This Is Us star Justin Hartley on the mystery mother — and what awaits Kevin in season 4
"He's realizing that he's a lot like his dad," says the actor about Kevin's upcoming journey.
The third season of This Is Us ended with a family reunion deep in the future, but it wasn’t quite cause for celebration. The circumstances of this Pearson gathering seemed to be as ominous as they were mysterious, as Even Older Rebecca (Mandy Moore) lay in bed, seemingly at the end of her life. On the more encouraging side, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) clearly had repaired the divide that separated them, thus retaining their crown as America’s Goals Couple. And although he didn’t even appear on screen during the sequence, the most famous member of the Big Three, a.k.a. rising actor/recovering alcoholic Kevin (Justin Hartley), was responsible for some feel-good, family-expanding news. After breaking up with girlfriend Zoe (Melanie Liburd) in the present day when it became clear that she would never share his dreams of parenthood, Kevin was revealed to be a future father, and the mother of his son was revealed to be… not so fast, this is This Is Us, and that mystery will be teased out a while for speculative sport.
NBC’s festival of emotions won’t return for several months, but it’s never too early to roll out the red carpet for Hartley (who recently hit the big screen in Little and will do it again in The Hunt). In the following Q&A, the actor who shines as an actor opens up about that son of a surprise, what might be ailing Rebecca (and Toby & Kate, for that matter), and what drama(s) might ensnare Kevin in season 4.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: While there are some happy discoveries in the finale flash-forward — Randall and Beth are doing fine; Kevin has a son — the last moment with Rebecca was a haunting image on which to end the season. What was going through your mind when you read that whole sequence?
JUSTIN HARTLEY: The core cast, we know where the story goes, so it wasn’t that shocking to hear where the story was going. What was shocking was that it was going to be in the show so early. Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] and Isaac [Aptaker, executive producer] and Elizabeth [Berger, executive producer], they’re constantly doing this. It’s really strange how you can read a script — even now — and be blown away by how shocking it is, because that’s all they do. I fall into that trap every single time… Reading it doesn’t even prepare you for what you see, in my opinion. I know Mandy to be so young and like a supermodel/wonderful actress/genius, and then to see her like that — it takes your breath away a little bit, you know?
That Rebecca scene does spur questions. Randall reminds her of his name when he enters the room. It seems like she has some form of dementia; some fans are even speculating blindness. She did have a brain tumor scare in the ’90s, and I’ve been wondering if that is somehow related. Are any of these in the ballpark?
I don’t want to get into specifics of what it is, just because that’ll take away from my job security. No, it will take away from the cliffhangers. Obviously, you’re not too far off. She’s not doing well. You can tell just by looking at her and then the fact that Randall had to repeat his name a couple of times when he walked in there and he didn’t seem shocked about it. I don’t know what goes first, but once somebody starts to break down, it all starts to break down.
Whatever exactly is causing this demise — was it surprising to you to learn what it was?
Yeah, it was when I found out. You see her a certain way throughout the series. We flash back, and even when she’s not doing well, she’s doing well. And then all of a sudden to see this, it’s kind of like a shock. It’s a really well-told story about many things, but one of the things I think is just about how goddamn hard life is sometimes.
You mentioned that you were surprised that this flash-forward came so early. Is that because it is a piece of the end game? Dan has said that this flash-forward was as deep into the future that the show would venture, and Sterling indicated that this could even be the last day on which we see the Pearsons….
Yeah. It’s not like we have [only] one more year. If that is, in fact, one of the last days if not the last day, it’s interesting, to see that and then go, “Oh sh—. There’s a lot of ground to cover between where we are now and that last scene.” Usually you don’t see toward the end — I mean, Quentin Tarantino does it sometimes — but to see kind of where everybody ends up, roughly, so early on in a series that’s going to continue for a few more years at least — it’s kind of a treat, isn’t it?
Kevin has a son, which means there’s a mother, which means there is another “Who is ‘her’?” situation brewing. How compelling is this mystery — and how long will it play out in season 4?
As far as the timeline, I’ve been told a few different things. They know what it is, but I think the “when” — when we find out — they’re deciding. But yeah, it’s pretty compelling. It’s pretty awesome. It comes together in a way where it’s very satisfying for the audience. I also think it makes a lot of sense, and it’s one of those standard This Is Us writer moments where when you see it, you go, “Why didn’t I see that coming?” But you can’t see it until it’s in front of your face. It’s like, “Oh, oh, okay! Yeah. Oh, good. Okay. Okay!”…. It’s in keeping with the story and Kevin and who he’s become and who he used to be, for sure.
Is there more story to tell between Kevin and Sophie [Alexandra Breckenridge], whether or not she is the mother?
