Justin Hartley on Soap Operas, Villains, and the End of “This Is Us”

When Justin Hartley was 23 years old, fresh out of graduating from Southern Illinois University, he decided to pack up his truck and drive to Los Angeles without a single connection in the entertainment industry. He didn’t know about the inner workings of talent agents, casting directors, or entertainment lawyers; he only knew that he had something to say and hoped that someone might be willing to hear him out.

More than two decades later, the now 44-year-old actor — who began his career on the NBC daytime soap opera Passions, rose to fame as Green Arrow on the CW superhero series Smallville, and became a household name on the NBC drama series This Is Us — admits that he still doesn’t know if it was a brave or reckless decision to move halfway across the country.

“I’ll be honest with you: I developed a passion for [acting] before I developed a talent for it,” Hartley says, laughing. “I didn’t have any bills and any responsibility, and at the time, I didn’t have anything to lose, so it was neither. I think it was maybe just selfish, but I was young and [it was] my opportunity to sort of do that. I don’t think I had any talent — I mean, I learned a bunch of stuff — but I wasn’t very good at what I was doing.”

Sharp recently caught up with Hartley by phone. Here, he reflects on his path to acting, working on daytime soap operas, and his role in the coming-of-age, comedy-drama film The Exchange.

Justin Hartley
Credit: The Riker Brothers

Sharp: You didn’t begin to take acting seriously until you were midway through college. When did you go from someone who just loved telling stories and making people laugh to someone who wanted to do that for a living?

Justin Hartley: You know what? It didn’t dawn on me that that was a possibility until it did. In college, I think I just was going from subject to subject, and sports were no longer in the equation because my body broke down. So I would try to convince myself that I wanted to be a meteorologist, a psychiatrist, or a school teacher — and all of those things I had an interest in, but none of them had me floating around the room.

I basically took this class called “Interpretation of Children’s Literature,” which sounded, to me, like a blow-off class. That’s why I took it. I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be a great class just to get an easy A in and talk about nursery rhymes and what they really mean. This will be so simple.” And like the fool that I am, I didn’t read the entire description of the class, and it was an oral interpretation, so it was an acting class — and then I got scared. I was like, “Aw, shit. I gotta get up in front of a bunch of people and perform? I’ve never done it. That’s crazy.” And then I loved it, and it changed the way that I viewed people. It got me interested in wanting to know other people, what makes them tick, and why people are such different characters that could come from the same [background] — why my brother and I are so different, [even though] we came from the same house. It sort of ignited this passion for not only acting, but also learning about characters and why people do what they do.

After working as a waiter in Los Angeles, you landed your first major role on Passions. Do you have any particularly fond memories of working on that show? I know it was a daytime soap, so not many people were watching every day.

No one watched it! We were always dead last every week. It was sort of a morale buster, but they used to give these sheets out to all the actors, like, “Look at the ratings!” And they would somehow, much like pundits and pollsters do, try to finesse and finagle the numbers and do this fuzzy math to make it look like we were winning in some category. So it would be like, “Women with six or more kids — that are all boys under the age of 10 — and are single now but dating someone, renting but not owning, and maybe have two cars and a motorcycle. You’re winning in that category!” And there were like three of those people on the planet. (Laughs.)

But I have a 17-year-old daughter, that I’m madly in love with, who lives with me now because of that show. That’s how I met my ex Lindsay [Korman] — we got married and we had Isabella, so that’s my most memorable [part]. I also have a few friends that I met on that show. One of my best friends on the planet, Eric Martsolf, and I still hang out and talk a lot. From being in that industry, you go to the Daytime Emmys, and you hang out with other actors that happen to be on soap operas. I still have a bunch of people from that world that I still keep in touch with, that I respect very much.

In fact, I actually returned to daytime television seven years ago because it was a stable job in Los Angeles. I could be home and see my daughter every single day. I didn’t have to worry about going to Vancouver or wherever the next pilot or the next series was going to shoot. I was playing a really good character, and I had a lot of creative control over him. I have a soft spot in my heart for the daytime genre. And every time I see the numbers creep down, I just kind of get sadder. And when I see them creep up, I get a little happier. I think we need that.

In 2016, while you were on The Young and the Restless, you were cast in This Is Us. When you first read those beautiful scripts that Dan Fogelman had written, what spoke to you as an actor, a person, a son, a father?

I loved the idea of this guy who, on the outside, looks a certain way, and people might just by looking at him and being around him, assume a certain thing about him. Maybe they assume he’s got everything, he has the fame and money; maybe they underestimate him. And I felt that before in my life — certainly, a lot of people have. This guy brought tears to my eyes when I thought about him. I almost immediately fell in love with him. Everything about him that people perceive is not at all who or what he is or what he stands for, and there was an opportunity to take this character on such a massive journey to try to figure out who he is.

I think Dan and the writing staff have done a really great job with all the characters — but in particular, Kevin. It’s very easy to sort of go, “Well, in act one, he’s on drugs. And in act two, maybe he gets his stuff together. But then in act three, he has a relapse. And act four, he meets someone. And then, in act five, he’s totally cured.” And that’s just not the way that life is.

So I love the way that they took years to tell that story the way that it should be told, the way the struggle sort of really happens with people. I’ve got people in my life — and I’m sure you do too — where it’s a day-by-day thing, and it’s a constant struggle. I’ve got people in my life that are my age that don’t have a drug or alcohol problem, but they still don’t really know who they are. It’s an interesting thing to watch, to witness. That’s what I loved about it.

