[This story contains spoilers to the May 10 episode of This Is Us, “Family Meeting.”]
This Is Us has held many Pearson family meetings. But on Tuesday night, with only three episodes left of the series, the heartwarming NBC family drama reunited the Big Three for its most difficult conversation yet.
Their mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), had held her own end-of-life planning meeting before her early-onset Alzheimer’s had progressed. In that conversation, which kicked off the back-half of a poignant final season, the Pearson matriarch shared her vision for her future. But now, This Is Us has jumped years later and despite Rebecca making a plan for the passing of her second husband, Miguel (Jon Huertas), her three children are faced with unforseen circumstances and the question once more: How can they best care for their mother as she slips away?
Ultimately, it’s Kevin, played by Justin Hartley, who steps up and provides the solution. He will move into the dream house that he built for Rebecca and be her main caretaker — and he has the support of his entire family, including the mother of his twins. The sacrifice, which Kevin handles with resolve and grace, lands the show’s shakiest character on solid ground, and provides another satisfying ending for a beloved character.
“People deserve second chances,” Hartley tells The Hollywood Reporter of Kevin’s This Is Us evolution. “He’s become a complete and full man. A good man. Sometimes it takes a long time to get there. At least, for him it did.”
Below, Hartley reflects on the six-year journey of the most difficult Pearson child stepping up to become his mother’s primary caretaker in the end, filming these final scenes with Mandy Moore and his onscreen siblings, and why the series finale, despite what everyone knows is coming, won’t wrap on a sad note.
When I spoke to Alexandra Breckenridge a few weeks ago about Kevin and Sophie’s big episode, she said she felt like Kevin has had the biggest character growth on the show. And then, here comes this episode. In what ways did this feel like Kevin stepping into his full potential?
I think he’s always been really good at — and he’s underestimated his ability to — take care of other people and be sort of the man with the plan. This episode when he decides to take on all of this stuff and be the caretaker, I think that’s probably what that was. I agree with Alex. I think he was just lost when we first found him, and people can find themselves. I love this character and I feel really good about the fact that the man that he always wanted to be, and thought that he could be and has been sort of striving to be, is absolutely the man that he turned into. I think that was shown the whole season, but especially in these last couple of episodes.
When did you become aware of Kevin’s series’ trajectory — would you have season-by-season chats with creator Dan Fogelman and the writers, or did you have the full picture early on?
I would have talks with Dan. He’s very open about sharing certain things about where the show is going. I think he had an idea in mind years ago, and of course things change a little bit along the way as stories start to be told. But I think he always had the idea in his head that this would be what Kevin did. At the end of the day, Kevin is the one most suited for staying there [at Rebecca’s house]. Randall has all of his political stuff to do; he’s taken the big swing. And I think a change of career, for the time being at least, where Kevin is focusing on other people with the non-profit is great for him. He’s been so fortunate in his life with acting that he can now focus on helping other people. He’s good at it.
Do you remember what Dan’s vision was when he first shared it?
I just remember him saying that Kevin is going to go through this whole evolution. He’s going to have this major growth period, from the time we find him to the time the show ends. He’ll become a complete person, which I thought was great. It took a while to get there. (Laughs.)
How did knowing where Kevin was heading shape how you’ve approached playing him through the years?
Subconsciously, it probably has. One of the things it allowed for me to do was to really lean into the addiction and let him spiral out of control; take him as far down as I possibly could, because I knew there was going to be some kind of redemption. Maybe I would have done that even if I didn’t know. I don’t know. That’s a really good question. But I would guess that probably subconsciously, a little bit, it did have an effect on the way I played him.
Alexandra shared how Sophie and Kevin’s story was almost impacted by her starring role in Netflix’s Virgin River. Was there ever a moment where you were imagining Kevin not ending up with Sophie, and how do you feel when it did work out between them?
Any time you’re dealing with schedules and logistics, it gets a little hairy. But I was just glad that it was able to work out. It’s a really cool love story. I love Alex a lot and we work well together. She’s lovely and talented, and gets the character and the show. I got lucky. I’ve had a lot of really great scene partners through the years. I also got lucky with Cait Thompson [who plays Madison]. We had that quirky storyline for a while that turned into something very serious when the kids were involved. And Jennifer Morrison, she’s a wonderful actress. But I’m glad the story played out the way it did. I think it’s just really satisfying for everybody.
