'This Is Us': Justin Hartley Takes Us Inside That Devastating Kevin-Randall Scene

This Is Us
Q&A
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

This Is Us continues to deliver powerful stories, with Season 4 really delving into the difficult journey of Justin Hartley's Kevin Pearson.

The latest episodes of the NBC drama tackled the Big 3 member's road to sobriety alongside his Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne), turned his romantic life upside-down, and finally confronted the long-building tension between Kevin and brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown).

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He was thrown quite the curveball in the show's spring finale when he discovered he was going to be a father after a one-night stand with Madison (Caitlin Thompson), his twin sister Kate's (Chrissy Metz) best friend. He also learned that, behind his back, Randall had convinced their mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to participate in a clinical trial for her Alzheimer's symptoms, leading to a blowout fight between the brothers where some damaging words were exchanged.

Clearly, it was a busy season for Hartley, who also pulled double-duty as a director of the episode "A Hell of a Week: Part Three." To get some behind-the-scenes insight, TV Insider spoke with the actor for more on his approach to Kevin in the fourth season, as well as what he thinks may be on the horizon for the actor and his relationships (particularly with Randall) in Season 5.

This Is Us Season 4 Justin Hartley

(Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

What were you most excited to explore in Kevin's Season 4 story?

Justin Hartley: Just the growth, I think. Seeing him manage his life in a different way and be able to manage it. Because life keeps happening. It doesn't slow down. I like the way he has figured out a way to learn from his past mistakes and instead of repeating himself over and over and over again.

If something does happen in his life that is unexpected or something unfortunate happens, I really enjoyed watching him pick that apart, dissect it, and try to figure out how to make it better or at least not repeat the same mistakes. That's one of the things that I think he struggled with before, and part of that was just being in denial. But now he's comfortable in his own skin and I don't think he's trying to be perfect as much as he was before, which is a pitfall.

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There was so many things. I enjoyed how close he was getting to his mother; how they were reconnecting and redefining their relationship. I think he's understanding that the way he remembers things from his childhood may not be exactly the way things actually happened. And I think that's what people do. I think we remember things ...

A certain way?

Yeah. You take two different people and they have the same experience and then 10 years later, 20 years later you ask them what happened and they're going to have two different recollections of what happened. I think he's more aware of that and the human condition. And getting closer with his family, until the very end when he and Randall had that massive explosion. And then I think his career is taking a turn. He's being taken seriously more than he was before, which is something he always wanted. He's sober, which is great. And he's still looking for that true love. And then, of course, at the end he finds out that he's going to be a dad. Man, what a lot to handle, huh? And Nicky's back in his life.

(Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Speaking of that "explosion," was Kevin's harsh words a manifestation of all the big news he got that day or can it be chalked up to the tension he's always had with Randall?

Sterling and I both read it and Dan had mentioned it to us when we were filming in New York. We were at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and he walked up to both of us. He goes, "Oh, I just wrote this scene," and he kind of told us about it but he didn't get into the specific details of what the words were. And then when Sterling and I read it we were like, "Oh." I don't know how you come back from something like that.

Those were some harsh words. And what made it even more painful, I think, was just the fact that they are true. There's some truth to them. It's not just calling me an idiot and I call him a nerd. This is true stuff that they've been sitting on forever. You know how people say, "Sometimes things just need to be said"?

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Yes.

I don't think these things needed to be said. But they did it and I would hope that they can come back from this but I think it'll be a struggle. I think it's not something that's going to happen overnight. It'll take time. Sometimes it takes another event for people to be able to say, "OK, well that was in the past and I'm going to judge you and base our friendship and relationship on recent events, not past events." Hopefully that's something that will happen. But, I think there was some truth to it. A lot of truth to it. I think in the moment he's overwhelmed.

When it comes to rehearsing a scene that intense, do you practice together or separately?

