Kevin Pearson is no stranger to moves big and bold. He put his shirt back on and quit his cushy sitcom job on The Manny in the middle of filming an episode. He relocated to New York City on a whim. He attempted to explain the wonder of life and mystery of death to his nieces through his Pollock-esque painting. And on Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, the self-consumed but well-meaning actor played by Justin Hartley — who accounts for one-third of the Big Three — uncorked another curveball, this one leaving trail of exclamation points and question marks.
Sifting through the smoking rubble of his almost-relationships with Sloane (Milana Vayntrub) and Olivia (Janet Montgomery), Kevin was trying to figure out with which woman he should patch things up when his sister’s fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan), acting as his romantic guru, instructed him to close his eyes, picture the love of his life, and then imagine that he had 30 seconds and three sentences to win her back. “What are those sentences and who are you saying them to?” asked Toby. When Kevin (Justin Hartley) opened his eyes, he was transformed into a man of purpose, racing off to the city doorstep of (surprise!) his childhood sweetheart, Sophie, who, as it turns out, was also his ex-wife (double shock!) from whom he was divorced 12 years ago. After he delivered an endearing, semi-eloquent speech —“You were part of me, you were like my arm and when I lost you it was like I lost my arm… It’s like I’ve been walking around without an arm, for over a decade, comma, I really want my arm back…” — Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) still didn’t let him through the front door. But she left it open a metaphorical crack, agreeing via text to meet up with him later for a conversation.
What does this latest romantic wrinkle mean for Kevin? Is he now in some sort of love quadrangle? And what are we to make of that peek at Jack’s funeral, which revealed that the Big Three were only teenagers when he died? Let’s check with the man(ny) who always goes big, Justin Hartley.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, in deciding between door No. 1 and No. 2, Kevin chose door No. 3. Did that surprise you as much as it surprised the audience?
JUSTIN HARTLEY: I loved it. Any time you can get the writers to write for your character, especially on this show where they’re so good, you savor that flavor. They have to service so many people. It tells a lot about why Kevin is where he’s at. I mean, he obviously had some kind of a tailspin after that. It affected him a lot if he’s going to go back to her. He’s in love with her. So instead of this guy being this shallow dude that is enjoying his workouts and his women, you see why he’s where he is. He’s broken. He’s hurt. He’s crestfallen. And instead of trying to fill his life with these empty things, he’s going to try to dig his heels in again. It’s nice to see him do that.
He’s searching for something and trying to fix a hole in his life. Were Olivia and Sloane the quick fixes? And is there a danger that door No. 3 is another quick fix?
I don’t think door No. 3 is the quick fix. I think it was like an epiphany. He got that advice from Toby, and it was like, “Oh my god…” It was very much in keeping with the This Is Us way of telling the story. It was right there in front of your face the whole time. We weren’t hiding anything from you. It’s just that you have to be willing to see it. Kevin opens his eyes, and he goes, “My gosh, it was staring at me in the face the whole time. I wasn’t ready to see it.”
We had a romantic triangle with Kevin, Olivia, and Sloane. Now it’s a quadrangle. Or will it not be because he’ll be pursuing this one particular line moving forward?
Yeah, I think if there’s a triangle, it would be him, Sophie, and his career. I don’t think it’s another girl. … He is doing a self-analysis, and he’s looking at where he’s at, and instead of just taking it, he’s saying, “What have I done to put myself here?” And a lot of that is, “If I fill the room with this girl, or if I have this party, or if I have this job, then I won’t have to think about the obvious,” which is, he’s just lonely, and he’s yearning for that special someone, and he’s trying to meet this girl that in his mind is ideal. And then it’s like, “Holy s—, I had the ideal girl! I know exactly what she looks like, I know what she smells like, I know what she feels like, I know how her laugh is, I know the way she looks when she’s sleeping.” He knows the girl — he was married to her.
You get the sense that he might have been the one who screwed up this marriage. What can you hint at?
I can tell you that good people do bad things. A lot of times, especially in careers or where it’s really very competitive, you start to put that ahead of relationships and people, and I think that also had something to do with it. He lost himself a little bit, and he lost his way.
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Assess the level of fire that still exists between them. At first, you think it’s not going to well for him at her doorstep, but in the end, she relents a bit. How much of a flame is still there?
