'This Is Us' Star Justin Hartley on His Meta Role and Going Toe to Toe With Sterling K. Brown

The 'Smallville' grad breaks down integral scenes from Tuesday's episode and previews Kevin's hopeful "breakthrough."
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's This Is Us.]

Before NBC freshman drama This Is Us began airing, viewers were more likely to know Justin Hartley from his daytime turns on Passions and The Young and the Restless or even as the original Green Arrow/Oliver Queen portrayer on Smallville. But thanks to the Dan Fogelman family drama's early success and strong critical praise, Hartley’s somewhat meta role as Kevin — the actor who stormed out on his leading role as "The Manny" in the pilot — has helped to change his career.

For several episodes, audiences have watched as Kevin’s relationship with his adoptive brother, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), has unfolded into a complex, often hurtful situation — one that, as children, dictated how the brothers would grow into the men viewers met in the pilot. That fractured adult relationship took a turn for the worse during Tuesday’s “The Best Washing Machine in the Whole World” episode, as the brothers’ competitive streaks got the best of them and they finally had a frank conversation about their past.

To dig into what it was like filming some of those integral scenes, THR caught up with Hartley to talk about the episode, his career path and playing an actor on primetime.

What was your audition process like for this role?

It was one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever read in my life, which is odd, knowing that it’s a pilot. Pilots usually aren’t the strongest episodes, but it was beautifully written, and I loved the twist at the end. I totally related to that guy and thought it would be fun to play an actor. The audition process itself was what you would imagine. I went in, got the appointment and read. By the time I had gotten back in my car, I had gotten word that they liked what I did and they wanted me to come back in. I went in a couple of weeks later, did the tape, and the network approved it. It was kind of painless, not too bad.

Which scenes did you have to do?

The scene where I’m talking about the Challenger and how it exploded and I’m with those two girls talking about my life and how I became The Manny and you see this guy is kind of like a ticking time bomb. That was like three scenes in the pilot, but it was one big monologue when I read it. Once I had gotten the role, they wanted me to come in and read with Chrissy Metz, so I came in and did the scene on the bathroom floor where I’m eating ice cream and she’s depressed.

Do you find any similarities between yourself and Kevin, careerwise?

For everybody in this business, unless a miracle happens, everyone you’ve seen who has had even a little bit of success has had equal if not more failure in order to get there. To get there, you certainly embark on this string of "no"s. I think any actor can relate to the feeling of “Just tag me in, coach, give me a chance.” Athletes go through the same thing. To be quite honest, most people in any job or career probably go though that, when you want a chance to prove what you can do or somebody is taking away a chance at something you can do. In turn, you end up being perceived in a way you don’t want to be perceived in. It’s a bit frustrating, but hopefully people won’t handle themselves like Kevin did. He sort of needed that meltdown, though. Like Jerry Maguire said: a breakdown and then a breakthrough. So hopefully that will happen for him.

Looking back at your career, could you pinpoint your own “tag me in” feeling where you succeeded and it was pivotal for you?

Yeah, a few times. That’s what begets more jobs is when people see you do those scenes. Certainly my time on Revenge was great; it was a different character I’d never played before. He kills a priest, he’s gay — I think only once before I’d played a gay character. There are things that go along with that; Patrick wasn’t able to tell people who he was and live his life out in the open. That’s got to be a horrible feeling. I know people who have lived like that. It doesn’t have to do with sexuality, but it’s not comfortable. For Patrick, it was like this huge thing, and it was a huge influence on how he handled himself. I enjoyed them writing those difficult scenes for me.

Smallville was certainly one of them. That was a five-episode arc. I was supposed to come in for a couple of months and leave. Because of the way they wrote it and because of the way I related to the character and people responded to it, it became much more than that, and I was there for years. But a lot of times, people don’t see those moments because those moments in a career happen in an audition room. I’ve seen it and been on the other side, where I’ve seen people read for a role, and it’s just like, “Oh, that’s it. I didn’t realize that’s what it was, but that’s it.”

What kind of difference have you found between working in daytime and primetime?

