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Justin Hartley Talks TV Return With ‘Tracker’ and Keeping in Touch With His ‘This Is Us’ Family

For actor Justin Hartley, Super Bowl Sunday brought an extra level of excitement beyond being the biggest night in professional sports. Hartley, spending the weekend in Las Vegas leading up to the big game, was debating whether his favorite football team, The Chicago Bears, should keep their current quarterback, Justin Fields, or use their No. 1 draft pick in April to select Caleb Williams (who many sports analysts are calling a generational player in that position).

But the biggest reason for anticipation around Sunday’s match-up between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs was that the game served as the lead-in for the This Is Us star’s next series, Tracker, which aired immediately after the game on CBS.

Executive produced by Harley and former This Is Us producer/director Ken Olin, Tracker is based on the best-selling novel The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver. The book follows the life and adventures of reward-seeker and lone-wolf Colter Shaw (played by Hartley). Shaw, who grew up in a survivalist family, helps private citizens and law enforcement find missing loved ones. He has a team of experts who help with his expeditions as he travels the country with an Airstream RV connected to the back of his pick-up truck. Lurking in the backdrop of Shaw’s profession, however, is a mystery involving the death of his father at the hands of an entity of the government — or his older brother — when Colter was 15.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Hartley over Zoom during Super Bowl weekend to talk about what compelled him to tell the story of Colter Shaw for his first major post-This Is Us project, how he separates Kevin Pearson (and Hartley, himself) from the new character and how he decompressed after ending the career-changing megahit series — and yes, a little bit of football, too.

Since This Is Us, you’ve been busy doing some films, a well-received Spotify podcast as Batman in Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind, and have been involved in multiple charities that support animal rescue. What made this the right time for the Tracker project?

Well, we were wrapping up This Is Us, coming into our last season, and Ken Olin and I became pretty close over the six years that we were working together. We met on the show and then six years later we’re like: This is the last year and maybe we should find something to do together. So we set out on the journey to find something. And it wasn’t genre specific that I was looking for; he might have been, you’d have to ask him. But I wanted something good, and something entertaining.

I think a lot of times, it’s all about the message or this political topic. Sometimes, it gets lost in the shuffle that we are entertainers. I want people to watch something and to be entertained. And after that, it’s all icing and butter — and whatever you want to call it, cotton candy and rainbows. But if I can entertain people, if we can entertain people, our crew and everybody on the show who is working in post-production and pre-production and writers, then we’ve done our job. And, that is an exhilarating feeling!

So, Ken found the book The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver, brought it to me and I fell in love with the character. I thought, especially coming out of a pandemic, what an amazing idea of a life where you live in an Airstream, you’re self-sustaining, go wherever you want to go and help people. You’re not an antihero, you’re just a good guy, a good man. And I thought about that. And I guess it made me think about how rare that is. I remember sitting there thinking he’s just a good guy. Colter Shaw is not agenda-driven, necessarily. He’s a businessman. He takes the money, that’s how he makes his living. He’s not politically driven. He’s driven by doing the right thing. And, where does that come from? Well, that comes from his childhood, and we unpack that in the series.

And so you start to see all the layers of this guy, peeled back little by little as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. And why he’s going about his business the way he does, and why it means so much to him. And I wondered why there is not more of this. He is not a superhero; he’s living a very dangerous life. If he gets shot, he bleeds, he will die. I think it’s a throwback series, sort of like the Rockford Files. We just don’t have that anymore and I get nostalgic about that kind of television. And I’m thinking, what if we had an old-school show with a modern edge to it? And I think the character is awesome. I love working with Ken. We have a great crew and a great studio/network behind us; so, for me, it’s just been a dream. It’s a lot of hours, I’m not going to lie to you (laughs). Because it’s not an ensemble like This Is Us, this is a different animal. It’s a labor of love.

You probably get this question a lot when coming from a character you are so connected to like Kevin Pearson from This Is Us: how different is Colter Shaw from Kevin, and also, from Justin Hartley? Is there a process used in separating pieces of you from the character?

