How 'This Is Us' Is Teaching Justin Hartley to Slow Down (Exclusive)
Justin Hartley has just gotten off a weekly Zoom call with hisThis Is Us family when we connect over the phone on a late Friday morning in June. Since quarantine began in earnest in March, he and his co-stars have made it a point to check in regularly, especially during this time of uncertainty and unrest. Those virtual catch-ups -- an idea Hartley casually threw out one day because he was “missing everybody” -- have been cathartic, illuminating and a welcome respite; conversations range from lighthearted banter about life in lockdown to serious matters like the state of the country.
“We talk more as a cast now than we have in any other hiatus… It’s a check-in with people who have become some of my dearest friends over the past four-plus years and who I’ve gotten to know pretty well,” he says. “But I miss hugs and I miss laughing with people and ‘cheers’-ing people and pats on the back. I miss contact with people.”
Hartley has spent the majority of quarantine in his Los Angeles, California, home with his 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, and recovering from arm surgery (“Everything is going to be totally fine, it’s just a frickin’ annoying thing that needed to happen”). While the 43-year-old actor steered clear of any talk of his personal life amid divorce proceedings with Selling Sunset’s Chrishell Stause, whom he separated from in 2019, he’s found himself more introspective and reflective about what’s important.
“I try really hard not to take things for granted, but you end up doing that anyway just out of, I guess, human nature,” Hartley says. “Even going to New York on a press tour or on vacation, something like this happens and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute.’ It’s been interesting to say the least.” He pauses, making a small admission. “I’m getting a little cabin fever-ish. I’m ready to… I would like to go back to work.”
There’s no telling when it will be deemed safe for L.A. productions to begin filming again, much less This Is Us, which normally returns from its break by mid-July to kick-start another 18-episode run. That won’t be happening this year. Until it is safe to go back on set, Hartley is content looking back on his journey to this point on NBC’s tearjerker hit, the most recent fourth season a culmination of years of buildup for his character, Kevin Pearson. Arguably the one with the fullest arc on display in season 4, Hartley’s Kevin was forced to confront a lifetime of veering off track and had to finally do something about it in the end.
“This past season was about Kevin not discovering so much that he needed to deal with these skeletons -- his ex-wife, his father dying, the substance abuse, the mental health issues he had in his career, his lack of confidence and where that came from -- as much as it was about, ‘Okay, all those things are in my life and I’m aware of it, but how am I going to now deal with it? Because ignoring it wasn’t working,’” Hartley observes. “And being aware of himself, being aware of his shortcomings, being okay with it, being comfortable in his own skin and admitting that sometimes he doesn’t have it and that he does need help.”
Navigating Kevin’s ups and downs the past four years has been a tricky balance for Hartley, who’s been asked to dig deep in order to inhabit someone in the throes of a debilitating alcohol addiction one season and desperate to piece together his dad’s mysterious past in another. Kevin’s road to self-discovery and self-acceptance has been ugly and with its jagged edges, but Hartley’s ability of locking the character away at the end of an emotionally charged day is what keeps him clear-eyed and focused when he’s in the thick of it. “I can’t come home and just stew -- and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway,” he says, distancing himself from the character he portrays. “I’m a very happy guy. I’m always joking around. I try not to take myself too seriously -- and a lot of that has to be checked at the stage door when I go to work.” That same mentality has seeped into his own life as well. “If I’m actually doing what I say I’m doing and I don’t distance myself from what Kevin’s going through while I’m at work, when you leave it all out there like that, it makes it easier for me to enjoy the ride home. He and I have the same height and weight, but he deals with his life in a completely different way than I deal with mine.”
Hartley zeroes in on the season’s 12th episode, where Kevin attends the funeral of ex-wife Sophie’s mother, Claire, a person who was always in his corner. In a flash of self-examination, he confesses at her grave that he screwed everything up; if only he had one more chance, he’d do things differently with Sophie. It’s a poignant moment of clarity for Kevin, a character who’s struggled with making decisions that could fuel his own happiness. “That was amazing to me, how someone can have that kind of reflection,” he marvels. “That will always stick with me. Before I got to set, I had it in my mind how the scene was going to look. Then I showed up and it ended up being a completely different performance than I thought it was going to be. If you’re listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth, you can’t help but get your heart ripped out when he says, ‘I wish I had another crack at it.’ I mean, that’s devastating.”
