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“Maybe right now what we need are real people fighting against human struggle,” says Milo Ventimiglia, the 41-year-old actor best known for playing family man Jack Pearson on NBC’s This Is Us, the highest-rated drama series on television, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. Ventimiglia, whose performance on the show has earned him an Emmy nomination for best actor in a drama series for the second year in a row, continues, “That may be a little more inspiring than someone wearing a cape or anything like that.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 30:00], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Kevin Cassidy, THR‘s international news editor, previewing the fall film fests.
Click here to access all of our past episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Natalie Portman, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Elisabeth Moss, Justin Timberlake, Reese Witherspoon, Tyler Perry, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Emilia Clarke, Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Fonda, Bill Maher, Carol Burnett, Michael Moore, Amy Schumer, RuPaul, Jennifer Lopez, Robert De Niro, Margot Robbie, Ryan Murphy, Emma Stone, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner, J.J. Abrams, Rachel Brosnahan and Jimmy Fallon.
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Ventimiglia was born and raised in Anaheim, Califonria, to a father who worked in the printing business and a mother who stayed at home to raise him and his siblings and later returned to the workforce. He was drawn to performing as a kid and began going out for professional gigs at an early age — at 12, out of a field of 3,000 candidates, he emerged as one of eight finalists for a role in the film Radio Flyer (1992), and at 16, he was part of a cattle call for the role of Robin in Batman & Robin (1997). The notion of having a grown-up career as an actor, though, was boosted by the confidence of a high school drama teacher. After graduating from high school in 1995, he enrolled at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television and, on top of his classes and working as a waiter and at a snowboard shop, he continued going out for professional jobs. The first part that he landed was delivering one line on an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in 1995, followed by other bit parts on TV. “It took me a while to become a fully formed actor,” Ventimiglia says.
His first job as a regular on a TV series came on the Fox dramedy series Opposite Sex, which lasted for just eight episodes in 2000. It led to him signing a contract with Warner Bros. Television, though, which, in turn, led to auditions for The WB’s Gilmore Girls. Ventimiglia joined the show during its second season as Jess Mariano, the brooding boyfriend of Alexis Bledel‘s Rory — but, he chuckles, he always rooted for her to end up with someone else. “I’m Team Dean,” he says. “I can’t be Team Jess because that’s just arrogant and I’d be a fucking asshole.” As the show’s third season progressed, he was informed by its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, of her and the network’s intention to create a spinoff show for his character, which was to be called Windward Circle; the season’s 21st episode was essentially a pilot for that. But months later, Ventimiglia was devastated to learn that plans for the show had fallen through, marking the beginning of a dry spell for the actor. “There was talk at one point of putting me on [another Warner Bros. Television show such as] West Wing, there was talk of putting me on E.R., and that just didn’t happen,” Ventimiglia says. His Warner Bros. contract eventually expired and he grew depressed. “That was the first time in my career I wanted to stop acting altogether,” he says.
Ventimiglia instead decided to try to reboot things. He and his friend Russ Cundiff started a production company, Divide Pictures, through which he hoped to better control his future opportunities. In addition, he was cast as another rabble-rousing boyfriend, opposite Brittany Snow, on the third season of the NBC drama American Dreams, and then headed back to The WB to star on the short-lived Tom Fontana drama series The Bedford Diaries. After that, he relocated to New York, where he fought to audition for the role of the title character’s son in the film Rocky Balboa, which ultimately led to a meeting with Sylvester Stallone, who championed him for the part. And it was while shooting that film in Philadelphia that Ventimiglia auditioned for another NBC series, the sci-fi drama Heroes, landing the key part of Peter Petrelli, a hospice nurse who is able to mimic the abilities of others. He stayed with the show for all four of its seasons, the first of which was recognized with a best drama series Emmy nomination in 2007, but the others of which proved divisive. And following its cancellation in 2010, he felt as if he was back to square one.
