This Is Us Star Justin Hartley on Creating TV's Most Relatable Superstar

The star of broadcast's biggest tearjerker discusses his character's evolution over six seasons.

by | March 16, 2022 | Comments


Justin Hartley

(Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Throughout the six seasons of This Is Us, Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) has struggled hardest to find his purpose — and in the process, and thanks to Hartley’s fine work, the character has gone from shallow, bored actor to one of the most relatable characters on the family drama. Concerned mainly with honoring his family and living up to other people’s expectations, Kevin has only now, in the series’ final season, begun to live for himself.

His latest pursuit in happiness involves a new construction company employing veterans like his uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) and former flame Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison), an idea that came to him after an emotional outing that saw Kevin contemplate where some of his life’s failures have led him. In this lead-up to the series finale — there are 10 episodes left to air in the Pearson family’s story — Kevin finally seems to realize that he should be living for himself and now his children, not for the people around him.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke to the actor about the Kevin-centric episode in the latest Big Three trilogy — a trio of episodes that focuses on each Pearson sibling, starting with Kevin and directed by star Milo Ventimiglia, then Kate (Chrissy Metz), directed by star Mandy Moore, and finally Randall (Sterling K. Brown). The Randall-centric episode is also Hartley’s second This Is Us directorial outing, and the actor dishes on his experience below.

Jean Bentley for Rotten Tomatoes: Let’s start by talking about Kevin’s new construction company venture.

Justin Hartley: Not bad, right? He’s carrying on his dad’s legacy in a way. He’s inspired by his really dear friend who’s going through some shit. He’s inspired by the fact that his dad died early and had this idea of what he wanted to do and then didn’t have time on on our Earth to be able to fully accomplish it. And he’s also realizing that he’s taking his means and he’s making a difference instead of just buying fancy cars and clothes. He’s using his money to help other people. Everybody wins in this.

He’s spent the whole show in the shadow of this man that he revered, so it also feels like a way of him realizing he is worthy of his father’s legacy.

That’s right, and it’s really special. He’s spent a lot of time trying to get his mother’s approval and his brother’s approval and be respected as an actor and because was never taken seriously, and he started to realize that maybe he created a lot of that.

Kevin has spent a lot of time in this final season grappling with choices he’s made in his life — and that includes these women who have been very important to him, like Cassidy or his ex-wife, Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), and the twins’ mother, Madison (Caitlin Thompson).

One of the great things about Kevin is that he recognizes what’s great in people. So if someone’s got a really wonderful, great, certain quality about them, Kevin sees it and he goes, Wow, that’s really special and cool. And then he does this really dumb thing where he goes, And that’s why that’s my person. And that’s just not the way it works, and I think you can be around people that have really great qualities without thinking that they’re your person. As far as his love life goes, I think he’s starting to realize that he can be alone without being lonely. He can put his efforts into things that actually matter instead of like, I gotta have this perfect love life, but he’s also got his kids which is distracting from that too, which I think is good. So he’s definitely growing up a lot in the past few months.

(Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

The beginning of last episode was funny, with Kevin thinking it would be easy to fly across the country by himself with two infants.

From the very beginning, he’s always been this guy that kind of didn’t get it, or maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t want to get it, it was just that he couldn’t get it. He was always doing things because he thought that other people thought that this is what he should do, and so that’s what he was doing. It was like, if you want to know what Kevin thinks, ask the person next to him and he’ll tell you what Kevin thinks. And we’ve seen him in this one episode, just that simple thing of getting on the plane and being anxiety-riddled with the kids and then getting back on the plane and realizing, Hey, look, it’s a crying baby. He’s grown up.

In recent episodes we’ve gotten a much better understanding of Kevin’s tension with Miguel because I think it’s his own guilt for cheating on Sophie, projected onto Miguel. Has the tension has resolved?

