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Justin Hartley Talks This Is Us Season 2 Finale, Kevin Pearson’s Addiction and Sterling K. Brown Relationship
Mar 14, 2018
Justin Hartley already knew his This Is Us character was polarizing, but a recent encounter really brought home how much audiences are split on Kevin Pearson. “Some guy walked up to me and goes, ‘Hey, my wife thinks you’re a good-looking guy. I think you’re an asshole,’” Hartley tells me. “I go ‘Oh. Okay.’ And he just doubled down. ‘Yeah. I think you’re a real asshole.’”
At this point, Hartley figured the only way to respond was to give as good as he got, so he shot back, “’Okay, well then, fuck you!’” Hartley remembers telling the stranger. “I said it with a smile on my face, and we ended up cracking up together.” The stranger was referring not to Hartley, after all, but to Kevin Pearson—network television’s favorite recovering asshole.
There are a lot of reasons you might feel this way about Kevin in the early episodes of This Is Us. In a show full of exceptionally—sometimes unrealistically—good people, Kevin is the closest thing to an anti-hero. As a teenager, he tormented his sensitive adopted brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown) because he resented the attention he received from his parents. He married his high school sweetheart, then fooled around on her. He landed a starring role in a hugely popular network sitcom, then quit dramatically, live on air, because he wasn’t feeling creatively fulfilled. His major conflict for the show’s first fifteen-or-so episodes is that he’s a rich, successful TV star who wants to be taken seriously as an actor. The world’s smallest violin was working overtime.
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But Season Two has seen Kevin become both more self-aware and more dysfunctional in the wake of a huge career breakthrough: landing a role in a Ron Howard movie. After re-exacerbating an old knee injury on that shoot, he slipped into a Vicodin addiction which escalated through several agonizing episodes in which everyone around Kevin consistently missed the glaring warning signs of his growing dependency.
The season’s Kevin-focused eighth episode—which boasted Hartley’s most complex performance to date—saw him returning to his high school to receive an alumni award, interspersed with flashback scenes showing the knee injury that ended his high school football career. On the heels of a pill and booze-fueled bender, hallucinating his dead father at the podium, Kevin delivers a real bummer of a speech in which he all but begs an adoring crowd to see him for the mess he is. It doesn’t work. “The truth is, I’m not worthy of this award, or any honor for that matter,” he tells his fellow alumni, who lap it up without actually hearing a word. Hartley expands on what was happening on in his character’s brain. “All they see is this guy that’s 6’2”, he’s rich, he’s famous—what could his problem possibly be?” he says. “When he tells them, ‘Don’t love me,’ they’re like, ‘Wow, how humble is this guy?’ You realize he could do anything up there and people would still be clapping.”
“All they see is this guy that’s 6’2”, he’s rich, he’s famous—what could his problem possibly be?”
Though he didn’t know from the beginning that Kevin would struggle with addiction, Hartley had some indications. “I was told that Kevin is going to be the character that changes the most through this entire show,” he explains. “When we found him, he was just this empty vessel, and now he’s finding purpose and meaning and figuring out how to deal with things that are unresolved. I don’t think he’s ever asked himself what he wants, and he’s just beginning to figure that out.” Kevin first fell into acting after his sports career was cut short; Hartley notes that his chosen vocation is mostly an alternative way of getting attention he feels he missed during his childhood. “It was very much ‘look at me, give me validation,’’” Hartley says. “Now I think he’s developed this love for the craft of it, and finding the important things about it beyond the money and the fame.”
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In the course of his research on addiction, Hartley spent a lot of time with his friend Ryan Leaf, the former NFL quarterback who played for the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers and experienced his own substance abuse (and subsequent legal troubles as a result). “He went through something like this that really changed the course of his life,” Hartley says, “and he ended up coming out on the other side and now he’s wonderful.”
Hartley was so struck by Leaf’s story that he persuaded him to come in and tell it to the This Is Us writers room during development of Kevin’s storyline. “He was gracious enough to come in and speak to our writers even though he didn’t know any of them, but he knew me and trusted me, and I think he opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Hartley says. “It was important to me, and to [This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman], that we were honest about this storyline, because addiction is a very real thing and it’s everywhere.” Hearing from Leaf helped the writers craft a storyline for Kevin that was grounded in truth as opposed to a cheap emotional twist that would simply make for good TV. “I wanted to make sure that we weren’t telling this story and then at the end of the episode it was all wrapped up in a bow and he’s fine,” Hartley says. “This guy’s in a bad way, and he’s not getting out of this on his own.”
I’m speaking to Hartley ahead of this week’s Season Two finale, centered on the wedding of Kevin’s twin sister Kate (Chrissy Metz), who—by Kevin’s own admission—has spent most of her adult life putting his needs before her own. Having been sober for several months, Kevin is finally his best self during the finale, and he delivers an admittedly weird but cathartic wedding toast in which he addresses his family’s unresolved grief over the death of their beloved father Jack (Milo Ventimiglila). “It’s like taking a giant breath in and just holding it for the rest of your life,” he says, quoting Kate’s own words back to her. “I think maybe we’ve all been holding our breath for a long time.”
On his cue, the Pearsons all exhale together, shedding a weight in unison. It’s the kind of specific, open-hearted emotional beat that This Is Us excels at, and a character moment that strikes at the core of what makes the show beloved.
