Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson—one of the siblings This Is Us centers on—spoke to TV Drama’s Anna Carugati about the series’ success.
The NBC family drama This Is Us was one of last season’s biggest breakout hits. This year, the show has landed the coveted post-Super Bowl slot. The series has delivered audiences an abundance of laughs, cries and twists, and its ensemble cast has earned much praise (as well as accolades).
TV DRAMA: Why do you think the show has touched so many people?
HARTLEY: It’s become like everyone’s personal anthem. The characters are so diverse on the show and they’re all going through their own separate things. The writers have done a really good job of writing these characters in a way that makes them relatable to so many different people from so many different walks of life: women, men, old, young, even kids. Everybody has suffered at one point in their lives, right? People feel like the show is speaking to them.
TV DRAMA: Tell me a little bit about Kevin’s journey and his relationship with his twin sister, Kate, and his adoptive brother, Randall; it’s pretty unique, isn’t it?
HARTLEY: It is unique. In the beginning, Kevin had a strained and estranged relationship with his brother and a co-dependent relationship with his sister. I don’t know which was more unhealthy, to be honest with you. You see Kevin with the great job, the cars, the women and the money. He lives in L.A. and has a great home, and he’s got fame. Then you see him sabotage all of that, and you think, Oh my God, he’s gotten rid of the only thing he has in his life. Then you realize, when you start peeling back [his layers], that getting rid of all of that helped him get down to what was really important, which was maybe a little separation from his sister, maybe starting to appreciate her a little bit more, and she needs to live her life as well. And Kevin needs to grow up; he doesn’t even know how to fold clothes! He goes out and starts to get this desire to have a relationship with his brother, and then quickly realizes this is not an, I’m sorry, pat on the back, let’s go have a beer. He’s in it for the long haul.
TV DRAMA: Is Kevin’s difficult journey as an actor all that different from what a typical actor goes through?
HARTLEY: Not this actor! You try to prepare and do your homework and pride yourself on (at least I do) doing all of the work before you film it so that you have something good. And then sometimes what happens is that it’s like, now that’s who you are—it’s like Forrest Gump syndrome. Tom Hanks amazes me. He played Forrest Gump, and I remember watching that and thinking, That’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen and I don’t know how I’m ever going to see him as anything other than Forrest Gump. And now, I don’t think of Forrest Gump at all when I think of Tom Hanks. He has this magical way of becoming different people, but one of the things that happens with actors sometimes is you get typecast.
TV DRAMA: How do you work with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman? Do you know your storylines ahead of time, or do you learn them with each script?
HARTLEY: He’ll tell you whatever you want [to know]. There are certain actors on the show who don’t want to know anything, so he’s respectful of that, but if you want to know everything, he’ll tell you everything he knows.
TV DRAMA: And what do you prefer?
HARTLEY: I wish I didn’t want to know, but when I sit down with him, inevitably I say, “Tell me everything!” I want to know everything that goes on. He’s a great storyteller, so it’s not like he’s giving you spoilers that are going to ruin future episodes that you’re going to read. He gives you these really concise outlines of the season, and you go, Wow!
TV DRAMA: Tell us about working with the rest of the cast.
HARTLEY: They’re great. They’re some of the kindest people ever. We’re all there for each other. We truly are a family. One of the interesting things that happened was the script was so special to all of us that we became parents, like co-parenting. We all had this baby we were taking care of—this script we all love so much—and we just hit it off right away. These guys are so much like their characters and at the same time so incredibly different from their characters. They’re just great actors, and it’s fun to work with people at the top of their game. They’re excited to be at work, and we all love what we do.
TV DRAMA: How did you get involved in the show, and what appealed to you about the character of Kevin?
HARTLEY: I got a phone call from a friend of mine, and he said, “Do you know Dan Fogelman?” and I said, “Yeah.” He asked, “Well, how long have you known him?” I said, “A long time. I’ve known him for like ten years.” And he goes, “So you guys are friends?” and I said, “No, no, I know of him. We’re not buddies.” And he goes, “Are you sure? Because I feel like he just wrote you.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’ve got to send you this script.” My agent had also sent me the script, which is weird because now I had two copies of the script, and I’m thinking, Someone wants me to read this. So I read it and thought, Oh my gosh, it’s not me, but I can relate to this guy. I got this. I understand Kevin.
I went in and auditioned, and I remember reading this big monologue he had about the Challenger [space shuttle] exploding and how he’s a ticking time bomb—you know he is the Challenger, right? He’s about ready to go nuts. And I remember thinking, How hilarious is that—this guy is comparing himself to the Challenger explosion and how he remembers it as a kid. It’s tragic, but I think it’s really funny. He’s self-aware enough to say, I can feel it happening. I just pictured it. I think it very easily could have been read the other way, where it was very serious, so I went in and had them laughing and I was lucky enough to get it. Later, I showed up on set and they just surrounded the show with this wonderful cast—those guys are amazing. And that’s it; the rest is history.