MILO VENTIMIGLIA SITS in the shade on the Paramount Pictures lot a few dozen yards away from the soundstage where he films his latest hit series, NBC’s This Is Us, he grows reflective about the path that ultimately led him to become the on-screen anchor of a rare modern network series that’s been met with critical acclaim, audience devotion and a slew of award nominations—including his own first Emmy nod as outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
“When I was a kid, my parents threw me into honors classes,” Ventimiglia recalls of his upbringing in Anaheim. “My test scores weren’t as high, but I would always work three times as hard to get to the answer. So because of my work ethic, they’d put me in all the ‘smart kid’ classes. I was like, ‘Wait a minute—I’m not that bright, but because I work hard, that’s a gifted skill? So great, now I’ve got a life of working three times as hard ahead of me. Fun!’”
He laughs, but he also recognizes how doubling down on effort has characterized his achievements in Hollywood. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have a challenge in front of me,” he admits. “If there’s a challenge, a road block, you’ve got to find a way to go over it, around it, or sometimes go through it. Or stop and say, ‘I’m going to take this challenge down one brick at a time, and that’s how I’m going to move forward on the path that I’m supposed to be on.’”
Drive and discipline have never been a problem for Ventimiglia, who started pursuing an acting career at 18 while simultaneously attending UCLA, ultimately landing his breakthrough role as good-hearted bad boy Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls, followed by his star-making turn as Peter Petrelli on Heroes.
Patience, however, was an acquired trait.
“When I was a kid, I had a list of goals: win an Academy Award by 28, play Anakin Skywalker in a Star Wars movie…” he recalls. “When those goals weren’t met, it wasn’t even a reality check. It was just, ‘I’m setting goals that I’m not in control of. I can bust my ass, I can push my nose deeper into the grindstone, but it isn’t going to make anything happen.’ So as I got older and these things that I’d wanted as a younger artist just weren’t happening, I actually had to stop and assess and say, ‘What is my hard work worth? Where is it going?’”
“[As that lofty goal-oriented approach gradually fell away,] I started to understand that I was a working actor, and that’s what I really wanted, and I think that’s what I was always looking to be,” Ventimiglia says. “And now, that’s all I say to myself—even down to Emmy nominations. I said, ‘That’s great, but that’s not why I do this.’ I do this so that I can make art with my crew and make a memory with my crew, and from there, at some point, this job will end and I’ll go on to the next one. Because God willing, I’m a working actor.”
Of course, right at the moment Ventimiglia took his “foot off the gas a little bit” to reassess and contemplate as his 40th birthday loomed, the acting gig of a lifetime presented itself. “When This Is Us came around, it was a moment when I almost didn’t need it, because I was perfectly happy just existing,” he says. “But I read it and I knew right away. I said, ‘This is going to be something special,’ and I wanted it.”
The feeling was mutual, says This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. “There are a handful of times that a person walks in a room and you just know instantly that he or she is ‘the one.’ That’s how it was for Milo as Jack. Jack is the anchor of the family: an old-school, I-wish-I-was-like-him, wish-I-could-marry-him, wish-I-could-be-raised-by-him type of patriarch. There’s no family without Jack. There’s no Jack without Milo.
“It’s quite a magic trick for the character,” Fogelman marvels. “You know he’s going to die, and the only way to invest in a character you know is going to die is for Milo to be so off-the-charts great that the audience can’t help themselves but to fall in love with him anyway.”
For Ventimiglia, connecting with Jack Pearson was startlingly simple, especially after years of chasing darker, more driven roles. “I just liked him,” he says. “[The role] also reminded me of my dad, because my dad is a very, very good man. … I thought, ‘If I can just put a little bit of my dad and a lot of my settled heart into this man, then I think I can pull it off. I think I can actually make this guy real.’ That is what I try to do every scene, every day.”
What followed, of course, was a television series of phenomenal popularity right out of the gate, now widely recognized for its canny ability to genuinely warm viewers’ hearts and move them to tears—and to inspire many who encounter Ventimiglia in person to share their deep investment in the Pearson family’s triumphs and tragedies.
It is that appreciation that first brought the power of the show into sharp relief—“the first time that someone walked up and said to me, ‘What you’re doing is important, and I just want to thank you.’” Ventimiglia shakes his head, still taken by the memory. “They didn’t want a photo. They didn’t want an autograph. They just wanted to say thank you. Then I really understood the reward of what we were doing, knowing that we were contributing something good when people really needed it, when people really wanted it.”
The lessons of the show—both in its storytelling and its success—have resonated significantly with Ventimiglia himself. “This is one of those moments where you say to yourself, ‘I wonder if this is the best it’s ever going to get?’” he says. “And it forces me to just make the decision to be present and enjoy it, and slow life down as much as anyone humanly can—knowing that we can’t at all!"
“I try and think about things as simply as Jack does now,” Ventimiglia adds. “Just love the people you’re around, do good to the people you’re around, forgive yourself for the mistakes you’re going to make. Just try and be a good person.”
Main Image: Stretch wool suit, $2,695, Dolce & Gabbana, South Coast Plaza; crew neck T-shirt, $27, dstld.com.
Styling by Ilaria Urbinati Grooming by Kim Verbeck using Baxter of California | Shot on location at 909 S. Curson Ave., L.A., 90036, listed by Azy Farahmand, 310.710.8841, 909southcurson.com