Justin Hartley: ‘This Is Us’ Changed Me as a Father
Before I was cast on This Is Us, I was at a point in my career where I had done pilot after pilot after pilot, pouring my heart and soul into shows that just weren’t working. You find yourself not knowing where you’re going to work geographically, whether it’s New York or Toronto or Vancouver, or wherever. I have a daughter, and I wasn’t getting any younger, so I thought, I want a job at home in L.A. that I’m proud of and can see my daughter every single day and be happy.
Then an actor friend sent me the script for This Is Us and said, “Dan Fogleman just wrote you in a pilot.” I remember reading the part of Kevin and thinking, Oh my God, he thinks that’s who I am? Kevin’s in a spot where he’s being perceived in a certain way by the people around him, but it’s the opposite of the way he sees himself. I was going through a bit of that as well. My friend didn’t mean to hurt my feelings by comparing me to Kevin, but it did hit home for me. I saw Kevin as a guy surrounded by people who tell him how great he is, yet he feels completely alone. Kevin and I are different, but we’ve both gone through pain and suffering. Everyone’s had pain.
This season the Pearson kids lose their father at that age when they need him. How do you make up for that absence? In a weird way, This Is Us makes you want to stay alive as long as you can. Life is delicate. My daughter is 13—so I slow everything down. We took a flight recently, and I had a conversation with her that I thought was really important. I said, “I just want you to know some things…indulge me for five minutes.” We just had a really nice, slow conversation. It wasn’t any new information, just things I thought she should know.
In a weird way, This Is Us makes you want to stay alive as long as you can.
When she saw Kevin really suffering this season, she would call me after those heavy episodes if we weren’t together. Two scenes that come to mind are when Kevin was on the football field crying and at Jack’s tree, when Kevin’s talking to his dad. She wanted to hear my voice and make sure everything was OK. She said, “That didn’t look like acting.” It was a lot for her, and I wasn’t even sure she should watch that. It made her think, as it would for anyone, What would you do it you lost your mom or your dad? At a young age, it’s not supposed to happen that way. So she checks in and wants to hear my voice and make sure I’m not crying and am OK.
I get it, because I’ve been affected by things that Kevin has done. I get lost in the moments. When I did that scene with Milo—[Editor’s Note: When Kevin hallucinates, thinking Jack is on stage giving him an award]—I think of my daughter. I think about how much I’ve taught her and what a sliver it has been so far. I think of all the things I want to teach her and see her go through. I want to walk her down the aisle. I want to be there when her kids are born. I want to call her when her boyfriend breaks up with her, or talk her through a breakup. I want to teach her how to drive. All this stuff. I want to take her to college and make sure she knows everything is OK and I’m only a phone call away. I want to pick her up from college and bring her home. I want to be there at the airport.
Can you imagine missing all of that? So for me, that’s what I was tapping into when I was doing those scenes with Milo as Jack. To imagine Kevin being in a place where if he can experience just one more embrace…you just want one more little moment.
I try to make sure my daughter has a great relationship with her grandparents, her stepmom, her mom, and her friends. I’m trying to give her every single thing that I never had—and I had a good childhood. I just want to make sure she has all those things and keeps her feet on the ground.
I love my own dad very much; he’s a fair man, but he’s a hard man. I think he does the opposite sometimes of what I do with my daughter. I will praise, praise, praise her, and he’s old-school. He comes from that old-school generation where it’s like, ‘I’ll let you know when something’s wrong and maybe pat you on the back every once in a while. You know when you’re doing good. I don’t need to tell you.’ I can tell that he’s proud, and he’s said as much. But up until this role, I don’t think he’s seen me do anything like this. I can tell that he’s a little bit shocked. So the fact that he thinks This Is Us is the best show on television, to me, that’s really cool.
I pull from both of my parents and try to be as loving as I can with my daughter, but I also understand we’re not always going to be best friends. I don’t remember the last time I got upset with her. It’s hard to get upset when they do so many things right. I want her to enjoy her life, but also make the right decisions. There are things I could circumvent to make sure she doesn’t go down the wrong path, but you have to make mistakes too. I don’t know how to be a kid anymore, so I’m kind of learning from her as well. They have it tough. There’s a lot going on with social media. Everything has changed. But it’s a team effort. Hopefully, I help her be a better kid. That’s my job.
I’ve always been a really sensitive guy, but I hope This Is Us slowed me down a little bit. I try not to focus on the things that are out of my control, which is most things. I certainly don’t worry about things the way I used to. It’s nice to be part of something that proves what you thought you could do for years, and then you finally get a chance to do it. To be given the opportunity to do something and go, “This is what I’ve been telling people forever that I can do”—well, that’s awesome. And now I better do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.