With the acclaimed This Is Us having wrapped up its five-season story in hugely satisfying fashion earlier this year, star Justin Hartley is looking forward to the next chapter of his career, which begins when The Noel Diary premieres on Netflix this Thursday, November 24.
Adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Richard Paul Evans, star and executive producer Hartley heads up the cast as Jake Turner, a successful author who returns to his hometown at Christmas in order to sort through the estate of his late mother. While there, he discovers a diary that connects his past to that of Barrett Doss’ Rachel, once that forces them both to confront their lifelong feelings of loss, regret, and estrangement, with a little romance sprinkled in along the way.
Ahead of The Noel Diary‘s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to chat with Hartley about the film, pulling double duty as executive producer, his feelings on the end of This Is Us, his longstanding history with DC that’s seen him play Aquaman, Green Arrow, Superman, and Batman at various points, his dream project and much more, which you can check out below.
The Christmas romance is a staple part of the cinematic diet right around this time of year, what was it that drew you to The Noel Diary as something you wanted to get involved in as both a star and executive producer?
Well, it was the script, I read the script because Charles [Shayer, director]sent it to me. And I loved Charles, I didn’t know him personally, but I love his work. And so I read the script, I loved the script. And the character I thought was very dynamic, involved, and went on a journey.
And you see him go from A to B to C, all the way. And that’s very appealing as an actor. And I just thought, with the script and the character being as good as it as it was, and with Charles attached to lead us, I thought, “Well, this is something I want to be part of for sure”.
Did you feel any pressure coming into the project given your involvement on both sides of the camera? People love movies like The Noel Diary, and the “Netflix Christmas Movie” has almost become a genre unto itself over the last few years, so there’s a certain set of expectations subscribers are going to have from the second they hit play.
Well, I think that was in the script, to be honest with you. The script was pretty good. It had all of that. We had the backdrop… the backdrop is Christmas, right? So that’s one of the elements of the movie, that it takes place over the holidays, but it certainly stand alone.
Without that, I think we have a movie that could have taken place in the Bahamas in June, and the story still works. It’s just cool to have, the winter and Christmas, and all that kind of stuff, I think. And Charles really loves that, too. So yeah, but all of that stuff you talked about was kind of taken care of in the writing of the script.
A lot of the story points might feel familiar, but the overarching themes at the center are a lot more universal than a straightforward A-to-B romance. Was it always important for you as an actor and producer to make sure The Noel Diary looked at the bigger picture thematically in dealing with grief, loss, and family, even though it’s still a warm and fuzzy festive film in the grand scheme of things?
Yeah, and those are big things. And I think that’s a very good point, well said. I think that we, again, I think we nailed all of that in the script. When you’re shooting the movie, you actually do have moments that you find on the day that maybe weren’t in the script, or you can go, “We should adjust”.
Because I think… Look, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is entertain people, right? That’s what we want to do. Talk about the message of a movie, or how you want people to feel or walk away from. I want people to be entertained and go, “Wow, that was an hour and 40 minutes, or however long our movie is, that was worth my time”.
And I hope that people walk away and think about forgiveness and things like that, and not wasting their time holding grudges, certainly. But also with that, I want people to be entertained. So yeah, I think all that stuff was in the script when when I read it. But the execution of it is of course important as well. Yeah, you do have that in mind.
There are certain tropes and plot beats audiences expect to see in movies like this that can’t be avoided, to the extent people tend to get a little mad if they don’t get them. Were you always conscious of the fact that there are elements movies like The Noel Diary are almost obligated to hit, while striking the right balance that doesn’t allow formula or even cliché to start setting in?
Yeah, and it makes it authentic. And I think that’s the key, right? You certainly can’t, or at least I don’t want to be part of a project that is just trying to fill those voids where they’re lacking, and then sort of not worry about the story or the characters. If all that stuff will happen, if you can maintain the authenticity of the characters in the story, then you have something special, right? Because now you’ve taken care of everything. But you certainly wouldn’t want to do that, and then sacrifice the story so you can fill that void, I don’t think.
You’ve dabbled in directing in the past, is that something you want to continue doing in the future, possibly even moving into the feature-length side of things?
