Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Dan Snierson
November 14, 2017 AT 10:01 PM EST

Manny out — of control.

Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, “Number One,” which served as the first in a trilogy of Big Three-centric episodes, laid bare Kevin Pearson, our injured-high-school-football-stud-turned-sitcom-star-turned-more-serious-actor-turned-hot-mess. Hiding in a haze of pills and alcohol, and reeling from the self-sabotaging of his rekindled relationship with Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), Kevin (Justin Hartley) was roused from a weeklong hotel hangover to stumble his way through being honored at his high school in Pittsburgh. He gave a terrible speech that he was celebrated for, slept with a former classmate-turned-noble plastic surgeon who once had a crush on him, stole pages from her prescription pad to score more pills, and sneaked out of her house after a hook-up, but wound up back in her front lawn, begging for the necklace that his father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), gave him, and cry-pleading to no one and everyone for help. Finally at wit’s — and soul’s — end, he showed up to his brother’s house as a tattered mess, brought to his knees through addiction like his father, desperate for rescue, only to find out from Randall (Sterling K. Brown) that Kate (Chrissy Metz) had just lost her baby.

What happens next? Will Kevin’s problems take a backseat to Kate’s for the time being? Is he ready to repair himself? Let’s remove the Do Not Disturb sign from the door, throw on a half-clean collared shirt, grow a beard for no particular reason, crack a can of LaCroix, and dial up the “Number One” man of the hour, Justin Hartley.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: On a scale of very to you-have-no-idea, how worried about Kevin should we be?
JUSTIN HARTLEY:
Very. I think he came in there to finally say to his brother, “Dude, help me out. I need help.” He’s calling out for help, and no one is listening, and the one person that will actually listen to him is probably Randall. And that window closed because of the information that he got from Randall. Gosh, I mean, people don’t deal with the stuff on their own, they need a support group around.

When [creator] Dan Fogelman pitched you this story of Kevin’s downward spiral, what first intrigued you or intimidated you?
As an actor, I was intrigued, because anytime you can sink your teeth into something like that, selfishly as an actor you’re like, “Yes! Bring it on! Let’s do this! This is going to be great!” The intimidating part I would say was that this story we’re telling is something that affects so many people. It’s a very real problem. I personally have; I have family members or friends that have suffered from this. When I took a little bit of a pause, I was like, “We need to make sure we tell an honest story and not just tell this quick, little ‘Oh, let’s do this fun, little thing with Kevin and his drug problem!’ This is a real serious issue.” So that probably would have been [what intimidated me], but then our show is always like that. So, pretty typical of This Is Us, isn’t it?

Did you have initial concerns about the Hollywood-actor-who-becomes-hooked-on pills trope? Or did you feel that the underlying themes of Kevin muting his grief and never facing his demons and ultimately unpacking those feelings justified the risk?
I think it justified the risk. Not only that, I believe in our writers. You can jack that story up pretty bad and have it be an eye roll, like, “Okay, that’s not even how it works, guys. But whatever. Thanks for trying.” But our writers don’t do that. They do a lot of research, and they go over things and over things. They’re meticulous. They’re talented. And they work well together. So, for me, it was just that. I believe and I trust in our writers so much — and in Dan, and his vision — that when I got the script, I was like, “Okay, I’m all in.”

Kevin has gone to some unlikable places in recent episodes. In addition to the boozing. which caused him to miss part of Sophie’s auction, he then sabotaged his relationship with her. We also found out that in his twenties he tried to steal his roommate’s role on the Kevin Spacey, excuse me, Christian Bale movie and he sleeps with a plastic surgeon to get more pills. It can be challenging to make people empathize with a rich, handsome Hollywood actor, let alone one who seems unhappy with his lot. What about playing these revelations about Kevin appealed to you? Maybe it goes back to what you were saying about having something to sink your teeth into, because it seems like you definitely had your work cut out for you…
Yeah. And that’s the thing. When the deck is stacked against you like that — and I’m not talking about Kevin, I’m talking about me personally, like you said — I mean, what, are we supposed to like this guy? But that’s my job, you know? And I take it very seriously. Like I said, I believe in the writers, so the more crap that they throw at Kevin, the better for now. You start to see, maybe for the first time — see, now I thought this from the very beginning, but that’s because I’m in love with the character, I love him, he’s my brother, so I didn’t go through this, but I understand how people watching the show would be like, “Yeahhh, I don’t know. I don’t think I like Kevin very much.” So when you get this kind of stuff, it’s like, “Yeah, bring it!” This is a real story that we’re telling, that real people really deal with. And then on top of that, the writers tell this story where you have no choice but when you’re watching this guy to just be like, “Oh, god. No, he’s really in pain. He’s suffering. This is not where he wants to be. He’s not trying to do this. He can’t deal with it.” So I’m glad that they did all of this. They really break him down — the places they send him to are incredible.

