We live so many different lives in our lifetime, don't we? We can bookend our lives, but they’re headlined by these mushroom cloud events.
There’s something you should know about Adam Newman on the long-running soap, The Young and the Restless, perhaps as interesting as anything else you might find spiraling down that click hole. The character was first introduced to the show as a baby in 1995, and later “SORASed” (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) in 2008. In 2014, Justin Hartley became the third actor to play adult Adam, but as “Gabriel.” In tune with soaps’ routine fast-thinking, the show killed Adam off with a car crash following Michael Muhney’s controversial exit from the role, which then made it possible for the writers to reintroduce Adam as “Gabriel” with Hartley in the role. Presumably, we’re to believe “Gabriel” underwent a successful face transplant. This month, Hartley announced his own exit from the role—by God, via a cabin explosion—for an entirely good reason.
This fall, Hartley is coming to NBC with This Is Us, the highly acclaimed new series that debuted its trailer on YouTube to monster views some months ago, about an interconnected group of people who share the same birthdays. The 39-year-old Chicago native stars as Kevin, a handsome actor who has grown bored of his bachelor lifestyle. Meanwhile, in real life, Hartley’s a handsome actor who recently got engaged to his Y&R co-star Chrishell Stause. In this edition of This Course, Hartley takes us into his world of television. The goal of the ongoing series of food and conversation is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over lunch at Granville in Studio City, where we discuss a myriad of things, including the actor’s journey to here, the things he has learned, and his return to primetime with This Is Us.
The Critics Choice Award winner for Most Exciting New Series airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC.
So you’re originally from Illinois. What was it like growing up there?
Well, we moved when I was around 10 to a town called Naperville in Chicago. It’s a nice, suburban, and middle-to-upper class area. We were certainly on the lower end of that, I think. People were friendly. When my parents got divorced, I ended up moving to Orland Park, which is a different suburb of Chicago. I went to Carl Sandburg High School there and then went to Southern Illinois University. I was there until 2005 or something like that before coming out here.
You studied theater in school. When do you think you sort of flipped that switch?
The thing is, I was always into sports and stuff like that. I didn’t think about theater that much. But I ended up getting hurt to the point where I couldn’t really do much anymore. [From the restaurant patio, we watch Hartley's face roll by on the side of a bus.] I’ve arrived, baby! Anyways—
No, not “anyways”… That’s a huge fucking deal! I didn’t tell you this before, but one of the first billboards that I saw on the drive in from LAX was for This Is Us.
Really? Good! It’s just a series of, “It’s no big deal. Who cares?” I’m kidding. It’s awesome. It’s fucking awesome. I didn’t think they’d matter, but every time I see it… You know what that says? That shit cost money, so it says that someone believes in it. Someone’s seen the show and believes in it enough to spend the money and get the word out to get people to watch it. It’s really great.
Anyways—I ended up taking an acting class in college, which, to be honest, was an elective. I thought it would be an easy way for me to get cheap credits without much effort. It ended up being the hardest class I’ve ever taken. As it turns out, that was a nightmare and a blessing. The class was called “Interpretation of Literature” or something like that. I thought we were just going to read cool books, most of which I probably already read and, therefore, demand no-big-deal book reports. It ended up being an oral representation, so it was like acting. I was horrified. But I did it and I got the acting bug from that. I did some plays and I knew right then it’s what I wanted to do.
Did you move out to L.A. pretty quickly after realizing this?
Not right away. I think that took some time. But once I got close to graduation, I knew I wasn’t going to stick around and wanted to come out here. It’s the typical story: I had no money, no job, no prospects—I had nothing. But I was young, I didn’t have any bills to pay, I didn’t have anyone to take care of besides myself, and I knew I could get a job. My sister actually moved out here about a year ago—she’s a singer, actress, and all that—and I answer a lot of her questions and sift through some of the industry bullshit. I didn’t have any friends out here when I came. I didn’t have anyone. Again, that was a blessing and a curse because I didn’t get sucked into any weird thing.
What “weird” things are you referring to specifically? What do actors get suckered into?
