"I didn't know I was known as the 'daytime guy,'" Justin Hartley, star of the breakout NBC series This Is Us, tells ET from the top of the Empire State Building in New York City, where on a chilly February morning he's happily posing for cameras, making the rounds with reporters and acknowledging fans who recognize him as the 36-year-old version of Kevin Pearson. "But this show certainly has changed the trajectory of things."
Created by Crazy, Stupid, Love screenwriter Dan Fogelman, the multigenerational family dramedy has quickly become the biggest hit of the 2016-17 TV season, pulling in at least 13 million viewers each week and earning several Golden Globe nominations, including Best Television Series – Drama. The show also marks the biggest role of Hartley's career, which started with playing Nicholas Foxworth "Fox" Crane on Passions before spending the better part of a decade appearing on Smallville, Emily Owens, M.D. and Revenge. In 2014, Hartley joined The Young and the Restless as longtime character Adam Newman.
Almost by default, the 40-year-old actor was known as "The Young and the Restless star" or "daytime star" when he initially joined the NBC series. "People know what they know you from," Hartley says, acknowledging the sometimes limited scope of viewers, who may not have followed his career from one series to the next. In fact, a fan who knew him for playing Fox Crane recently walked up to him on the street and asked, "So, what happened after that? Did you quit?"
"Work begets work. I've always taken the jobs -- I've tried to take the jobs where the story is full or the characters are full," Hartley says, not insulted the fan didn't know his subsequent roles or that new fans may not be familiar with his prior work. "People are so busy nowadays. Any time you can get people to watch you on anything, it's very flattering."
So to be on a hit show like This Is Us is very humbling for Hartley, who says the biggest challenge is "servicing the script" week to week. "There's nothing worse when you have a job and you read something and you're like, 'God. How am I possibly going to make this work?'" Hartley reveals. "But there's also something very daunting about reading a script and being like, 'Oh my God, I hope I'm good enough to make this work,' which is where I'm at right now."
Hartley credits Fogelman and the show's strong stories, which has seen Kevin, one-third of the show's central triplets -- twins Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin and adoptive brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown) -- and an actor on The Manny,quit his hit sitcom to escape to New York City in hopes of upping his credibility with a role onstage. There, he falls in and out of love with both his co-star and playwright while also dealing with the ghost of his father (played by Milo Ventimiglia in flashbacks) and his ex-wife Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge).
In some ways the role is a meta experience for Hartley, a traditionally handsome actor expanding his range, who also went through a divorce in 2012 after his first marriage to his Passions co-star Lindsay Korman fell apart after eight years. Now, he's engaged to actress Chrishell Stause and busy planning their wedding ("I have the best bride"). He's more than just abs and a pretty face. "I steal from everything all the time," Hartley says of pulling from his own real-life experiences, which includes being a father to his 12-year-old daughter with Korman, Isabella Justice Hartley.
The show's layered way of presenting its male characters has also impacted his views on masculinity and fatherhood. "It's reinforced a lot of things I thought before. One of the things I constantly do is try to show my daughter what that is, what that means, what a man does," Hartley explains. "I try to show her that by example. I want her to find somebody that obviously measures up -- she's wonderful -- and that deserves her. And there obviously isn't anyone that does, but we'll get close, hopefully." The themes on This Is Us are especially interesting for Hartley, who is not afraid to be vulnerable. "There's a time and a place where [being] a father is important, or a brother, or a relationship with a buddy," he says of what it is to be a man.
Hartley's greatest takeaway from being on This Is Us, and one that he hopes fans embrace as well, is slowing life down to "savor the flavor." He hopes that audiences are moved by the show and are inspired to call someone they haven't talked to in a while or reconnect with a distant friend. "We've had stories on our show that I think, no matter where you come from, they can touch you," he says, thankful that the show is as good as it is and that audiences are receiving it well. "I'm lucky and happy and humbled to be on it."
See photos from Season 1 of "This Is Us":