Justin Hartley tells PEOPLE about what's in store when season 5 returns in January 2021, including Kevin's relationship with Madison and the big rift with Randall

By Karen Mizoguchi
November 17, 2020 10:00 PM
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Credit: NBC

Another Tuesday means another load of This Is Us cliffhangers.

Once again viewers were left with their jaws hitting the ground during the last minutes of Tuesday's episode, titled "Honestly," as new details left fans with more nuggets of information about the Big Three's pasts than even Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) know about themselves.

In the present day, city councilman Randall was shadowed at work by his daughter Deja's (Lyric Ross) boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk) for a school assignment. Tasked with recording Randall's daily bulletin video, Malik did so but became preoccupied with a phone call about his young daughter Janelle and failed to stop the livestream when it wrapped. Thus, Randall was caught on camera stripping down while he changed his clothes to go on a run. And soon after, the buff Philadelphia policymaker's private moment went viral, with the video even landing on the computer of the Vietnamese grandfather (Vien Hong), who has a romantic connection with Randall's biological mother Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes).

Across the country, in Los Angeles, Kate and Toby's adoption process moved forward with Ellie (Annie Funke) telling them that she was "100 percent sure" about the couple raising her baby girl, whom Kate initially named Chloe. But the adoption talk with Ellie brought up bad memories for Kate, specifically her "really, really bad relationship" with former boyfriend Marc at age 18. Come to find out in a flashback scene that teen Kate (Hannah Zeile) secretly took a pregnancy test and it turned out to be positive.

Credit: NBC

Meanwhile, Kate's twin brother met the director of his new courtroom drama but struggled to connect with him. Through all three timelines, viewers learned more about the adversities Kevin faced, especially as a teen, when he struggled to learn football plays and put in the work.

While This Is Us will take a two-month hiatus and return in January 2021, Hartley breaks down the Kevin-focused episode with PEOPLE and teases what's ahead in season 5, including Kevin's relationship with Madison (Caitlin Thompson), the mother of his twins, how Kate's teen pregnancy might be explored, and what's in store for future Kevin.

PEOPLE: Baby Kevin had to learn how to cry it out while sleep training, unlike his siblings. And, young Kevin (Parker Bates) was floundering with football and was aided by Randall (Lonnie Chavis). Then, adult Kevin was brought down a peg by Glass Eye director Jordan Martin Foster (Stephen Friedrich). Why do you think Kevin has struggled to push through adversities all his life?

JUSTIN HARTLEY: There's the constant weight of trying to do with his life what his father and mother, and the opportunities, have afforded him. And then coming up short quite often. He's never been able to escape that, and obviously, losing his father had a lot to do with that.

Also what's interesting is that he's finding himself in a place right now, the way I kind of see it, is that he could rest on his laurels and make a lot of money. He has enough of a name where he can just take this job and that job, and he would be fine. He can probably read a script and figure it out in an hour and shoot it tomorrow, and it would be fine. But I love the fact that he is challenging himself. He's reaching.

It's like a singer singing out of their range, it's terrifying. And it's terrifying to watch. I've been to concerts before and watching this singer singing out of his or her range and you're kind of nervous for them. You want them to succeed but you know, they're stretching. Even if they don't get it, there's something really cool about that kind of spirit, when you see someone with that bravery. I think that's what Kevin is doing.

It's also coupled with his insecurity and self-doubt. If he can get out of his own way and just believe himself a little more, I think he'll be on to some great things. But that's something that has sort of been with him since he was a kid, even dealing with the rivalry with Randall and trying to get attention from his mom and dad. Losing his dad, then football and the acting thing, losing Sophie. It's just one thing after another. The drug addiction, alcohol addiction. But he's managed to use all of those things to make himself a better person.

I like to think, when I'm playing him, Kevin likes to think a certain way. When he's brushing his teeth and looks at himself in the mirror, what does he say today? What was the conversation he said to himself today? What was he afraid of? What was he proud of? Maybe he'll never tell anyone, but he needs to tell himself. Back in the day, two or three years ago, I don't think adult Kevin was doing that. I think he was telling himself what other people told him. I don't think he was having any moment to himself, he was trying to convince himself that he was the Manny or whatever people were telling him he was. He was putting himself in his own box. Now, I think he's grown up and able to say, "This person saw me this way, but this is why they're wrong. This is who I really am and this is what is important to me."

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Do you think Kevin is operating at his highest level of maturity or will it be more of a progression?