Yeah, time does that. He’s starting to realize how legitimate the love that Miguel and his mom have for each other and how it doesn’t take away from the love that she had for Jack and their relationship at all. It’s two completely separate lives. It’s amazing how many lives we lead in our lifetime. Think about you 10 years ago, where you were, what you were doing, who your friends were, and now you look at who you are now and you go, Oh my gosh. Hopefully, I’m in a much better place than I was 10 years ago. So 20 years ago, Miguel was a certain thing to Kevin and he was like, What is this? You don’t marry your dead best friend’s wife. This is such horsesh–. And I understand that knee-jerk reaction; I would probably have the same thing. But then as time goes by you go, Oh, geez, this has nothing to do with my mom and my dad’s relationship. This is a totally separate relationship, and this man really cares for this woman. I really can’t see her with anyone else. So yeah, everything, everything changes with time, I think.

Who would’ve thought Kevin is the character I relate most with now?

So many people say that to me, and I say the same thing. I actually talk to my wife about this. This guy is rich, famous — not as talented as me of course, but a talented actor. That was a joke. Everything that you could possibly want: He’s got his kids. He’s got no worries. And he’s a movie star. How in the hell is that guy relatable? But yet when you peel it back and go, well, of course you can relate to him. This just happens to be what he does for a living. He’s actually this really damaged, insecure guy. It’s a guy trying to get by, and he doesn’t really have a lot of friends. He really is a relatable person in a super strange way.

(Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

This is the second episode of the show that you’re directing. What was the biggest challenge this time around?

Mandy’s ego. No, the biggest challenge truly was being given this wonderful script and knowing that you’re working with these supremely talented actors. Sterling and Mandy lead the way in the episode that I directed. So you’re given obviously that talent, you’re given the great words, and the studio gives you the time and the money and the tools to shoot this thing, and the biggest challenge is just making sure that your talents behind the camera measure up to what you were given. I think we accomplished it. I think we did a good job. People seem to like it, whoever’s seen it so far. So I liked it. I thought it was really great.

Is directing something you ever saw yourself doing?

Acting is always something that I’ve seen myself doing. I never thought I would get the opportunity to, but then I did and I was like, Holy shit, I’m acting. I can’t believe I’m actually doing the one thing that I truly love and want to do. I feel like I’ve never worked. I feel like I’ve acted and that’s not really work. Although it is a massive amount of work. It’s something that you love and when it’s a labor of love you don’t feel like you’re punching the clock. I wrote an episode of Smallville not because I wanted to become a writer, but because I wanted to be a better actor. And I thought if I understood the process of writing an episode of television that will make me a better actor, and it certainly did. And that same thing happened with directing. I thought, well, if I can direct that will make me a better actor. I think it has — depending on who you ask.

Is directing something that you want to do more of? Are there other parts of the television-making process that interest you that you want to learn more about? 

I can see myself directing more, it just would depend on the project. It’s a massive undertaking. It’s a load of work. And I really love my wife, and I love hanging out at home and staring at her beautiful face, so it takes me away from that, which sucks. But I’ll tell you what I would love to do is direct her, and not in a weird way, not in like telling her what to do, but I think she’s supremely talented. So anytime you get an opportunity to work with people that are talented, the directing thing starts to look really, really sweet. But it would have to be something that I’m really passionate about, because I dive in and I give it my all and it’s a big, huge task, and I never would want to direct something and look back on it and go, Eh, my heart really wasn’t in that. You owe it to the actors and you owe it to the project and the people that are paying for it. I would do it; it would just have to be something that I’m really jazzed about.

(Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Is there anything coming up in this final season that you’re really excited for people to see?

We’re actually shooting it right now. There’s another Kevin-centric plot point coming up that takes a few episodes to resolve. Kate’s sort of entwined in that and the whole Rebecca thing that is going on through the rest of the season. There’s a really wonderful episode coming up where I think people are going to see Miguel in a different light. We have a lot to do. I think we have four more episodes left to shoot, but I think there are 10 more left to air. So there’s a lot of things that happen in those 10 episodes. I mean, a lot gets accomplished. A lot of story gets told in those 10 episodes. Yeah, we have a lot. Did I mention that we have a lot?

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