In a way, she’ll always be in his life in some capacity… One of his ailments is addiction. So one of the things that happens — I’ve done enough research to feel comfortable about talking about it in a way — is there’s this feeling of being alone and not being able to deal with it, so you self-medicate. And one of the things that I think that she will give to him and that she will always be there with him, whether it’s physical or not, is this sense of not ever having to be alone, always having someone there with you…. I love [Alexandra]. I think she’s a wonderful actress. I also love that story line. I love the idea of this playboy, cavalier kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants guy that we met has this one true love. I think it’s so awesome. And so Jack. I certainly hope that there’s more of that story to be told.
Any chance that this son is not his only child?
There’s a chance for that, for sure! There’s a chance for everything. The story line around this kid and Kevin’s future and where he is now and where he’s going is definitely a bigger story than where we found him in the pilot and where he is now. Most of his story has [yet] to be told. I would say that for all the characters, honestly.
We also don’t know if Kevin and the mother are still together. There are a lot of questions swirling around here….
Tons. As far as the audience goes, we know absolutely nothing. I mean, did he find this kid? [Laughs.] Did he adopt this kid? Did he get married? Did he have this kid out of wedlock? Does he have more than one child? Is this is the oldest? Is this his youngest? Why wasn’t he there? I know it was said he went to get food… It just seems like it’s wide open for an amazing story to be told.
We didn’t see Kevin in the flash-forward, because he was picking up take-out. Were you bummed or relieved to not have to don the old age makeup yet? And have you seen a preview of what you’ll look like in the future?
I have not seen a preview of what I’m going to look like in the future. I was both. Bummed just for selfish reasons, because the makeup department does such a great job with the prosthetics and the makeup. You’ve seen how they age people 10, 15, 20, 30 years. It’s incredible. What they did with older Tess is insane. No, I’m kidding! Totally different person. [Adult Tess is played by Iantha Richardson.] So in a way I was a little bit bummed because I want to see what that looks like…. How do you see him?
I feel like he aged well.
Yeah, like Harrison Ford.
Sure, that’s where I was going.
Or Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt is, like, 70 years old and that dude looks, like, 37. It’s insane, right? I’ve waited 40 years for that guy to have his 40th birthday.
While we don’t see future Kevin, we see that he has a nice house. He’s taking care of Rebecca at his home. Is Kevin in a good place in the future?
Yeah. Obviously everyone has stress and everyone has things that they wish were a little better, and everyone has regrets. But he seems to be at peace. Which is something that I was kind of hoping that we would [see]. When I read like the pilot and I was like, “Oh, I hope this guy finds peace.” He seems like a nice guy that just kind of has lost his way. So I think he’s discovered the great man that he always was, but he didn’t know how to live in that skin comfortably.
Dan says that Melanie will return as a guest star. She can continue in the story not just through Kevin but through Beth, given that they’re cousins. Any hints about how she might re-enter the fray?
It’s one of the interesting things, right? I would like to see Kevin and Zoe kind of reconnect and talk about the choice that they both made and whether or not it was the right choice and where their lives are now. You know what would be really f—ing weird? If they met up at a mall. I don’t know if Kevin can really go to the mall anymore — probably not — but if he ran into her at some awards show and she had her two kids with her and he’s like, “What the—? Wait a minute. You said you didn’t want kids! You have eight kids!” It’s like, “What I meant to say was I didn’t want kids with you.”
Not sharing the same views on having children can be a near-impossible divide to cross. Were you hoping to see more of their relationship, though?
That’s a tough one because story-wise, I get it. It’s a compelling story and it’s a real thing and it makes sense — that’s a deal breaker. But also, I love [Melanie]. We have so much fun together. I think she’s great. So just selfishly for me, it was a little bit disappointing because I just really loved working with her. And then also she really likes being on the show. It’s always nice to have people that you work with that really love the work and the work environment as much as you do. But at the same time, I get story. If that’s the deal breaker, then that’s the deal breaker. You never know. They leave these doors open. I doubt we’ve seen the last of her, to be honest with you.
Nicky (Griffin Dunne) was a surprise guest at Rebecca’s bedside. Kevin had been working hard in the present day to reintegrate Nicky into the family and help him put his life back together. Is it fair to say that Kevin’s efforts paid off somewhere down the line or is the situation much more complicated than that?
Both. I think it’s complicated. His efforts definitely paid off. Without Kevin’s efforts, I don’t know if they ever would have reconnected with Nicky at all. But it definitely is more complicated. That’s another story that we’re going to dive pretty deep into this year — that whole Kevin-Nicky dynamic thing. We’ll see a lot of that this year as well.
And what can you hint about that dynamic?