For him, it’s different. He’s in a different place. He’s realized it, and he’s like, “I know what it is now! I need this! This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life! I’m a 100 percent sure! I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life! This is what I’m doing!” And I think for her, as far the fire, it’s more like… remember Backdraft? I think that’s what it’s like. It’s a massive, massive fire that she has managed to put in a closet, and she’s got a door in front of it, and she’s protecting herself. And she knows what it means to get back involved with this guy. He’s got her number, and she does love him, but it’s like, “I’m finally okay now, and I’m supposed to sabotage everything I’ve worked on for the past  years so, what? We can go down this road again?” She loves him. But it’s that hissing underneath the door that you’re like, “What’s going to happen?” Is she even in control of what happens when she’s around the guy? It’s that relationship [where] you put them in a room and something’s going to happen.
NEXT PAGE: Hartley on what’s next for Kevin and Sophie
She sends that text, and he’s got that feeling like, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” How will they proceed? Baby steps?
I think it’s tough. Like any relationship, you go in cautiously and responsibly, and with passion and love and with, “Oh, my god, I’m having so much fun.” And then you start to do things that are reckless and then you stumble and fall and you go, “Oh, my god, we went too fast. Slow it down. Back it down. Let’s go back to what that was.” It’s a lot of what we’ve seen Kevin do — trying, but then like, “Dude, calm down. Slow down.” But he has a hard time doing that.
Is there a secret kid that we should — or should not — know about?
I don’t know. [Laughs.] I’ve often thought about that. If there is, I want it to be a secret from Kevin. I want him to not know about it. Because I’d have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that Kevin knew he had a kid and he didn’t reach out and try to be a father to be that kid. I’m sure they could write a great story around that, but if there is a secret kid… the bad version of the story is that Kevin cheated on her and that’s why they broke up. It was all about betrayal and she’s standing on her soapbox, and lo and behold, talk about betrayal, she has this kid that’s his that she’s never told him about. So you even the playing field that way.
Or is she in another relationship now?
Kevin is on a mission to get his girl back, and he hasn’t thought that far ahead. [Laughs.] This is part of his charm. He’s like, “This is what I want and this is how I get it, and I can’t wait. We belong together.” And then he’ll ask all the questions later. He’ll mop up the mess when everything’s done.
Kevin has been known to deliver an unexpected, high-impact speech. Which of these three monologues ranks as your favorite: Quitting The Manny, explaining the meaning of life to his nieces with his painting, or his doorstep stand at Sophie’s place?
I’m so lucky to have a great costar to bounce lines off of, it’s hard for me not to say the “Three Sentences” one. I love Kevin so much, and I love what he did there, and he’s growing up, and he’s taking ownership. For Kevin, it would be that one, because I’m so proud of him for doing that. [Laughs]. But for me, selfishly, just because it literally changed the trajectory of my career and it made people see me in a different way than they hadn’t seen me before, I would say the Manny meltdown. But they’re all fun. And to be totally honest with you, there’s a fourth one coming up in the next show that might be my absolute favorite of all of them.
The Sophie scene has probably one of the best arm metaphors I’ve heard in awhile.
If not the only one.
What was the best fan reaction you heard to Kevin’s surprise move?
What I really loved was that everyone had a side because there were only two. There were two girls, and everyone was so much about Sloane or so much about Olivia that it got ugly a little bit. People were like, “No, how can you say that? This is the girl!” And then conversely, it’d be like, “No, how can you say that? This is the girl.” It’s so beautiful the way they tell these stories. When you introduce this brand new character that we know nothing about, you realize that you’ve known her, and Kevin’s known her his whole life. So you immediately accept that and go, “Oh, it’s got to be her.”
And which side did you stand on in the Olivia-Sloane debate?
Umm, I gotta… Honestly, I completely understand Kevin’s dilemma because they’re both so different and so great. I’m like Kevin, I couldn’t possibly make a choice because they’re so great. For me personally, I know them as actors and as people, and they’re lovely human beings and talented actors. So there’s no possible way I could make a choice.
When you first read that twist in the script, what was the first thing you said to Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] about it?
