When the first season of This Is Us ended, Justin Hartley knew Kevin Pearson’s story was only getting started. It just took a little longer for it to get there.
In the freshman run of NBC’s time-jumping family drama, which follows the Pearson clan as they navigate through life’s joys and heartbreaks from toddlerhood to old age, Hartley’s storyline mainly consisted of his character, Kevin, the eldest of the Big Three siblings, quitting his popular multicam sitcom The Manny; struggling to be taken seriously as an actor; and triumphantly winning back his childhood flame.
“People were like, ‘Kevin’s this guy who’s got everything. He’s got money. He’s got fame. He’s tall. He’s got looks. He’s got women.’ Blah blah blah blah, this and that. Really? Because I see a guy in a crowded room who’s completely alone,” Hartley, 41, ponders as he nurses a cold beer in a conference room at his publicist’s Hollywood office on an April afternoon.
It wasn’t until the show’s sophomore season that Kevin’s seemingly easy path in life got deeper, darker and unflinchingly more honest: a roller-coaster battle with pill addiction mirroring his father Jack’s past alcoholism; a subsequent stint in rehab forcing him to re-examine personal failures, including an ill-timed DUI arrest; a myriad of dreadful choices accelerating his downward spiral. Patience, it turns out, proved virtuous for Hartley, who fearlessly traveled to the uncomfortable corners of Kevin’s darkest demons.
“I had an overall view of where this character was going and I knew that the story we were telling for Kevin wasn’t one year, it was building into something that was going to happen later. You have to lay all that groundwork,” Hartley says, now an Emmy frontrunner in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category. “When people are like, ‘I love the character, but he’s annoying,’ it’s good, because that’s what we were doing.
“If you go back and watch season one from the beginning, knowing where he goes now, the perception is probably totally different. Every single mistake he makes, you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s going to lead to that and it’s going to take you down on this horrible path,’” Hartley notes. “Season two, for me, was a lot more fun, even though it was more grueling and Kevin was in a lot more pain.”
A meaty season two arc revolving around heavy subjects (substance abuse, mental health, grief) gave Hartley his first real opportunity to show that, just like his character, there is much more to him than chiseled good looks, six-pack abs and all the money in the world.
“Typecasting is very, very real,” he says with a chuckle, taking a healthy perspective on his past “hot guy” roles on shows like Passions, Revenge and Smallville. “Hopefully, the conversation has changed a little bit.” Hartley pauses, deep in thought. “I think when you give somebody an opportunity to give you what they have, that helps… unless you fail miserably and everyone goes, ‘We knew it.’”
Hartley proved he was more than capable of passing the test. Ask him to zero in on the key scenes that have remained front of mind from season two and Hartley comes up with three. First, Kevin’s gut-wrenching emotional breakdown on Charlotte’s lawn after he loses Jack’s necklace in this season’s eighth episode, “Number One,” Hartley’s biggest showcase of the year. “It was really important to me that we didn’t do this thing where it was, ‘Let’s wrap it up in a bow here. He’s going to find the necklace. He’s going to be fine,’” he thinks back to the scene. “I just thought, What is rock bottom? It’s the threshold of death, because death is release, relief, resolve. I thought, We gotta go there.”
The necklace, after all, was more than just a piece of metal and the catalyst for Kevin’s most vulnerable moment. “It’s the promise of the better day; it’s hope and he lost it, and it was all his fault,” Hartley says. “I thought, How desperate is that that someone is clinging on to sanity via this piece of metal? But I just lost it.” That scene, he points out, was the culmination of Kevin’s “rock bottom.” “I care so much about him, and at that moment, I wasn’t sure that he was going to be OK.”
Eventually, Kevin did get Jack’s necklace back, but that wasn’t in the original plan. “Chirping turned into chattering that turned into a roar that turned into this whole thing. It kind of reminded me of [the mystery of] how Jack died,” he compares, still in awe over the power of fan reaction. “If they’re cheering for him to get this necklace back, they’re cheering for him, aren’t they? I get emotional thinking about it, to be honest with you. He’s not supposed to have it, yet he got another chance.”
The two other scenes Hartley singles out: Kate warning Kevin in his trailer on the set of the Ron Howard movie that he’s going to explode (“It’s computing but he deflects,” Hartley assesses, as Kevin shifts blame on his sister: “You’re the one with the problem. Why don’t you work on yourself?”), and in the Super Bowl episode, when Kevin goes back to Jack’s favorite tree and has his first true heart to heart with his dad since his death.
By the end of the season, Kevin’s problems seem well behind him, a hopeful new chapter on the horizon. "He is in a reset. How he handled things before, he’s not going to handle them the same way, whether it be consciously or subconsciously," Hartley muses. "He’s not as knee-jerk like he was before, where he was a little more fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. He’s a little bit more thoughtful -- a whole different person, really. He’s drawing a new outline of himself."
The finale cemented a sunnier outlook for Kevin when it flash-forwarded to the near future and introduced Zoe, Beth’s cool cousin and his possible new love, as they flew to Vietnam seeking to retrace Jack’s wartime history. While Hartley claims he doesn’t know just what that development means, he’s hopeful viewers might one day meet Old Kevin like they did Old Randall. “Because then that means he survives the round-trip [flight] at least,” Hartley jokes. “That’s kind of our show. You can go any direction. We go backward, we go forward.”
Hints were dropped by the cast at a recent Emmy event that parts of the This Is Us series finale have already been filmed, which raises even more questions for when production on season three begins this summer.
“I’m curious to know: Is he going to have kids? What kind of dad is he going to be?” Hartley contemplates of Kevin’s future. “What is he going to remember from his father and bring forward [to his own kids]? If he has kids, is he going to have a son who’s going to be like Kevin? Holy crap, like, ‘Here we go again’? Is his wife or the mother of the mother of children, if she survives, is she going to be like his mom, Rebecca? Does he reconcile with Miguel? There are so many things; I’m curious where this guy goes.”