I think we'll see more progression; it'll come with the kids. It's not an ideal situation with Madison. She's not a woman who he's been dating for five or six years, they're in love, they decide to have kids, they get pregnant on the first try, the babies are healthy and everything's great. That's not his situation. In dealing with that, it's a unique situation.

There are not a lot of people you can go to and say, "What did you do when this happened?" It didn't happen that way for other people. Randall has a different experience with his family than Kevin is going to have. The cool thing about him going through all that stuff in his past is that it will hopefully lead him to be able to dissect those moments and analyze them in a healthy way, act accordingly and not fumble around as much as he used to. Mistakes will happen, his heart is always in the right place. I think he's going to be a great dad.

As terrifying as it is, I don't know if he's as terrified about not knowing what to do as he is of passing on the things about him that are not so amazing to his children. When he vocalizes that, I think a little bit of the pressure comes off. And then when Madison says, "Me too," meaning I feel the same way, in a way he's not on an island. There are other people having the same kind of thoughts, you find comfort and security in that. You tend to let things go a little bit. Instead of having an existential crisis, you end up being able to put your energy in things that matter, make a difference and can benefit yourself. Hopefully, that's where he is — and television-wise, it makes good drama when you see development in a character over time. I think that's where we're going with this.

Though Madison wasn't prominently seen in this episode, last episode we saw her and Kevin learn more about each other after their relationship went into hyperspeed. He's not running from his problems. But will there be bumps ahead for him and Madison as a couple?

I think there will be. Madison told Kevin that nothing about this is normal and she's right. But what is normal? I don't know any family that is normal. You make it your own. They are good-hearted people and they both have good intentions. They both want the babies.

I don't know how you force love, it never f------ works. (laughs) Hopefully, he won't do that. I think there is time and space to give [love] a crack. They got all this thrust upon them so quickly with the babies and the pregnancy. But I still think there is time for the love part, to see what the relationship is and not just how that relates to the kids.

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Speaking of relationships, Kevin still uses the different colored note cards to memorize lines — a technique he learned from Randall. And Kevin continues to think about Randall, especially their rift. Though it appears to be less top of mind for Randall?

To me, it's just that Randall has a lot of things going on right now. Not to say that he doesn't care or he's not invested or he doesn't want to fix the relationship. In Kevin's mind, it's the most pressing thing to fix the relationship. Randall just has a different life and has other things going on that are also equally important, if not more pressing. It would be easier if both parties had it top of mind about repairing this relationship and going forward. That's just not where they are right now. More drama for you!

Last episode, Kevin told Madison that there are things his parents Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) don't know about the Big Three's past. And tonight, Kate finally opened up about her past positive pregnancy test to Toby. Will Kate also be confiding in her brothers and their mom?

It's obviously been something that's been on her mind and she's kept it to herself. She hasn't told anyone. Maybe telling Toby is the impetus to telling everyone? But maybe telling her husband is enough? Maybe she told her rock, her man, and that's good for her and she feels better? I think it could go either way.

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This season, Randall has complicated issues with identity. And Kate has complicated issues to face with Ellie's pregnancy and the adoption journey. How would you describe Kevin's complicated issues?

Without giving too much, I think in a way he's trying to figure out his identity. I don't mean to say he has to retrace the past necessarily to figure out who he is. I think he's almost going to have to figure it out as he goes because of the babies. My lord, think about when we found him compared to where he is now. He knows what he wants — he wants to be a dad. He wants these kids, he wants to be in their lives, he wants to raise them.

It's going to be about how is he going to be able to do that regardless of his romantic relationship with Madison. That's a huge thing. At his age of 40, I think he's thinking about legacy. Some people may say, "you shouldn't do that, that's stupid." I disagree. Accountability is huge and when you think about legacy, you think about accountability, hopefully, and the way people are going to be talking about you when you aren't here anymore. It's kind of a profound thing.

Well, that brings back what the Glass Eye director told Kevin: he could be good or he could be one of the greats.

Does he want to be one of the greats? Can he be one of the greats and also be one of the great fathers? Does he have to pick one? That's a tough thing. It's not easy.

Kevin lost his dad at a very young age and he has memories of his dad. The weightlifting and the football games and being there for him. Then there comes a time when his twins are going to be older than [teen] Kevin was. He's not going to have that example anymore and he'll have to figure it out on his own. It's not like, "What would dad do?" Well, dad wasn't here. He's going to have to figure it out on his own, so that is heavy. That is really taking the training wheels off.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.