“Hi, Mom and Dad.”
That’s how “This Is Us” star Milo Ventimiglia greeted Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, the creators of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” when Variety reunited them for a conversation about their craft. After all, Ventimiglia grew up on the set of “Gilmore Girls,” in which he played Rory’s erstwhile love interest Jess. Ten years later, they still serve as mentors to the actor, exchanging frequent emails and offering parental advice, which the actor gratefully accepts.
After ensuring he’d had enough to eat (and had a sweater on hand in case the air conditioning kicked into overdrive), they got serious (well, kind of) — talking about what they learned from working with each other, setting the tone on the set, and yes, even a potential reunion on “Maisel.”
“Don’t think it has not been discussed!” says Sherman-Palladino. “It’s got to be the right part. It can’t be just a cameo. It’s got to have some meat to it. And it’s also got to be a time when he can shave and cut his hair into a 1950s-period look. But the reuniting will definitely happen.”
What were your first impressions of each other?
Sherman-Palladino: We were in a weird situation on “Gilmore” where they always forgot we were on the lot, and we got a lot of freedom. And just randomly, someone showed us some work that Milo had done and we were like, “We just really need to have him on the show.” We were already madly in love with Milo before he showed up on the set, so we literally wrote a part for him. I’ve never had children because I can’t be convinced that they would turn out to be like Milo. If I had had some sort of paper that said, “You won’t get the Menendez boys. You’re going to get Milo,” maybe we would have done the whole procreation thing.
Ventimiglia: My parents were very cool with the co-parenting thing. My mother’s favorite show at the time was “Gilmore Girls,” while I was 23, 24 years old. So going into my first meeting with Dan and Amy, I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m excited to meet the creators of the show that my mom loves. And wow, I’m auditioning.” And as a young actor, “I hope I’m impressionable. I hope I make a good impression. I hope they like me. I hope they like what I think maybe I can act.” I remember just instantly feeling welcome to do what I felt right as an actor, to make the choices based on these beautiful words that they had written. I always feel welcome with that, and I feel smarter when I walk away.
Milo, what did you learn from working with Amy and Dan?
Ventimiglia: Speed. Getting my words out fast. I have to admit, actors at times really like to milk a moment, and I know that I would do that. I felt like I was very much in this intensive acting workshop program to process my emotions, process my words quickly, but yet hit every single note that needed to happen. So it was a different style of acting than I think I had grown up with, but it’s been so valuable because no one wants to watch “War and Peace,” let alone read it in this day and age. So you have to, as an actor, get to it.
Palladino: Yeah, someone coming in and just motor-mouthing words, it’s not going to work. All the acting has to be there as well, it’s just on “Gilmore” especially, we were writing words that were at a musical pace. You couldn’t take a “Law & Order” script and pace it up like that. It’s not going to make it better, because it’s not designed to do that. Just like if you slow down the “Gilmore Girls” stuff, it’s just not going to work as well.
Sherman-Palladino: I would love to pace up a “Law & Order” script! That would be very entertaining to see a really fast-paced “Law & Order.”
Ventimiglia: Sam Waterston just going really fast!
Sherman-Palladino: From a very, very young age, and I know that it’s only gotten stronger and better as he’s turned into the man that he is, Milo has a work ethic and a professionalism. He walked onto the set with a level of not just respect for the process but a very much, “I’m here. I’m in it,” getting to know the crew immediately, who they are. Really into rehearsing. Really into respecting his other actors and being there for their off-camera as much as they are there for his off-camera. There’s a respect level that everybody has for him, and it was very interesting thing to see happen, because we were still figuring out how to shoot this s— when he showed up.
Palladino: I think about this every once in a while. On “Gilmore Girls” we occasionally had some really bad long, long, long, hard days, and we had one when Milo was not there. The next day, we were standing around talking about this massive day in a gallows humor kind of way, and I just remember Milo going, “Oh, damn, I wish I had been there.” It wasn’t the point of what we were saying, but to Milo, he was like, “I want to go through that experience. I want to live that.”
