LOS ANGELES – I was able to catch up with my airplane buddy Justin Hartley a few days before his character on “This Is Us” had another crisis.
If you haven’t watched Tuesday’s episode of the NBC drama, you probably should wait to read this to see what happened to Kevin, played by Hartley, in his mission to discover why his father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) falsely told the family Jack’s brother, Nick, was dead.
I joined a few reporters interviewing Hartley last week on the “This Is Us” set. I wasn’t sure Hartley would remember me from a year ago when we talked on the entire airplane ride from Burbank to Las Vegas, as he was heading to Vegas back then to shoot an episode about the bachelor party of his future TV brother-in-law, Toby (Chris Sullivan), and I was on the first leg heading home.
Hartley said he remembered me before graciously answering questions about Tuesday’s episode, which I had previewed.
The actor was introspective discussing what his character has been going through this season.
Another critic asked if Kevin was trying to hold on to Jack in some way by seeking out his newly discovered uncle.
“Totally,” Hartley said. “I think also he starts to see his father in him and he likes that. This whole thing is trying to become the man he always thought his dad knew he could be even at a young age. And there’s this empty thing because his dad never had a chance to see him act, his dad never got a chance to see him as an adult doing great things. His dad was a great man and wonderful and a hero, but he’ll never quite live up to that, but he can sure damn try. Then you find this man he’s revered for years and years is a liar. So, it is like what is this all about. Talk about a shakeup.”
I thought calling Jack a liar was harsh, that a more apt word was "closed." Nick was dead to him because he was exasperated by his brother and didn’t want him around his family. It certainly wasn’t Jack’s finest hour since in a previous episode he didn’t even allow Nick to tell him what happened in Vietnam on the tragic day a Vietnamese child he befriended died in an accident.
Hartley wasn’t accepting my rationalization.
“Well, he lied about it,” Hartley said. “He didn’t tell about it. … You’re right, you’re right, but here’s the thing. You show me somebody who doesn’t lie, and I’ll show you a liar. Everybody does it. It is just part of the human condition. And lying is just a matter of degree, I think. What are you lying about? Or what are you hiding? Lying by omission. That is kind of like what he did. Or not even. He didn’t just not talk about it, he said he’s dead.”
Hartley noted that his character has changed.
“Kevin is not this guy who jumps at things anymore,” Hartley said. “He’s a thoughtful guy. He understands it is not a weakness, it is a nice thing. And I think he likes that about himself. He is going to ask questions. He is like a dog with a bone now. So now let’s find this guy and now that they find him, I’m not just going to walk away. What if (his uncle) has answers about his dad? Why do you suppose he told us you were dead? What if he can answer that? Jack is not a lunatic. There is a reason why he said that. There is a reason why he was keeping his family away from this guy. … Maybe he is dangerous. We don’t know much about him yet.
“Here is what I love about Kevin. He’s not going to leave any stone unturned. He is going to do everything he can to (solve) this puzzle so he can have peace. I don’t know if he’ll ever find it, but I think that is his motivation.”
Tuesday’s episode ended darkly, with Kevin’s mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) saying she is proud of him when he knows he is keeping the secret that he started drinking again at Nick’s trailer.
“'Isn’t that sad?' (she says). ‘I’m so proud of you.’ Rip my heart out. Why don’t I jump out of the car right now? It is so bad. His mom, she really is proud of him, but again, he is lying. He is not telling. That kind of continues, it doesn’t go away.”
Hartley noted Kevin’s seemingly quick recovery from his first experience with addiction hasn’t been explained.
“We haven’t seen him with his sponsor, we haven’t seen him in rehab,” Hartley said. “We haven’t seen him take care of himself. We saw him get out of rehab and two seconds later, meet a woman, fall in love with her and ask her to move in. Well, that’s how you do it, right? Great. What about taking care of yourself? He is wobbly as it is. He hasn’t even been drinking and he’s wobbly. … I think he is more co-dependent that he is willing to admit. And I think he is more damaged than he will admit.”
Hartley added that every time Kevin has messed up he has gotten bigger opportunities “and there is some guilt that comes with this.”
“You want to shake him, but you want to hug him,” Hartley said. “That’s Kevin.”
Another telling scene Tuesday occurred when a young Kevin declined to tell his mother what he said to a major league baseball pitcher, John Smiley, at an autograph session. She went to the actor playing Smiley to find out.
“It is difficult for him to share things,” Hartley said. “Those things don’t get easier, they get harder. Then they become like ingrained in you.”
Another somewhat surprising moment came when Rebecca revealed that Kevin is sensitive despite his outward appearances. Hartley said he was surprised, too, when he read the script.
“Isn’t that something?" Hartley said. "It makes sense. I guess he is. He is really good at taking care of other people. He is really (lousy) about taking care of himself.”
He expected the reaction to the revelation that Kevin is drinking again at the end of Tuesday’s episode to be “kind of heartbreaking” to fans of the show. “Disappointing. Just sad and kind of like confused, because I think people root for him.”
What does he say to fans who think this season has been “too dark”?
“Lighten up,” cracked Hartley before turning serious. “First, I would say, ‘Thank you for watching.’ Then I would say it has been dark. Yeah, it has. Sometimes life is too, right? Sometimes it doesn’t come in one day at a time and sometimes it is a big, big wave that you have to ride out and it takes everything you can to keep your head above water. Sometimes that is what our show is.”
That is no lie.