Much ink has been spilled about the era of Peak TV, but it can be easy to overlook the fact that—amid the prestige cable limited series, the star-studded anthologies, the movie stars parachuting in and out of HBO, the streaming shows bred for bingeing, the production whims and mercurial schedules of TV creators being indulged by executives all proclaiming to be the most artist-friendly—there is still network television, its steady thrum of massive 22-episode seasons, and its even bigger audiences returning week after week. These are still the shows that America tunes into, even if the think pieces aren't being written about them. Which is not to say that there is no art and skill to such scale.
Milo Ventimiglia, the star of the much-beloved tearjerker NBC ensemble drama This Is Us, knows this. Unlike most network dramas these days, there was serious advance viral buzz before its premiere—not least because Ventimiglia, who plays the husband of Mandy Moore in a storyline set in an earlier time (the four discrete narratives eventually come together, heartbreakingly), showed his bare butt very generously in the trailer. Since then, the show has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama after its first season won more and more fans and hearts as the multi-generation epic unfolded. Before season 2 premieres in September, Ventimiglia, who broke through as the teen heartthrob Jess on the original Gilmore Girls, discusses his long career in TV in a new interview in the August issue of W.
Did you always want to be an actor as a kid?
I was either going to be an actor, a Naval aviator, or a pediatric surgeon. Those were the three things that I wanted to do. I wanted to help kids, I wanted to fly jets, or I wanted to just be an actor. And acting kind of took over. I was 18 when I got into the business. I had a couple auditions. Actually, the very first audition I ever had was for a movie called Radio Flyer (1992), when I was 12. Elijah Wood got the role I auditioned for.
I know that one. That was kind of like being a jet pilot, too.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I was a kid and it was an open casting call; there were 2,000 kids that showed up that day, and it got narrowed down to six of us. And then I never heard anything. But that was my first audition, ever.
Did someone try to sign you after that?
No, nobody tried to sign me. I went back to being a kid, playing sports, going to school, and what not. Then when I was 16, I read for a Batman and Robin movie at Warner Bros., same cattle call. And then after I finished up a program in San Francisco, at the American Conservatory There, we moved down to L.A. and got a proper agent and head shots and all that. That was the start, 22 years ago.
Did you do a lot of commercials?
I did. My first commercial ever was a Dr. Pepper commercial. And then I did a Mountain Dew commercial. A lot of soft drinks. [Laughter.] Then a Mac commercial, a PT Cruiser commercial, a T-Mobile commercial. And then I did a, uh, a 10-10-321 commercial. Before all these cell phones and technology and what not, you know, we had 10-10-321. If you dialed 10-10-321, and then you dial your number, you get a better rate when you’re calling. And I was playing Tony Danza’s son in the commercial. I think I was 19, 20 years old, something like that.
Wow. So you’re telling your dad what to do in the commercial, is that it?
Yeah, I was telling Tony Danza what to do. [Laughter.] It was an experience, you know, doing all that stuff when I was a kid and when I was in my early 20s. Being around an actor like Tony Danza, who was just a super nice guy. Professional. He’d been doing the business for such a long time. So I just kind of sat there and watched him—you know, watched him how he was with the crew. Same thing, actually, with my very first real paying gig, on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will Smith was a major movie star, but also he had this show. And so I just sat there and just watched him.
What did you play?
Um, I played Party Guest No. 1. [Laughter.]
And you were probably psyched.
Oh, I was stoked. I remember I was going to school at UCLA. I was in my first year. And my roommate, who is one of my oldest friends, this kid Aaron, we were sharing a room in our own apartment. And I got the call in the morning. I’m like, “I got the job? Oh, my god.” And he woke up and he was like, “What happened?” And, you know, two 18-year-olds just freaking out that I’m going to have one line on Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
How old were you when you got Gilmore Girls?
I was 24. I was coming off of a contract with Warner Bros., and I got Gilmore. I didn’t even know really what it was going to be, but... I was in the room with [Gilmore Girls creator] Amy Sherman-Palladino, and I thought it was just two episodes. And then my agent at the time said, “They want to make you a [series] regular.” And I went, "Regular what? What does that mean?"
I ask everyone which TV character they have a crush on. And three different people have said your character on Gilmore Girls. You were a big heartthrob.
Um, yeah. Still to this day, you know, it blows me away—the impact of the Jess character, how much everyone was in love with him and wanted to find a guy like Jess. He was kind of trouble, you know.
He was, but he was cute.
Sure. [Laughter.] He had good hair. He had that pompadour thing going, and he had dope jackets, and he always had a book in his back pocket. And I feel like, well, if you got that hair and you got a cool jacket and you got a book in your pocket, you must be good for a girl.
Did you find yourself happy on television? Did you want to segue into movies?
I think being a kid, you always think about being a movie star. And then as I got older, I started thinking about just the work. You know, I didn’t need to be a movie star to be a part of great work, to play a great character. TV felt more readily available than the small margin of films that were being made, and how much effort it took to get into movies. And I was getting good parts, and there were great casting directors that I got to know over, you know, 20-some years who would continue to bring me in. And I always wanted to do good work for them. And then it would turn into a job, and another job and another job. Television was just steady. So nowadays it’s wild to think that every creative mind is rushing into television. And I’m like, Yeah, we’ve been here all along.
