On NBC’s “This is Us,” Justin Hartley played Kevin Pearson: A man whose dreams of playing college football were derailed injury — so he decided to try acting, and ended up a big star.
Hartley’s own story has some strong parallels. He loved to play sports growing up but realized, as he got older, he wasn’t cut out to play professionally.
“You realize there are too many people out there that are way better than you are. There’s no more room for you. You have to find something else to do,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Like Kevin, that something else turned out to be acting. While in college, Hartley joined a theater group where audience members could get onstage and join in the dialogue, leaving the actors to just go with it.
“How you prep for something like that is you just do a lot of improv work, so you’re kind of prepared for everything. They come up, they think they’re being clever, they say something, you’ve already heard it. And I just fell in love with that that energy,” he said. “You get that same kind of adrenaline rush from playing sports.”
Fueled by the boldness of youth and the lack of any real responsibilities, Hartley decided to move out to Los Angeles and join the countless other wannabe actors looking for their big break.
“I know no one. I have no prospects. I have no job in LA. I’ve never been. I have no talent to speak of, and I don’t know how to develop it,” said Hartley. “‘OK, let’s go to LA and roll the dice and see what happens.’ It kind of makes me sweat just thinking about it.”
The experiment obviously paid off but it wasn’t until “This is Us” debuted in 2016 that Hartley reached a level of fame that led to security and opportunities. He has his own production company, Change Up Productions, where he’s developing projects.
“You look at television and streaming. There are a million things out there. There are a million roles. They don’t compare to how many talented actors there are out there,” said Hartley.
Hartley’s first big role since “This is Us” aired its series finale last May is the Netflix holiday movie “ The Noel Diary, ” based on the novel by Richard Paul Evans. He plays a popular author who returns to his childhood home to settle his late mother’s estate and finds an old diary that leads him down a road of romance and reconciliation.
The film is directed by Charles Shyer, who directed “Father of the Bride” and “Father of the Bride II.”
“We shot this movie a while ago, so for people to finally be able to see it is pretty exciting for me,” said Hartley, adding that while the story takes place around Christmas, they filmed in the middle of summer.
“It was in the nineties and it was muggy. And (Shyer) would just look at me and go, ‘I’m so sorry. You must be miserable.’ It was hot,” he added. “It was uncomfortable, I guess, because they kept putting coats on us, but it wasn’t miserable. It was magic. It was wonderful. To celebrate, Christmas in the summer and then also get to celebrate in the winter is kind of cool.”
Hartley just shot a pilot with a former “This is Us” executive producer and director, Ken Olin, for CBS called “The Never Game,” based on a book by Jeffrey Deaver. He’s also a co-executive producer.
“I think it’s a really neat sort of a throwback to classic older television in a way, these characters that you don’t really see anymore,” he said.
He also recently guest-starred in an episode of NBC “ Quantum Leap ” reboot with his wife, Sofia Pernas. The two had shared a couple scenes on “The Young & the Restless” before, he said, but didn’t really know each other — so he counts this as the first time he really got to work with her.
“She’s hilarious. I got a kick out of it. Sofia is my best friend. She’s my wife. I love her to death,” he said. “She means everything to me, but my character on that show — she was annoying him, and I thought that was kind of funny. We had a blast.”