EXCLUSIVE: Milo Ventimiglia Satisfies His Creative Curiosity With 'This Is Us'

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Photo: Getty Images

Milo Ventimiglia isn’t looking for validation. Not anymore.

“The older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve been interested in [chasing] the grand success of a young man, where you think you’re going to take over the world, you’re going to win awards, you’re going to be the biggest movie star,” Ventimiglia tells ET one balmy April afternoon on a secluded hotel balcony overlooking the Sunset Strip. “Those things fade into ‘I’m a working actor,’ and that is one of the most satisfying things in an industry that has no guarantees.”

Each moment he puts himself in front of the camera, he says, is one he won’t get back. So it had better count. “If I don't put my whole heart into it because I'm thinking about successes or what the next job is, I'm undercutting why I'm even there,” Ventimiglia says of a dramatic shift in perspective for the veteran actor, who has quietly amassed a career that’s surpassed two decades and includes a handful of signature roles, such as bad boy Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls and crusader Peter Petrelli on Heroes. “You get one moment to live in it and it happens to be right now, so you better appreciate it and you better be in it and you do your damnedest.”

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And as one of the leading men on the year’s most successful hit, This Is Us, Ventimiglia is inching toward uncharted territory. On the NBC drama, he brings the soul to Jack Pearson, devoted husband and caring dad of three, a character that has quickly become, to many viewers, a surrogate father figure. “People are transferring this love for Jack onto me,” he says, almost in astonishment over the groundswell of admiration his character has received in a rather brief amount of time. He is too modest to suggest that he may be a big part of the reason why. “Hopefully, he can stay revered and not fall as fast as he rose.”

There was a time when Ventimiglia would have been anxious about the next big role or aiming haphazardly for success. But as the actor prepares to say goodbye to his 30s -- he turns 40 on July 8 -- he’s less worried about individual acclaim and more interested in satisfying his own creative curiosity. Ironically, it’s this change in mandate -- something that has happened in the past few years -- that’s brought him the critical praise (and Emmy buzz) he now contends with following the breakout success of This Is Us.

“I'm a working-class guy. I appreciate the hard work and I'm uncomfortable with any kind of accolade,” Ventimiglia says, shrugging off any undue attention that may come with playing Jack.

“Someone telling me I need to do better makes me want to do better,” he says, acknowledging that the role has “softened” him around the edges. “I’ve played a string of very serious men -- action-driven, science-fiction, fantasy-driven -- and now I’m just a dad with babies who have sh*tty diapers; teenagers who have freak-outs; and 8-year-olds who want to run around and splash kids at the pool. It’s softened me up to make me a little more accessible to people in life.”

On a deeper level, This Is Us has fortuitously paralleled the values and ideals Ventimiglia strives to live by each and every day. “[The show] has reaffirmed views that I have on life, on love, on kindness, on dedication,” he explains, specifically calling back to the final scene of the season, where Jack assures his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), that the kids “are going to be fine” following their breakup. “They do the best they can [as parents], but at the end of the day, what happens to them is bigger than who they are.”

It’s also added a new perspective on “parents out there,” and the way he thinks about his mother and father. “There’s a lot that reaffirms the way I try to live my life,” he says, adding that it’s “more than the discovery of ‘Wow, I never looked at life that way.’”

Photo: ETONLINE

It’s not a stretch to say there isn’t a clear point where Ventimiglia ends and Jack begins; in fact, the blurred line between reality and fiction is something the actor has wholly embraced. “I also think there was inherently a lot of Jack already in me,” he offers, suggesting he’s more than OK with being forever tied to this character. “I think I’m always a hopeful person, but I’m also fiercely protective. And while this is Jack and this is Milo on two sides of a coin,” he gestures to an imaginary quarter, “there’s now a rounded ball and there is no difference between the two.”

As Moore tells it, both men are simply one and the same. “[Milo] is so remarkable as a human being -- his constitution, his view of the world and how to treat people, men and women. He walked on set the very first day and every day he shakes everyone’s hand on the crew.” By day two, she says, Ventimiglia knew everybody’s name. “He’s an incredible man and he brings that foundation to Jack. So, so much of Jack is Milo. The good parts of Jack are solidly Milo.”

Ventimiglia has spoken candidly about how his father has influenced his approach to Jack, whom he sees as the “stoic” presence of the Pearson family, citing the first time he saw his father break down in tears as an unforgettable moment.

“I didn’t see my father cry until I was 21, until the passing of his father, and it made me think about how my father raised me and gave me strength where maybe other people may crumble,” he says.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t have those moments of doubt, [it] doesn’t mean my father doesn’t have those moments where he has to keep himself together. I would see how people looked up to my father and the way he spoke to them. For me, this character was able to allow me to relive moments I had in my own upbringing, and hopefully convey a strong patriarch who loves his family and who loves his wife.”

Even so, Ventimiglia confesses he doesn’t put Jack “on a pedestal,” though his parents -- especially his mother -- sometimes do. “After an episode airs, I get a message from my mom: ‘Oh Milo, that was beautiful.’ ‘Oh Milo, I can’t believe this!’” But it’s “terrifying” being billed as the “perfect TV dad,” he admits with some anxiety. “I still look at him as a man who is fighting daily for his family and his marriage, through the good and through the bad. It’s like the shark that keeps swimming.”

If there is one thing that has been an unexpected adjustment since This Is Us became an undisputed hit, it’s been the public’s collective fascination over the mystery of his character’s death, at first inconsequential to the plot but now a driving force on the show. While there were plenty of character revelations through the season, some fans were left disappointed after the finale failed to provide adequate clues about how Jack died.

“People want answers, especially in the world we live in today,” says Ventimiglia, who is constantly fending off requests for spoilers from fans and media alike. “There’s an instant gratification and satiation associated with social media and the news. They’re all accessible in your hands. So, crossing that culture with traditional television, where you have to unfold stories week in and week out, we can’t give you everything."

But that’s not to say questions, particularly about Jack’s death, don’t linger at the forefront of their minds. “The answers are going to come as they’re supposed to come,” he says, not knowing what lies ahead for season two, which starts production in July. “We are not doing it to toy with the audience. We’re not doing it to lead them down a path and say, ‘We’re getting there’ or ‘We’re not going to give you [answers].’ I think that’s something important that people need to know.”