Well, it’s a good question. Everybody has their own way of getting into a character, things they need to do to be able to embody a certain character. And sometimes it’s different, depending on who you’re playing. But for me, fundamentally, what I’ll do every single time, and I did this with Kevin Pearson, I will write down a list of things that I have in common with the character that I’m about ready to play. And then, in a separate column I’ll write down dissimilarities. Like, he might be a night owl and I just sleep at night or whatever — which actually is not true, I am a night owl. Then I weave in what’s similar and what’s different, and I can kind of take that character away and say, “Okay, this is who he is.”

It was important for me not to bring Kevin Pearson into this world, because it’s just so opposite. I’m not going to share [what I wrote], because it’s something that I use as a tool, but there are similarities that I didn’t know were there until I wrote them down. And I thought, so now I have three people, one real person and two characters that I’m kind of comparing and contrasting, and I just got into sort of a mind fuck a little bit, and I kind of stepped away from it.

But it really helped me hone in who this guy was, and very simply. Ken and I talked about this extensively: Life happened to Kevin Pearson, right? Life happened to him in a big way. In every way you can imagine: addiction, divorce, twins, his father dying, cancer, dementia, career stuff, fame, fortune, mistrust — everything you can imagine happened to him. Colter happens to people. That’s the difference. He affects. He walks into a room, and everyone feels it. He’s not getting injured by it. He is the tornado!

Justin Hartley in ‘Tracker’ Michael Courtney/CBS

What is Colter’s background? What makes him tick? What life experiences shaped the protagonist we see in this series?

Colter’s background and the way he goes about his business is shaped by his childhood. His father was this hero to him, and then he became this paranoid person who moved the entire family out of the house, grabbed everybody and said, “They’re coming to get us. The government is against us, they’re coming to get us!” When you’re a kid, that’s very traumatic. You just go, “Oh my God, let’s move the family to safety!” You don’t question your father. Your father is right.

And so, he moves them off the grid, they become survivalists. And then it becomes obvious, as they get a little older, that maybe something is wrong with dad. He’s got all that pain and all those questions. He’s got a lot of family stuff going on that he’s oddly enough living in an RV that is on wheels; he is easily able to start the truck and move on and. let’s not unpack that as soon as it starts to get a little bit too close to home. And for a guy who is so brave and willing to face all these dangerous things head on. And slowly but surely, he starts to realize, “Is mom lying to me? Was dad paranoid, or was he kind of right about things? Wait a minute, what’s going on here? Maybe he wasn’t paranoid?” That would drive you crazy, right?

Colter wants to trust people, but he holds them at an arm’s length. So, everyone you’ll see — Teddy (Robin Weigert) and Velma (Abby McEnany) and Bobby (Eric Graise) and Reenie (Fiona Rene) — he has built this makeshift family, because it’s something he’s always yearned for. But he has done it over the phone, over FaceTime. He has decided this is a safe distance. He’s dictating the pace and depths of his relationships, and I think that’s so interesting. You don’t do that with your family, right? They come over and eat your food. They sleep in your bed and stay too long. Then they leave, and you go, “Thank God they’re gone.” But you love them. Colter is the opposite. He’s figured out a way to say, “This is the compartment where I’m going to allow you to be, and when I’m not, I’m going to hang up on you and I’m done. And I’m going to be cordial as much as I can, but also efficient, respectful and, get out of my way until I get this thing done.” He also slips up and catches himself talking too much sometimes, which I really like about him; and he’s finding a sense of humor.

Are you doing your own stunts?

I do whatever production will allow me to do. There are certain things that I’m just not allowed to do, which I understand— it’s insurance. I have a brilliant stunt man, his name is Jordan, he’s incredible! We have a great stunt coordinator. Typically they design the stunts in a way so that I can do them. So, I’m doing most of it, mostly because they’re doing such a great job making them safe so that I can actually do them, which I think is so much better for the audience. You want to see to see the face of the person. You wake up a little more sore than you’d like sometimes when you throw yourself into walls a few more times than you’d like, but it’s worth it in the end. It’s a sore back for a couple of days, it’s no big deal.

Will your wife be appearing be appearing in the series too?