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In the past, it has been especially easy to dismiss Kevin Pearson as a privileged man-child in contrast to his brother Randall, whose life as a wildly intelligent, successful family man—and conflict as a black child adopted into a white family after his biological father abandoned him as a newborn—dwarfs Kevin’s adolescent troubles. Randall’s struggles began from the beginning, as if the cards were stacked against him; Kevin, on the other hand, had everything going for him, but he squandered his privileges out of sheer self-destruction. The brothers’ relationship, which started rocky and has since evolved into one of the most emotionally compelling on the show, prompts many of Kevin’s most revealing moments, as in tonight’s episode where Randall persuades his brother to play a fun game of “Worst Case Scenario,” listing off his deepest anxieties.
His scenes opposite Randall, played by the Emmy-winning Sterling K. Brown, are Hartley’s favorite to play. “I love their dynamic, and the fact that now they’re like buddies,” he says. “They lean on each other. That’s not to say that they won’t piss each other off, but they’re brothers—they’re inseparable.”
The turning point for the brothers’ relationship was also one of Kevin’s first redemptive moments. Late in the first season, Kevin bails on the opening night of his off-Broadway debut to run to Randall, who’s in the midst of a breakdown. That episode’s title, “Jack Pearson’s Son” refers to the notion that Kevin is more like his selfless late father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) than he realizes—and he makes the decision to run to Randall not just because it feels right, but because it’s what his father would do.
“Kevin and Randall lean on each other. That’s not to say that they won’t piss each other off, but they’re brothers—they’re inseparable.”
“He is Jack—at least, that’s what he wants to be,” Hartley says. “Being Jack Pearson is a life of never putting yourself first. Although that’s something a little bit foreign for Kevin, I think he’s finding out that it’s actually his comfort zone. He’s good at it. Like that night of the play when he went to Randall, that just came so naturally to him. He’s actually better at putting other people first, and he’s good at it, but that’s something we did not see when the show first started.”
And despite being a no-show on that opening night, Kevin’s career has gone from strength to strength since his decision to quit his sitcom The Manny. (It’s about a man, who is also a nanny; in case you’re unclear, he was right to quit.) There’s a parallel to be drawn here to Hartley’s own career boost following the game-changing success of This Is Us. Hartley spent many years working in daytime soaps before making the transition to primetime TV—a major career boost not just in terms of visibility, but acclaim. While he acknowledges the two worlds of television as wildly different, he doesn’t buy into snobbery in either direction. “There are people that I respect very much on daytime television who say that primetime actors couldn’t possibly do the workload of a daytime actor, and that could not be further from the truth,” he says. “That holds no water. They are different skill sets. You develop different muscles.”
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For This Is Us, Hartley has had to put those muscles—the interior, emotional muscles—to the test. “On daytime, I had days where I’d have 30, 40, 50 pages of dialogue, and now I’m a few years removed from that and I can’t imagine doing it,” he continues. “On a show like This Is Us, you have the script for longer and are expected to bring more to the table. You get 17 takes and they all have to be organic. On daytime, you get one take. There’s a beauty to that, too.”
That’s not the only new skill set Hartley has developed since being cast in This Is Us. Like every major cast member, he has had to adjust to a much higher level of intimacy with strangers, who want not simply autographs or selfies but something closer to therapy. “Strangers will walk up to me and tell me intimate details of their life, like that their mom just passed away,” he says. “That’s an amazing thing: To connect on such a different, deep level with a total stranger is something I did not experience before this show. People feel the need to get something off their chest, and if you can be that person that makes them feel a little bit better, even just for that two-minute conversation, then is there anything better than that?”
“I was here with my wife five days ago, and now I’m in rehab talking to my mom.”
And then there are the fans who address you as “asshole” when they’re really talking to your character. Hartley has learned to adjust to the strange ways in which his own life blurs into the life of the man he plays on TV. Take, for example, the Season Two episode that saw Kevin at a plush rehab facility. The scenes were not shot in a real treatment center, but rather the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu—the spot where Hartley and his wife, actress Chrishell Strause, were married in October 2017. The wedding and the filming were less than a week apart, making for a particularly surreal shoot for Hartley, who ended up filming an emotional mother-son confrontation in the room next door to the one he shared with his wife during their wedding stay. “That scene with Mandy Moore was filmed in room eight, and my wife and I had stayed in room seven, which is an identical room right next door,” he says. “It was one of those moments… Like, sure, I was here with my wife five days ago, and now I’m in rehab talking to my mom.”
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This Is Us had its third season confirmed more than a year ago, and recently introduced an intriguing new element to its multiple timeline structure. Having previously moved between the present day and various past timelines, the show has now started jumping periodically into the future, offering tantalizing clues for viewers to obsess over as they did over Jack’s mysterious death.
This week’s finale ended with a series of glimpses into the future—including Kevin on a plane to Vietnam with a new girlfriend (Melanie Liburd), holding onto a picture of Jack in his military uniform from his time in the Vietnam War. Jack’s time in the army, and his mysterious brother Nicky who served with him, is one of the show’s biggest unresolved mysteries; from this brief tease, it looks as though Kevin may be setting out to unravel his father’s past.
“Kevin is figuring out the man he wants to be,” Hartley says, noting that Kevin is the only Pearson sibling who never got a moment of closure with his father; their last words were an argument. “He wants to be able to put his head down and sleep and not carry things with him: things that he did wrong, or things that were unresolved. He’s really growing up—a little bit later than most of us do, but at least it’s happening.”
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