Ventimiglia: My most favorite place is on set. It really is. And the fact that Amy and Dan setting me up over there in a very welcoming way, they gave me the confidence to walk onto that set to cry when I needed to, to speak up when I needed to, to show fun, even in those longer hours. And Dan’s not wrong. I want to be around for the 15-, 20-hour days, because there’s strength, and you’re in it together, and you get to create and have these moments that not many people get to have. I liked Dan and Amy when I first met them, and I was a fan. Now I love them, even to the point where I’m like, “Hey guys, do you need somebody to sweep the floors on ‘Maisel’? I’m in. You need someone to make sandwiches? I can do that, too.” I just want to hang out with you guys.
Milo, how did that shape your experiences in how you approach being on sets going forward?
Ventimiglia: When I was younger, I don’t know if I have talked about this before, my very first paying gig as an actor, was on the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and on this set I saw Will Smith, who was one of the biggest movie stars at the time, in ’95, coming off of [“Six Degrees of Separation”] back to his TV show. He stopped and talked to everyone. He knew everyone’s name. He was kind, even to me, a kid who had one line on the show. He stopped and talked to me for a couple minutes. And as he walked away, I thought to myself, “I want to be just like him. I want to do the work, but have fun and rally the troops.” And so every kind of job that I’ve been on, whether it was joining “Gilmore” in the second season, or jumping on at day one on “This Is Us,” where I’m top of the call sheet. It doesn’t matter where you are in the pecking order. We’re very lucky to be here. We’re lucky to be artists together, working towards the common goal of making something beautiful that an audience is going to enjoy, but also, if we’re going to be spending anywhere from 10 to 16, 17 hours a day together, goddammit, it’s got to be fun.
Sherman-Palladino: It’s very important when you’re starting a show that it starts from the top, and the person at the top sets the tone. For example, when we worked with Sutton Foster on “Bunheads,” she came in, and she’s a worker. “We’re all in this together.” And when you have somebody who walks in who’s in that top position who sets that tone, it goes a long way, because if there are people whose tendencies are to be a little less pleasant, or people who are going to be a little bit more gripey or nudgy or complain-y, or lazy or, “I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to do off-camera. I’m tired. Get someone else to do it.” It makes it very hard for that person to be able to have that kind of behavior if the person who walked in on top does not have that kind of behavior. It’s amazing how even really good people, they’re going to take their tone from the person who walks in on top. So the show goes on for seven years, you’re either in for seven years of hell or you’re in it together. It’s really what makes a show have that extra little love to it. An audience doesn’t know why, but they’re going to feel that there was something set about that show and the way those people were together.
Milo, you’ve had some great roles, but the writing on “Gilmore” and the writing on “This Is Us” are both stellar. Is that something that you look for in a part?
Ventimiglia: I don’t know if it’s something that I look for, but I do ask myself, who are you going to be working with? Are you working with a talented dictator? If you’re working with talented writers that are also collaborative but also engage with actors the way Dan and Amy engage with actors or the way that Dan Fogelman engages actors, it makes the job more enticing. I think at this point, 23 years in, I don’t feel the need to work for work’s sake. I want the work to be meaningful, to myself as well as to an audience. I want people to be able to learn and grow and laugh and cry with the roles that I play. At the same time, I personally want to value the time that I spend on set and who I’m on set with. It just feels like the universe is blessing me with the opportunity to work with such great writers and great people, and I can’t explain it. I don’t know how it happens. I’m just grateful and happy to be here.
Sherman-Palladino: Being an actor is a really hard job. Believe me, there’s a lot of people out there who are like, “Oh, boohoo. Poor actors. They get to be on the cover of magazines and get to dress up in fancy clothes,” but that’s such a short-sighted view, because in a world of judgment, there’s no job in the world where you get judged more than being an actor, because from the minute you walk in, “it’s how do you look? Are you right for the part?” You can’t take part in just being a human or having your good days and your bad days and your days where your hair looks ridiculous and your face has a weird rash or you’ve got your heart broken, and you just want to eat a pizza and gain 10 pounds. I just can’t imagine the sort of pressure. I also marvel at the fact that the job itself is so technically hard. You have to act, you have to hit a mark, and you’ve got wires shoved up places you don’t want wires shoved up, and yet you have to bare your soul, and you have to be willing to cry, and be vulnerable, or sometimes you’re the villain or sometimes you do bad things to a beloved character, and then you have people at home going, “How could he do that?” It’s a really emotionally draining job, and I have great admiration for people who handle it with grace and still enjoy it in the morning. Because it doesn’t happen without those people in front of the camera. I could stand there and read my script on camera, but I don’t think anybody would enjoy that very much.