There’s a huge difference. I don’t mean that in terms of talent or anything like that, but the sheer volume at which that medium has to be produced creates an inherent difference. I couldn’t imagine if we had to do an episode of This Is Us per day. I don’t know what it would look like or how the stories would be affected but they definitely would be — you just don’t have enough time. That also affects the process. On my last two days of Young and the Restless, I had 120-something pages of dialogue. My last two days. Right now, it’s like going to the gym, and you train for a certain thing, and I could do like 20 or 30 pages of dialogue a day. And now I don’t know if I could do that. You don’t have the luxury to prepare or rehearse. Anytime you’re able to slow it down and review it, think about it a little bit more, the goal is that it gets better.

Has this show taught you anything about family or vice versa?

Totally. I’ve learned that my family is completely weird, and I’ve also learned that, in certain instances, my family isn’t nearly as weird as I thought they were. In this past episode there was a lot of Kevin and Randall and their lifelong rivalry. Not even rivalry, it goes beyond that. These two do things to each other that you wouldn’t ever consider doing to a complete stranger. It’s just nasty things. One of the things you think about is: Family is family. I don’t know if my brother has ever been mean and nasty in that way, but if he were, he’d be one of the easiest people to forgive just because he’s my brother. There’s something about sharing blood with someone that, I guess, your willingness to forgive them is a little bit greater and your willingness to put up with some of their BS is a little bit greater. That’s family. You’ve got them forever.

Speaking of Randall and Kevin’s competitiveness, can you break down what went into filming that jogging scene?

I think I’m faster. (Laughs.) Well, they’re vying for different things. Randall is trying to find his identity and be accepted. He’s trying to be perfect every step of the way. And Kevin is trying to be noticed and special, which is one of the reasons he enjoys acting so much; finally the spotlight is on him. He’s been waiting his whole life for this, where people are forced to pay attention to him. The jogging scene turns into this thing where they come together, and it becomes this ridiculous sprint. They’re not professional athletes, they’re morons. It never ends, it’s this constant one-upmanship. Sterling is such a fun guy to play off of. It’s such a fun, fun day of work when I get to work with him.

Does Kevin grow more self-aware as the episodes go on?

That’s one of the phrases I always use on set if I’m ever struggling in the moment to figure out why Kevin is doing what he’s doing. He was always self-aware of certain things on a surface level, like maybe how people will think about him. But now he’s starting to realize how deep that goes, to the point where he has now become self-aware of how other people perceive him. Like he’s a joke. And he’s admitting the fact that he doubts himself all the time, and then he becomes even more self-aware when he realizes that he’s getting in the way of Kate’s relationship. And, now, even more so when he realizes his actions when he was a kid had a great impact on Randall and the way he behaves and maybe some of the problems he has. He’s starting to really realize his impact on everyone else, little by little. But it’s painful stuff. Things that are hard to talk about, but he dives right in.

What was it like shooting in Times Square?

It was great. There’s nothing like it. At the risk of sounding cliche, there is an energy that you can’t duplicate. Same thing with New Orleans. Same thing with L.A.: There’s a different kind of energy. That New York energy, when you’ve got the benefit of great weather, it really is terrific. You look up at that skyline, and the Empire State Building is literally in your eyesight — there’s nothing like that. It changes things a little bit. It’s definitely worth it.

What kind of prep did you and Sterling do for the scuffle scene?

It was one of those things where we talked about it and decided that, as grown men, if a grown man punches me in the side of the head and I don’t know it’s coming, I’m probably going to end up on the floor. That’s just the way it works. You don’t hit a person as a grown man unless you want to hurt him. I didn’t think Kevin or Randall were trying to hurt each other; they were just frustrated. It’s like, “I want to fight you as much as I can fight you without hurting you.” It’s this heartbreaking, sort of wonderful thing that’s going on where these two dudes are very competitive and they’re trying to win, but they’re not trying to knock the other one out with permanent damage.

What was it like having Seth Meyers come on board for a cameo?

It was great — he is hilarious. He’s definitely gifted with comedic timing and joke delivery. To see it in person is cool. You do these things over and over and over again, and he never did it the same way twice, never. I don’t know how they figured out which one to use because they were all equally funny. I’d never met him before, but he’s a true pleasure.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments, below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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