Justin Hartley (‘This Is Us’): Amazed that Kevin was able to get through ‘rock bottom’ in Season 2 [Complete Interview Transcript]

Justin Hartley had a wealth of emotional material for the second season of “This Is Us” on NBC. He plays Kevin Pearson, one of the three adult children of the characters played by Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia on the popular family drama. The entire cast, which also includes Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown and nominee Chrissy Metz, won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards this past January as the best TV drama ensemble.

Watch our recent video interview as Hartley chats with senior editor Rob Licuria plus contributor Amanda Spears and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby (Rob Licuria): Justin Hartley, you play Kevin Pearson on “This Is Us” and I think Season 2 you had really significant storylines and story arcs to deal with, and we’re wondering straight up, what was the most challenging thing that you had to do and what were your reactions when you were told what Kevin was gonna deal with in Season 2?

Justin Hartley: Yeah, thanks for the question. Gosh, first part of your question, the most challenging part for me… well first of all, the show is challenging. The most challenging part for me was in dealing with a storyline like this that I think affects so many people in a very real way was to tell a truthful, honest story, to give an honest depiction of what this can do to a person, to a family, substance abuse, mental health issues. Make sure that it was a truthful, honest depiction and if that meant getting down and dirty and gritty, then that’s what it meant. I think for all of us it was important not to just tell this story in a “Hollywood” way where you wrap it up into a bow and then everything is fine in the end. So that was challenging, and then what that meant was going to those places and it’s sort of like in a way, it’s a dream. It’s what you want as an actor is to be able to get scenes like that where you can sink your teeth into, as they say, and sort of just go there, but it’s also daunting and it’s challenging and it’s difficult, so that was that. What was the second part of your question?

GD (Rob): What was your reactions when you were told about it?

JH: Oh, right. Look, here’s the thing. These are the things that you wish for as an actor. You want these things to happen. You want this to happen one time in your career, where you get a storyline or a scene even, something where you can just go to that place, sink your teeth in and just hopefully deliver (laughs). And on our show we have these amazing writers that allow us to do that in every single episode, so we’re in heaven on this show as actors. We’re blessed with wonderful writers, truly gifted writers and the ability to do that on a weekly basis, on a daily basis when we’re filming, so it’s pretty cool.

GD (Rob): And then last season ended, major expectations. What did you think by the end of it? Were you just amazed that you were able to get through it?

JH: I was amazed that Kevin was able to get through it (laughs). I mean, that’s rock bottom if there is one. Gosh, he persevered, though, and he did his thing and I hopefully came out on the other end of that with the proper tools and understanding that this is not something that you walk through alone. This is not something that you get over. This is not something that you conquer alone. This is something that you need help with and that is always gonna be a part of your life and that is sort of a fabric of your being from here on out and something that you have to deal with for the rest of your life. So I think he understands that. I hope he understands that. Was I personally happy or relieved to get through it? I enjoyed it. It’s such an interesting thing, we go to these dark places as actors sometimes. Wherever we are, that’s where we are, hopefully, if you’re doing your job correctly. So for me, it’s sort of a bittersweet thing. It’s nice that it’s over and it’s a little bit of a relief and it’s like, “Wow, I’m proud of the work and I’m proud of the season that we did and I’m proud of my co-stars and the writers and the whole crew,” but at the same time, I love it so much that it’s always kind of like that’s the bitter part of it, where it’s like you have to wait another few months to get back together with these people and do this again.

Gold Derby (Amanda Spears): So everyone’s been singing your praises this season. You’re a past Daytime Emmy nominee from 2016. What would it mean to get that Primetime nomination for “This Is Us”?

JH: That would be great. It’s a wonderful thing, obviously. I’ve said before, and I think this is true, I don’t think it’s why someone should do this. I truly don’t think that. But at the same time, to be recognized for something that you really poured your heart into and worked your tail off at, and are proud of, to be recognized by your peers would be great. It would be wonderful. I’m the last person that’s gonna sit here and tell you I’m too cool for school and like, “It doesn’t matter.” I think it would be wonderful. I would thrilled. It would be wonderful. It would mean a lot.

GD (Rob): Why do you think audiences have taken to your show so profoundly? People love this show a lot for various reasons and we’ll talk about that later, but why do you think they have?

