“It was the best pilot I’d read in my life,” Justin Hartley says about first seeing the script for NBC’s breakout drama, “This Is Us,” which starts its second season Sept. 26. Prior to landing a lead role as Kevin Pearson, Hartley had been used to memorizing hundreds of pages of dialogue during a two-year stint as Adam Newman on “The Young and the Restless,” or the lines of vigilante archer Oliver Queen in “Smallville.” But it was this story that truly hit home — and forever changed his career.
“I called my agent and said, ‘Listen, somehow we have to figure out how to get me in the room, because if they see me read this part, they’ll know I have an interesting take on it,” Hartley remembers. “I really get this guy and understand him.”
That “guy” is a struggling pretty-boy actor who moves from LA to New York to make something of himself, and hopes to be taken seriously in the process. There are natural similarities between Hartley and his character; they’re both chasing a dream. But in real life, Hartley is father to a 13-year-old daughter (pictured below), and considers himself more loyal and stable (he’s been dating fiancee Chrishell Stause since 2014), whereas Kevin “tends to spiral. … He walks through life and understands the misperception people have about him,” Hartley, 40, says. “They wrote this character so that on the surface, you could say he’s arrogant, out of touch, selfish, but by the end of the show, you realize there is so much more going on with this guy. He’s just drowning in his own insecurity. What a vulnerable, truthful character.”
Apparently, viewers agree. “This Is Us” premiered last fall, and became the first NBC in-season series to top all broadcast and cable shows in viewership in almost 13 years. The show was quickly picked up for two more seasons.
It’s a new kind of success for Hartley: Since graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a history and theater degree, he has landed parts in soaps like “Passions,” series like “Revenge” and “Mistresses,” and one-episode stints on shows like “CSI: NY” and “Melissa & Joey.” But despite his newfound stardom, the Illinois native — he was born in Knoxville and grew up in Orland Park — tries to stay humble. “You always hear about ‘Southern hospitality’ and that’s a real thing, and you hear ‘Midwest values’ and that’s a real thing as well,” he says. “[It’s about] being down to earth, staying grounded and not believing all of your own press when things are going well, which helps you out when things aren’t going so well.”
But when it comes to “This Is Us,” you can believe it’s as good as everyone says it is. It’s delightfully absent the salacious drama and high-tension thrill of many binge-worthy series, but it’s the kind of TV you can’t stop watching — and most definitely the kind for which a box of tissues is essential.
“When I go to the movies, I want to laugh and I want to cry,” says Hartley, who’s also cast in the upcoming Bad Moms sequel, A Bad Moms Christmas, in theaters Nov. 3. “I think we have a show that does that and does it in a truthful way. There are story lines on our show that hit home, that you can relate to no matter where you are or how old you are or how much money you make. And that’s where we win.”
So what’s next for Season 2? Viewers are hoping for insight on a major cliffhanger: We know Hartley’s on-screen father, Jack, dies, but how and when? And most importantly, when will we find out?
“This year,” the actor promises. “But there’s way more to the story that has to be told before you find out how it happened. The best stories still need to be told.” We’re sure that’s true of Hartley, too.
Hartley riffs on his “This Is Us” co-stars
< Mandy Moore: “She has that motherly quality about her. She’s a very compassionate, very thoughtful person.”
Milo Ventimiglia: “I don’t mean this as an insult at all, because it’s not to say he doesn’t look this way, but I think people would be surprised to find out just how physically strong he is. He is like, tank strong — and I don’t think he works out a lot! He’s just genetically really strong.”
Chrissy Metz: “We laugh all the time. We laugh about every single thing you can possibly imagine. That’s all we do.”
> Sterling K. Brown: “He’s got a real good gauge on when to be serious and when to be goofy. He can be goofier than all of us, hands down, but he can also be the most serious of all of us. He’s got a good [idea of] life and how to live it.”
Top photo by The Riker Brothers