Life hasn’t changed much for Milo Ventimiglia since he earned his first Emmy nomination for playing patriarch Jack Pearson on This Is Us, but the spotlight on him has seemingly intensified. A veteran in the business but a novice when it comes to awards chatter, Ventimiglia is handling the buzz -- or at least attempting to -- by focusing on what he can control. “The fact that we’re actually in production right now is great, because I get to focus on the work,” Ventimiglia confesses to ET.
It’s an early afternoon in August and the 40-year-old actor -- clean-shaven, hair casually slicked back and sporting a comfy short-sleeved slate gray cable-knit sweater -- lounges on a couch in the back corner of the Beverly Hilton lobby bar at the end of a busy day of press. He’s three weeks removed from seeing his name among the seven high-profile nominees on the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series shortlist, which includes his co-star and previous Emmy winner (for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) Sterling K. Brown, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Rhys, Bob Odenkirk, Liev Schreiber and Kevin Spacey.
“It strangely feels like the bar has been set and then the floor fell out from underneath me. And so the only way to go is up,” Ventimiglia says, trying to put into words the surreal allure of being an Emmy first-timer. “I just have to make the work better, and in my mind, I equate the two to making the man I’m playing more real. Experiencing him at such a level that no one could believe that that’s an actor putting on a costume and saying words that he’s been told to say.”
If the nomination has done anything for Ventimiglia, it’s lit a fire under him when it comes to his promise to make Jack more than just a fantasy husband or dream father figure -- and he’s ready to shed that facade. “As an actor, I’ll go to the ends of the Earth for this guy,” Ventimiglia says without hesitation, referencing Jack’s difficult upbringing, his wartime experience in his 20s and his flawed marriage to Rebecca (Mandy Moore). “There’s still so much to understand, so many stories to tell of this man that could absolutely fill up seven seasons of the series.”
In “Moonshadow,” the capper to the breakthrough first season of NBC’s bona fide hit, a young Jack and Rebecca are set up on separate blind dates, only to fall in love by happenstance at a bar -- that innocent beginning of their love story a stark contrast to their unrelenting fight decades later. The Jack and Rebecca-centered episode holds special meaning for Ventimiglia, who chose it as his Emmy submission, as it marked the first time Jack’s life before Rebecca was heavily explored.
“It showed a young, hopeful man and it showed a broken man,” Ventimiglia says. “Jack is not the most vulnerable of characters; he’s usually very stoic. But in that episode, we see him break. You really see the crack and the fracture, the moment he may fall apart. I thought that was just a good display of who this man is, and to be honest, I had never felt more connected to who that character was than that episode.”
Two particularly moving scenes from the hour spring to mind for Ventimiglia. First, the massive argument between husband and wife, which was intended to be filmed voyeuristically in a single take. “That was like doing a play. Mandy and I did it over and over and over again, knowing that that may be the one take that they were going to use,” Ventimiglia recalls. “There were some takes where, man, they were vicious, what Mandy was saying to me and what I was saying to Mandy.” Second: the aftermath of their fight the next morning, when Jack and Rebecca decide to part ways for the time being.
“I don’t know that there is one moment in what I’ve done as Jack that would give someone the desire to say, ‘That’s nomination-worthy,’” he acknowledges. “But I think there’s a sentiment to what people feel for Jack and what Jack represents. He’s a good man who does his best, and I think that is constantly something we all strive for. It feels less of what I’m doing and more what the character represents.”
Known affectionately by his This Is Us castmates as “Papa Bear,” Ventimiglia finds more delight and comfort in celebrating the brilliance of others, most notably his six nominated co-stars, than reveling in his own achievements. “When I saw the entire list, I wrote everyone a message about their work to each person,” he shares. Competing in the same category as Brown, who plays his adopted TV son, Randall, adds a different level of excitement to the affair. “When I saw Sterling across the lot, he walked over and gave [me] the hugest hug. There is no competition, there’s just not. I’m probably going to vote for him because he’s the best,” Ventimiglia says with a laugh.
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But if he had one wish, it would be for Moore to receive her just due at the Emmys (she was nominated for a Golden Globe in January). “It upsets me, but it also strangely affirms that the awards don’t mean anything. They do and they don’t,” Ventimiglia says, unequivocally fighting for his regular scene partner. “People must be blind, because I see [her performance] all the time. For people not to see it and not see this living, breathing woman brought to life by Mandy, I think, is horrible. But I said to her, ‘Look, I got this one. You got the last one. You get the next one.’” In his mind, Moore’s Emmy showcase will come in season two: “It’s absolutely going to.”
As Ventimiglia busies himself with the second season (the premiere dangles a major clue to Jack’s death and the arrival of Sylvester Stallone, a casting he helped pull together: “How f**king cool is that?”) and beyond (he’s hopeful about directing a future episode), he finds it difficult to put into words the feelings he’ll have on the eventual day -- in the very distant future, of course -- when he has to say goodbye to Jack Pearson for good. One thing he does foresee: There will likely be tears.
“He’s the closest thing to maybe what I know of myself,” he reasons, before taking a beat. “I’m really attached to Jack, and it’s going to be pretty painful when I gotta let him go. But that’s OK. Every job ends, every person dies. There’s a level of acceptance where you have to move on and move forward, but I’m enjoying -- dammit, I’m enjoying being Jack.”