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With 'Tracker,' Justin Hartley charts a new path in his Hollywood career

After more than two decades of playing supporting characters in large ensembles, Justin Hartley is venturing out on his own and entering a new point in his career. The self-described journeyman actor is the star and executive producer of “Tracker,” a series that’s a throwback to classic private-eye shows from the 1970s and ’80s, and it premieres in a prime slot — after the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Based on Jeffery Deaver’s bestselling novel “The Never Game,” the new CBS drama series that's produced by 20th Television follows Hartley’s Colter Shaw, a reward-seeking, lone-wolf survivalist who roams the U.S. in an Airstream and uses his expert tracking skills to help crack mysteries for private citizens and law enforcement. But while he may help other people get closure, Colter is forced to reckon with a mystery of his own: the circumstances that led to the suspicious death of his father, for which he believes his estranged brother should be held responsible.

The role is a dramatic departure from Hartley’s star-making turn as Kevin Pearson in the NBC drama “This Is Us,” in which he played the eldest of three siblings born on the same day who form the series’ emotional core. The acclaimed series, which wrapped in 2022, earned nearly 40 Emmy nominations over its six seasons.

“I wasn’t specifically looking for this genre, but it is nice to do something that is uber-different from what you’ve been doing,” Hartley says on a recent Zoom call from Vancouver, where he is shooting the first season of “Tracker.”

During the final season of “This Is Us,” Hartley and executive producer and director Ken Olin began discussing their next collaboration. They did not have a specific genre in mind, but they agreed that their next project would have to be character and story-driven. Once they came across “The Never Game” in early 2021, Hartley optioned the property and worked with Olin to develop a series.

Olin says he originally noticed a striking resemblance between Hartley and the description of Colter, which made him believe that the role would be a perfect fit.

“He was this great-looking guy who looks like an actor, but he goes into these places. He’s emotionally more complex than you think. He’s always underestimated in terms of his abilities and how shrewd he is,” he says.

The series is in the same vein as “The Rockford Files,” “Mannix,” “Baretta” and “Kojak” — shows with eccentric, idiosyncratic leads that Olin says he grew up watching on television.

“What I loved about it was, it’s a way of doing a P.I. show that didn’t require rebooting something,” Olin says. “It can have some of the traditional DNA of a P.I. show, but the character himself has a very contemporary psychological background. One of the great things that we loved about it was he’s free to move around, and he doesn’t have to adhere to all of the limitations of law enforcement.”

Hartley says his character uses old-school tracking techniques to find what he’s looking for.

“We have to really be careful to go, ‘Well, why doesn’t he just use his phone?’ So our writers have to be clever enough to figure out reasons why you wouldn’t or couldn’t in that situation,” he says.

And unlike most procedurals, where a skilled team is usually assembled to help solve a case or respond to a call, Hartley says, “Colter pretty much is alone a lot.”

“I love the idea that his backstory and his family history dictates the way that he behaves in that regard, in that he’s gun-shy of commitment [and] he’s really cautious of other people,” he says. “I just haven’t seen anything like that where a guy roams from town to town and does all of that by himself, and he’s really bound by nothing.”

Similar to his character, Hartley followed an unconventional path to his career. Born in Knoxville, Ill., to a father who worked in plumbing and a mother who taught English, he grew up wanting to become a professional baseball player. As a child, he loved telling stories and watching TV and film — he credits Sylvester Stallone, who guest-starred on “This Is Us” as one of his acting inspirations — but never considered it a viable career path.

Until college, Hartley’s acting experience consisted of a school production of “Frosty the Snowman” (he was disheartened to learn that he did not have any lines and had to stand still while his classmates sang and danced). He attended Southern Illinois University and University of Illinois at Chicago, where he majored in history and theater. He enrolled in a class called Interpretation of Children’s Literature while at Southern Illinois — assuming it was an easy A — only to discover that it was actually an acting class.

That course — and the adrenaline rush that came with performing in front of a live audience — changed everything for Hartley. He became fascinated with embodying different characters and figuring out what makes people tick. Believing he could make it as an actor, he decided to pack up his truck after graduation and drive to Los Angeles without any job prospects or a single connection in the entertainment industry. Was that a brave or reckless decision? Hartley still doesn’t know.

“I think about it now, and there’s no way I would be able to do that,” he says with a wry laugh. “Now I realize why people say, ‘Go do it while you're young.’ I never really understood that, and now I am like, ‘Well, I have too many responsibilities. I can’t just pack up and leave.’ I guess I could now, but when you have young kids, there’s too many things tying you down. When you're young, all you have is debt, and you’re like, ‘Well, the debt’s going to follow me wherever I go anyway.’”

In 2002, after working briefly as a waiter, Hartley landed a three-year contract on the NBC daytime soap opera “Passions” — he’s been a working actor since. Over the years, he starred in “Emily Owens, M.D.;” had recurring roles on “Revenge” and “Mistresses;” and guest-starred on “CSI: NY,” “Cold Case,” “Chuck,” “Castle” and “Hart of Dixie.” After leaving “Passions” in 2006, he was cast as the titular character in the CW’s “Aquaman” pilot. But when the network opted not to move forward with “Aquaman,” creators Al Gough and Miles Millar — who also created “Smallville” — cast Hartley as Oliver Queen opposite Tom Welling’s Clark Kent in the Superman prequel series.

It was on “Smallville” that Hartley developed an interest in working behind the camera; he co-wrote an episode in the ninth season and directed another in the 10th and final season.

“I remember watching a director and the [cinematographer] together figure out the shots of the scene, and the director is calling out a shot list,” he says. “I remember just looking at it and going, ‘I don’t understand a word that they’re saying. It’s like a foreign language to me.’ So I started to develop this appetite, trying to understand it, to learn.”

