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This week on This is Us, we saw Kevin (Justin Hartley) figuratively in over his head auditioning for a play in New York, and young Kevin li...

‘This Is Us’ Postmortem: Justin Hartley Talks Kevin’s New York State of Mind

This week on This is Us, we saw Kevin (Justin Hartley) figuratively in over his head auditioning for a play in New York, and young Kevin literally in over his head swimming in the deep end of a pool. In both circumstances, he was on his own, chasing something he wanted (then a floating football, now a role that will make him feel like a serious actor), and he ended up choking. But he did score that part, and just like when he was a boy, he found himself drawn to the comfort of family — this time by showing up unannounced at Randall’s house to stay a while.

Here, Hartley breaks down key scenes in “The Pool” and teases what’s to come.

What did you think the first time you read the script for this episode, seeing how beautifully and subtly the flashback ties into Kevin’s move to New York? 
I had the benefit of talking to Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator] before we read the scripts. He gave me an overview of the season, and I knew that was coming. He’s such a great storyteller. There’s no gimmicks. We’re not pulling any fast ones. It’s a legit story. To see Kevin go to New York and be in a foreign area, without his sister — he doesn’t know how to do anything on his own, really. I think Kevin walks through life with rose-colored glasses, and then he’s being introduced really quickly to the cold reality that he really doesn’t know how to function as a grown man. [Laughs] The way Dan writes it, to have some comedy in there as well… I always say this: We laugh through these characters’ tragedies, don’t we? That is sort of what we’re doing. That’s a horrifying thing, to be an actor and watch him go through that [audition]. It makes my hands clam up a little bit, but as uncomfortable as it is, you’re laughing.

The first time I watched the audition scene, I had to mute it because it was stressing me out too much — which is a compliment to both the writing and to you. It must be tricky: you’re playing a scene in which Kevin is choking, and yet you also need to show us that Kevin is actually a good actor.
That was by design. A lot of that is the architecture of the scene, the way it was written and the way it was directed, the shots that they chose. It’d be very easy to go in there and do that particular scene, the second one where he’s actually auditioning, and see them walk away from that and go, “Oh, he’s just a s–ty actor.” What we wanted to do is tell a story: it’s not that he’s a bad actor at all, actually. He’s a fish out of water and he can’t function without his sister. They removed his safety net and he’s just scared. He’s intimidated by this girl [Tony nominee Olivia Maine, played by Salem’s Janet Montgomery], and he’s a little insecure about the whole thing. His charm is not working, so he’s just got to find a different avenue to figure it out. That’s not him as a bad actor, that’s him just falling on his face.

It’s like sometimes when you watch basketball… I grew up on Michael Jordan, and I saw him miss important shots. It doesn’t say anything about his basketball playing ability; it’s just a certain situation. I’m glad you picked up on that, that it’s not like Kevin’s a bad actor, it’s just that he’s scared and unable to make it work.

There’s a moment when Kevin first comes into the theater and he refers to the playwright as a “screenwriter” and she corrects him, and he says, “Well, you know, I mean you gotta start somewhere.” It reminded me of someone like Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women. Kevin’s a self-absorbed character who can say something horrible, but it’s not malicious, so you still like him.

That’s so funny that you brought that up because how that came about was, we all walked into this room — I think it was the first time I’d been in that room — and I was working with all new actors, and I was trying to figure out who they were. I actually said, “You’re this person. You’re that person.” I’m introducing myself, and I introduced myself to [that actress], and I was like, “Oh, you’re the screenwriter, right?” I’m on stage and she goes, “Playwright.” I was like, “Yeah, well, we’ve got to start somewhere.” Everybody started laughing, and then we just ended up using it. It worked because you’re right, he’s not trying to insult anyone at all. He’s on her side, right? [Laughs] It’s like, “Hey, man. Good for you. Maybe you’ll get there.”

Kevin gets the role, and his co-star, Ms. Maine, is not happy about it. She says the producers think The Manny star will sell tickets. But I’d like to think they saw some chemistry between them during Kevin’s audition when they were bickering on stage.
I have to tell you, I have never in my life been a part of a show where they give you so much artistic freedom. That scene where he’s melting down, it was maybe a page or something. They just kept the camera rolling. It was like, “Just go. Just do your thing.” Unfortunately, I’ve had those [kind of auditions]. There was one situation where it went kind of that poorly. It was close. I think I accidentally vandalized some of his personal property in the office by accident, and then I knocked something over and broke it. I think I spilled something. Even though I knew my lines, they weren’t coming out of my mouth. It was a very similar situation. They just let me go crazy with that scene. We really have something special with the cast and the crew, and Dan. Everything’s in the writing obviously.

[Janet] sitting there looking at me… I think you have to be a very generous actor to be able to play someone who is so cold-hearted and not generous at all and sort of mean-spirited.

So we’ll be seeing more of that dynamic in the show presumably, as they rehearse the play?
Yes. You’ll see a bunch of stuff. It’s pretty funny to think what happens between the two of them, as far as breaking each other down. She thinks she’s got Kevin’s number, but in fact, she doesn’t…

Where is his head at now?
It’s an interesting thing… He was on that show, The Manny, and it was all about, “My God, I can’t believe they’re making me do this.” He was proud of the show at first, and then he becomes embarrassed to be on it. It turned into something he didn’t think it was going to be. He decided he wanted to be a legit actor. He’s an artist. Now it’s like, “Okay, this is where the rubber meets the road. Great. You’ve got the part. Wonderful, terrific. Now you have to actually do it.” That’s where the nerves feed in and it’s like, “Oh, wait. I thought this was what I wanted, and now that it’s time to do it, I’m horrified.”

I think he gets very discouraged very easily, and I think he also is able to build himself back up because Kate’s not there to do it. You’ve got to figure out some way to do it. He becomes a survivor. I think these are the things he’s learning — how to fix situations like an adult. With the acting, and with his relationship with his brother, and all that kind of stuff… hopefully he’ll find a love interest soon, and he’ll be well on his way to becoming President of the United States of America. [Laughs]

You mentioned his relationship with Randall (Sterling K. Brown). Kevin ends up at Randall’s house at the end of the hour, after we’ve seen young Kevin’s resentment of his brother flare-up again at the pool before the family ends their day snuggling. What do you like about that relationship between adult Kevin and Randall? What are you looking forward to exploring there?
What I like about it is I think it shows Kevin’s heart. I think it shows he has some regrets as to how things were his whole life and growing up with his brother. Even though they haven’t gotten along ever, he’s still his brother and he still loves him and he’s still trying to mend that relationship a little bit.

Anytime I play this character, I allow him to do whatever, as long as Kevin leads with his heart. I feel like it earns all the other “What is he doing?” goofy s–t that he does. It earns the selfish part, if you show that he leads with his heart. He doesn’t know any better.

So I’m looking forward to that, and, personally, selfishly, I’ve been loving working with Sterling, and Susan [Kelechi Watson, who plays Randall’s wife, Beth] is fantastic, and Ron [Cephas Jones, who plays Randall’s biological father, William] is phenomenal. Episode 5 is my favorite one we shot so far.