Justin Hartley discusses stepping behind the camera and his work on the 4th season of NBC’s This is Us.
No show is capable of breaking your heart, and putting it back together, over the course on a single episode quite like This is Us. In season 4, Kevin, the charming, loveable, bad-boy of the Pearson clan continued to struggle— alcoholism, recovery, a tumultuous relationship with his uncle Nicky (Griffin Dune), failed romantic encounters, and a devastating rift with his brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown). At the hands of a lesser actor all of that drama may come across as melodramatic, but it’s hard to find fault in Justin Hartley’s performance on This is Us. In fact, he’s never been better.
In our interview, Hartley discusses reaching new depths with Kevin, his This is Us directorial debut, and what comes next.
Awards Daily: I wanted to start off by asking about the episode you directed this season [A Hell of a Week: Part 3, the season’s 13th episode]. You’ve directed before, [an episode of Smallville] in 2011, so there’s a little bit of a gap. — so, why now? Why that particular episode?
Justin Hartley: Well, I just like to direct one episode of television every 10 years. [Laughs]. My next one will be in 2030, I will do an episode of whatever show I’m on.
To be quite honest with you, the reason why I got that episode, I think it was mostly scheduling. They really have to allow the director eight days to prep, and so that basically means eight days before [I] shoot the episode that [I’m] directing, I can’t be on set really because I have to prep. I have to be scouting, and on locations, and in prop meetings, and all that kind of stuff. [They] kind of changed the schedule around so that the episode prior to that one [A Hell of a Week: Part 2], I was barely in so I could actually prep.
I also think that maybe it had to do with the subject matter. I’m really close with Chrissy [Metz] and with Mandy [Moore] and that story about the daughter and the mother — that was a story that I really wanted to tell or help tell. And, I was lucky enough to get it. They were great to me. They helped me out a ton and they let me do my own artistic thing as well. I’m proud of it. I think it turned out great. Most of that had to do with the crew and the cast—I’m working with the best in the business.
I think guest directors that come in have it much harder than I had it because I already have a dialogue with the cast, and they already know me and trust me. I guess as a guest director, you have to prove yourself right away without stepping on anyone’s toes. It’s a very tough thing to do.
AD: Can you tell me more about your personal touches to the episode versus what was already on the page?
JH: I think, probably, my approach. My approach is always just to trust them for sure because I’ve seen them in action. I know that they know what they’re doing, and also, they’ve been doing it for four years. [I wanted to] offer up little tidbits or maybe things that they hadn’t thought about. And I know how I like to work when I’m acting — if the director, maybe, gives me subtle notes or makes me think about something that I hadn’t thought about before, that’s a good way to go. I’m not a big fan of a director giving me a ton of notes before we even rehearsed it. ‘It’s like, what are you giving notes on? You haven’t seen anything yet.’ I try not to do that, I’ll never do that.
But everyone’s got a different approach, right? I wanted to honestly stay out of the way whenever possible, whenever I could, and just let these artists do the many amazing things that they do, but I have a great relationship with these people.
AD: Has the experience of being behind the camera changed how you’re going to move forward with Kevin? Or your approach to acting in general? Did you learn anything that you’re going to carry with you?
JH: I did the very first time I directed, years and years ago, a hundred years ago. It changed a lot for me. I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I understand. Wow’— How [I could] be helpful as an actor to a director. I wasn’t aware of it because I’d never experienced it. I didn’t realize what was extremely helpful for a director. And now I do. Also, I wrote an episode of Smallville when I was on that show 900 million years ago. That changed my approach to acting as well because I used to read a script —and I don’t know if this is embarrassing or not, but who cares, I tell you —I used to read a script several years ago and look at all the notes, and all the direction, and I’d be like, ‘Why are these people telling me exactly where to put my hands and what to do? Let me do my own job.’
JH: And then I realized when you’re writing, a lot of those notes aren’t for the actor, they’re for the reader! [Laughs]. It never dawned on me that’s what that was. I guess, selfishly, I always thought it was for me.