Well, you’ve done incredible work on network TV, where you have to do so many more episodes than what goes on at HBO and so on. And then these network shows have to compete at the Emmys with shows that have eight episodes and took five years. It’s a really different environment.
It is a different environment in network TV. I think there has always been quantity, but I’ve never felt that it lacks quality because of that. And for me personally, it doesn’t matter if I’m in a short film, a commercial, a digital series, a TV show, or a movie. Acting is acting. You have to embrace whatever medium you happen to be in, and not worry about everything else around it. To not be driven mad by, let’s say, something that’s getting acclaim or parts you didn’t get.
Well, you're now on This Is Us.
Yeah, I play Jack.
Mandy Moore [who plays Jack's wife, Rebecca, on the show] told me said she had no idea it would be the thing that it’s become. Did you have a sense that it would take off in this way?
Yeah, I knew by the script that Dan Fogelman had written, and by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra's directing, and seeing the other actors and the characters grow in that first episode. I knew that it was special. And I knew that it was different than anything else that was on television. It was heartfelt without being saccharine. It was impactful without having something jammed down your throat. It was heroic without being world-saving. And it was something that felt very necessary for an audience to be able to connect to what Jack Pearson and Rebecca Pearson or any of the characters are experiencing in their lives.
And he’s a flawed character.
Oh, Jack is very flawed. Jack is so flawed, even though his heart is in a good place. You know, but a man like Jack leads with his heart, and it’s very simple to him. He loves his wife and he loves his kids. They are his world. They almost keep him painted in the lines of where he needs to be, where he can have the most impact. And I think that’s the nice mirror between where he is in the past and then how he’s affected his children and his wife in the present day, by not being there.
The sad thing is that you’re not going to be there. Did you always know what the arc was going to be, that eventually you’re not going to be there?
Yeah, when I read the pilot I knew Jack was no more in the present. The reveal was shuffled to the fifth episode once we got picked up, just so that we didn’t have to give that story away so quickly.
The audience is really dying. I mean, I think that [the producers] may have to rethink the whole idea, and keep you there. And you'll come back as Jack’s brother or something.
[Laughs.] Totally. Yeah, Zach. But we’ve already been through the mustache, the beard, the goatee. I don’t know what else we can do. But there was never any intention to get rid of Jack. Dan Fogelman told me, “Milo, listen, you know, just because Jack is dead in the present day, it doesn’t mean you’re ever going anywhere. We’re not killing you off. You are still around, and Jack’s presence is felt in his family even in the present day, even though he’s dead. So let’s build that backstory.”
And do you have children yourself?
No, I have no kids. But I’ve got nieces and nephews, so plenty of practice. I was changing diapers since I was in high school and what not.
Because you’re so good at it, my god, I thought you had 20 children already.
You’re amazing with those kids. And Mandy [Moore] doesn’t have kids, either.
No, Mandy doesn’t have kids, either. But for me personally, I have a great father. And playing Jack, I feel very close to how my father was with us. Because, you know, I was born in the 70's and grew up in the 80's and the 90's, and that is almost exactly when the Pearson Big Three are growing up. And so for me, I’m just taking the perspective of how I remember my dad.
So growing up, did you have a crush on anyone on any TV shows?
[Laughs.] I think everybody had a crush on Alyssa Milano, on Who’s the Boss?. And then this is the craziest part: she and I did a movie where she played my fiancée.
So the first part of the movie, I kind of had to get past that. And you know, it was a dark, f---ed up movie. [2008's Pathology.] But, still, when I was a kid, it was totally Alyssa Milano.
[Laughter.] Did you have trouble speaking to her the first day?
No, uh, I think I played it off pretty cool. You know, she became a friend—her and her husband, we’ve all been close friends. And they named their kid Milo.
Oh, amazing. Do you remember your first real kiss?
I was a freshman in high school. I remember something just turned in me. It might have been a friend of mine who was older than me who liked this girl, but he was kind of picking on her. And he’s like, “Well, you should just kiss Milo.” And I was literally, “Huh?” It was at my friend’s house. I think this beautiful girl, her name was Michelle. And I remember she walked up and just grabbed me, and pulled me in and kissed me. And I couldn’t leave the couch after that.
I was shocked and terrified and in love and feeling something I’d never really felt before. And it was amazing and I wanted it again, but that was my friend Roger’s girl that he was kind of dating. Yeah, I think that one definitely put me on my ass.
[Laughs.] That’s a great story.
Yeah. It lasted a long time, the memory of it. You don’t think about those things, and then the question is asked, and you’re right back there in that moment. It’s, Oh, man, I remember everything.
It sounds good, though.
Yeah, it was great. Good memory. I feel like the temperature just rose in here.
And what TV show or movie makes you cry? Because your show makes everyone cry.
Yeah, I think whenever people see me around, they’re like, “Can I just have a hug?” And I say, “Yeah, of course, bring it in.”
Even today, when you walked into the studio here, five different people went, “I can’t believe he’s here.” [Laughter.]
Yeah, everybody is very worried, but I’m alive and I’m well.
So what movie makes you cry?
I’m not a big crier. It’s more like moments get me, you know? Like Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey is just trying to get back to his family, things like that. Family stuff kind of gets me. Impactful relationships like that get me; fathers and parents and children.
Sort of your show.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I guess if I wasn’t on my show I’d be just a wet noodle watching my show all the time.