Probably “Oh, s—! Of course he does! Oh, god, can you imagine?” I probably said something like that. “Oh, it’s perfect! Of course he does. Of course he does! Yeah. And that’s why he’s doing everything he’s doing. Now everything makes sense! Of course! Yes, of course!”
How are Sloane and Olivia going to react to this? I assume this is something that they’re not going to take well?
Maybe they end up together. [Laughs.] I don’t think they would take it well. For both of them, they probably are aware that this is not their soulmate. Let me put it this way: If you’re on your way to someone’s house to break up with them, and on your way there, you get a phone call and they break up with you, it doesn’t feel good. Even though, “Wait a minute, because I’ve been mulling this over for four weeks and you call me on my way there?” So that might be what it is.
In the 10th birthday flashbacks, Sophie ditches her best friend Kate for Kevin. Will we see a complicated Kate-Kevin-Sophie relationship dynamic moving through time?
I would imagine that it has evolved. But I truly don’t know. I was in my head picturing that they were friends by this point, but maybe not.
Obviously Jack’s death impacted Kevin greatly, but how many of Kevin’s issues are attributed to this failed marriage? Seems like it’s going to play a pretty big role.
Yeah. Huge, I think. And as he got further away from it, he started to realize what a big mistake he made. He’s done that with a lot of things, hasn’t he? His brother. He’s like, “Let’s be friends again. Come on, it’s fine. I’m different.” And he is. He’s graduated from that sort of stupid state, but it’s not a quick fix, right? You gotta put in the time. Same thing with Sophie. Same thing with his sister. Same thing with his mom. Same thing with the death of his dad, which he still hasn’t dealt with yet. That’s kind of his M.O., isn’t it? He’s like, “Ah, put that in a box, let’s compartmentalize it, let’s move on. It’s going to be fine.” And it’s not fine.
When he breaks up with Olivia and Sloane is in the wings, you’re just like—
He can’t catch a break.
Why would he give that speech to Olivia on the stage, where anyone —especially Sloane — could overhear it so easily?
This is the backstory I built, that might not have even been what actually happened, but in my mind it made sense. I was working, I was on stage, I was sitting there, I was ready, and she came early and asked me these difficult questions. … Anybody in their right mind would be like, “Dude, you could have been on speakerphone, man! Didn’t you—? The echo of your voice? It’s obvious you’re—“ And it just goes out the door. He’s like, “No, no, I have two priorities here. No. 1 is to make sure I don’t hurt her feelings. And No. 2 is to make sure that everyone likes me. And everything else goes out the window.” So at least in my mind, I don’t think he was sitting there, saying, “Well, I’m pretty exposed right now. My back is to the front door, and the mob’s after me.” I don’t think his brain thinks that way, you know? He’s just in the moment.
Dan summed it up best. He said, “Every time Kevin really tries to do something good, it’s when he winds up being perceived as the biggest dick. He’s just not good at being good, even though he is good.”
I’ll take that scenario in particular. He’s breaking up with this girl but trying to do it in a way to not hurt her feelings. That’s all he saw. That’s the only foresight that he had. So if she wouldn’t have walked in the room, you would have looked at it and been like, “Oh, he’s trying as hard as he can not to hurt her feelings, and she’s going to go have sex with this guy,” and it’s like, ‘Oh, jeez, dude.” He wasn’t mean to her. But Sloane was in the room, so it’s kind of unfortunate that she heard that. It wasn’t meant for her ears.
You’d think he would try to launch a defense, saying, “I was just telling Olivia that to try to make her feel better.”
No, he owned up to it.
Even when he calls Kate in this episode, and she has a bigger problem, he’s put out by that: “Now I gotta do the right thing.”
“Great. I called you to get advice, and now I gotta do something nice.”
Do you view him, like Dan said, as he’s just not good at being good, even though he is good?
Ummm… he doesn’t have the tools. But he’s trying. If he had the tools, he’d use them. I mean, he’s not a bad guy. He’s just like, “What? I don’t understand. What is that?” He doesn’t have the tools. He’s not even aware of them. He just doesn’t know what’s wrong with everyone else. Why is everyone so touchy? [Laughs).]
NEXT PAGE: Hartley on the revelation that the Big Three were teenagers when Jack died
Let’s talk about the big revelation at the end of the episode. In episode 5, we found out that Jack is dead. In this one, we find out more of a timeline: The Big Three were teenagers when he died. What was your reaction to that reveal? Did that seem like the right age for storytelling purposes where they’ll have lots of memories but still are at an impressionable, formative age?