I just mean like, I think for some people when they have a group of friends, they can get influenced by that group of friends. Maybe they’re acquaintances and not even friends, but they live in L.A. I’ve seen people come out here and attach themselves to people who don’t do much. They just hang out and sort of enjoy the weather, which is great if that’s what you want to do, but if you’re an aspiring actor, it’s hard work, you know? You can’t just go to the beach and hang out and drink all the time. That said, my Old Fashioned is on its way. [Laughs] I’ve earned it, god damnit.
I had to ask a lot of questions to figure out the rudimentary stuff when I got here like, “How do I get an agent? How do I meet them?” It’s just crazy, you know? I came out here and ended up doing more acting classes and studied quite a while. I got lucky and got a soap. But I was absolutely horrible. I have no idea why they hired me. [Laughs] I have no idea what they were thinking.
They obviously saw something.
I don’t know what they saw. Maybe they were drunk! Maybe they had liquid lunch. [Laughs]
Can you recall your first professional gig?
The first thing I ever did on set was on a show called Early Edition. I did extra work for one day. I got to sit at a table like this one and some guy robbed a woman or something. I think they actually showed my face on the show. Then I got to sit in this really hot room for seven hours, before walking down a street and pass the camera. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
You learn incredibly fast just being on a set, even as an extra, right?
You learn so much in like three weeks, and it’s a cool way to learn without being held accountable for being how bad you are. [Laughs] There are some good actors on soaps, but not when you first start. The people around you are so nice, too, because they’ve all been there and they understand.
I’ve never been into soaps myself, but I always viewed it as its own kind of animal.
It is totally different. In one regard, the pace on a soap is hectic. There’s this constant thing hanging over you like, “Get it done on time. Let’s go.” You get one take these days—one. You mess up a line and they’ll say, “People mess up their lines all the time! Let’s move on.” There’s an urgency. We’re not doing four hours of overtime here. We have to pump these things out, yeah? I don’t think the medium was meant to be produced at that kind of rate. Having done it—going to work with 40 pages of dialogue, then having to go home and memorize another 40 for the next day, and so forth—I can tell you it’s a lot of stuff. I think I had something like 127 pages to get through on the last two days of The Young and the Restless. I don’t know what happened, but I think they got a little backed up. They also knew I was leaving, so we had to do like seven shows in two days.
But it’s also good because, if you have a scene that you think is bad, you have another one coming in like two seconds you can feel good about. [Laughs] You literally say a line and then forget it. As far as This Is Us is considered, you have to have the energy to be able to do it over and over and over again, like it’s the first time you’re doing it each time. That’s a whole different sort of skill.
How do you honestly feel about leaving The Young and the Restless behind?
It’s tough because you show up to work every day and you become family. My wife on the show is my fiancée’s best friend so that’s an interesting thing, right? “Going to work!” [Laughs] But we became a family of our own at This Is Us. We had a cast dinner this past weekend and we talked about almost everything except the show. It’s been a smooth transition. We’re all the same-ish age.
Right now, I’m literally neck-deep in This Is Us. They start shooting episode six today and I report to work tomorrow. I mean, there are only so many hours in a day. There’s no time right now. FOX and NBC is behind the show and Sony and CBS is behind The Young and the Restless, and I don’t know how that all works. That’s way above my pay grade. I don’t know what that conversation is like, or if there is a conversation. I’m very happy right now. The show is phenomenal.
You play a sitcom actor on the show. What else can you reveal about Kevin?
So here’s this guy who, on the surface, stars on a successful sitcom, which means he’s probably making a lot of money. He’s famous-ish. He probably leads a privileged life. He has this great relationship with his sister. Everything looks great. But when you get a deeper glimpse into his life, you see that he doesn’t have a girlfriend and probably hasn’t been in a meaningful relationship for a long time. He’s not happy at work because they don’t take him seriously. It’s like, if he has any creative ideas, they just want him to take his shirt off. It’s a lonely place that he’s in. Also, the close relationship he has with his sister looks great at first, but it’s like they have this co-dependency thing going on. He’s a 36-year-old man who probably doesn’t know how to fold a shirt. I bet he can’t even cook. You also have the age thing happening. On top of that, he starts to see other people’s perception of him: “You’re a joke, dude.” People think he did push-ups and pull-ups, and got lucky. I think all of that together is an explosion that you will see in the pilot. He has a Jerry Maguire-type of epic meltdown—and in front of Alan Thicke. He calls out Alan Thicke and that goes viral. He starts to second guess himself. The character is very rich, deep, and complex.
