there, having everything that he ever wanted right there next to him. But he can't have it because he ruined it. That's just heartbreaking, isn't it? It's devastating.
Is this the end of Kevin and Sophie's story? I understand that Sophie is engaged to Grant, but curious if this essentially closed the door on their romantic future.
(Obviously joking.) Yes. We're going to kill her. We're going to kill her off! In keeping with true This Is Us fashion, I would never close any door. There are several times throughout the series where I've been like, Oh my God, they just wrote this person into a corner... Sure enough, here we go, the next episode, I'm like, Oh, well, of course this is a beautiful story and I'm an idiot. I didn't see that happening. I wouldn't say it's the end. I wouldn't say that [Kevin's pregnant fiancee] is going to be Sophie. I think we've left it in a way where we'll see what happens. As long as it's an authentic story that makes sense and it's not too far-fetched, anything's possible. There are people that could come back into his life from the past that he's been with before. I think he could find a new person. I think the possibilities are endless. It just depends on what the story they want to tell is authentic and makes sense.
On a lighter note, there's like a moment at Claire's grave site where Kevin goes back and takes the signed headshot he gave her when he was younger. He says something like, "I can't leave that there. It's super weird." Please tell me that was ad-libbed.
No! That was in the script. That's why when you look at that frame, when Kevin Hooks directed that we were talking about it and he's like, "I'm going to shoot the wide. I'm going to let you walk out of frame and then whenever you're ready, hustle back in there and grab that thing. I'm not even going to move the camera." That's why you just stay on the grave, right? It's like he left, he left, he left... there he is again! I think it's a funny moment.
I laughed so hard at that little tag.
Right? You're crying and then you feel like s**t and then all of a sudden that happens and you're laughing through your tears. That's what our show does.
Let's fast-forward a little to the end of the episode, which answered a mini mystery over the woman in bed with Kevin. What was your reaction when you read that it was Kate's friend, Madison?
It surprised me, but I also think it's one of those things where they both hit a rock bottom and they both hit a rock bottom today and she's saying these things about herself that are so sad. She can't find a guy to commit, you know? And he just spent the day with Sophie and it was almost like the perfect storm, right? I mean, that's an interesting thing... and I don't think you should be sleeping with your sister's best friend, but...
So they did sleep together?
You think maybe Kevin slept on the sofa?
This show has trained me to ask about even the most obvious questions because until someone confirms it or a character says it, it's all assumptions, right?
I think what you see is him in [bed]. He's in her bed. He has his shirt off in the bedroom and she's sleeping. I think you got to assume that something happened.
The thought did cross my mind, especially in the winter premiere, that maybe Madison plays a key part in Kevin's journey to finding the one. Or maybe she is the pregnant fiancee. What is your take on them? Could they actually work? Why is Kevin so messy?!
(Laughs.) I don't know. We'll see what happens. I don't think our show would do something like that, show you something like that and then not tell a story to go along with it. I'm sure that'll be readdressed.
The theme of endings not playing out the way you thought or hoped for was a running theme this episode. It's even said, "It's the ending everybody wants and nobody will see it coming..." Could that mantra be applied to Kevin's storyline this season and the mystery surrounding the pregnant fiancee?
I wonder... I think that you're picking up on something. Look, there's a purpose for every character and every line, every word that [the writers] put on the page. So, yeah, I mean, I think you can look at it that way for sure, but it's going to take time to tell the story to the end.
I was devastated for Kevin when Lizzie turned out to be a terrible human being. Did your heart drop when it came out that she was married and Kevin was her "hall pass"?
Oh yeah. Think about that. It's humiliating, it's embarrassing. It's not even so much embarrassing what she did to him, [it's] embarrassing that he actually thought that he was falling in love with someone that he just met an hour or two hours ago. I mean, what is he, a child? He let himself do it and I think he was embarrassed for himself. What a kick in the pants. (Laughs.)
It's been alluded that Sophia Bush may be coming back at some point. How can Lizzie be redeemed if she returns or is it more complicated than we know right now?
It's a little more complicated. There are many things that could happen to tell a story of her coming back. Again, it would have to be something authentic and something believable, and not just for the sake of bringing her back. I don't think she would want to do that anyway.
Have you been keeping tabs on fan theories about the Kevin mystery and who the woman is?
I haven't really, not recently. I haven't really been online much. What are some of the theories?
Some have said Cassidy, Sophie, Madison and one of the craziest ones I saw was Deja's mom.
Deja's mom? (Laughs.) Why not? I think all of those are possible. I like the idea that they plant those seeds and then you wonder who it could be, but whoever it's going to be, it's going to be the right ending.
This Is Us returns Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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