'This Is Us' Season 2 preview: Justin Hartley on Sly Stallone, Sophie, and Jack's death

Justin Hartley knows some This Is Us fans are concerned that season 2 can’t possibly live up to the emotional juggernaut that was the first season. Given that we saw how Jack and Rebecca met, their wedding, the birth of their kids, how they ended up adopting a child, how Randall found his dad William, and many other pivotal moments, what could the writers have left to explore?

“For every one story that we did tell, there are probably 300 hundred that we could tell,” Hartley assures us. “It’s endless because we go back in time. For example, William isn’t alive in present time anymore, but that’s not to say that we can’t go back a year or more and tell a story from then. We could do a whole episode of what happened the day before Randall knocked down his door. We don’t know what William was doing that day because it was told from Randall’s perspective. That’s a whole episode right there. I don’t know if we’re doing that or not — but I’m going to pitch that, actually. That’s a pretty good idea.”

Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson, suggests that even stories that have already been told aren’t off limits. “My brother will tell me a story about our childhood and I know exactly what he’s talking about. But then he tells me his version of it and it’s almost completely different than the way I remember it. But the end is the same. It’s different because I didn’t ever consider his perspective,” explains the actor. “I was dealing with these things. So the same story can be told two, three, four, five different ways and be equally entertaining. It’s a wonderful storytelling mechanism and it’s truthful. I think that’s why it’s so relatable too.”

Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson and Justin Hartley as Kevin Pearson in NBC’s This Is Us. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Hartley wasn’t allowed to divulge too much in terms of specific premiere plot details, but he did chat about “sophomore slump” stress, how Kevin has changed since we first met him, working with guest star Sly Stallone on the movie-within-a-TV-show. He also broadly hinted about what might be happening between him and his on-again ex Sophie (played by newly-minted series regular Alexandra Breckinridge).

This Is Us was such a huge hit out of the gate and the love for it seemed to grow exponentially as the first season went on. The show was renewed for two more seasons before the first was even over and then it got a boatload of Emmy nominations. As you go into season 2 are you worried about a sophomore slump? 
First, it was just excitement to come back. I’m as excited about the show as the fans are. But yeah, I think there’s something to what you’re saying about the stress or the pressure. Season one was so good and you certainly don’t want a sophomore slump. Seeing the first script that came in and then the second and third one, you immediately realize that they’re pumping these things out just like they were last year. In fact, they’re getting better [with] every script. You dive in deeper into these characters. So the pressure for me went away almost immediately. I’m sure they’re in the writers’ room sweating bullets.

Remind us where Kevin was when we last saw him.
He’s come to terms with, and has been brave enough to admit, that who he wants in his life is this woman that he messed things up with, his ex-wife. He screwed up that relationship and he was man enough to admit that to her. He’s been very lucky in that she’s giving him the benefit of the doubt, reluctantly at first, and been like, “Okay, let’s see where this goes.” They’ve gotten back together. Then his play goes really well. Everything’s moving along in the right direction in his life and then he gets this phone call from Ron Howard saying, “I saw your play. I have this movie that might be great for you.” This is a wonderful time in his life, but also a very familiar thing to him being that this is kind of what drove him and Sophie apart from each other in the first place.

And where do we pick up with Kevin?
When we pick up in season two, he’s shooting the movie. I think we fast-forward around six months because he’s in production and it’s the Big Three’s birthday again. Like it was in the pilot. In the present storyline, it’s about a six-month jump. But in the past storyline with Milo and with Mandy, it’s pretty much right where we left off in season one. But yeah, so that’s where he’s at, and we’ll see what happens. It’s a delicate thing. He’s got to figure this out so that it goes differently for him this time around than it did the first time with regards to Sophie.

How has Kevin changed since the pilot?
He’s grown quite a bit. Kevin is trying so hard to be this person that he wants to be and this man his Dad always wanted him to be. He’s got this whole idea about what a man is and how a man functions in life because of his Dad. He always falls short of that — part of it is because he doesn’t have the tools, and I think that’s because a lot of things have come so easily for him. He’s never really had to work for anything. He’s always just gotten what he wanted. He had that with Sophie. When she left, that was very unfamiliar for him. So he ran away and he pretended like it wasn’t important to him. He filled his life with these meaningless things trying to fill this void. That was never going to work. So he finally manned up and went back to her and said, “Look I messed up. I still love you.” And that’s the measure of a man, right? It’s being able to admit that you’re wrong, trying to correct your mistakes, and not repeating them. He did that with Sophie. He’s trying to do that with Randall. He’s starting to evolve and become a wiser, more capable individual. Now he continues to challenge himself. So as he gets better at life, life gets more difficult. I love the way they write this character because that’s kind of the paradox in real life and it feels very relatable to me.

Chris Sullivan as Toby Damon and Justin Hartley as Kevin Pearson in NBC’s This Is Us. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

You also get to work most closely with Sly Stallone, who is playing himself and is the lead in your big Ron Howard movie. How was he?
He’s fantastic. He’s a massive, big movie star and when you’re around him, you immediately understand why. I met him once before at the gym, oddly enough, in LA. He’s very sweet and kind. He was working out really hard. But we had a little chat about this movie that I was doing. Then we went on our way until I found out he was cast on the show. He came on set and immediately put everyone at ease, made everyone laugh, did a great job. He says thank you, gives a couple words of advice, and then he leaves. He’s just the greatest. He’s everything that you would want your childhood hero to be if you were to ever meet them.

Lucky that Milo [Ventimiglia] knew him then from working on Rocky Balboa.
Exactly. Milo was able to reach out to him. He’s a busy guy, but he’s a hard worker and he has great taste so we were flattered that he wanted to come on the show. He’s only going to do great things, right? So it was very flattering and humbling to have him on set. I think I heard his wife was a fan of the show too so that probably helped.

When it was announced, it seemed they cast it as Stallone being one of Kevin’s childhood heroes. Were you a fan? You aren’t that much younger than Kevin in real life.
Kevin grew up in the ‘80s so that’s who [his idol] would be. This guy has been an icon for decades. The Rockys were coming out then. What’s so funny is they’re still coming out. Kevin grew up watching his movies and he was a big part of his life. Just being around him is a high, and he and Kate even have a conversation about it. They’re like, “What is happening right now? Sylvester Stallone? What? No way.” It legitimizes a lot of the things that we’re telling within the Kevin storyline.

Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Peason in NBC’s This Is Us. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Everyone is obsessed with finding out how Jack dies and assuming you know what’s going to happen with that, how do you feel about it? And how do you think fans will feel about it once everything is revealed?
I do know how he dies. We all do. It is hard to answer this because I’m privy to all the information and the fans aren’t. I will tell you this. I know for a fact that everything that’s coming out about it, all the stories that have yet to be told about that [event], need to be told before you find out how he died in order for the payoff to be as big as it will be. What they’re doing is very thoughtful. They’re not holding out just because they want people to keep talking about it. In fact, they probably don’t want people to keep talking about it because then it takes away from it a little bit. It’s great that people are curious, but that’s not all the show. Once you find out, you’re going to be like, “Oh, I’m so glad I had all that other information and heard all those other stories” because it just makes the payoff so much bigger and so much better.

This is Us season 2 premieres Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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