JH: Well I think there are many reasons, like you say, but I think one of them is when you watch this show, at least for me I’ll tell you, I related to all of the characters at any given moment. Beth can be doing something and I’ll be like, “Yes!” I don’t know if that’s me or either I’ve done that or I know somebody that does that or I felt that before. I think it all comes down to the writing and these characters are so good. They’re good people. man. They really are, and good people sometimes do crappy things, and they find themselves in precarious situations and I think that’s what we’re writing. Yeah, they’re characters. Yeah, they’re written in a room and we’re actors and we’re playing them, but these are scenarios that take place in real life that people are really dealing with, and I think it’s just the relatability. When you watch our show, I think you can see yourself in so many of these different characters. I think people find comfort in that and just the reality of the fact that life is difficult sometimes and you see these people going through things that you might be going through in your own personal life.

GD (Amanda): So you’ve already won an award. Your cast won Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards. Everyone seemed so excited. What was that night like for you guys?

JH: Thank you for bringing that up. Honestly, that was so thrilling. I love these people, I really do. I love them. And to have everyone there, the whole cast, and go up there and accept this award together and to be voted… you’re voted on by your peers, which meant a lot to us as well because there’s so many actors that I respect and revere and just think the world of and I see them do things all the time and I’m like, “Gosh, I would love to be able to do that. How are they doing that?” It happens on a daily basis, so to be voted in that category by your peers — to be nominated, first of all — and then to win in that category, that’s stiff competition right there. Every single show is a world-class show. But just to experience that win with everyone and to be able to go backstage and have inner monologue with Sterling [K. Brown] across the room or with Milo [Ventimiglia] across the room and we’ll look at each other, or me and Chrissy [Metz] will look at each other, nothing’s said, but I know what she’s saying. She knows what I’m saying. These are special people and to experience something like that was a very, very special night. I’ll never forget it. And they give you a trophy! They give you a trophy so you can’t forget it.

GD (Rob): “This Is Us” ultimately for me is about family, it’s about love and loss and very universal themes and crosses social boundaries. I especially love how it makes a grown man tear up. I tear up at every episode without fail.

GD (Amanda): I can tear up at the previews.

JH: (Laughs).

GD (Rob: The credits roll and I’m like, “Damn, man. I’m crying already.” But do you hear that all the time? Are you constantly hearing that people want to talk to you about how the show makes them cry?

JH: Yeah, constantly. It’s something that I never in a million years… to be on a show that is received the way that this show is received by the critics and is watched by as many people that do watch our show, is kind of unheard of. It doesn’t happen very often. But one of the things I didn’t think about until it started happening was these people that would walk up to me on the street and I don’t know them. I’m a stranger. They’re a stranger to me. We’ve never met. They’ve seen the show and they’re telling me just things about their life that are very personal, things that you don’t talk about at parties. You don’t bring this up to your friends, you probably just tie it up in a ball and you keep it in your chest, ‘cause we all know how healthy that is. But these are the things that people do, right? Yet, they’re telling me this stuff and I just thought, “Wow, in a million years my dream would’ve been to be on a show like this.” I never, ever, ever would have thought that I had the wonderful opportunity for something like this to happen where literally we’re affecting people’s lives in a positive way. I really do feel like that, and I know that sounds a little cheesy but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve been around these people that will walk up to me and say, this is a true story, this gentleman walked up to me. Was he a security guard? I think he was a security guard, and he walked up to me and he said, or maybe he was a police officer I’m not sure. And he said, “My daughter went away to school. My son’s still at home. My wife is busy at work. I’m busy at work. We have opposite schedules, and we all get together,” and they FaceTime so everybody can be in the same room and they watch the show together. Come on. Give me a break. And then after that, he was saying that not only do they watch the show together but an hour after the show is over, they talk about the show for a little bit and then they start talking about their own family. Can you imagine? What the hell? That is amazing, right? Isn’t that fantastic? How do you put that into words? That feeling is so satisfying. Our writers have done something incredible.

GD (Amanda): Well, if you’re nominated, you’ve had so many great episodes this season. You have to submit one for your submission. Is there one you’re thinking of? Rob and I are definitely rooting for you to get that nomination.