That trip to Vietnam and all of these things that Kevin was looking for — he didn’t really get any answers, except that really huge one at the end, which was: you have an uncle that’s alive. But he can help fill in some of those blanks that Kevin has, some of those questions [about Jack]…. Even though Jack never lived to be that age and it’s not the same person, it’s his brother, and it’s a version of what Kevin’s dad would have looked like at that age. Even though he’s a little bit broken down and he had a harder life and he didn’t really take care of himself, still, the soul and the spirit is his brother…. That relationship opens up a little bit more. And I know Nicky does not want to really talk about the war and he gave that long story of his version of the war, but I’m sure there are tidbits in there: “I remember when your dad….” So a lot of that stuff will come out and help Kevin out a little bit.
Miguel (Jon Huertas) was conspicuously MIA. Should viewers fear that another acronym, R.I.P., is on the horizon for him?
If you’re, I mean, I think, let’s see… hmmm… there’s a lot of… look, everybody dies, man. So far, everyone has died. I will say this: there’s a lot more of his story to be told as well. The story, as it unfolds, you start to realize how big it is, and how you’re like, “Oh God, three seasons and all we’ve done is this?” We still have a lot of story to tell. A lot.
Toby (Chris Sullivan) arrives separately from Kate (Chrissy Metz). He’s not wearing his wedding ring. How worried should fans be that Kate and Toby are not together in the future?
God, you’re really sticking it to me! I think nothing on the show is done by accident. If you noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, there was a reason for that. Now whether they’re together or not, I don’t know if that’s the reason. The fact that he showed up with the sidewalk chalk. The fact that he showed up without Kate. I mean, all those things are significant. All of those stories will be told. All of those flash-forwards where you go, “Well, why is that?” Well, that will be told. So, stay tuned. Worried? I don’t know, worried is a lot. How about: Intrigued and interested.
Some fans have even speculated that Kate is not alive. What is your favorite crazy theory that you heard after the finale?
I’ve heard so many. There was a speech that Kevin had. I think it was season 2, where he was talking to Randall and they were playing that game that Randall and Beth play. Worst fear. And Kevin’s was, “Kate and I both grow old and lonely, and we ended up living together and people think we’re married, and after a while we get so sick of explaining ourselves that we’re brother and sister that when they say, ‘Are you guys married?,’ we don’t even correct them anymore.” So someone’s theory was remembering that speech, going, “Oh my God, Kevin and Kate are single and they live together as husband and wife!” And I’m like, “I don’t think Kevin and Kate are going to be living together as husband and wife, guys.” But people have really great imaginations. I love that people are interested.
Toby shows up with the sidewalk chalk and Beth is bringing the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game, which ties into the Big Three’s childhood birthdays. Why is Toby the one bringing the sidewalk chalk? And is possibly this one last family birthday moment before Rebecca is gone?
That whole Toby thing is so complex. Toby just is love. He’s just a strong — stronger than he realizes — lovely guy. And I think when people are in need, he’s one of the first ones to reach out with his big arms and grab you and take care of you. That’s just kind of in his nature, so that’s probably close to what that was. He also may be running an errand. In moments like that, people are so focused on one thing that all of the other things that need to be done get neglected. It’s like, “Okay, let’s eat.” “Well, we don’t have any food.” He’s the guy that’s taking care of people.
How significant and emotional will that sidewalk chalk and the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game be?
How significant and emotional do you think? Come on, man! As much as you can possibly take, right there, walking that line. [Laughs.]
Fair enough. Dan mentioned that season 4 will feature “restarts for everybody” and a “very scary period” for some characters. Does Kevin fall into both of these categories?
Both. Depending on how much you like Kevin. [Laughs.] As far as the restarts, he’s moving, and also we see that he’s got a family of his own, and that obviously came about from some kind of a restart. What that is, we don’t really know yet. Sometimes “restarts” mean complete change and people will probably try something again for the first time and other characters will completely shift gears and be like, “Well, I’m doing this now. I’m not doing that anymore with you,” or “I’m not pursuing this anymore, I’m going this way.” And as far as the scary period goes, I don’t want to speak for [Dan], but I’m just going over it in my head and I’m trying to figure out what character that doesn’t apply to.
Kevin moved to L.A. to be closer to his new nephew, Jack. Rebecca is moving there, too. Is that important for his stability as he continues to try to stay sober and battle addiction?
I think so. Anytime you have people around you when you’re battling something like that, it’s good. And it also shows that he’s accepting help more than he did before and understanding that this isn’t just something where you say, “Okay, I got a problem. I got it under control. I don’t need help.” I like that it seems like he’s understanding the severity of it and the fact that he can’t do it alone. I also like that he’s showing so much compassion for other people.
Can you leave us with a cryptic tease about Kevin?
Is it cryptic if we find out that he’s more like Jack than we ever thought? In certain ways. But the cryptic part of it would be in his quest to find out all these questions about his dad and hoping that that would fill in the blanks for him and help him become a better man, he’s realizing that he’s a lot like his dad, but he’s also so much like himself. He’s used his own guy and in certain ways he’s not at all like his father, good or bad. He’s definitely his own man. We’re going to see a lot more of that. Where did that come from?