This episode focuses on Rebecca’s decline and the Big Three coming together to plan her end-of-life care. Kevin thought he figured it out by building her the house Jack always wanted to build her. But now, they realize she can’t stay there alone without Miguel, who passed away the previous episode. What was it like to film these scenes with your costars; did you change anything or workshop anything together?
Every time I do a take I try to bring something a little different to it. I don’t like the idea of just repeating the same thing over and over again. Not to speak for them, but I think Chrissy [Metz] and Sterling [K. Brown] are probably the same way. So every take is a little bit different. But the scripts are so good. The intention behind your character and what’s motivated you to do certain things; your point of view is so well-written, you have a very good idea of why you’re saying the things you’re saying and what your point of view is and all of that when you read it. Every time I work with them, you read it and can hear their voice. But then when you work with them it’s like, “Oh, this is magic. This is great. These two are fantastic.”
When Kevin makes the family decision, it surprises everyone. He decides to move into Rebecca’s house, and he gets his entire family on board — Sophie, as well as Madison and Elijah with the kids, and even Uncle Nicky and his wife Edie. What does this moment say to you about Kevin?
I think it’s interesting that he’s able to rally the troops. It shows his growth, right? Because if he’s going to be spearheading this thing and saying, “Ok, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to be moving the family here,” then everyone has a lot of confidence in him. And that’s a far cry from what it would have been three or four years ago. He’s grown quite a bit, is what it says to me. Also, he’s lined up his priorities and he has them in the right order. He understands what’s important, what’s not really that important, what’s important sometimes, what he can’t control. He’s just become a complete person.
In flashbacks, the episode provides some of Kevin’s motivations; he speaks about how he felt like he made his mother’s life difficult and wanted to do right by her. What are his motivations to you?
It’s more than even the redemption. It’s him realizing the sacrifices his mother made for him; there were three of them, at once. And the things she had to do. She was also their dad. How does that work? “Ok, so now I’m mom and dad”? She delayed her love life and all the things she did, it was just all about the kids. I think he feels that, not only is it the right thing to do, he owes it to her and he owes it to himself and I think he owes it to his dad to take care of her. He’s the right guy for the job. And it does sure make him feel better to say, “As tough as I was growing up, and as confused as I was growing up, and as difficult of a teenager I was, I think I can atone for all of that by being the man I always wanted to be. The man you always raised. So, job well done, mom. And now I’ll take care of you.”
Time goes by and the episode ends with an older Kevin calling Randall to tell him he should come with the family to say their goodbyes. That Kevin, who is looking at his mother in this final scene, is a man with resolve. Can you talk about stepping into that version of Kevin?
Resolve, that’s a good word. I think, also, at peace. It’s a sense of feeling like, “This is the end and I want to make sure that everyone’s here for my mom.” In a way, Kevin is taking care of his siblings as well, because he’s telling them they need to get here and bring the kids, bring everybody. He calls Kate. He does the right thing and gives everybody the opportunity to say goodbye in their own way. It’s a tough one. I haven’t gone through that personally, but I can’t even imagine having to be that strong when you feel so weak, I would imagine; that’s your mom. My mom said something to me like 20 years ago and it stuck with me. She did something to try to impress her mom and she said to me, “As old as you get, you never stop being a little girl to your mom; you never stop trying to impress your mom.” I thought that was so sweet that my mom said that, because you think of your mom as your mom, not as someone else’s daughter. So, I think that’s what it was. Making sure everyone could get there and was taken care of. He felt like he had been doing all of this work and the right thing up until then, that he has to stick the landing.
When you look back at your arc on the show and reflect on the series — from addiction and recovery to becoming a co-parent and now, a caretaker — what do you hope viewers remember about Kevin and take away from his story?
That sometimes it takes a long time to get to the place that you need to be, to contribute. To give everybody a second chance; people deserve second chances. And sometimes, not to be so quick to judge. Kevin ended up being a really great guy. When we first met him, I don’t even know what he was. Seemingly, just vapid. I think the man that he became is a really wonderful, thoughtful, caring man. He cares a lot about his family and he has all of his priorities in check, so hopefully that’s what people remember about him. And sometimes it takes a long time to get there, I guess. At least, for him it did.
How proud do you think Jack would be of his son now?
