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"The struggle continues a bit," Justin Hartley tells PEOPLE about his character Kevin's path to first-time fatherhood

By Karen Mizoguchi
February 09, 2021 10:00 PM
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This Is Us
Credit: NBC

On Tuesday night's episode, This Is Us explored the legacy of a great father — with his son moments away from becoming a first-time dad himself.

The final member of the Big Three had his own emotional road trip in the long-awaited episode, titled "There," complete with a series of twists that kept audiences on the edge of their seats — especially during Kevin's (Justin Hartley) distracted driving! His pregnant fiancée Madison (Caitlin Thompson) went into labor six weeks early and the actor chose to abruptly leave the Vancouver film set, and his costar Robert De Niro, in order to make it back to Los Angeles in time for the birth of their twins.

For nearly a month, fans were left with the cliffhanger of a crashed car on the side of the road, with Kevin's wallet and license outside of the burning vehicle. Turns out, Kevin had pulled over to save an injured car crash victim, played by actor Joshua Malina of Scandal and The West Wing fame. However, being a good samaritan may have cost Kevin the chance to board his plane home — left without proper proof of identification, he may not be unable to make it past the TSA agent.

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All the while, a flashback to Kevin's childhood underlined a significant father-son moment with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) on the eve of a football camp for middle school quarterbacks. The weekend trip was not only a revelation for young Kevin (Parker Bates), but it also connected back to Jack's baseball-filled childhood and his own relationship with his alcoholic father Stanley (Peter Onorati). Since becoming a parent, Jack strived to not be like his father, but after seeing Kevin physically nauseous from the unintentional pressure his dad had set on him, the Pearson patriarch realized he wasn't exactly setting a great example.

The scene highlighted that even Jack wasn't always the perfect dad (no one can be), but it proved that he was there — hence the title of the episode — when it mattered. While fans will have to wait to see how Kevin makes it back to L.A., keep reading to hear from Hartley, 44, about how Jack's legacy lives on in his son — and how the births of the twins will bring the importance of family even more to the forefront.

This Is Us
Credit: NBC

PEOPLE: When we previously spoke, you told me that Kevin is thinking about legacy this season and "the way people are going to be talking about you when you aren't here anymore." This episode certainly explored that for Jack.

JUSTIN HARTLEY: You're sort of getting both sides. You're understanding what Kevin remembered and why he wants what he wants. I have an interesting parallel in my life because my daughter [Isabella] is 16 and thankfully, I'm still here. We still go back and talk about things from three, four, five years ago. The way she remembers them are so different from what actually happened. Then I sit there and wonder if I'm remembering differently than it actually happened? I came to the conclusion that no, it's her. I remember what exactly happened, but truthfully, it's a little bit of a mix. It's interesting how the human brain remembers things and blocks things out to protect the heart.

I love that what drives Kevin is he wants to be the man that his father knew or thought he could be. I think that's very, very sweet and endearing. It's manly and mature. I know he's come upon those feelings a little bit later in life than he should have, but the point is that he's there. He recognizes the follies in his ways and [is] trying to be a better man. Gosh, the guy was a hero that day.

Did you channel your own personal memories of preparing to welcome your daughter when you acted out the frantic driving scene after Madison goes into labor?

I was looking at this story in particular and thinking, "Worst case scenario, Kevin doesn't make it there on time or gets there shortly after. I don't think that's the end of the world." Then, it dawned on me: That's not what this story is about. It's about who Kevin wants to be and how he wants to start this. He's never really started something and finished it, and did what he said he was going to do from A to B. That was the important part for him, to start this relationship with his children the way that he believes his dad started and finished it with his children. The birth, it's a touchstone moment, to be able to tell that story when his kids are 16, it's a wonderful story — so that was sort of the bigger picture for Kevin, not just about making it there on time.

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During his drive to the Seattle airport, Kevin clearly chose family over career. Did Kevin really quit Glass Eye? Or will he get a second chance with director Jordan Martin Foster (Stephen Friedrich)? It seemed like a career-defining film for Kevin — I mean, it's De Niro!

In reality, I'm trying to think if I did something like that, I work with wonderful people. If the mother of my children was giving birth and I had to walk off set, I wouldn't just leave like that, but I don't think I would have to. I would be encouraged to leave and I think you leave, you have to. This Foster guy was a bit of a d---. Talk about a great actor, though — I had so much fun with him. We were laughing at what a jerk [Foster] is. And the dynamic between the two, how fun it was to see this guy on a power trip every single time he got around Kevin. Also he's trying to make Kevin a better actor, he really cares about the film, and he thinks he cast a great actor. But he also really thought Kevin had a problem believing in himself, he's right. The manner in which he went about his business I think was a little bit d---ish. I don't like the way Kevin left, but he wasn't given a choice — that will play out in future episodes.

Was the casting of guest star Joshua Molina a surprise to you?

You grow up and respect certain actors, and my show was The West Wing. I've got to be honest with you, I didn't look at the call sheet until after I saw Joshua on set, and because of COVID, we were far away from each other. I looked over, then looked at the call sheet and said, 'You've got to be kidding me! I'm working with this guy this episode, great!' We had a really great conversation about The West Wing and Scandal. He's a really great guy. We were lucky to have him.

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Kevin talks to Rebecca (Mandy Moore) about his plans to be there for Madison on delivery day, like Jack was there for the Pearson matriarch. Then, upon arrival at the hospital, Kevin spoke about Jack to the crash victim: "Everything I do, I do with his voice in my head ... he would've figured out a way to do it all. He believed I could be that person too." How much pressure is Kevin putting on himself?

It's himself putting [pressure] on himself but it's also the circumstance. I am fortunate to still have my father, stepfather and my mother in my life, I'm very lucky. There has to be an added pressure when you want to be exactly what your parents always thought you could be. There's a part of everyone where you see yourself as a kid when you're around your parents. To have that cut short, it stays with you I would imagine. I would imagine you never step out of that shadow and just be free.

Recalling Kevin's history, things are rarely smooth sailing for him. How does Kevin get to L.A. in time? Knowing that the twin babies may be born six weeks early, will they be okay?

The struggle continues a bit. That story plays out in the next episode and the one after that, it's a full story.

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Credit: NBC

Kevin doesn't know it yet but Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) are keeping Madison company as she faces labor, possibly alone. Randall assures Madison that she has their support, sweetly telling her over the phone: "You're family." Will the delivery of the twins finally bring Kevin and Randall together to resolve their fight?

It's a testament to what brotherhood and family means to Randall. That big family rift, a lot of times it takes a big event to bridge that gap and bring those two people together. What a grand gesture! And Kevin is all about grand gestures. I'm hoping that gesture, that willingness to be there, that dedication, to "fill in" for Kevin when he couldn't be there, I'm hoping that leads to them finding some truth and a way back to their relationship. I think Randall is also trusting the fact that Kevin, if he could, he would be there. This isn't something that Kevin would just blow off, I think Randall believes there must be some unforeseen circumstance preventing Kevin from being there.

There are some exciting births coming soon, and not just Kevin's twins. What can you share about the arrival of Ellie's (Annie Funke) baby, who could be adopted by Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan)? Could possibly be the next Big Three, of course with baby Jack!

It's familiar territory — it's an interesting thing that they're used to three at a time. They do babies in litters, we do three, we don't do one at a time [laughs]. I think if all goes planned it will be cool to see those three kids grow up together.

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