This Is Us Star Justin Hartley Tells Us, “I’ve Never Read A Better Pilot In My Life.”

Why the star of fall's most buzzed-about new show says, "I’ve never been happier in my life."

Justin Hartley Photo credit: Riker Brothers

The trailer for NBC’s This Is Us has already garnered itself a cult-like following, and let me assure you, if you liked watching 2 minutes of the show, you’re gonna love the rest! And if you haven’t caught the remarkable trailer, check it out below. I chatted with star Justin Hartley about the fall’s most eagerly anticipated new series and I couldn’t stop myself — I gushed. But can you blame me? It’s like Parenthood meets thirtysomething; it’s an extra-special show that has heart and humor and follows the lives of intriguing characters who are tied by the fact that they share the same birthday.

And we think this is this fall’s best new series, which says a lot, because there are great new shows premiering in the next few weeks. But there is great, and then there is exceptional. And that’s an apt word to describe this series and the artists who are bringing it to life. And Hartley, whose previous work has included Smallville, Passions, Revenge, Revenge and The Young and the Restless is about to see his career launch into the stratosphere. Really, every member of this outstanding ensemble is about to be rewarded for excellent work; and lucky for us, the prize is getting to see more of this show.

Get to know Justin’s character Kevin:

Channel Guide Magazine: Hi Justin, thanks so much for taking time to speak to me on your day off. I appreciate it.
Justin: Of course. No problem. My pleasure.

CG: Justin, I have to be honest. The pilot for This Is Us had the entire Channel Guide Magazine office in tears. We’ve even named it one of our Top 9 New Shows For Fall.
Justin: Yes! Okay, good. I was going to say hopefully those are good tears and not tears like you’re going to stab yourself.

CG: Happy tears! Happy weeping. [laughing] When you first read the part of Kevin, what was your gut reaction?
Justin: The first thing I thought was I got very, very excited about the fact that I was re-energized again as an actor, and had that attitude of, “I have got to go get this.” I hadn’t had that in a while. It just sort of spoke to me. I know that sounds to cliché, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a role that I read where I was like, “Oh my god. This is so great. This is so beautiful!” Even though he and I aren’t identical, there are definitely things about him that I totally get and can relate to. On top of that, just the story, right? The story of these people and how they come together at the end there, and how they’re all sort of related, in what way they’re related.

When I finished reading the pilot, I remember thinking “I’ve never read a better pilot in my life.” Then I remembered thinking “I don’t think I’ve ever read a better episode of television in my life. This is amazing!” I couldn’t wait to figure out where it was going from there, and sit down with Dan after I got the job and talk to him about where all these characters were going. Just completely inspired and re-energized I think, you know?

CG: When you sat down with creator/ executive producer Dan Fogleman, what did he tell you about Kevin’s journey? What has surprised you about where this character is headed?
Justin: Yeah, so as you know in the pilot, we leave him with like, what’s he going to do? He quit his job — or so he says so. He has this meltdown. He’s sort of on this idea that I’m better than this. I can’t do this anymore. It’s driving me crazy to then, at the end of the pilot, going, “Oh my god, what have I done? Who does that? Who gives away … I fought my whole life to get a network series. I got a network series, and I just gave it away. What the hell is wrong with me?” You find out like what’s he going to do? Is he going to go back and grovel and try to get his job back, or is he going to stick to his guns and sort of throw his hat in the ring and go for it? Try to be a “serious actor” like he says?

Then also I like the idea of how his personal life is sort of mirroring or shadowing his professional life. He’s not fulfilled there either. It’s not like he has this wonderful girlfriend or wife, or children who make him laugh. He’s just sort of alone. He probably doesn’t have a lot of friends I’m guessing, and he doesn’t have any significant relationships. He probably hasn’t in a while, and he probably doesn’t have anything on the horizon. Then he sort of realizes after he gave this show away, that was really the only thing that he had, so he’s sort of this thirty-six-year-old guy going through a pre-midlife crisis-ish thing, and sort of finds himself with nothing except maybe a bank account. He’s finding out very quickly the cold reality of money can’t buy happiness.

I also think he’s funny. I like his sense of humor, and I like the way he’s self-aware. He becomes self-aware very quickly about how other people see him, and what they think of him before they even know him. I like that he’s smart enough to realize that.