Yeah, I enjoy it. I think it’s fun. If you have the right people around you, and people that are eager and excited to do the project, I worked on, I directed what I consider to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest television drama of all-time. So I got a chance to work with the best actors, the best script, the best DP, the best crew.
So my job was kind of easy. But yeah, I enjoyed it. I love directing. And producing is fun. I just got back from Canada. I’m producing a television show, with Ken Olin, who I worked with on This Is Us, we’re doing together. So that’s fun. It’s nice to have your hands on the creative side before it gets to the character. It’s nice.
I haven’t forgotten about Quantum Leap, but The Noel Diary is your first major role since the finale of This is Us earlier this year. Is there any bittersweetness to be opening the book on the next chapter of your career now that such a massively popular show that was a big part of your life for so long has drawn to an end?
It’s nice to do different things. We got lucky on This Is Us… Not lucky, we earned it. But we were lucky in that we got to finish the story that we set out to tell. Because a lot of times on these shows the Bible comes out and you say, “In season one, this is gonna happen. In season 2, this is gonna happen. In season 3, this is gonna happen”. And then halfway through season one or halfway through season two, they cancel you!
So you never get a chance to tell the story, and that kind of eats at you a little bit. Especially when it’s your show that you’re watching and it gets canceled, and you want to keep watching it. It’s heartbreaking. So This Is Us happened the way it was supposed to happen. We had a beginning, and middle, and end. We got to tell our whole story. So that’s kind of nice. And then movies are kind of like that as well, you always get a chance to, or at least you should get a chance, to tell the beginning, middle and end when you’re doing a film.
So that was nice. And yeah, it’s always great to play a different character and change it up a little bit. And that’s part of the part of the beauty of being an actor, I think, is doing these different roles and taking on these different characters and characteristics.
There are a number of books in Richard Paul Evans’ Noel collection, are you hoping that fans will take the movie to their hearts in a way that will allow you to return for sequels, even if it would require a fair amount of creative license in adapting the source material?
Yeah, if it was right. Sure, yeah. I mean, that’s all I need is a really great script, and great people around it, and a really great character, and I’m hooked.
Over the course of your career you’ve played Aquaman and Green Arrow, and voiced Batman and Superman. Specifically the versions you’ve played, which one is most likely to sit down with a warm cup of cocoa and enjoy The Noel Diary on Netflix?
Superman! Everybody knows that!
Not Bruce Wayne showing his softer side in the Batcave one night?
Yeah, maybe! I don’t know. He would have company, though, wouldn’t he? Yeah, it would be Superman. I don’t know. That’s a tough one. I mean, I guess it could be Aquaman, too. I don’t know!
Presumably you’re a big DC guy, seeing as you’ve chalked off four of the biggest names available, or was it just a set of fortunate coincidences that came your way?
It was. It was fortunate coincidences that came my way. Yeah. Aquaman was a pilot that I did 900 years ago, and then the two gentlemen that hired me for that [Alfred Gough and Miles Millar] were doing Smallville. So then I went and did Smallville. And then from there, the other two are just, yeah, fortunate coincidences.
So do you have any interest or hopes to get involved in the animated Smallville revival that’s being discussed by Tom Welling and Michael Rosenbaum?
Um… this is the first I’m hearing about it from you!
They’ve been talking about doing an animated revival series.
Oh, that sounds fun. Yeah, that sounds great. I talk to Michael all the time, and we’ve never talked about it! I guess we don’t talk about anything important! I don’t know what we’re talking about.
As an actor, director, or producer, what would be your dream project to make in any of those three roles, and why would it be that?
I’m pretty lucky, I just finished this project with Ken Olin, The Never Game. It’s pretty great. We shot a pilot up in Canada and I’m really excited about it. I think we turned in a really good pilot. Hopefully we can bring it to everyone. That would probably be the one. It’s a really great character. Great role. Great script. I’m very, very proud of it. I’m lucky right now. I think I just did what you asked me, I think I just got back from my dream job.
That never happens! Let’s hope everyone spends their Thanksgiving with The Noel Diary.
Thank you, man. I appreciate the time.
The Noel Diary premieres on Netflix this Thursday, November 24.