This Is Us: Justin Hartley on Kevin's darkest day and that Kate cliffhanger
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?
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 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 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.
Kevin is on Charlotte’s (Stefanie Black) lawn, begging for her to give him back his necklace after he bailed on her following a one-night stand and stole a prescription. When she shuts the window on him, he is left with nothing, and cries out for help from anyone, though no one can hear him. It’s a pathetic moment for him, a bottoming-out. What resonated with you about shooting that scene?
In my head, I pictured him as a baby. I remember when I had my daughter, she’d cry when she was a baby, before she knew how to speak. I would get so stressed out sometimes, because I’m like, “Why is she crying? I don’t understand. Is she hurt? Is she this? Is she that?” And I broke it down. I was like, “Okay, I can help her, because she’s either hungry or she’s tired or she needs a diaper change, or maybe I need to burp her. That’s about it. She’s crying because she can’t speak.” I thought, “You know, this is Kevin. He has gone through his whole life, literally in English, that this is not the way it should work. No one will hear him. It’s like he’s a baby, and no one understands the words that are coming out of his mouth. Well, maybe I’ll just do that. Just cry.” Because he doesn’t have the words. It’s almost like he can’t communicate what he’s feeling to other people, and it becomes this overwhelming thing that causes you to have this physiological reaction, which is called crying, which we all do. And I thought, “Well, that’s what that is.” It is pathetic. And it’s also helpless — and rock bottom. It’s all he can do to stand up. It’s awful.
When Kevin is in a haze of intoxication while accepting his award at the high school, he sees Jack in place of his high school coach. Adult Randall (Sterling K. Brown) had the mushroom smoothie hallucination at the cabin where he got to interact with Jack. You have long wanted to have scenes with Milo. What was that moment like to film?
I had said that about three or four times, and I didn’t realize how many times I had been saying that until I was reading [them]. And I was like, “I’m never going to say that again, because I don’t want anybody to get any ideas of, like, ‘Let’s figure out a way to put them together!’ I’m not in that [writers’] room. I don’t know if that was ever even brought up, but I like how it was done because it didn’t seem like, “Oh, this will be clever.” He’s hallucinating. In that room, in those moments, Jack was there. Kevin saw Jack — and it was just a really great way to tell that story and not make it hokey. And a by-product of that was that I got to work with Milo. That’s the way I looked at it.
Were you like, “Look! We’re actually getting to do it’?
Well, we called each other, and I was like. “Dude, there’s a scene!” And he was like, “I know! But it’s not like hokey or a trick — it’s really cool.” It’s an interesting thing to happen on our show where you’ll read something and you’ll be like, “Wow, that seems a lot! What is that all about? That is really, really — I don’t want to say overdone, but it’s reading that way a little bit.” And then you’ll go to do it, and you’ll be like, “Oh, no, they’re just brilliant. They just get it — and I don’t.” [Laughs.] They’re great.
How did Sophie, a nurse, and then Charlotte, a doctor, not recognize the signs that Kevin was in trouble?
On a scale of “They’re done” to “Who doesn’t like third chances?”, where do Kevin and Sophie stand? There’s still a bit of unfinished business here.
See, I just got married, so you’re talking to a sappy kind of guy. I can’t imagine anything my wife could possibly do that would not make me give her a third chance. But I also understand that there are limits…. We fall in love with these characters that we play, so for me, it’s like, “Yeah, a third chance. He deserves it. He’s a good guy.” But that’s not his call anymore, that’s Sophie’s call.
When Kevin shows up at his brother’s house in an act of reaching out for help, Randall says he knows why he’s there…. and then he tells him the horrible news about Kate. Will he try to stuff down his feelings again to focus on Kate, who is in huge need of help, or is he in a place where he can still ask Randall for help?
I think he obviously knows that that takes precedence, and he’s going to shove it down even further probably and try to handle it on his own. And also, that’s very familiar territory to Kevin, when it’s like, “I said I need help. I need help right now.” And then one of the other two triplets takes the No. 1 spot. I think he’s just in a familiar way going, “If any of my [siblings] has a problem, I better just not say anything.” His whole life has been like that, and everyone will think I’m okay.
When you read that twist in the script, what was the first thought that raced through your head?
My first thought was, “Oh, sh—, I thought we hit rock bottom with Kevin but I guess not.” It’s in his DNA to try to handle things on his own, and unless he gets some kind of revelation for no reason, he’s going to try to tackle this on his own, and that’s not going to go well.
And how much guilt is he going to feel, as we saw him ignoring the calls that he was getting from Kate and Toby that day while he spiraled down?
I think a million pounds. I think it adds to it. He’s had these moments where he’s just basically giving himself as much grief and as much heartache and as much pain and he’s inflicting it on himself as much as he possibly can, and then now he hears that, and there’s a reason why he’s a piece of whatever you want to call it. And it just adds to the fire, really.
The ending seemed to take away the opportunity for a mirror scene of “Jack Pearson’s Son,” and this time it would be Kevin crying in Randall’s arms, giving us perfect symmetry? Are we ruling that out, or is it still a possibility?
[Laughs.] I don’t know, but knowing these writers and the way that they tell stories, they will pay it forward I’m sure. You definitely hear the characters talk about that moment again, I will tell you that.
And for the record, you do want to be held by Sterling?
Listen, I’ll tell you what. I saw on my email that there was a Sexiest Man Alive issue, and I saw Sterling and Milo in that thing, so either one of those son of a guns can hold me. I don’t have to pick one.
That would be quite a scene. I’m trying to picture the circumstances.
If you look at the photo, I’m being held by both of them, so it’s okay, actually.
Kate was so conservative about this pregnancy, hiding it from everybody and Toby helped coax her out of her caution a bit. What can you tease about how she’s going to processes the tragedy?
One of her rocks is Kevin. Or her main rock. We sorted through all that at the beginning of the year. That was the whole thing that Kevin and Toby [Chris Sullivan] had, like, “I’m the guy now.” And Kevin’s like, “Well, I’ve been the guy. I don’t know what to tell you.” She had to go through this whole thing without her brother that she’s gone through everything with. So it’s going to take a lot because all those gaps that he fills in for her are now just gaping. She’s going to have to lean on somebody else, I would assume.
What is your one-sentence tease for “Number Two,” which will focus on Kate?
I’ll give you two words: Chrissy Metz. It is another story that’s told about a very beloved character, Kate Pearson, and it’s performed epically by her. It is deep and it’s another story about something that a lot of people deal with. These are people who everyone can relate to, and they go, “Holy s—, if that’s not me, I know someone exactly like that.” We’re talking about things that people don’t talk about, and it’s so cool.
To read what This Is Us exec producer Isaac Aptaker had to say about Kate’s miscarriage and Kevin’s spiral, click here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.