Those are all things that, when I read that character, I was like “I dig that.” I like that he’s sort of a real guy. He’s on a sitcom on a network television. He’s famous, and he’s this real guy. I think that’s kind of cool.

Justin Hartley
Photo credit: Riker Brothers

CG: And he’s in a bit of a golden handcuff situation.
Justin: Exactly! That’s exactly right, which can always be fun. If it’s done the right way, you get it. There’s a saying that, everybody empties their trash out on the street. All their garbage, all their stuff they carry around with them every day, and then you can go down the street, and you can pick up anyone’s and bring it home with you. Then ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll pick up your own garbage and bring it back into your own house, you know? That’s sort of like this guy. He looks like a certain way, and he’s got a certain job, and he does all this stuff, and then you dive deeper into him, and you’re like this guy’s got problems just like everybody else. He’s got worries just like everyone else, and they’re significant. He’s alone, and it’s kind of sad actually.

CG: In the pilot, Kevin gets to deliver an epic rant, and it’s a moment that viewers will definitely remember. And it’s a really brilliant moment of acting. What was that scene like to shoot?
Justin: We did it in front of a large audience of two hundred extras. I think it was The Carmichael Show set that we were on. I think we used their actual crew to shoot the show within the show, and my character is literally going insane.

It was very cathartic in many different ways. It’s my character saying, “Here I am!” In any acting school that you go to, they’ll teach you this is not the way you behave. I mean, your mother, when you’re five years old tells you, “This is not the way you behave,” and yet I’m having to going literally ape@#$%, and it’s okay. Then you’re doing it in front of people on a stage, and then to have your bosses come up and be like, “Okay, cool. Awesome. Do it again.” It’s very cathartic. Kevin is saying and doing all of the things that we wanted to do when we were in that position where we weren’t being appreciated, but we just can’t behave that way. He does it, and I got to do it, and it was like okay. To do it safely and almost everyone had a laugh afterward, so it was fun.

CG: In This Is Us, the writers ask each of the show’s leads to be open and vulnerable and to be willing to take a leap — as their characters each take a leap of faith. How was that challenging you as an actor?
Justin: As an actor, the nightmare is getting a script and trying to figure out how you can rewrite it to where it makes at least a little bit of sense. I’ve never had a job like that, but I’ve had friends who have. The dream scenario is this job where every time you get a script, you literally sit there and you go, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m good enough to do this. This is brilliant. I don’t know if good at the script.” And that’s a terrifying thing to feel — to be honest with you. Maybe a lot of actors wouldn’t admit that, but everyone has felt that. Trust me.

At the same time, it’s an exhilarating thing to feel, where it’s like you’re being challenged every single moment. And on This Is Us, every single person — the writers, the DP, the directors, the producers, the network, the studio — everyone is excellent at their job, and they’re delivering this piece of gold, and it’s up to you to make sure that there’s a voice behind it. It can be terrifying, but at the same time, it’s thrilling knowing that they’re trusting you with this. I’ve never been happier in my life professionally. I just think this is really something special.

I know you said you’ve seen the pilot. I hope we get your vote to watch the second episode, and the third, and the fourth. I can’t wait until you see these. We’re starting episode six now, and they just keep getting better and better and better. It is a brilliant show.

CG: Kevin seems like he’s alone even in a crowded room, but he does have this wonderful relationship with Kate. I mean, they’re so close that they’re almost co-dependent. How quickly did you and Chrissy Metz fall into that?
That’s exactly the way I describe it — this loving, wonderful relationship that has this unhealthy co-dependent side to it. To the point where you start to realize that these two have never, ever been apart. They wouldn’t be able to function without each other, which is kind of a problem, and then very early in the series, you start to see that that gets addressed and what they’re going to do about that. It’s funny. It’s also heartbreaking, and it’s like watching a break-up and then laughing through the misery. It’s so wonderful how the characters deal with stuff and how relatable they are. I find myself watching the show — like I’ve read it, and I’ve seen it, and I know what’s coming — I watch it, and I still get emotional.

