Milo Ventimiglia has been known as a favorite TV boyfriend from his time on “Gilmore Girls” and a favorite TV husband from his work on “This Is Us.” In between, there have been countless other memorable roles, including on “American Dreams” and “Heroes” and in the feature film “Rocky Balboa.” But even after all that, the actor-producer-director prefers to think of himself as a “blank slate.”
“We can do my hair a particular way or put makeup on or put costumes on and pick up accents and inflections and attitudes — any of that stuff can just transform who I am into a believable human being on camera,” he says. “I think that’s something that a lot of artists these days don’t have the luxury of because of how much interest there is in the person behind the character, how much information people are always seeking out. If I can present myself as a blank slate — me, Milo — then maybe that makes Jack more believable because people watch Jack, they’re not watching Milo.”
The Jack that Ventimiglia is referring to is Jack Pearson, the beloved late father of the Big Three on NBC’s emotional family drama “This Is Us,” whom he has played for the past six years. It is a role he is wrapping up now, with the final season premiering on the broadcast network less than a week before he gets his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. (That ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 10, and his star will be cemented right next to his “This Is Us” co-star Mandy Moore’s imprint.)
Although Ventimiglia admits that the Walk of Fame star can feel like a lifetime achievement award, part of why he likes to consider himself a blank slate is so he can easily pivot to the next piece of work, whether it’s something he develops for himself through his company, Divide Pictures, or something that comes his way from other collaborators. “This Is Us” may be winding down, but Ventimiglia does not plan on stopping anytime soon.
“It more feels like, ‘OK kid, you’ve done good for last 26 years, what do you got for the next 26?’” he says.
“I know some people, when they’re walking away and moving on from those iconic roles that they play, they really try hard to get away from them. I think I’m just looking forward to what’s coming my way and take each man that I’ll be playing as an individual and grow them and build them and create them just like I did with Jack or Jess [Mariano on “Gilmore Girls”] or Peter [Petrelli on “Heroes”] or any of the other roles that I’ve played for 26 years on TV,” he continues.
While Ventimiglia’s final run as Jack Pearson plays out on screen, he will also be seen in the fourth season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime Video. That was an opportunity for him to reunite with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, with whom he worked on “Gilmore Girls,” as well as a chance to “get to play with my friend Rachel [Brosnahan] and show versatility.”
In other ways, it is a chance to bring his career full circle, returning to the comedy genre.
Ventimiglia got his industry start in the late 1990s, guest starring on sitcoms including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” before booking regular roles on “Rewind,” which didn’t get picked up, and “Opposite Sex,” which lasted one summer season on Fox. “Opposite Sex” was the first time Ventimiglia caught Variety’s attention, with the June 2000 review saying, “Lead thesp. Ventimiglia’s expressive eyes say a lot.”
In addition to his TV work, Ventimiglia also fondly recalls working with Adam Sandler on “That’s My Boy” and “Grown-Ups 2.” “When I would do comedies with Sandler, I would always just try and keep up with the comedians. And I would always say to Adam, ‘I’m one of you guys.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh no, you’re not. You’re a serious actor. You’re a real actor. We’re just a bunch of idiots.’”
Ventimiglia has never wanted to be pigeonholed, so when opportunities to “play in new sandboxes” presented themselves, he has jumped at them. Producing “The PET Squad Files” for CW Seed allowed him to embody one of the more offbeat characters he’s ever played, as well as poke fun at his past work.
His company, Divide, has allowed him to grow as a producer on several indie projects and commercials, as well. But as he has matured as an actor, the majority of his most highly acclaimed work has been in the dramatic field. Playing Jack Pearson on “This Is Us” alone has garnered him three Emmy nominations, a Critics Choice Award nomination and two Screen Actors Guild Award ensemble trophies.
He also points to Chris Pierce, the “Abbie Hoffman-esque young revolutionary kid fighting the Vietnam War” he played on “American Dreams,” as an important personal turning point in his career.
“I was slowly evolving and growing up, even though I was still playing a teenager,” he says. “I was also able to really help build him with Jonathan [Prince, creator] and the writers.
“Jonathan said something impactful to me: ‘You’re going to have ideas about the character, and bring them to me because you’re going to know more in the first five minutes of playing this guy than I’d know in a lifetime of writing him.’ That gave me a lot of ownership to character and a lot of pride in what we were putting together. Had I not had that perspective, maybe it wouldn’t have been as collaborative with [creator Dan] Fogelman on ‘This Is Us.’”
Thanks to that give-and-take, Ventimiglia has relished the chance to own “the physical voice of Jack” on “This Is Us.” Although he says he rarely tweaks dialogue, he has been given freedom to find “the kind of jazz repetitive pattern of his speaking, the way he talks to his kids, the focus that he puts on people he’s speaking to, the way he carries himself.”
During his six years on “This Is Us,” Ventimiglia developed that voice to be a mixture of a romantic leading man, a patriarch, a man with demons he sometimes still struggles to overcome and one of the most solid family men to grace the screen. This time on the show also helped sharpen his own voice as a director, as he helmed three episodes over the course of the show’s run, including one in the final season.
“I never raised my hand and asked to direct. I’d done it, but I was like, ‘I don’t need to insert myself. I don’t need to take a job away from another director who is rolling between TV shows.’ I didn’t feel that was right. I was satisfied as an actor,” Ventimiglia says.
But executive producer Ken Olin looked at him from behind a monitor at video village one day early in the show’s run and asked Ventimiglia when he was going to direct an episode and that changed his perspective. That someone as accomplished as Olin saw added value in Ventimiglia’s visual style made him say, “If you want me to, I will.”
Working in such creatively collaborative environments is why Ventimiglia loves stepping on set as much as he does. It is also why, when he thinks about the legacy “This Is Us” will leave with him, it is the experience he has had with the whole crew that immediately comes to mind.
“I study the call sheet like I study my lines because that experience is for us. The end result is for the audience. The character that lives from action to cut that belongs — Jack belongs — to the audience. But all the moments in between — and there’s more moments in between than there are moments where the cameras are rolling — those are the ones that I’m going to take with me, always.
“I’ve had a very fortunate career.
I’ve had a very good life where I met a lot of great artists and collaborated with a lot of just incredibly talented people. And I want people to know — a younger generation of artists to know — that you can have that, too. You can work in the arts, you can have a life in the arts, you can inspire the next generation of artists. Hopefully my name just contributes to that.”