I’m sure you can relate to some of these things very deeply as an actor yourself.
Not even just actors—I think people can. The goal is to sort of move past that. I have a daughter who’s 12 years old and one of the things that I’m very conscious about is teaching her to understand that this stuff happens, and to live her life not based on what other people think, but how she wants to live it. It’s a very simple thing to explain, but a very difficult thing to do because we all hurt. You hurt, right? You go through it, too. I’m raising a little woman and it’s not easy. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a woman in this world. I don’t think I could do it. There are so many instances where you get the shorter end of the stick because you’re a woman, or because you’re black or Asian or heavyset or old or uninformed. People have all these preconceived notions about people they don’t even know. It’s unbelievable. We touch all of that on the show. I love the way Dan [Fogelman] writes it in a way where it’s not sugarcoated. It’s not like, “Here’s the lesson of the week!” Our characters are flawed, too. We’re not these angels walking around by any means.
Your daughter fully understands what you do for a living, right?
She does. She actually came to work with me the other day. She had like a half-day at school or something so I brought her to work. She’s visited every single one of my shows, whether that’s Smallville or Emily Owens M.D. or Revenge. She’ll say things like, “This is what I want to do,” and I try to explain to her like, “This is the result of all the work that gets put in, traipsing all over town poor and trying to figure out how you’re going to get money for gas or when your car breaks down, and everyone’s saying ‘No’ to you.” Then she says, “Well, how do you just do this?” [Laughs]
Yeah, skip all of that other stuff.
There’s no way to do that.
Are you okay with her wanting to act?
I’m open to it, but cautious. I don’t want her to audition until she’s ready and, for me, that means acting school and acting lessons. When she’s ready, she can go out and audition because, otherwise, it’s just going to sound like a bunch of rejections. I’m not saying that anybody would ever say “No” to her, but if they did, it’s easier to take than if you were like trying to fool someone because you don’t know what you’re doing, you know? I’ve been there, too. She’s acting now in school and beginning to dance and stuff like that. I love the arts and I encourage it.
Is anyone else in your family in the film industry?
Not that I know of. My mom’s a teacher and my dad’s a plumber. My step-dad’s a psychiatrist.
How did they react when you first started out on this path?
My mom was all for it. My mom is super sweet and really encouraging, to the point that I could give her the worst idea in the world and she’d be like, “Go for it! What a great idea!” I think other people were a little more skeptical and grounded in reality like, “Come on, dude. Go get a real job.” But acting is a real job. When I got to Chicago, I obviously started seeing more actors. In Central Illinois, people don’t see acting as something you can make a living doing. It’s just not around and you don’t have access to it. Moving across the country to L.A. to act, you know—I got away with it. [An elderly man waves while exiting the restaurant and shouts, "You're alive!" and Hartley thanks him.] My character on The Young and the Restless got blown up last week.
What I just saw right now—it must happen to you all the time, right?
All the time: “Hey, it’s good to see you alive.” Isn’t that funny? It’s rare in life that you get to walk around and say that to people like, “Good to see you alive!” and then laugh about it.
It’s not hard to imagine that might happen to you on the hour or whatever it is, but to see it happen firsthand is bizarre. How did you feel about going out the way you did on the soap?
You mean with a bang like that? Good.
Adam’s been through a lot, including everything before you signed on.
He has, and now it’s over. [Laughs] It’s a sweet release.
Congratulations on that Emmy nomination this year, by the way.
Thanks! I lost big time. I’m a loser! I’m kidding. That was fun. It was fun playing Adam. And you were right, that character did come back from the dead. He came back with a new face, a new life, and a new everything. My whole thing was like, if he died and came back as a new person, I’m going to tap into some things that you’d never seen before. I wanted to make him funny. I mean, how hilarious is it that everyone thought you were dead, but now you’re back? I found that funny, so I wanted to make him funny. I got away with being a kind of asshole in certain moments because I think he earned it. He had been funny and sweet, took care of his wife so well, loved his family and that stuff, so that earned him the right to be a kind of jerk—the “bad guy”—sometimes.
