'This Is Us': Justin Hartley warns that Kevin is 'not even close to rock bottom'

Yahoo TV

This postmortem contains spoilers from last night’s “Number One” episode of This Is Us.

How the mighty have fallen. Kevin once seemed like the most adjusted of the Pearson siblings, but those season one This Is Us days are long gone. The rich, handsome, and famous brother is now spinning out on a grand scale. After ruining it with Sophie and holing up in a Hollywood hotel for a week of booze, opiates, and sports, Kevin goes back to high school to accept an alumni award, which stirs up a lot of painful memories about his broken dreams, his knee injury, and his dead dad. It leads to meaningless sex, stolen prescription pads, forgery, the loss of a prized possession, and failing to be there for his twin in her time of need.

Justin Hartley knows it is rough to watch Kevin lose himself to addiction, but he is also very proud of “Number One,” his installment in the trio of episodes that each focus on one of the Pearson kids on the same day in the past and the present, and the all-too-real ripped-from-the-headlines story they are trying to tell. Hartley spoke with Yahoo TV about playing wasted, his theory on why Kevin has been driven to such behavior by his inability to deal with Jack’s death, that scruffy beard, and how audiences should not expect him to get back on the wagon anytime soon.

When you found out that they were working on this trio of episodes were you feeling excitement or pressure regarding carrying an episode mostly by yourself?
Maybe both. There’s always pressure because people love the show so much. But I’m in a really good position because I have so much faith in the writing and in Dan’s vision for where the show is going. It’s just the responsibility to live up to the quality of the show and the writing, but that’s what you live for as an actor. I relied on the writing a lot. That script was amazing. I leaned on the director, Ken Olin, a lot. I thank the editors that saved me in the editing room. I thank the audience for watching. The show is called This is Us and it sounds so cheesy, but it really is a collaborative effort. The camera was on me for much of the episode but oddly enough it is the biggest ensemble episode I’ve ever been part of. These are the opportunities of a lifetime. I’m just so thrilled that they took the time to write something like this for my character and that they trusted me and that they cast me for him. I think he’s the richest, best character on television. There’s so much going on with this guy. We just scratched the surface last year and then we started to see more about him this year.

I was talking with executive producer Isaac Aptaker last week about how it’s now pretty clear Kevin gets the trophy per usual for most maladjusted. Would you agree?
A hundred percent. You have this actor and he’s famous and be rich and he’s going to have a massive house, great cars, and girls. He acts like everything is fine. He’s going to take whatever you would need and multiply it by a zillion and that’s what he’s going to do to make up for things that he can’t control, which is his father’s death. And not only that, he’s going to bury it and not talk about it. Because you know, if you don’t talk about something, it goes away. This is how he functions. But that’s insane. What ends up happening is it drives him until it ends up driving him over the edge. Something’s got to give, right? That’s what we see in this episode. 

Photo: NBC
Photo: NBC

We learn a lot about a very pivotal and traumatic time when Kevin’s life plan changed in an instant and also more about how he avoids processing his grief. What do you think was the most important takeaway about your character from this episode?
I think you realize he spent his whole life in the public eye with everyone watching, and yet he feels he’s been doing them completely alone. His whole life has been making up for something or trying to fill a void that he can’t possibly ever fill. He’s convinced that if he is a big, famous actor that everyone notices, he can disguise this pain enough to where it won’t be there anymore. I think you start to see that he’s been really lonely. He lost touch with who he actually is and he’s lost his identity. He doesn’t know who the f**k he is.

And it seems like when he does try to ask for help or reveal that he is not worthy of all this affection like at the awards ceremony, no one listens.
Yeah not only am I not perfect, I’m trying to tell you how jacked up I am. And you know what’s interesting is that in a lot of these interviews, people are like “I never saw that he had any problems.” Even my friends are like, “Yeah, Kevin complains about things that don’t really matter. He complains about things that aren’t really problems.” And I’m like, “Wait, he just said this bothers him and you’re saying, ‘Eh, it’s not really a thing.’” People are telling him what is important and what is not important, or what should or should not bother him. It’s almost like he’s not allowed to say what his problems are. Man, that’s tough.