The kicker, though, was the season 4 finale, which set Kevin on a surprising path to fatherhood (more on that later) and unraveled a brotherhood. Kevin and Randall’s seasonlong feud may have started as a disagreement over how best to take care of their mother’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease, but quickly imploded into a fight over opposing viewpoints on life -- Randall, clinging onto the idea that if he could help Rebecca, their problems would go away; Kevin, subscribing to the notion that her remaining years be spent with family. And when Kevin snarls to Randall that the day he became a Pearson as a young boy was the “worst day of his life,” you really can’t come back from that. “There was some nasty, nasty s**t that was said,” Hartley concedes, agreeing that the brothers’ relationship is irrevocably changed. “They have a difficult history, but time and space sometimes heals things. I don’t know if you’d come back necessarily from that -- back to where you were before -- but I think it can be repaired.”
Hartley says the weight of that climactic scene with Sterling K. Brown wasn’t lost on either performer. “When we read that in the script, we were like, this is another level. They’re both planting the flag in the ground and being like, ‘This is my territory. If I never talk to you again, I never talk to you again. This is how I feel and this is what it is.’ It’s also decades of built-up resentment and anger, and the worst part, a lot of it was true,” he acknowledges. “You’re really hitting close to home and you know you’re doing damage, and you just keep diving in. That’s cruel. They were both cruel to each other.”
Executive producer and co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger praised Hartley’s performance in the closing hour as a standout of the series. “It was easy when the series began to write him off as this gorgeous face on the show and not necessarily one of the heavy hitters. I think season by season everyone realized, ‘Wait, we better take this guy seriously because he is really showing up here,’” she says. “Our finale this past season, where you have that big fight between him and Randall, both of them knocked it out of the park, and it's just one example of Justin showing up and absolutely killing it, which he does for us every single episode.” Berger’s colleague, co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker, echoed her sentiments, challenging anyone to see the ex-soap star in a new light. “It's like Elizabeth said, he's so handsome, it's easy to write him off as the dreamboat TV actor. But, he has such depth and such skill and nuance that he's found in this character.”
As for Kevin’s love life, his declaration to Kate's friend, Madison, that he is “all in” for their children, represents his acceptance that the plan he had drawn up more than likely won’t happen. “That was him realizing, for the first time in his life, that he’s not going to put himself first. This great love he’s been looking for has dimmed over the years and has caused him a lot of heartache and problems -- not only for himself but other people. I think he’s starting to realize that he’s not designed for that kind of true, romantic love story his dad had with his mom like he always thought,” Hartley notes. “He’s shifting a little bit. That’s a bold statement, but I think he’s on the right track.” But does his heart break a little for Kevin sacrificing the possibility of one day achieving unabashed happiness? “It’s heartbreaking,” he admits, “but also, in a way, sort of freeing. He’s finding something new. Talk about manning up. Good for him.”
If there’s one thing that’s come out of the This Is Us experience, outside of the acclaim and the barrage of theories borne out of the most miniscule detail, it’s a shift in perspective. “I think the show, in general, has slowed me down a bit,” he considers. “My daughter is 16, but when I started the show she was 12. I’m going to blink and she’s going to be 21 or 22 and gone, so I better savor those moments and slow it down. We’ve taken trips. We’ve had talks. I think it makes me more aware of just how fast these times go by and how precious they really are. The show has done that for me in a really good way.”
With season 5 around the eventual corner, Hartley -- like the rest of his castmates -- knows “quite a bit” about what awaits the Pearson clan. “We’re keeping up the momentum, for sure,” he promises. “Our show is at our best when we’re talking about real-life things that real-life people are going through that are hard and that are not going away anytime soon: mental health, sexuality, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, marriage, death. As long as we continue to tackle those topics that are truthful, honest and relevant, that’s when we’re at our best. And from what I’m gathering, it’s going to be a hell of a season.”
ET’s “Standout Performances” recognizes the best of the 2019-2020 TV season. See more of our favorites below:
James Marsden Gambled on 'Dead to Me,' Now He's Reaping the Rewards
Matthew Macfadyen on 'Succession' and the Secret to Tom (Exclusive)
Jerrika Hinton Talks Emotional 'Hunters' Role and Changes in Hollywood
Why Hollywood Needs to Start Taking Rosie O’Donnell Seriously