Every time you get a chance to do a different job that has to do with acting, or production, or running the set, I think it enhances your ability to do your job and what your responsibilities are. It’s like going to school, it’s an education.
AD: I did get to speak to the head of This is Us’ makeup department, Zoe Hay, we talked a lot about the introduction of old[ish] Kevin in the season four finale.
AD: We were both saying that when we saw you aged-up, it was just so obvious like, ‘Of course, that’s what Justin Hartley is going to look like 10 to 15 years from now.’ It just fit.
I wanted to get your perspective on that flash-forward and the experience of seeing yourself as an old man. Or an older man, I should say, not an old man quite yet.
JH: Yeah, I’m hoping that, maybe, I’ll age a little bit less, actually! [Laughs].
I thought he was about 60, but I could be wrong. I don’t know. I think it’s also just a shock to see yourself looking that old. I don’t know if he was 60… How old is he supposed to be? 50, 52? Something like that. So, I don’t know. I mean, I’m almost there, so let’s see what happens [Hartley is 43]. I mean, he looked like he was in good shape, so that’s good. He looked like he could still walk.
JH: Hopefully I’ll be the same way —happy and able to walk.
AD: Be happy and be able to walk as you age? I dunno, Justin, those standards are pretty low!
AD: Do you know how far in advance those flash-forwards are supposed to be? Because I know that’s a question that fans are really wrestling with. Is it 10 years, 15 years? What’s the timeline there?
JH: You know what? I figured it out at one point, and I forget what the final answer was, but guessing by the kids, I’m guessing it’s 12 to 15 years, something like that. Don’t hold me to that, but I would assume that’s what it is.
AD: We learned at the end of season four that Kevin has twins in the future. And some of my favorite scenes of yours in the show are when we get to see Kevin as an uncle. I think the bond that he has, with his nieces and now with baby Jack, is really special.
AD: There’s this thing that you get to do when you’re with them, that’s really quiet and kind. There’s a softness there that’s different than the Kevin we usually see when he’s in actor mode. How do you think that’s going to carry over to Kevin as a father?
JH: Yeah, hopefully, it will carry over. My approach to Kevin dealing with kids is one of the things that I actually have in common with Kevin. I made that choice early on, that whenever Kevin is dealing with children, he’s going to talk to them as if they were adults.
And, I did that with my daughter when she was growing up. Everybody talks to them like they’re babies, It’s like, ‘She’s eight! She doesn’t want you to talk to her like that, she’s eight-years-old for God’s sake. She’s almost driving! Talk to her like an adult.
Even now, she’s almost 16, but I’ll talk to her like an adult. I’ll ask her questions. I’ll ask her for advice. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? I was thinking about this, but I don’t know. Can I get away with the blue shoes? I feel like an idiot in the blue shoes.’
But, this is how you talk to kids — you get them to engage with you. When you treat them like adults, like people, I think it builds confidence.
I’ve always kind of done that with Kevin. I also think it’s hilarious, how in a room with Tess, it’s like he’s the child. [Laughs].
AD: I’m a huge fan, maybe I’m the only one left, but I’m a huge fan of Kevin and Sophie [Alexandra Breckenridge] together. Is there any hope that they could still work out? Or do you think that the ship has sailed now that he’s, you know, having twins with someone else
JH: I don’t think anything has sailed. And I don’t think you’re the only one either. I think it’s a tough thing. You know, I think our audience might be split. But I, I certainly don’t think you’re the only one and I don’t think that ship has sailed. I think there’s always a possibility for another twist or turn. Life is tricky, right?
AD: Right. So, you know, This is Us is a hard interview to prep for because I’m very well aware of the fact that you can’t tease very much. But, what CAN you tell me about what season five is going to look like and where Kevin is going to go from here? Spill the beans as much as you can!
JH: Yeah! Well, I think, we can expect to pick up where we left off or maybe a little bit in the future, but with the present storyline. We’re going to tell the story of Kevin and how he’s dealing with Madison [Caitlin Thompson], her pregnancy, their relationship together, and how that evolves. Are they friends that are just having these babies together? Or do they get more romantically involved? Or do they realize they can’t stand each other, and now there’s a whole new problem?