I also loved the fact that you could have all these deep, meaningful, private, human moments that can be really sad, heavy and dark, and somehow have so much comedy in the show. I just love that. The show is 40 per cent comedy, I think, and I just love the tone of the show.

Justin Hartley
Credit: The Riker Brothers

Seeing the entire This Is Us ensemble never fails to make me smile, because I love seeing how close and supportive you all are of each other’s work, but it’s just funny to see all of the different generations of these characters cross paths in real life. Why do you think you have all gelled so well together in the last five years?

I think it’s the fact that all of us, when we got the show, we were all adults. We were all in our thirties and had sort of tasted failure [and] success, and we sort of knew the potential [of this show] and we approached it that way, and we just protected it. I think that’s one of the things that we had in common.

It’s sort of like when you have your group of friends, and there’s someone that might get sick or break an arm or break up with their girlfriend or [goes through a] divorce or a family member dies, you kind of rally around that person. The show was the baby, and Sterling [K. Brown], Mandy [Moore], Chrissie [Metz], Susan [Kelechi Watson], me, Milo [Ventimiglia] and Chris [Sullivan], we all became best friends. It’s truly like a family offscreen.

I sometimes hesitate to say that because it sounds like, “Okay, whatever.” It just sounds like what I’m saying is what people want to hear. Honestly, I’m beyond bullshit. I just wouldn’t mention it. I would just be like, “Yeah, it’s great. I have a lot of fun, and those people are really talented actors.” I’m not kidding you when I tell you they’re some of my best friends. I would do anything for them. It would be a text, and I would show up and figure it out, and then I’d ask questions later. That’s just how I feel about them. I love them all, and I think that translates to on the screen.

Are there any reveals in particular that left you absolutely floored like the rest of the world?

Gosh, there are a couple I’m trying to think of. Well, the most recent one where Kevin got Madison pregnant. I thought, Okay, well, that’s interesting. I didn’t see that happening. We knew Jack was dead by the second episode, but that’s just not how television works. Yeah, sure, he’s dead, but we’re not actually gonna kill him on the show, right? And then that happened [in season two]. Then, the dementia that [Rebecca] is going through.

I thought it was a really candid, poignant, brave episode when Kevin and Randall got back together and sort of talked about race. And Kevin going, “Look, I’ll never see it your way. I don’t have that life.” I thought that was just a really honest way of looking at it, as opposed to just ignoring it or pretending like it doesn’t exist. It’s more just being honest, I think. And these things really do come up in life where you’ll get a phone call and you’ll be like, “Hey, how are you?” And the person goes, “Oh, I’m okay, but Mary died.” That’s just how life is. It’s the craziest thing in the world. So those surprises that happen on our show are the same kinds of surprises that happen in real life, that you can never really prepare for.

You all have your own projects that you’re pursuing as well. How did you first get involved with The Exchange, and what made you want to play Gary Rothbauer — this gym teacher and corrupt police officer who is a completely different character from anyone you’ve played in the past?

(Laughs.) So I think I was working on a movie called The Hunt and at the time, I had blood all over my face, and I was in character. I was sitting in my trailer, and I got the call from [director Dan] Mazer. We ended up talking about it and we really hit it off, and over the phone, he explained to me that they were going to let me go a little bit insane with this character. I knew the actors who were playing the main characters, and they obviously carried the movie, and the idea was [for me] to play the villain but also have fun with it. I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to see if I could ground an absurd character, and I just kind of figured, “Well, there’s gotta be certain things about him that he’s hiding.”

Maybe he’s not well-endowed — he’s definitely not well-endowed, let’s be honest. (Laughs.) He’s also just a complete fraud, and he’s horrified of everyone. He’s fake — I don’t even know if the hair or the accent or the mustache is real. This guy is completely put-on and afraid of everything. I thought it was hilarious how they made him the villain.
I think as an actor you definitely want to do stuff like that. When I left Smallville, I remember saying to myself, “I’m pretty sure I won’t ever do action ever again.” I was tired and my body was kind of broken down, and those were long hours, and it was in a foreign country. I was like, “I had fun doing it, but I’m pretty tired.” Now, I’m sitting here and I can’t wait to do something action and physical. It’s interesting how that works. On [This Is Us], I get to do comedy and drama, but not like in The Exchange.

I also love a coming-of-age movie — I think they’re very hard to do, they’re hard to do well, Ferris Bueller’s probably the best one ever done. When I read the script, I thought, Well, God, this is kind of the movie I really like, and I get to be the comic relief, and I can have fun and be around these brilliant creative people. I just think it’s so well-done and just a really fun, great, heartfelt movie.

How are you feeling as you head into this sixth and final season of This Is Us? What else have you been working on?

I feel good. I went to Connecticut and shot this movie with Charles Shyer, who’s a legendary director. He directed Father of the Bride and Alfie, and I had fun doing that drama. And then I went to Atlanta and shot Senior Year with Rebel Wilson, which is a comedy, and Alex Hardcastle was directing that. I’ve got a couple of TV things in the pipeline, so I’m excited to do different things, and I also think it’s good to end a show when it needs to end. You could drag it out for another four years, I guess, just to make money, but I don’t see the point in that. I think the show’s too special to do something like that. Life goes on, of course, but I do think that the cast has gotten so close that I have a hard time believing that we won’t see each other on a semi-regular basis. It’s a texting and Zoom world, right? We’ll stay in touch for sure.

Justin Hartley
Credit: The Riker Brothers

Lead Image: The Riker Brothers