With The Company You Keep, Milo Ventimiglia Steps Into a New Light

The actor discusses moving on from being “America’s dad” on This Is Us and using photography as a way to commemorate his favorite projects.

by Max Gao

Milo Ventimiglia
Photo by Getty; image treatment by Ashley Peña

Milo Ventimiglia is ready to lay Jack Pearson to rest. After six seasons of playing the beloved patriarch on the NBC family drama This Is Us, Ventimiglia—who had risen to fame in the aughts as Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls and Peter Petrelli on Heroes—felt ready to push himself creatively. In fact, two weeks after shooting his last scene on This Is Us, the actor was already back on the same Paramount lot with about 90 percent of the same crew members to shoot the pilot of The Company You Keep, the new ABC romantic crime drama that airs Sundays at 10/9c.

Inspired by the Korean series My Fellow Citizens!, Company follows Charlie Nicoletti (Ventimiglia), a charming con man from a Baltimore family of grifters, and Emma Hill (Catherine Haena Kim), an undercover CIA agent from an Asian-American political dynasty. The two fall in love after meeting by chance at a bar, seemingly unaware of the other person’s profession. But when Emma begins investigating the Irish crime syndicate that has been blackmailing Charlie’s family for a con gone wrong, the two lovers are put on a dangerous collision course that could ruin not only their burgeoning relationship but also the lives of their respective families.

“Charlie, in a strange way, is similar to myself,” Ventimiglia, who also serves as an executive producer, tells W from his hotel room in New York City. “He throws himself into his work as a con artist, strapping on different characters like I do as an actor. I think he’s also a deeply emotional person who is looking for connectivity and loves the ones he’s around.”

In his Culture Diet interview, Ventimiglia opens up about his approach to playing a con artist disguised as an everyman, the eclectic playlist of songs he made for Charlie, and his desire to make a photo book that commemorates his time on This Is Us.

When you’ve essentially played America’s TV dad on a show that is very much still part of the cultural zeitgeist, how do you go about creating a new character that helps your existing audience see you in a new light?

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve tried to keep myself a bit of a blank slate, so that when I dive into a character, people wholeheartedly believe they’re not watching me playing dress-up as somebody else. Keeping myself out of the public eye when I can has been pretty important. But for the most part, each one of these men that I play have their own identities, their own lives, their own fears, and it’s up to me—and a lot of times, the writers—to discover those things and then dive completely into them.

I didn’t have to reach to find Charlie. I don’t even think I had to reach that much to find Jack. It was just drawn from a different inspiration. Jack, to me, was from watching my father; Charlie is a bit looking in the mirror and understanding myself. All these characters that I play are [a reflection of] where I am at any given point in my life. It happened with Jess, with Peter, with Rocky Balboa Jr.

How has your approach toward playing Charlie in particular differed from the others?

It’s a tall order, but I want him to be unremarkable as a person. He owns a bar with his family; he’s, for all intents and purposes, a very simple guy. But when he does step into this con world, he has to strap on whatever character he’s playing believably. A lot of that is just being a bit of a chameleon, and actors do that ourselves quite a bit whenever we step into a role and make it as believable as we can.

I worked a long time ago with Matthew Modine, who had studied under Stella Adler, and she would always describe the process of acting like you’re walking through Chinatown and looking in a restaurant window and seeing bowls of plastic food. But the food looks so real that it draws you in to have a real bowl. And he said, “That’s acting. You make it look so real that people believe the experience and care about what [the characters] are going through. But at the end of the day, it’s totally fake—just a plastic bowl of noodles.”

Have you ever tried to pull off a con in your own life? Are you much of a trickster or prankster yourself?

If you count that I’ve conned a bunch of people into [believing] performances I’ve played through the years… [Laughs.] Well, listen, as a con man, you’re looking to mirror your target’s emotional state. I think, as an actor, I’m looking to draw out emotions. So maybe conning and acting are [different] sides of the [same] coin. I’ve never been one to pull pranks on people—maybe in a little bit of good fun, but not too much. I like to pull everybody into a good time and a good spirit and not make anybody feel any stress.

Let’s move on to the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning, and what’s the first thing you do?

My wake-up times vary because of production. Sometimes, I wake up at 3, 4, 5 in the morning. As of late, I’ll wake up and the first thing I do is meditate. I plug that into my day, just to draw things to a very quiet, still place.

How long have you been meditating?

I started about nine months ago, but my parents follow a practice from India, and I watched them meditate my entire life. So I guess, in a way, I kind of started when I was in my mom’s belly and, 45 years later, picked the practice back up again.

Which TV shows have been keeping you up at night?

It’s funny. Usually, when I’m in TV production, I’ll watch movies. When I’m in movie production, I’ll watch TV shows. One show I binged more recently is called Alone. It takes normal people who consider themselves survivalists out into the wild, drops them [off] with about 10 things they can use throughout their stay, and they have to survive. That aspect of human survival is a big thing in my house, and I guess you could say it keeps me up late a little bit.

Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?

I think it might have been Avatar: The Way of Water in theaters, and the last movie I watched in general was last night, Point Break (1991).

What’s the last concert that you went to?

The Deftones.

A lot of actors like using music as a way to get into the mindset of their characters. What kind of music are you listening to right now? Do you have a specific playlist for Charlie?

When I was building the character of Charlie, I started a playlist with a random mix of things—Massive Attack, Elvis Costello, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Audioslave, Thom Yorke, Dan Auerbach. Killer Mike is in there. There was even a song called “Lose Your Soul,” written and performed by Ryan Gosling when he was doing music [with] his band, The Dead Man’s Bones. We actually ended up getting it for the opening of the show.

You’re famous, among many things, for your Instagram photo dumps. What do you enjoy most about the art of photography? What do you enjoy shooting specifically?

I’ve been cruising around with my camera for years, but for me, it’s just observing life. I don’t have any particular thing I go after or seek out. I love the unexpected. You’re just walking down the street, and you’re seeing something line up as it’s happening. You’re able to understand what the moment is going to be, and you just capture life. Nature is always the most beautiful, though; I’ll always be drawn toward the ocean, the mountains, the rolling hills and sand.

In my photography, I like to show people something different. Instagram has changed, and there’s definitely a culture of scroll, scroll, scroll, look at things quickly, but you’re never really taking them in. So what I’ve liked lately is the idea of printing photography, hanging it, and having people react that way. I did a lot of behind-the-scenes photography on This Is Us. Everything we shot, I documented. And I started to go through all of it to make a book that people can look through. I have a desire to print out photos and have a show and travel with it and maybe donate the proceeds to an organization, but I haven’t had time to do it yet. I’m still shooting, however.