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‘This Is Us’ a ‘dream come true’ for Chicago’s Justin Hartley

Chrissy Metz as Kate and Justin Hartley as Kevin during the pilot of NBC's highly anticipated dramedy "This Is Us." | Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Chicago’s Justin Hartley couldn’t believe his luck when learned he was up for a part in NBC’s highly anticipated dramatic series “This Is Us.”

“When I read the pilot, I was like, ‘Man, if I could be a part of something like this, this would be like a dream come true for an actor,’ ” Hartley explained. “It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime scripts you read. This role spoke to me in so many ways: I think he leads with his heart, he’s always got good intentions and he’s very driven.”

“This Is Us,” premiering at 9 p.m. Sept. 20, connects the stories of a varied cast of characters, including a married couple expecting triplets, a depressed woman struggling to lose weight and a successful businessman who tracks down his biological father. Hartley’s character, Kevin, is a television sitcom actor who has grown bored of his glamorous bachelor lifestyle and yearns for more serious roles.

Hartley is best known for his work on soap operas “Passions” (as Fox Crane), “Revenge” (Patrick Osbourne), “Mistresses” (Scott Thompson) and “The Young and the Restless” (Adam Newman) as well as the superhero fiction series “Smallville” (Oliver Queen/Green Arrow). He first heard about “This Is Us” from a fellow actor in L.A. who mistakenly thought the show’s writer and executive producer, Dan Fogelman, wrote the character Kevin specifically for Hartley.

“He sends [the script] over to me and I read it, and immediately I was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s fantastic, that’s right in my wheelhouse right there,’ ” Hartley explained. “I called my agent and my agent was already on it.”

According to Hartley, the show’s blend of dramatic tension and bursts of comedic relief sets it apart from the past shows he has worked on.

“The way that Dan sort of mixes the tone of the show, the way he will literally have you crying and then all of a sudden something will happen and you’ll sort of start laughing through the misery that you’re experiencing in these characters,” Hartley said, pausing. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a job like that before.”

Anticipation for “This Is Us” clearly is high, with its trailer drawing nearly 15 million Facebook views in the first 48 hours of its release in May. That set a record for a TV show.

Justin Hartley plays Kevin, an actor grown tired of playing surface-level roles, in NBC’s “This Is Us.” | Photo credit: Evans Vestal Ward/NBCUniversal
Justin Hartley plays Kevin, an actor grown tired of playing surface-level roles, in NBC’s “This Is Us.” | Photo credit: Evans Vestal Ward/NBCUniversal

In early screenings, Hartley said, “you literally can look around the room and you can see these people get lost in the show. You can tell that this show is affecting people. I truly do believe that it will move people to maybe make better decisions in their life. That’s been the most fulfilling part of a show like this.”

While growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Hartley was introduced to acting in a theater class at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, but didn’t truly fall in love with the art and view it as a realistic career path until attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

“I was sort of a sports guy, but when I went to college I caught the acting bug,” he said, describing an English literature class in which the students performed scenes from books they read. “It really opened up my eyes — you can actually do this for a living, if you’re lucky. I think it gave me the guts to move out here.”

Despite moving to L.A. shortly after college, Hartley remains a “huge, huge fan of Chicago.”

“It’s a really wonderful place,” Hartley said. “The architecture; the skyline; the people, how friendly they are and helpful they are; how clean the city is … I just love it.”

Hartley is recently engaged to Chrishell Stause, a fellow soap opera veteran who was a series regular in “Days of Our Lives” and “All My Children.” On a recent visit to the city, Hartley said he introduced Stause to Chicago-style pizza despite her insisting a preference for New York’s thin crust version.

“I said, ‘I don’t think you’ve ever had real Chicago pizza — it’s a completely different experience,’ ” Hartley said. “So she tried it, and I think it’s like her favorite dish on the planet. I think it’s not only her favorite pizza, I think it’s her favorite dish. Chicago has got it down pat, for sure.”

Traveling is among the actor’s favorite hobbies. Chicago aside, Hartley has visited Hawaii, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and Paris in the past few years, despite “The Young and the Restless” and “This Is Us” taking up most of his time.

“I’m concentrating on ‘This Is Us.’ That’s basically an every-day-all-day job,” Hartley said. “It’s a labor of love, for sure. We have a ball.”

For now, Hartley is content to focus on the show’s upcoming premiere and spend time with his fiancée and 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

“I’m just so lucky to be on this show, I feel like someone’s going to wake me up and be like, ‘We were just kidding, dude,’” he said with a laugh.