JH: You guys are so sweet, I appreciate you saying that. They gave me a gift, as an actor, that episode “Number One,” it was the eighth episode of the season it was entitled “Number One,” where Kevin goes back to high school and he kind of bottoms out by the end of the episode. I think that would be the one.

GD (Amanda): That’s what we were gonna suggest.

JH: I was gonna suggest one that I wasn’t in but I figured that would be a bad call.

GD (Rob): If we could just drill down a little into that episode, it took me by surprise actually. I didn’t really see where it was going, and by the end of it with Kevin really hitting rock bottom and desperately pleading for that necklace on the lawn, talk us through filming that on-set and what it was like for you to really have to go to that pretty dark and pretty depressing place for Kevin.

JH: Yeah, well first of all, you’re right. It’s a vulnerable place for Kevin to be. It’s a vulnerable place for an actor to be. And I’ll say that we have a dynamite crew, ‘cause that’s not a moment that you’re alone. You’re in front of 40 people or whatever, if not more. We have a dynamite crew that is so supportive and we have guys, think about it, we have guys hanging lights and pulling focus and holding cameras and Ken Olin’s directing and we have the writers there and some assistants are there. People are doing all kinds of stuff and they’re dynamite. I really felt like this was a moment between Kevin and Charlotte and he was just speaking to her and pleading to get this necklace back. So that’s first of all. But secondly, I think in that moment I just thought about it as him being this guy that’s clinging onto this one last memory of his father, what he thought his father was before he found out all of this stuff that’s going on with his father, or going on with him that relates to what his father went through, so it was this one last pure thing that he had of the way he remembered his father as a hero. And just to lose that, gosh, over sort of the same kind of circumstances that were the deterioration of his father I thought was really heartbreaking. So kind of it’s just like, do what you say you’re doing and listen to the words that are coming out of your mouth and what you’re actually asking for and what’s going on in that moment. It’s hard not to get emotional. I don’t know how you would go through that and not be emotional, to be honest with you.

GD (Amanda): I was curious, because that episode is all Kevin, did you have any interaction with the actor who plays the teenage version of you, ‘cause it seemed like you two were kind of in sync in that episode?

JH: Interestingly, we don’t have a lot of interaction because when he’s working, I’m not working, and when I’m working, he’s working, so I see him in passing. I like him very much. We see each other a lot at events and stuff like that, but we don’t see each other a lot at work. We’re just in sync. That’s what that is. He’s just good. We’re just in sync. I mean, we have conversations about the character, for sure, but as far as that episode goes, not a lot was said. It’s kind of on the page. He’s got the benefit of knowing where the character’s going, and I have the benefit of knowing where the character’s been. So a lot of times you’ll take on a character and you have to be like, “Okay, let’s think about why would he do this? Why is behaving this way? What must have happened when he was a child? What must have happened when he was in college, who he might have met so that now he acts like this and it’s tainted his view of this,” or whatever that might be, right? So we have the benefit, the older cast, of having the history, which is sort of a unique thing. So it’s kind of there on the page for you.

GD (Rob): Amanda and I were talking about this earlier ‘cause we usually ask this question to people that we interview and I thought I’d just go there.

GD (Amanda): Kind of our trademark question.

JH: Okay, bring it.

GD (Rob) Do you have any clue about what’s going on with Kevin next season? Can you tell us pretty much everything and don’t worry about getting fired, or, could you maybe give us three words to describe what you think or what you know Kevin’s going to be dealing with next season?

JH: Gosh, I don’t know if I can do it in three words. I don’t know if I’m that good. I’ll try. I don’t wanna get fired, though. Let’s see, I would say “discovery.” This is kind of two words, “self-aware,” let’s just count that as one. And then “danger”?

GD (Amanda): That’ll keep people talking.

GD (Rob): That’s good. I don’t know what to make of that. I really just don’t know what to say.

JH: I could’ve just made that up! You don’t know!

GD (Rob): (Laughs) You basically know nothing, but that’s cool. It’s all good. Mate, in all seriousness, congratulations on a really amazing, fantastic Season 2 and good luck for award season. We’re rooting for you.

JH: Thank you, brother, I appreciate that. You guys are awesome, thank you.

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