Yeah. I’m fortunate enough that I have my father in my life, but I would imagine losing your father at 15, 16, 17 is a lot different than losing your father at 36, 37, 38. You have a lot of growing up to do, especially a father like Jack, who seems very hands-on. And this is how you be a man. … In those formative years, we lost our father, our center. It’s a great device for storytelling, to tell how Randall and Kevin drifted apart. I don’t think Jack would have let that happen. He would have put the kibosh on that, like, [snaps fingers] quick.
How did you feel when you read it? Was it a gut punch that we were finally seeing that funeral?
Oh, totally. And knowing what I know about the way they put the show together, the cinematography, like, the way they’re going to put that, [I thought], “It’s just going to rip your guts out.” It’s what we do. [Laughs.]… It answers a lot of questions for the audience, too. A lot of questions I was getting were like, “When did he die?” Because it does matter. It truly does matter. … It hits you when it’s like, “Oh my gosh, they were so young when he died.” It didn’t happen last year or four years. They were young. That time in a young man’s life, he needs his dad. And there’s a lot of questions that he has, ranging from schoolwork to drugs to alcohol to women, everything. To have him missing, and the fact that he was such a big part of their lives until that happened, all of the sudden, you’re like, “Oh, that’s where the family started having a problem.”
What struck you when you saw how they put the scene together? The audience sees just little wisps of the funeral.
What I got from it is it looked like something you weren’t supposed to be at. It was like a peephole. I love the way they shot that, where it was like you’re peeping in on this very intimate, private moment, this solemn thing. The door was cracked open, and you heard something you shouldn’t have heard.
We were given a hint about the age of the Big Three at the time of Jack’s death when Kevin has that strong reaction to the widower saying that her son is 15. Dan said he cut a line from the episode indicating that Kevin was the same age when his dad died, because he felt it was too early — and it would put you “ahead of it” when you saw the teenage Big Three for the first time. Did it feel like it was too early when you shot it, and if so, did it seem like a better move to you to wait and save that for later?
That’s a good question. I’m glad you’re asking me that now instead of before I knew Dan. Because I would have said to you, “Stick the line in. I mean, 15 — that is such a pivotal time in a young man’s life. That’s exactly when it should be, and that’s just great storytelling, and keep the line in. It’s a huge mistake to not say it. You’ve got to say when it happened.” And now that I know him and I know the way he tells stories — and he’s much, much, much better at it than anyone I’ve ever met — I would say to you that he’s absolutely right. I’m sure he’s absolutely right. I don’t second-guess anything that man does, ever. I totally understand what he’s saying. They look to be, what, 16, 17 18? Is that how old they are at the funeral?
That’s what he said.
So they’re right there anyway. Now on second thought you’re like, well, I know how I was at 15, but I also had friends of mine at 15 that were much less mature than my 12-year-old sister. And at 17, 18, there’s a huge difference between 15 and 18, you know? When you’re growing up, you’ve experienced a lot more, and that’s going to hit you a lot harder, so I think it’s the right decision. And I totally get what he’s saying, absolutely. Because then you have that beautiful peephole moment where you’re looking in, and everyone’s feeling that. These are young adults here, not children.
I know Dan said it will be a while before we get more answers about Jack — and they’ll come slowly — but now, any time that the teenage Big Three are on screen, it seems like it will be stressful. “Is this when Jack bites it?” “What about now?” There’ll be a tension every time we’re with the teenage Big Three.
That’s a good point. I hadn’t really thought about that until just now. “Is this the day before? Is this the morning before? Is this two weeks before?” Because we know it happens. It happens here in the next year or two. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would imagine that that was by design.
Breakthrough moments of grieving are coming out at strange times for the Big Three. It was the drum circle for Kate and, for Kevin, it was in the arms of the widower he didn’t know.
It’s weird. You find a safe place in someone who you feel like maybe they can’t judge you because they don’t know you. And he had an assumed name even at the funeral.
The next episode airs Feb. 7. Can you give us a three-word tease?
Anticipation. Hope. Promise.
To find out who was just cast as William’s mother in an upcoming episode, click here.