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Hartley, then 23, had just graduated from Southern Illinois University and driven himself to Los Angeles without a single connection. He knew nothing about the world of talent agents and entertainment lawyers, or how difficult it was to even land auditions. He was clueless about the extent of his competition until he interned at a casting office and saw the stacks of head shots that arrived daily for each role.
“I had nothing — I did not have a pot to piss in — and I’d stare at the Hollywood sign knowing that I was going to be this leading man. I was gonna bring Hollywood to its knees,” he says with a laugh, now 20 years later, during an interview at an L.A. studio where he had just finished a photo shoot. “It was gonna be awesome! Then three years ago, I remember thinking, I never thought I was gonna be this guy, this journeyman actor that bounces around from job to job to job.”
It’s safe to assume the bouncing is over. As one of the Big Three on NBC’s hit This Is Us, Hartley’s role is safe, especially now that viewers know they will see the Pearson trio at least through middle age. He says he’d even be fine if Kevin let his buff physique go and developed a bit of a potbelly. “We are talking job security,” Hartley says. “Why wouldn’t I want to see older Kevin?”
But if his role on This Is Us seems like a lucky break — he was cast after just two auditions in 2016 — know that 15 years of steady work preceded it: four years on the soap opera Passions, where his career began; five years starring on Smallville as the Green Arrow in Vancouver, where he also had the opportunity to write an episode and direct another; and shorter stints on Revenge, Mistresses, The Young and the Restless, and Emily Owens M.D.
Hartley learned about the This Is Us pilot from a friend he’d met on Emily Owens, M.D. who thought he was perfect for the story of a Pittsburgh family, headed by patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore). As he flipped the pages, he fell more and more in love with the role he thought his friend had in mind. Like Jack Pearson, Hartley is crazy about the women in his life — his wife Chrishell Stause and his 13-year-old daughter Isabella (from his first marriage), whom he compares to Morgan Freeman because “she’s got more things figured out than I do.”
Hartley was instantly drawn to Jack. “He’s got a great relationship with his wife,” he says. “Remember the cupcake and the birthday and the towel? I thought that was great. But then I kept reading and I realized he was talking about Kevin. I’ve been a victim of that before, where people just assume something even though they’ve never met me. And I’m guilty of judging a book by its cover, too. But I knew as I was reading that he was damaged. I saw a little Jerry Maguire in him.”
In the beginning, Kevin seemed like a rich, vapid actor who took his twin sister Kate (Chrissy Metz) for granted and was accustomed to getting everything he wanted. A successful sitcom actor who imploded his TV career early in season one, Kevin rebelled against his sitcom producers for caring more about his character being shirtless than creating stories of substance, but he also used his good looks to manipulate others. Then, as he spiraled into drug addiction in season two, it appeared This Is Us might be heading into cliché territory. But as viewers learned more about the depth of Kevin’s pain, both he and Hartley turned heads in a completely different way.
“He’s so striking physically that I think sometimes his abilities are underestimated,” says executive producer Ken Olin, who directed “Number One,” the episode that revealed how teenage Kevin’s football dreams were shattered just weeks before his father died. “I remember when we started working on ‘Number One,’ he told me nobody had ever given him the chance to do material like this. You don’t think somebody who looks like that can be substantial or complicated, but Justin is really a sensitive, complicated guy.”
Olin first saw those qualities in Hartley when he directed the second episode of the series, “The Big Three,” during a scene where Kevin calls his brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown) to ask for advice. In an unexpected turn, Kevin winds up acknowledging that he has never been a good brother to Randall. “It’s the first time that you see him struggle in a way that’s more complex than anticipated,” Olin says. “It was just a phone call, but he was very vulnerable and I was very impressed.”
Those nuances are the subtle character notes that attracted Hartley to the role. “When he said to Randall, ‘I wasn’t a very good brother to you, was I?’ that’s a lot different than saying something like, ‘I know I wasn’t a good brother to you, get over it man,’” he explains. “I have a brother that I love very, very much, and if I ever had to say something like that to him, it would break my heart. It’s such a real, honest moment.”
When the Pearson brothers are together, they tend to rip hearts open. In the first season, it was Kevin who was the stronger one, holding his brother as he had a nervous breakdown. In the latest season, Randall tore into Kevin during family therapy after Kevin was arrested for DUI with one of Randall’s daughters in his car. Both actors say they use their mutual affection to play those moments, allowing for real emotions to seep in with those of the Pearsons.
“The therapy scene was one of the best days of work we’ve had!” Brown says of the intense scene involving the Big Three and their mother. “Because while Sterling loves Justin, Randall was a wee bit perturbed with Kevin. We had to go at it. If we didn’t, we would’ve been doing the scene a disservice. And we both knew that without having to say a word.”