It’s like beautiful, skinny, rich people can’t possibly have real problems. They always get their way in life, right?
That’s funny because we all do it. I do it. I heard someone say something so interesting once and I was thinking about it as a theme when I was trying to prep for this episode. They say that if you take all of your problems and put them outside on the curb and then there’s one day that where your entire neighborhood can go around and trade problems, you end up going home and bringing your own problems back into your own house, because we all imagine that other people have it easier. But when you see what they have to deal with, you’re like, “I wouldn’t know how to deal with that.”

What did you think when they told you that Kevin’s season 2 path was going to include painkiller and alcohol addiction?
What was most important to me is that we told an honest story. I wanted people that are suffering from addiction or mental illness-related dependency on alcohol or drugs to be able to watch this show and see that’s a real depiction of how things are. You don’t kick these things on your own. You need help. You need a big group of people around you helping you through and you need a bunch of people championing you. I also didn’t want to just wrap it up in a cute little bow in the end and say, “Well, now he’s fine.” It makes sense that he would turn to pills and alcohol like this because he’s a ticking time bomb.

Photo: NBC
Photo: NBC

It is interesting that he has fallen prey to addiction when he was so clearly bothered by his dad’s alcoholism and then his journey to sobriety?
He watched his dad go through a similar thing but his dad died at that time so they didn’t have years to talk about this stuff. They weren’t able to hash anything out. All he has are memories and as time goes by, your memories get clouded and you start to remember things a little bit differently than the way they actually were. That’s the way our minds work. And now everyone else has learned how to deal with it — Kate, Randall, his mom. So he’s alone now. Especially because he was trying to give everyone the idea that he was the one that had figured it all out and moved on while everyone else was suffering.

How did you prepare to play drunk and stoned? Because faking those states can go wrong so quickly.
I talked to a bunch of people that have gone through it and what I realized is these people didn’t go through it, they are going through it. You’re always going through it and dealing with it. It’s not something that ends really even when you are sober. I have a friend that is good now, but he is only good because he chooses to be. [Being an addict] is always a part of their life, who they are. It’s a part of their fabric. He’s sober right now, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not an alcoholic or that he can now drink. I heard a lot of really heartbreaking stories. People suffer loss, die, lose friends for life, get divorced, don’t talk to their kids anymore because of this sickness, this disease. Many don’t seek help or they go about it the wrong way. A lot of the stories are heroic stories about rebound and about people who have turned a dramatic story into a cautionary tale that saved lives.

I also believe that the clearer you are in your head when you show up to work, the more you are able to access it. This whole notion that if you’re playing a drunk, you should go get bombed is the dumbest s**t I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It is the opposite of what you should do. The clearer you are, the better you will be able to tell that story with your trained mind.

But was the beard real? Or do you think faking that is better too?
It was real most of the time. But there was a time where I had to shave and then grow a beard in like two days and I couldn’t do it so they had to fill it in. About halfway through production, I was able to grow facial hair for an extra week and it was so much more comfortable because it was just mine.

You know what’s funny? I got married just after shooting this and found out that we had to pick up a scene. I had shaved it because I knew what the answer would be if I asked my fiancée if I should just keep the beard because we have one more scene to shoot. “Like, are you kidding me?” Then we had to fill it in because we picked up a shot four days after our wedding. I just didn’t have enough time to regrow it. Everyone asks if the beard is real.

Which brings us full circle to the episode, since everyone keeps asking if Kevin’s beard is for a part.
I was doing a lot of late-night talk shows and morning shows and I was showing up looking like a disaster. Seth Myers was like, “I invite the guy to my show and he shows up looking like he hasn’t showered in two days.” I told them it was for a part, but couldn’t at the time tell them what was happening on the show. I didn’t want Ryan Seacrest to think that I’m some lazy jerk. I tried to get him to understand that I am not a jerk. I would line this thing off, make my neck really clean, and make it look like a decent beard if it wasn’t for the part.

It broke my heart when it seemed he had hit rock bottom and was going to Randall for help, but after hearing Kate’s terrible news, I’m guessing he won’t.
That is Sliding Doors. If he had walked into that room and Randall didn’t have that information or it hadn’t happened, I think Kevin would have said, “Man, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got this big problem. Here’s how it started and now I’m addicted.” He would have told him everything, But just the fact he wasn’t able to, it’s like, “Oh, boy.” What you thought was rock bottom when you were watching a grown man crumble to the ground, cry, and beg for help is not even close to rock bottom as you’ll see in the future episodes. That’s what he does. It’s in his DNA to tackle things on his own. He’s like, “I’m going to handle it on my own.” But it just doesn’t pan out for him.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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