Hartley later went on to direct two episodes of “This Is Us.” “I think directing and producing just makes you a better actor. You start to understand other people’s jobs and how difficult they are and how good they are at their jobs.”

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Mandy Moore, who played matriarch Rebecca Pearson on “This Is Us,” says she loved being directed by her “constantly surprising” co-star. They also worked closely together to make sure her directorial debut in the show’s final season was seamless.

“He was organized, knew what he wanted, never stressed about it and always had the perfect question or thought right before a take that always unlocked something new,” she says in an email.

Hartley returned to daytime television in 2014, this time as Adam Newman on the CBS soap “The Young and the Restless,” which is shot in Los Angeles. After years of living in Vancouver and Atlanta, Hartley says he was feeling beaten down by the unpredictability of pilot season and he didn’t want to travel for work anymore, wanting to instead spend more time in Los Angeles with his daughter, Isabella, who he shares with ex-wife Lindsay Korman. During that two-season run of “Y&R,” Michael Rady, Hartley’s former co-star on “Emily Owens,” urged Hartley to read the script for a new NBC drama that seemed to fit him to a T.

Dan Fogelman, the creator of “This Is Us,” says the producers were looking for an actor to play Kevin, whom they wanted to look like a TV (and eventually movie) star.

“The character was very funny, and that’s not necessarily a quality that always goes with ‘superstar handsome,’” Fogelman says in an email. “Then Justin walked into our crappy little trailer where we were auditioning people. I’ll never forget that our director John Requa was actively angry after Justin left: ‘A person who looks like that has no business being that funny,’ he ranted. We were all in love, instantly, and knew we had our guy.”

Over the course of six seasons, Kevin transforms from a disillusioned and unfulfilled sitcom star who feels pressure to live up to his father’s legacy and has a history of drug abuse after a leg injury derailed his promising football career, into a devoted father and husband learning to step up to take care of his family.

“Kevin was a late bloomer. He did everything the right way, but he did it about 10, 15 years later than most people do it, and there's some comedy and some humor in that,” Hartley says of his character. “He didn’t try to hurt anyone, but he certainly did cause a lot of pain for a lot of people.”

From the outset, Fogelman knew how he wanted Kevin to evolve, but he credits Hartley’s innate likability for elevating the writing with his performances. For example, Fogelman recalls one year when Hartley spent Thanksgiving with him and his family. By the end of the holiday, everyone thought they were Hartley’s best friend, but that didn’t mean he was a schmoozer.

Read more: Creator Dan Fogelman knew he had a gem with breakout hit 'This is Us'

“You feel like he’s your friend, or your co-worker, or your boyfriend, or husband,” Fogelman says. “You feel for him, you laugh with him (or at him), and most importantly, you root for him, even though he looks like someone you wouldn’t normally feel the need to root for.”

It’s indicative of how Hartley is able to connect with people and audiences. Moore, Fogelman and Olin each pointed to a scene in Season 2 of “This Is Us” episode titled “Number One,” where Kevin hits rock bottom. He is in the midst of a bender when he sleeps with a stranger and leaves his late father’s necklace behind. He begs for her to give it back to him and breaks down outside her house.

“This person is a much more sensitive, intelligent and complicated person than the appearance, the surface of who this person is,” Olin recalls thinking after he directed the first take, which he says left the crew breathless. “But there’s a cost to that because sometimes he’s not taken as seriously or appreciated for his abilities as much as he should be.”

“I remember watching it for the first time in the edit bay and actively recognizing that I was watching something extraordinary as I was watching it,” Fogelman adds. “It makes you, as a writer, confident to be bolder, because you know he’s going to take anything you give him and make it work.”

Hartley isn’t offended by being typecast — and he acknowledges that it’s a more pervasive issue for actors who don’t look like him. “But I think that was the first time people got an opportunity to take me seriously, and it was life-changing,” he says.

Hartley says he still checks in with his “This Is Us” cast mates regularly via text, and that it was jarring to go from seeing them almost every day to not seeing them at all, even if they had years to prepare for the end of the show.

“You know how it is — you say you’re going to [meet up], but everyone’s so busy and we talk and we text, but the idea of getting that whole gang back together for one day is nearly impossible,” he says. “We’re working in different cities, and they’re doing different things, and there’s kids now and all this kind of stuff.”

For now, Hartley is setting his sights on new horizons. He won’t rule out directing an episode of “Tracker,” though he concedes that the demands of playing the lead mean he would only be able to direct a premiere episode. After marrying and divorcing “Selling Sunset” star Chrishell Stause during the run of “This Is Us,” he says he’s “at peace” with his personal life. His daughter is now a sophomore in college, and he is now happily married to his former “Y&R” costar Sofia Pernas, who will accompany him to the Super Bowl. (“This Is Us” famously premiered its “Super Bowl Sunday” episode in 2018, and Hartley jokes that he will now have as many Super Bowl appearances as his hometown Chicago Bears.)

Having spent most of the first 15 years of his career going from audition to audition, Hartley knows that his luck could turn at any time — but he is surprisingly laid back about it.

“When ‘This Is Us’ came along, obviously that was just a totally different level of success and good fortune, and everything changed,” he says. “And that’s when I started to realize, ‘Oh, I should really savor every single moment of this because it's so fleeting, and you never know if you're ever going to be able to get this back again.’ So then you start to think about the early years, and I'm like, ‘Wow, I just didn't even realize that it was such a struggle.’”

Now, he’s leading a show where he is the main attraction.

“But if people hate it, somehow, I’m sure I will find a way to blame someone else,” he jokes.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.