It’s not all tears, though. Sometimes, Kevin and Randall are the show’s comedic relief, as seen in the season-two finale when they served as their sister’s wedding planners. “We both love to play,” Brown says. “There’s a real spirit of fun in our scenes because there’s a welcome level of unpredictability. We probably do the most improv between us. We keep each other on our toes — and crack each other up. He is a funny, funny man.”
Hartley grew up in Knoxville, Illinois, as the middle child (younger sister, older brother) of a plumber and schoolteacher in a family that loved baseball as much as the Pearsons love football. His parents divorced soon after the family moved to the Chicago area, when he was in the fifth grade. After playing Frosty the Snowman in a school play and being crushed when he found out that Frosty had no lines (“He was the star, man!”), Hartley says performing did not enter his mind again until he was in college. “I admired storytellers, artists, writers, but I never really considered it something that I could do for a living,” he says. “When you grow up in a small town in central Illinois and someone asks you what you’re gonna be when you grow up, you say a teacher or factory worker or farmer. Acting was not a practical job that you saw other people doing.”
At Southern Illinois University, Hartley took a children’s literature class because it seemed easy. But the professor changed the course into an acting seminar in which the students performed scenes from movies. At the end of it, Hartley tried out for a play the professor was directing on campus.
“I don’t know how I got it, but I got it, and performing in front of a live audience — I had never felt anything like that in my life,” he says. “That immediate response that you get is electric. It’s indescribable. I thought, For the rest of my life, I’m gonna be an actor and I’m gonna be struggling.”
Certainly, there have been a few bumps. The most “devastating” one was when the WB did not pick up Aquaman to series in 2007, which would have been his first leading role. But series creators Al Gough and Miles Millar offered him the role of Green Arrow on their other show Smallville instead. Five years later, the CW broke his heart again when it canceled Emily Owens, M.D. after 13 episodes.
“I don’t know if I was born this way or if I’ve developed it, but one of the things that has serviced me very well through my career is that I have a really short memory of these things,” Hartley says. “I get upset, but I get over it pretty quickly. I’m just glad I’m not sitting here talking to you about the time I almost got This Is Us. That would be heartbreaking.”
This past season of This Is Us, Olin directed the three episodes devoted to each of the three Pearson children. In “Number One,” the Kevin-focused episode, Hartley shined in two scenes where Kevin unravels and faces his demons. In the first scene, Kevin, strung out on Vicodin, returns to his old high school for an award and relives the moment when a knee injury ruined his football prospects shortly before Jack died. Hartley’s poignant delivery of Kevin’s three-and-half-minute monologue, cut with flashbacks of the ill-fated football game, made viewers feel every ounce of Kevin’s pain.
“It was such a long, hard, complicated speech, and I had a certain idea of where he should be physically and stuff, but the specifics of the speech, that was all him,” Olin says. “He does have a real sense of who this character is. I just wanted him to trust himself and take his time, and he just went with it.”
The episode ends with Kevin breaking down when he returns to a woman’s apartment after a one-night stand. He’s looking for his father’s necklace — his most treasured possession — but she doesn’t allow him inside and refuses to look for it herself. “Can’t you see I’m in pain out here?” says Kevin, sobbing and falling to his knees. “I just need it to stop! I just need somebody to help me.”
Olin remembers watching Hartley’s first take of the scene from behind the monitors with his daughter Roxy and episode writer K.J. Steinberg. They were crying. Even though they filmed it a few more times, the editor chose Hartley’s first take. “That kind of stuff can feel really self-indulgent or it doesn’t feel real, but this was a revelation for people to see him work like that,” Olin says. “On set, people were really moved by it.”
So were This Is Us viewers. As emotionally taxing as those scenes can be, Hartley says the writers make it easy for him to walk in Kevin’s shoes. “Those scenes are exhausting when you’re done,” he says. “But when a scene is written so well, it’s not hard. Fulfilling is the word I would use. If you just let yourself experience what they wrote and what Kevin’s going through, it’s not hard. It’s demanding, but it’s not hard. This is the most creatively fulfilling job I’ve ever had.”
Talking to Hartley, you do get the sense that he has dedicated himself to studying his character. The most challenging part of playing Kevin, he says, is making sure the audience knows his truth, even when Kevin doesn’t understand it himself.
“Sometimes the words on the page are just mean,” Hartley says. “And Kevin’s not mean. He’s scared, which is a very real thing. So if I don’t go in there with that, then he just comes off like an asshole, right? He’s a tough guy that leads with his heart. And he is funny. He does make jokes, but I just want him to be believable.”
When asked if he draws from anyone in his life to play Kevin, Hartley has a fast answer: “Everyone I know! I’ll put you on notice, now that we know each other. If you see something and you’re like, ‘That fucking guy,’ you’ll know I stole from you.” He laughs, but then becomes more thoughtful.
“Everyone I know has suffered loss, has won, has been singled out, has been labeled, has been marginalized, has been judged by people that don’t know them, has judged people they don’t know, has been ridiculous, has been out of line, has been rude, has been patient, has had a short temper, has a bad day,” he says. “Kevin is all of us.”