Yes, Sofia [Pernas] is coming in episode six. She is a blast from the past. Colter had a relationship with her, and they were kind of in the reward business together. And then she sold him down the river. It wasn’t great. And so, they had a schism that happened in their relationship, and she comes back into his life for a certain reason and they’re forced to work together in a way to get to a common goal. By the time you get to episode six, you will see this is outside of Colter’s comfort zone. There is obviously an attraction there, but something that happened that is very sad.

Are you going to direct any episodes like you did with This Is Us?

I’d love to. I directed some of This Is Us; I’ve directed Smallville back in the day. I’d love to jump back into it. But it would have to be like the premiere of season two, because I don’t have time to prep. I’m in every frame, so it would have to be the first episode of the of the season.

Other than you and Ken Olin, is there anyone else from This Is Us participating on the production side or acting in the show?

I don’t know which episode it is, maybe episode nine, Jon Huertas who played Miguel is going to direct that episode. So that’ll be fun. And all those times that Kevin was kind of a dick to him on This Is Us, I just have a feeling he’s going to come and just be telling me what to do for 10 minutes. (Laughs.) I love him and so it will be fun to work with him again.

The invitation is open. It has to be the right part. Something really special. These people who I worked with on This Is Us, all of them, they can do anything. But if I’m lucky enough to get them on my show, I would want to utilize them in the best possible way — which means a big juicy, nice, great big role that is going to occupy a bunch of screen time. Because if you get a star like that, you want to use them as much as you can. I love them. I would work with them for the rest of my life.

Once you completed the final season of This is Us, how did you personally decompress from such an emotionally charged show so that it would easier to go into a show like Tracker or some of the different movie roles you’ve done?

We were very lucky in that we got to finish our show. A lot of times, I’ve been on these shows before where they get canceled and the show is not over, it’s just canceled. And you have to wrap things up in a manner in which you weren’t planning on, and it’s like they pulled the plug and you’re done for whatever reason. With This Is Us, we got the great great gift of being able to finish our show. We were never canceled. The show was over. We shot the entire series, they let us do the whole thing. And so, that was that was sort of the way you decompress. We savored every single moment. You have five years left, you have four years left, you have three years left. Oh my gosh, we have two years left and then, this is the final year. And because we knew so far in advance when it was ending, we were able to sit with it for a while, which is a beautiful thing.

We constantly talk on text exchanges and stuff. These people are my lifelong friends. It was just such a wonderful experience; I think I spoke to a couple of them today, even. Almost every day I’m speaking to one of them about something; little things, like a nomination for an Oscar — little things that don’t matter (laughs). We’re always in contact with each other. And then the promise that we can work together again. I’ve got a little show over here that I wouldn’t mind having them on.

So, you’re in Las Vegas preparing for Super Bowl Sunday. Who do you have for the win, although I hear you are a Chicago Bears fan?

I’ve been here in Vegas at the Super bowl and everyone is talking about the Bears and everyone has an opinion about the quarterback [Justin Fields]. And in my opinion, it’s like, how are you supposed to judge the guy? You can’t give a man one-and-half seconds to throw a football down the field. Come on, give me a break! I don’t know the man, but I feel like I’ve been defending him over and over and over. He’s pretty incredible, if you keep his feet clean. But, I digress.

I don’t really have anyone for the Super Bowl. I am a Bears fan, and I am an [L.A.] Dodgers [baseball] fan. I really don’t have a lot of other teams, although I’ve become a Vancouver Canucks [hockey] fan and I’m and I’m a [Chicago] Blackhawks [hockey] fan, and a [Sacramento] Kings [basketball] fan, for sure. But I’m rooting for the players more than the game. I don’t have a team necessarily that I hate. I got hate out of my heart a long time ago; so, I don’t even hate the San Francisco Giants anymore, I really don’t. But I’m sort of hoping for a really good, close game, and I’m rooting for players.

So, you don’t hate the Packers (the Bears’ archenemy)?

No, no. I respect the Packers. I hate their colors, though! Mustard and green, what are you doing? (laughs). But, you got to respect the Packers. They are just perennially good. And even when they are bad, they are surprisingly good, sometimes.

Tracker airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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