It depends on the logistics of where we are in our lives. Sterling has kids and a family. I have a kid and family. And we go to work and you're just shooting the series. You get so busy that unfortunately there is not a lot of time to rehearse throughout the day. You're shooting. In that particular instance, we actually were working together all day anyway, and so we had time to talk about it and run the lines and things like that. And I think my approach sort of has been to take it as it comes and if you have time rehearse and go over the lines, then you should. And if you don't have time, then it's your job to figure it out.

this is us season 4

(Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

I also am working with a pro. I know he's going to bring it. He knows I'm going to bring it. And as awful as those words are to say to one another and those brothers have such a tumultuous relationship... I have so much faith and respect. I know that it's going to be good and I know that we're going to do it until it's right. And that scene, we were both pretty dialed in. We did that once or twice. It was shot like a oner, so we blew through that thing.

Oh, that's amazing.

Yeah. Yeah. It was crazy and we were both ready to go.

I'm sure the context of the exchange is probably motivation for getting through a scene like that quickly?

Yeah. Our director, Ken Olin was saying the same thing. It's such a long scene and there's so many things going on and it's so layered and well written. You don't want to beat it into the ground and then everybody gets tired. I remember my ride home that night after that scene I was exhausted. You don't want to get tired in the middle of the takes.

When you began Season 4, were you aware of where Kevin would end up with Madison?

Obviously, I don't write the show but I'll tell you what I know or what I think, anyway. I think that that storyline kind of evolved as that relationship not only between Kevin and Madison but between Madison and Kate and between Kevin and Kate evolved. I think it was just a really great opportunity to tell a story where you have these lost souls coming together where they're both just at their end; they're at their rock bottom. She ends up opening up to Kevin. I don't know if he would have done that a couple of years ago. I think he would have rolled his eyes or he probably wouldn't have even gone in the house. He probably would have just left. But I think he's more available to other people and he saw her pain. Everything that he's gone through, I think he saw this as an opportunity to actually be there for someone.

I think it's a good opportunity to tell a story about two lost souls. And also, [Caitlin]'s such a good actor. It would be a wasted opportunity not to use her more. I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone thinks of this story that we're going to tell in Season 5 because he said he's all in.

Justin Hartley This Is Us

(NBC)

You had the chance to direct this season, how did that experience alter your approach to your role? Did it?

For me, one of the pleasures of directing  was just being able to see these great actors that I work with in a different way, to sit behind the monitor and watch them perform. Because when you're in the scene, you're not watching anyone's performance, you're just in the scene and then before you know it, someone calls cut and it's over.

But when you're directing, you get to watch these beautiful artists do what they're doing and just move through these words like a fist through water. It's a wonderful thing to watch. That a pleasure. It's a lot of work. I'd like to do it again if they let me. I thought we ended up with a really good [episode] and it was a great story. I was lucky. They're all great scripts but I loved [this one].

That was a great episode.

I loved having the Kate and her mom — the females leading the show. And directing that, I thought that was really special. Those are some terrific actors.

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You mentioned Kevin's connection with Nicky. Do you think that relationship has been key in making Kevin the person he is now? Can fans expect more?

I think we'll see more of that. We don't really leave stories untold, so there's definitely more to tell with the Nicky storyline. To answer your question, I think so for sure. It gave him a purpose. Here's this person that, whether he wants to admit it or not, he needs him. I think it gave Kevin purpose. That was such a great storyline, those three lost souls (including Jennifer Morrison's Cassidy) just struggling through life trying to figure it out. It's the most bizarre thing. What an odd pairing or odd coupling, but I loved it. I loved working with those two. That was fun. I'm sure we'll see more of that.

This Is Us Season 4

(Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

This series boasts such a large cast, is there anyone you'd like to share more screen time with?

It's usually the person I'm not working with. I love all of them so much. I think that it's interesting to see Kevin and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) together. I think that's a really interesting dynamic, especially with what happened at the end of Season 4 .

I think it's an interesting thing. If there's a rift between Randall and Kevin that's so deep that they're not taking to each other, Kevin doesn't seem like the kind of person that would just then say, "Well, I'm not talking to my nieces and Beth, either." He doesn't seem like that kind of a guy, so I'm wondering how that would affect Randall, knowing that his wife and children talk to him. It'd be fun to explore that relationship a little bit more. Maybe she can help mend the broken fence there. Who knows?

This Is Us, Season 5, TBA, NBC