This time right now seems like a big life chapter for you in general. You also got engaged.
The relationship I have with Chrishell [Stause] that evolved over a long period of time before the engagement changed me because I’d been married before. Divorces are not amazing. To get yourself into a place where you’re ready to make that commitment again, it takes a special person, a special situation, and a special chemistry. If you asked me three years ago if I thought I’d be engaged and ready to have a new wife and be on this show, I would’ve laughed at you. We live so many different lives in our lifetime, don’t we? We really do. We can bookend our lives, but they’re headlined by these mushroom cloud events. When I look back on things, I imagine what it was like to think the way I did ten years ago. I’m like, “Man, I can’t believe I was so naive.”
You already have a rabid fanbase. Does it ever get too invasive?
Never. Very rarely do people get personal and hate you for doing something. If they have an opinion and think you’re a shitty actor, that’s okay. That’s their opinion. Very rarely do they get personal and call you a shitty person. I can count on one hand how many times that’s happened. I’m lucky in that I’ve been sort of protected by good writing and good characters that people appreciate. My fans are great. They’re so loyal. I recently wrote what I thought was a nice thank you letter to my fans for watching. Not a goodbye, but a thank you letter. They wrote me all the time to tell me what they thought about me, how deplorable it was what I was doing, or how amazing it was what I was doing. So I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you for, I don’t know, making my job fun and making me laugh. They’re good people and I appreciate them.
There’s a lot of waiting around for actors, both on and off the set. Do you handle that well?
I’m good as long as I have something on the horizon, like the near-horizon. If I don’t have anything on the near-horizon, I tend to go a little bit insane. I’m not mean or anything, but I’m probably annoying as hell because I like to work. I don’t really mind waiting around on set as much as I used to, and maybe that’s because I don’t have as much energy as I used to.
You co-wrote and directed an episode of Smallville when you were on the show. Was that fun?
I loved it. I was lucky. They let actors direct episodes once in a while, right? So I brought that up. We had a meeting at the beginning of season nine or something and Kelly Souders, the showrunner at the time, told me, “Yeah, you can direct in season ten.” I was like, “Thank you.” [Laughs] “But that’s not the question I was going to ask you. Have you ever had an actor who wanted to write an episode?” She just went pale, probably thinking, “Of course not! This idiot has no idea what that entails.” I asked her, “If I wrote an episode, like what I thought the premiere should look like, would you read it?” and she said, “Of course!” I actually had it on me and she was like, “Wait. What?” They ended up letting me co-write one. People ask me all the time if I actually wrote it and I’m like, “Yes! Yes, I did!” [Laughs] The season after that, I got to direct one and that was a blast.
Did you find the writing and directing difficult? What was the big takeaway?
I was lucky enough to be around a bunch of people who sort of guided me because preparation is everything, right? Same as in sports, preparation is everything. So I was prepared, and had a shot list and everything. Of course, as soon as the actors come to set, the shot list falls apart because they don’t want to do that. But at least you have one. The writing and directing helped my acting a ton. Understanding other people’s jobs really helps an actor because it calms you down a little bit. It’s not all about you and you don’t realize that in the beginning—or I didn’t, anyway. I’d be reading a script and think, “Why are they telling me this?” and then you realize that wasn’t for you. It’s for the network or someone else who’s also reading it. I just love all of it.
Was there a directing bug to be caught there? Would you do it again?
Totally! I just think those opportunities are hard to come by. When I directed Smallville, we were on another planet—literally. We had to figure out what it would look like, how to light it—maybe that was already established, I don’t remember—but wherever we were, we had two different worlds going on. I was in most of the episode. I almost didn’t want to be in it because it’s bizarre to be on both sides of the camera like that. It was a lot of good times and I hope to do it again.
Maybe you’ll go onto direct an episode of This Is Us.
That would be fantastic. Back then, I probably would’ve strategized something like this, but now I’m going to enjoy this or whatever it is I have, you know? This Is Us is such a special show. Sometimes I do think someone’s going to come along and wake me up like, “Funny, right? We were just messing with you. Let’s go back to work.” I’m just going to enjoy it because, why not?