Jack would probably finally admit that Kevin’s the best of the three. (Laughs.) By the way, Miguel is probably second! But I think he’d be proud, yes. Kevin went above and beyond, who wouldn’t be proud? That’s not just answering the call; he went way above and way beyond in doing all of the right things so, it’s a good ending.
At one point, Randall says of Rebecca, “That’s not our mom, Kev. Our mother was magic.” What was it like to for you to film these future scenes with Mandy Moore as Rebecca’s disease progresses?
It’s a little odd, in a way, because she’s slipping away. We know Mandy how we know Mandy, and then almost all of a sudden in those scenes, it was kind of like she wasn’t there. She was kind of locked in and slipping away. You’re working with her, but she’s not really there. She’s slipping in and out. It seemed really difficult for her, but she really nailed it.
The scene where Kevin and Randal brush Rebecca’s hair and moisturize her hands, to see that along with flashbacks of Rebecca similarly caring for them as babies was powerful. Did that come out of research around Alzheimer’s?
I’m sure the writers did. We all did our own research on this stuff and they say it’s a family disease. You go, “Well, what does that mean?” And then you realize it truly is. I can’t imagine. The torment where you have your mother forget your name, she doesn’t know where she is, she’s slipping in and out, sometimes she’s totally fine. That’s a tough, brutal thing. I assumed that, as that kind of deteriorates, your ability to take care of yourself also deteriorates and so you need people to start doing other things for you.
In the final two episode, after dealing with Rebecca’s passing, how far into the future will we see how life turns out for the Big Three?
I think we go 10 or 12 years in the future. Something like that. But we talk about the future after that and what comes next. That’s a cool part of it.
How did you react when you read the finale script?
I thought it was great. I thought we did a good job of not ending the show on such a sad note. Because it’s like, are we going to end the show with her death? But that’s not really what the ending was. I thought it was not about what’s happening now, necessarily, but what’s in store for the future. Where these three are going and the tools that they have to help them navigate throughout all for the trials and tribulations that might come their way.
How was filming your final scene?
We finished last week. I think I was the last thing we shot. We’d been prepping for it for years. And so we knew it was coming, which is kind of nice. It’s not like you’re getting canceled — that’s always a bummer. I was on a show one time and they canceled us, and I don’t blame them for not wanting to keep it a secret, but they came down after lunch and said we were going to do the next four episodes and then we’re done. It’s like death by a thousand cuts every time you get a call time, because we’re canceled. Here, we got a chance to go out on our own terms and we knew it was coming.
I smile at so many memories of these six years of my life, and new memories will come to me daily. But, it also flew by. All of the press and interviews and travel that you do, and the shooting schedule, it just flies. You open up your eyes and say, “Was that six years ago? Holy shit.” But, I’m in a great place. I’m madly in love with my wife and my family is healthy. And everything is peaceful. On the show, I think we did a really good job wrapping it up. I’m excited about what’s to come in the future. I’m excited to wrap my brain around another character.
You have your next character lined up with the CBS adaptation Never Game. Why was this the right post-This Is Us move for you?
I’m excited about it. It’s a departure, for sure. He still has a [family] backstory and all of that, but I think when you do something for a really long time, you’re always looking for something different. I’m kind of excited to get back into the action space. And it’s just a completely different character with a completely different backstory; his upbringing and his relationship with his father is so different than Kevin’s was with his dad. He’s a reward-seeker. I like that and everything about it. And then with Ken [Olin, This Is Us director/EP] being attached to it, because he’s so brilliant, to be with him and over at CBS with people who do that type of show very well, I’m looking forward to it.
When we spoke with the This Is Us group, no one would shut the door on revisiting this show in some capacity in the future. Have you given more thought to if you would want to reunite in some way and, how soon?
I loved it. I’d do whatever. I’m open to whatever, whenever. I love those people so, I’d show up to work tomorrow.
With two episodes left, how do you feel about where Kevin ends up?
Very pleased. I’m glad that he’s figured a lot of his stuff out that he needed to figure out. I’m glad that he’s finally come into his own; he’s realizing what he’s really good at, which is helping other people, and what’s really important to him. His kids. His nonprofit. And being there for others. He’s become a complete and full man. A good man. So, it’s been a wild ride, but it’s been well worth it.
Interview edited for clarity.
The final season of This Is Us is airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Head here to read creator Dan Fogelman, Hartley and the rest of the cast reflect on the series and discuss the final season.