And with Chrissy, I think the moment I met her, we started talking about how our fathers have the exact same name, and there’s just so many things that we have in common. It’s ridiculous. She’s hilarious, and I kind of just think of her as a sister, to be honest with you. Isn’t that funny how that works? It sort of happened right away too. She’s got that sort of sisterly instinct with me she took on right away. Yeah, we’re not too far off that relationship. When the two of us work together, we’re constantly asking each other questions and checking in. It’s just she’s a lot of fun to work with.

In later episodes, we’re going to see Kevin interact with characters played by Katie Segal and Brad Garret. Can you tell me a little bit about those relationships?
Justin: We definitely had some laughs. Our scenes together are funny, but again, Dan does this great thing where it’s also heartbreaking, and you get to see they’re not like characters, you know? They’re like actual, fleshed-out characters that come in and affect Kevin’s life in what turns out to be kind of a negative way, I guess. Negative in the beginning, and then sort of positive at the end.

And what a treat working with those two. You grow up watching these people, and all of a sudden you’re standing on stage with them. It’s just sort of a surreal moment, but it was thrilling. They’re so kind, both of them together. They’re hilarious and kind and everything that you would hope they would be.

CG: You said when you first read the pilot, that it was the best thing you’ve ever read. What was your reaction when you watched the pilot for the first time?
Justin: I was happy. When you’re an actor, you read these things, and they’re great on paper. It’s always one of those fears where you say, “I saw the movie, and the book was better than the movie.” And that’s also a fear when you read a script and it’s really good; and then when you see the final product — for whatever reason — it just didn’t translate.

This one is quite the opposite actually. When I read it, I thought it was brilliant, and then when I watched it, I thought, “it’s better viewed than it is read.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever had that experience before, where I read something, and then I watched it, and I was like, “Oh it’s better than the book.” You know what I mean? This one actually is.

Justin Hartley
Photo Credit: Riker Brothers

CG: The character of Kevin spends a lot of time shirtless. Is his struggle to be seen as more than beefcake something that you can relate to?
Justin: I don’t think I struggle with that as much as Kevin does, but I can certainly relate to it. I mean, no actor wants to be just a guy that takes his shirt off, and I’ve certainly had those jobs where it’s like — at the end of it — you were just a guy that took his shirt off. That’s not the most fun thing in the world. Most of the jobs I’ve had where I’ve had to take my shirt off, it’s so funny because I find that when I’m playing a character that has to take his shirt off, it’s not really vulnerable for me.

When I’m at the beach and it’s me and I’m not playing a character, that’s when I’m like, “let’s just leave the shirt on.” You know what I mean? For whatever reason, I can find a safety net when I’m playing a character because people just think it’s a just character that you’re playing. You can pretty much do whatever you want and be as vulnerable as you want as long as you’re playing a character. People just assume that you’re really into the part.

I know it’s the same body, but I think mentally … I just don’t mind it when I’m playing a character I guess. I mean, as long as it makes sense, right? This guy, how funny is that Kevin’s whole thing is, “I’m sick of taking my shirt off and I’m done with it!” but then throughout half of the pilot, Kevin’s got his shirt off?!? I get a kick out of it.

CG: That’s true! [Laughing] Thank you so much, Justin. I really appreciate your time. Again, I can’t wait to see what comes next for the show. After I was done watching the pilot, I was really sad there weren’t any more episodes for us to screen on the NBC press site.
Justin: Thank you very much for watching, and I appreciate it. Hopefully, you’ll like what’s to come as well. It’s very, very good, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

CG: Of course! Have a great day.
Justin: Take care. Bye.

This Is Us > NBC > Tuesdays at 10pm ET/PT, 9pm CT beginning Sept. 20

3 Comments

  1. Interesting article and an insight to some of the story lines. How lucky for Justin to get a character role that has some similarities to his own life. To be able to identify with the character with little processing. I’m sure Justin will attack this character with gusto and meaningful performances. He has a way that makes a character alive and real that makes you want to know that character or feel you do. It’s truly cool to see an actor get really excited in his work. I wish for him the best.

  2. I enjoyed the pilot emensely. Justin you are a good actor as well as pleasant on the eyes. Miss you on Y&R, but looking forward to the new series. Thank you for letting me tell you my thoughts. Enjoy your work.

  3. I am so looking forward to watching this new series Justin was my favorite character on the young and the restless i miss him on that soap but at least a can still see him on his new series!

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