Ventimiglia: I would. I think Dan and I would love that.
Milo, what do you think about the role of showrunner?
Ventimiglia: The only thing I could equate it to is there’s a bunch of baby chicks in a nest, and they’re staring, they’re looking out for their mom and their dad to come back with some food, and they’re dying. They’re like, “Oh my god, when are they coming back?” And then Mom and Dad show up, and they show up bearing gifts, and the gifts are these words. Back when I was 24, 25 on “Gilmore,” I looked forward to those scripts coming out, and I didn’t care what I was doing, I would stop what I was doing, and I would tear right into it. And it’s the same thing nowadays on “This Is Us.” So that expectation, I think, is a different kind of pressure that I have no idea about. I produce, I direct, but I don’t write, and that creation is something that I think terrifies me, but yet Dan and Amy do it in such a way that it’s confidence. It’s, “This is what we’ve put together,” and “This is what we think,” and “This is how we direct you in performing it,” but it’s literally, it brought the biggest, baddest worm back to the next for us to feast on every time. I couldn’t imagine the pressure that that is, a whole different pressure that I’ve seen Amy and Dan gracefully navigate for more than a decade now, on multiple shows that have been successful, and it’s inspiring, even for me as a non-writing producer to watch them and their confidence and grace and say, “I want to be like them.”
Sherman-Palladino: Well, we’re just drunk all the time. (Laughs.) Milo’s being very sweet and kind and saying lovely words, but I think he will also remember that the scripts, our table reads were literally the day before we started shooting. Because we were writing every script, and it was just a lot. “Gilmore” was a thing where you always felt like you were racing, racing, racing, and if you stopped racing for a hot second to take a breath, the whole train’s going to stop and go off the rails. There was no moment to step back. This show, Rachel’s role is massive, and she is not a comedian, and she puts a lot of work into these standup routines to make them feel like she is somebody who is comfortable doing standup when quite frankly she really isn’t. So you can’t spring a script on Rachel [Brosnahan] the day before because Rachel prepares for a table read. So it’s very important that we get her that script early, because otherwise, we’re adding extra stress to a girl whose workload is so high and already puts so many demands on herself. She’ll just crush under her own weight of expectation. So we’ve had to really make sure that she understands where she’s going and what’s happening and has some material to work on even if it’s not quite polished yet, which is something we never did in the past. You have to respect what the actor’s process is, because if you take their process away from them, then they can’t do the work that they need to do, and that is again, soul-crushing, because they are in front of the camera. It is not fair, and it’s something that we’ve had to adjust this year.
Amy and Dan, if you wrote an episode of “This Is Us,” what would it look like?
Palladino: The way Amy’s been talking about it, I think Jack’s probably going to hit the bottle again.
Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, yeah. I think he’s going to have a really fast-paced monologue that would go on for five pages, sitting on top of a bar, and we’d walk past, middle of the street, and then he would go to a PTA meeting and continue the monologue. It would be like 14 pages of a monologue, drunk, and see by the time, it would only be 4½ minutes of screen time.
Ventimiglia: Great. I’m in.
Sherman-Palladino: The wonderful thing about the state of television right now is because there’s so many openings for different kinds of shows, and that in a world like this you can have a “Maisel,” and you can have a “This Is Us,” which are really stylistically different kinds of shows. But that is kind of fabulous. I also think that network television in general should build a statue to Dan Fogelman because he f—ing saved network television, because everybody was like, “And we’re done with network television,” and then “This Is Us” proved, no, no. All you have to do is respect the audience, because I don’t think network television was respecting the audience. I think he’s proved that if you just tell the audience, “We’re interested in more than just you buying an Audi. We would like you to laugh and cry and feel something and care about something and think about it once you turn your TV off,” that’s a great place television is in. And I think he proves that you can do that, and I don’t actually know that other networks have picked up on the clue yet, but maybe they will.