“After Heroes I didn’t get hired for a year, and it wasn’t for lack of trying,” Ventimiglia recalls. “No one was buying what I was selling.” He continues, “I was a little disheartened and I was a little broken and I was just tired,” adding that he “was kind of plotting an exit” from showbiz. He began liquidating his assets with a very specific goal in mind: “I was going to move to Italy, because I have a European passport. I was going to buy a motorcycle, literally have one backpack and ride around until I found a farm I wanted to work on.” But just in time, in 2012, things in Hollywood got going for him again. Ventimiglia landed a role in an indie film, Static, which he and Cundiff also produced; then another role in a low-budget film, Kiss of the Damned, as a bloodsucking vampire; and then an audition for the Adam Sandler comedy That’s My Boy, which he booked over many bigger “names,” and which he says, “turned [his career] into this rock rolling down a hill, picking up other pebbles to make it a larger boulder.”
In June 2015, Ventimiglia wrapped another indie project and went out for the leads on two TV shows, coming up short for both. For the next few months, he wasn’t landing anything — but in October, he was sent a piece of material that changed his life. “I get this script called 36,” he says, “which was the original title of This Is Us. I read it — I was on a plane — and by the end of it I was crying, like, really deeply moved by this piece of material. And right when I finished the last page, I turned right back to the first page and I just kept reading. Again.” He was asked to audition for the role of Jack Pearson, a Vietnam veteran, construction worker, husband — and father of three. He chuckles, “When I read it, I was like, ‘Are you sure I’m not the actor character? Okay, cool, I can be the dad. I guess I’m at that point in my existence now!'”
Ventimiglia came in and read — without his sides — for the prospective show’s creator Dan Fogelman and pilot directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, knowing that he shared mutual friends with all three men, which made him feel more comfortable and confident in the room. By the time he finished, he was told he was the guy to beat for the part — but would have to read with a few different actresses who were being considered for the part of Jack’s wife, Rebecca, one of whom was Mandy Moore. “The first time I laid eyes on Mandy Moore,” he reminisces, “I was at a premiere for a movie called A Walk to Remember  — no joke, man. My buddy was running the premieres and I couldn’t make it to the actual film, but he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to the party after?'” Ventimiglia recalls seeing Moore from across the room, but not approaching her at the time. “The first time we met was at the [This Is Us] test. Dan hadn’t given me any indication of who he liked between Mandy and the two other actresses I read with, but after that reading it was very clear that it had to be Mandy. It had to be her.” And it was.
This Is Us‘ trailer, pilot and subsequent episodes all drew massive viewership; the first season was also well-reviewed; and by the end, it became the first network drama series to land a best drama series Emmy nom in six years — while Ventimiglia landed a best actor in a drama series nom, ultimately losing to co-star Sterling K. Brown. Ventimiglia has never been a father, but he says the character, a father of three, reminds him of his own dad, as his father is a Vietnam vet and much of the show takes place around the same time in which he and his two siblings were growing up. “I’ll be in a fitting and I’ll put on some clothes from Jack in the ’90s — like, ’95, ’96 — and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I look like my father,'” he says. “My father and Jack are very different men, but there are similarities to [their] parenting.”
The show’s second season, for which Ventimiglia is again Emmy-nominated, presented a different set of challenges for the actor. It began with a resolution to the “How did Jack die?” mystery, and then, thanks to the time-hopping structure of the show, continued to explore different chapters of his life — including his battle with alcoholism, and how he disclosed his disease to his daughter. “That might have been one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever filmed,” he says somberly, “a lot of it because of friends that I know — like, I’m welling up right now thinking about it — who have dealt with alcoholism and have told me they had to admit to their kids they had a drinking problem. They were in tears when they’re telling me.” Lest viewers think that Jack’s death will mean reduced screen time for Ventimiglia on the show, he offers assurances that there are plenty of areas of Jack’s life still to be explored. For instance, on season three (which is now in production and will hit the air Sept. 25), he says we can expect to see more of Jack with his children as little kids and teenagers and even as adults (in fantasy sequences) — plus, in Vietnam, with his brother who he lost, during his courtship with Rebecca and in other sequences. “For those moments between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ Jack is alive and he’s living his existence and I’m just kind of witness to it,” Ventimiglia says. “If you really think about it, we’ve only known Jack for 36 hours, you know? I think we’ve got a lot more to go with him.”
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