This episode truly does break him down. There’s this great moment in this episode where Kevin gives us a play-by-play call of his life on the football field, and it brought into focus the idea that he feels he does not deserve success and fortune because he has not lived up to his dad’s hopes for him, but he only wound up with more success and fortune at each turn. Is that part of what he’s been putting himself through over the last few weeks — this attempt to self-punish — because all anyone else seems to do is reward him?
Yeah. He does it to himself. I was thinking about what you just said earlier. All these expectations and things that are supposed to happen in his world, he kind of puts them on himself. There’s a part of it I’m sure that has to do with his dad. When he was growing up, he thought his dad was perfect, and then he comes to find out that he’s got this alcohol problem, so Kevin feels a little bit of betrayal. Right or wrong. And he’s embarrassed by this guy that he thought was a god and a hero. So now he’s trying to make up for that a little bit, and just make his dad so proud of him, and be No. 1 for once. Randall’s got all these other great things that are going on, but that’s Kevin just putting it on himself. If you asked Jack, “What do you expect of your son?,” I don’t think he would say, “I expect him to be perfect.” But that’s what Kevin expects of himself. It’s troubling.

There are several huge emotional moments in the episode. Jack gives his Vietnam necklace to teenage Kevin (Logan Shroyer) right after his football dreams are destroyed. We know the necklace belonged to Jack’s brother, though Kevin doesn’t know it. Kevin knows how hard Jack has been struggling, and he has been rough on him, and lets him in a little bit more once he is in pain and vulnerable, too. How impactful was it for young Kevin to hear Jack say that Kevin was his “purpose,” and that he knows he’s capable of other great things, especially if Kevin was suddenly worried that the only one thing to offer this world was now gone?
That whole exchange was in a tight time frame when Jack died. He was 17. So that physical object that he holds onto, that memory, is what drives him. In a good way and a bad way as well. That’s him sort of saying, “I have to be perfect because now I carry the weight of that on my shoulders. I better make it worth it.” That survivor’s guilt thing, too, right? That’s part of it as well. In that time, you see that they’re not getting along. They’re bitching at each other, and he’s embarrassed about his dad, and his alcoholism. And his dad’s like, “Why are you being an ass to the coach? What is wrong with you?” It’s not a good relationship. It’s not a good dynamic, and then that happens, and it sort of refreshes it. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when he loses that necklace.

How did Jack’s struggle with sobriety impact Kevin throughout his life, genetic predisposition to addiction aside? It’s disturbing for him to see Jack on his knees, reciting his AA mantras.
It changes as you get older. When he was younger, he didn’t understand it. It was also a different time. People didn’t talk about it as much as they do now. As Kevin has gotten older, he’s realized that is a real problem, it’s not just an excuse to act a certain way. It’s a real struggle. What was embarrassing has now turned into guilt for not understanding. That’s painful to think, “My gosh, if I knew then what I know now, I would have been there for him. I wouldn’t have been so hard on him, at least.” It’s just very impactful to think that when he remembers it, he’s like, “My dad was alone on an island. And I could have been there for him. I could have put my arm around him.”

We see the beginning of Kevin’s repair and reconsideration of his relationship with his father. The only problem is, we know that this is where the cast came from that we saw the night Jack died, and the clock is ticking. What can you hint about how much progress is made on that front before the fateful fire?
To be quite honest, I don’t know much about that, but I’m guessing because the turn of events when he gets older that there wasn’t a lot of closure. We haven’t shot it. Truth be told, I don’t know. I’m just guessing by the way that the path that Kevin goes down now, obviously there was something that wasn’t shut, something that wasn’t closed, something wasn’t wrapped up.

NEXT PAGE: Hartley on Kevin’s lawn meltdown — and that Kate cliffhanger

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