‘Tracker’ Star Justin Hartley Breaks Down Premiere Episode & Teases CBS Series Will Be “A Slow Burn” With A Worthy Payoff

SPOILER ALERT! This post contains details from the series premiere of Tracker.

Justin Hartley is making his return to network TV with another post-Super Bowl premiere.

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After Super Bowl LVIII, viewers will be introduced to Colter Shaw in CBS’ Tracker. Colter is a lone-wolf survivalist who roams the country as a reward seeker, using his expert tracking skills to help private citizens and law enforcement solve all manner of mysteries while contending with his own fractured family.

Based on the book The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver, Hartley teased to Deadline that the series will largely depart from the source material but maintain the “sensibilities” of the character.

Beyond that, the series will operate as a procedural, with Colter taking on new missing persons cases each week as he also struggles with the trauma of his past…which is now coming back to haunt him.

Below, Hartley spoke with Deadline more about pitching the series to CBS, weathering through a tough past few years to get it on the small screen, and where he sees it going from here.

DEADLINE: I heard you were involved with the pitch of the show. How did you get involved with that?

JUSTIN HARTLEY: [Ken] Olin and I worked together This Is Us. We had been talking about doing something together. We wanted to keep working together when the show was over. So the year before we shot the last season, or right before we shot the last season, of This Is Us, we ended up getting this book and loving this character and bringing it to 20th, which is my studio where my production company is. We pitched them the idea of me playing Colter Shaw and Ken directing and producing with me, and they loved the idea. So they said, ‘Okay, let’s go forward with it.’ We brought it to CBS, and they loved the idea that Ken and I kind of sold that to them on the phone…It’s like, be careful what you wish for, because then all of a sudden we’re like, ‘Okay, now we have to deliver.’ But I feel like here we are. We’re almost done with the sixth episode of the first season. I think we’ve got something really unique and great and entertaining, and I think it’s got a lot of heart, and it’s got a lot of places. It’s got a backstory, and it’s just something I’m really really proud of. I think it’s special.

DEADLINE: What attracted you to playing the role, in addition to producing?

HARTLEY: Well, I just love acting. I loved This Is Us, and I loved working all the time. I’ve loved every acting job I’ve ever had, I think. So I knew that I wanted to continue acting. The show allowed me the opportunity to not only do that, but wear another hat as executive producer and have that creative input and control. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds. I always like to learn new things. What better way to do it than to learn from the best? I mean, I’m taking class from Ken, and it’s pretty cool.

DEADLINE: Tracker certainly has some familial drama elements that are similar to This Is Us, but Colter is a very different character than Kevin. What have you enjoyed about this character so far?

HARTLEY: It’s been absolutely wonderful. I mean, I enjoyed every second, every frame I saw on This Is Us. It was wonderful. What a journey. That character went from, if you think about where we found him and where we left him — talked about a full circle. From a man-child to a full-grown adult, responsible man. It was just a really wonderful journey with this character. First of all, just selfishly, it’s just awesome to be able to play a different character. As much as I love Kevin…I just think it’s so neat as an actor to be able to take on a role that is just so utterly different. I mean, you’re stripping away so many things that you’re used to and you’re putting on so many things that you’re not used to having on. I don’t even think those two would be friends. You know what I mean? They’re so different. But lucky for me, I got to play both of them. So it’s just been wonderful. Not to say that I wouldn’t want to play a character that was very similar to Kevin ever again in the future, but certainly right after coming off of that show, it really is an actor’s dream to take on a role that’s so different.

DEADLINE: How much will the series follow the events of the book it’s based on?

HARTLEY: Well, we do our own our own stories. We really don’t tell the story of the book. We’re mainly taking the character. And then you have to adapt the character…you have to add and subtract a little bit from that character that is in the book. Like for instance, in the book, Colter does a lot of talking to himself in his brain. He does have a lot of percentages in his brain. And it’s like, okay, you have to figure out a way just logistically how that’s gonna look on camera. I mean, do you want people watching Colter think? Then do you want the inner dialogue to be a voiceover? Or do you want it to be typed out on the screen? Or do you want it to be assumed? Or do you want to see it in his eyes? How do you want to do that creatively? But he still has the same backstory, and he still has the same sensibilities. [He] goes about his business the same way, but you just have to…augment in other ways to make it suitable for television. So that’s what we’ve done.

DEADLINE: The percentage thing is interesting. How did you land on the way he’d discuss it out loud to the people around him?

HARTLEY: I think that, if you do it in a way where he’s sort of rattling off these numbers to himself, we’re asking the audience to believe that when Colter asks, ‘Just trust me on this one,’ that person is actually going to trust him. Rattling off numbers in your head…that kind of seems a little serial killer-ish. I’m not gonna trust that guy. That’s guy’s a whack job. No one’s trusting you, dude. You look weird just talking to yourself. You’re running through numbers, you’re doing percentages. What is going on here? It’s so much easier for us to just say, ‘Okay, look, here you go.’ And he’s giving this person information. He’s trying to help them. It makes it easier for me as a viewer to believe that that [person] would trust that guy who’s spending so much time explaining to him how he can help him or where the danger is, where the perilous things. So to me, that just that sold me on the way that we would deliver all that information.

DEADLINE: We learn in the premiere episode that Colter’s brother is trying to contact him, but we don’t know why. Can you talk about what we might get to see play out this season with that relationship?

HARTLEY: Well, I can tell you that there are a lot of questions that Colter has about his childhood, about his family. And there are a lot of assumptions that he’s made that, throughout the season, we realize might not necessarily be true. The questions that he has might change based on new information that he either stumbles upon or figures out. Things that just don’t add up anymore. This is a really this is gonna be a really interesting place to be. If you’re wondering if your own mother is lying to you about certain things. I’m sure my mother has never lied to me about anything [laughs]. But it’s bad. His brother’s responsible for the dad’s death. That’s terrible, right? It doesn’t get much worse than that. You have the brother reaching out and it’s like, ‘Well, why now?’ So we answer all those questions for you. There is a payoff to all that. It’s a slow burn, but it makes a lot of sense. And it’s definitely very, very rewarding.

DEADLINE: Do you have a roadmap for where the series could go after Season 1?

HARTLEY: I think it would be fun to see him uncover something that is a little more than he bargained for. I would like to see Colter in a situation where, as an audience member, you’re fearing for him because he might be in over his head. If you can imagine what that might be. With that, I think it’d be fun to see/ And then, he’s got to get some answers and some peace with his past and peace with his family. We have a lot to unpack. If people enjoy watching it, we definitely have stories to tell for years.

DEADLINE: The series is premiering after the Super Bowl, which is a pretty coveted spot. How did you feel finding that out?

HARTLEY: I’m just really, really proud, because it’s been years in the making. We went through a pandemic with the show. We went through a writers strike with the show and an actors strike with this show. We’ve gone through a lot with the show. It’s lived through all of that and thrived through all of that. Now we are not only premiering, but right after the Super Bowl. It’s all so worth it. It’s a really wonderful feeling. It’s my second Super Bowl. So, you know, I get it.

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