We’re also going to dive deeper into the Rebecca storyline. We’re going to find out what’s going on with this clinical trial. The rip between Kevin and Randall [Sterling K. Brown] is very, very real —They’re dealing with their mom and they’re on opposite ends of the world, as far as how you deal with it.
I think they’ve lost, oh gosh, all the respect and love that they’ve built up for one another in seasons three and four. —It’s kind of faded away. Hopefully, there’s something that happens that brings them back together. It would have to be pretty big. So maybe we look forward to that.
And what else? Kate and Toby [Chris Sullivan], it looks like they’re getting into expanding their family a little bit. There was a lot of stuff teased in the finale that we’re going to address in season five.
AD: I think Kevin and Randall’s relationship has always been one of the central relationships on the show. And as you said, they’re at this massive breaking point. Their relationship issues probably stem from jealousy or insecurity, but how do you think that’s changed and morphed over the years? And have you ever found yourself judging Kevin for the way he treats his brother?
JH: Yeah, it’s a difficult thing. Kevin’s just like all of us, he’s doing the best that he can, he’s growing and learning. And we’re seeing that as the show goes on. It’s unfortunate the things that were said, and the way that they were said — it’s not like it was done in a drunken rage, or throwing things across the room, completely out of control —It was done in a very methodical way. In a weird way, it was designed to hurt the other person, but also like a sweet release, right? It’s like an exhale. And I think on both sides, that’s when it becomes really painful — when it’s true. And when it’s honest. When you’re like, ‘I’m thinking about what I’m saying, I know this is going to be painful, but it needs to be said.’ And then you just drop it. They both did that. It’s the honesty of the words that makes them even more hurtful than just the words, you know? Because if he was just freaking out, screaming, and shouting, ‘You’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.’ It’s like, ‘Okay you nut job, get control of your body.’
But it was just a calm, collected thought from Randall. And then also from Kevin. That’s a big deal. There was never an ‘I’m going to beat you up. I’m gonna punch you on the head.’ None of that. It was just, ‘This is what you need to hear. ‘
That’s a tough one. But, I mean, part of me is proud of him. I think he could have handled it a little bit better, but that’s a tough subject matter, when you’re dealing with your mom, and manipulation. It’s like ‘I thought we were on the same page, we were talking about the same thing.’ Then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, did you do this on purpose? You knew what you were doing. And I trusted you, and this is what I get for it? Okay’
I don’t judge. I mean, I kind of thought he was right. I don’t know if he needed to say all of that. But to think, ‘We on the same wavelength’ and then come to find out Randall was manipulating the situation. But, I also understand why Randall would manipulate the situation. If he really believed what he was doing was right. And that Kevin was wrong. And. he really believes that this clinical trial could save his mother’s life, so why wouldn’t you do that? I get it. I totally understand. It’s a tough one to do. It’s well written though, huh?
AD: Yeah it is. It really is. That’s great insight. Last question: other than fatherhood, what are some other areas, or themes, that you want to explore with Kevin?
JH: You know, it’s not so much that I haven’t had a chance to do it, as much as, I’d like to dive deeper into [Kevin’s] career —him on a movie set, him on a TV set. I think he’s doing movies now, but it would be nice to see a little bit more of that, how that goes, the progress. Does he become a director? A producer? Is he going to stick with acting? Is he going to get into something totally different?
I just feel like he’s at that point where he’s on the brink of something really great. And I know that he’s having kids and everything, but I think that’s just going to be one of the things where, you’re going to see this guy, right before your very eyes change into something that we just haven’t seen — almost like a different person. That’ll be fun. I would like to see that —his evolution and his growing as a human. He got such a late start, I feel, in becoming an adult. And I think now he’s sort of playing catch up. He’s doing a bang-up job, I would say. He’s really coming into his own and become a man in the past few years, a couple of years.
AD: Justin, you did such incredible work this season, thank you for digging into it with me.
JH: Of course, thank you!
Justin Hartley is Emmy eligible in the Best Actor in a Drama Series category. This is Us is available on Hulu and NBC.com