LOS ANGELES — “This Is Us” was easily the most surprising show of the 2016-17 network television season, capturing the praise of critics, waves of appreciation from viewers and attention from others in the business. The team behind the series that gave NBC its most Emmy attention in years will look to continue their success when the second season launches Tuesday at 9 p.m.
Justin Hartley, who plays sibling Kevin Pearson, knew immediately that “This Is Us” would be a game changer.
“I love this show,” Hartley said. “I love that it’s not just a television show. After I saw the pilot, I said this program will changes people’s lives. I was right. It transcends being a television show. I hear people saying their children are off doing stuff and we are working but we find time to watch this show together.
“After, they talk about the show and that evolves into talking about their own lives. That’s more than a television show.”
Love for the NBC series that looks at the lives of members of the Pearson family from the birth of the young couple’s children to present day comes from storylines that weave in and out of the past to offer the kind of deep insights that other shows would only be able to mention in passing.
Couple that with the much-heralded acting by Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Hartley, Sterling K. Brown (who won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series on Sunday night), Chrissy Metz and Ron Cephas Jones and the end result is a series that critics agree rides a massive wave of creativity in the sea of mediocrity that is network programming.
For Hartley, his role has been a little bit of a reflection of his own life, as he’s playing the member of the Pearson family who has found success in acting. In the first season, his character went through some very dramatic moments as he began to question the quality of acting work he’s been doing.
Hartley understands how his character could settle into a job that was so easy and comfortable that there was no challenge to grow. He’s had jobs over the years where he could have just settled into the groove and not been pushed, but there has always been a part of him that has made him want to get out of his comfort zone.
The key for him -- and what he’s playing in Kevin -- is having enough courage and confidence to be willing to get up and try something else. That kind of storytelling parallel is just one of the reasons Hartley will never feel like he’s settled into a comfortable area no matter how long the series runs.
Hartley believes that because the odds are so long of finding success as an actor, anyone who has any acting job should wake up each morning, think about how lucky they are and be grateful to be working. Those thanks should be even larger when the job is one that is being universally applauded.
“There are jobs like this that come along that are one in a bazillion,” Hartley said. “I’ve taken jobs because I have bills to pay. I’m also lucky I’ve taken some good jobs that I’m really proud of. But I think anybody in any profession could probably say that.
“So I don’t think it’s just exclusive to actors. I think anybody that’s working in any field has felt underappreciated or maybe like people aren’t seeing everything that they bring to the table. So I don’t know if it just has to do with acting or if it just sort has to do with sort of being a human in the world.”
“This Is Us” has become such a bona fide hit that members of the acting community are looking to become part of the show. In the second season, Kevin will be working in a movie that co-stars Sylvester Stallone.
One of the big challenges of the first season was trying to keep all of the twists and turns in the scripts from begin revealed before each episode would air. The big question is that while the audience knows the family patriarch, Jack (Ventimiglia), dies before the children are grown, how or when his end comes is the show’s biggest secret. Hartley and the rest of the cast know the answer but are under strict orders not to give out too many details of the upcoming season. But he feels safe in saying: “The film that we are making is a war movie, a period piece. It’s a massive budget movie and we got the main man (Stallone) to come and do it.”
Hartley’s been acting for years, including a long run on “Smallville” as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow but he admits getting to work with Stallone has made him a little nervous. The main thing he wants to do when they have scenes together is to not trip over his own feet.
The movie within the TV show will give Hartley a different kind of acting challenge, but he never wants to get away from what made the series the darling of the last network TV season. The focus, Hartley stresses, should always be about how close this family is and how they are always willing to do whatever is necessary for the others.
“As an actor, I hope my character still takes two steps forward and one step back. That’s life,” Hartley said. “Life is a series of follies and trying to figure out how to make the mistake less and less as you go forward. How to better yourself but knowing it’s not going to happen overnight. I’ve never met anyone who bettered themselves overnight.
“I like the idea that things come so easily for Kevin but he’s not really aware of it because that’s all he knows. I like the idea of maybe showing him finally realizing that things that had come so easily for him are now so hard. That’s how he will be able to go through life so when he has kids, he can teach them all of those lessons.”