Milo Ventimiglia's moment: a phone call from J Lo
With his new film in cinemas, Milo Ventimiglia spoke to Donal Lynch about redemption, personal struggles and channelling his heartbreak
It wasn't like Milo Ventimiglia was waiting to be discovered. As the star of hit comedy-drama series This Is Us, currently riding high in the US television ratings, the actor is already at the level where merely walking the streets takes a certain tolerance of paparazzi and fans. But, still, when he got a phone call from Jennifer Lopez - the Jennifer Lopez - asking him to star in her new movie, Second Act, it did represent a benediction of sorts. "Yeah, it was kind of surreal but amazing," he recalls on a break from filming in LA. "She said I was the guy she wanted, she had no other choices in her mind. We talked about the script, we felt there was work to do on these characters. We had met quite a few times - our shows were on the same network. We'd known one another socially. She enjoyed This Is Us. Of course I couldn't say no but it did mean a few months of a pretty hectic schedule - travelling back and forth to film the movie in New York and the TV show in Los Angeles."
The film has echoes of Maid in Manhattan, still J Lo's biggest box office hit. It tells the story of a working class Latino woman from Queens who gets passed over at work and scores a new, high-flying career after her nephew fakes her social media presence to make her seem like a well-connected genius. Milo plays J Lo's love interest, whose conditional love places her character in a bit of a bind. Unsurprisingly, given the casting process, the two have great on-screen chemistry. It tells you the power of J Lo that despite not directing or producing the film, she still got to pick her leading man. Milo had a lot to recommend him, however. He grew up in New York, where the film is set, and besides his talents as an actor, he also has notable heart throb pedigree - a generation of teenagers grew up mooning over his portrayal of Jess in the Gilmore Girls. Perhaps for this reason producers felt he could hold his own in an early shower scene, where he appears almost naked alongside the most famous derriere in pop.
"It was more excitement than it was nerves," he says of the scene. "I've been acting now for 24 years, so in a sense it's second nature. In that scenario (in the film) I'm looking at her as my scene partner, not as a friend. For the film I hadn't actually realised from the script how much I was going to be, eh, exposed, so how I looked there was just my status quo. I didn't do any special training or anything." (He does credit his great physique to his vegetarian diet, which he has followed since he was a child).
The theme of the film, he says, is "going after what you want" and from a young age Milo was doing just that. He was born in Anaheim, California, before his father, a Vietnam veteran, moved the family to New York when Milo was a child. He was a clever, bookish child (his slight nerdishness is still evident in the way he signs off his tweets - 'MV') and the young Milo harboured ambitions to one day become a naval aviator or a paediatric surgeon. He studied acting as a young person and slowly but surely it jostled other ambitions aside. By the time he was in his mid-teens he was scoring walk-on parts in the likes of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, before progressing to meatier roles on Boston Public and The Bedford Diaries.
"In those years I felt like I kept having to push forward and believe in my art in a world of business. I would hear 'no' a lot. And when I heard 'yes' it felt like a type of redemption - I didn't want to disappoint anyone. Those were tough years in a way, but I think if I hadn't got sort of pushed around and bruised, I wouldn't be the person I am today."
It was the Gilmore Girls that pushed his career to the next level. The witty, clever comedy-drama was a huge fan favourite which was also met with almost universal critical approval. Milo was the show's resident dream boat, who still somehow never lived up to the standards of the show's quip queen, Emily. The success of the series marked the moment where he began to get stopped on the street by fans and the Gilmore lore has only grown in the years since it went off the air. So does he think that like many other hits of the era - Will & Grace being just the most recent - Gilmore Girls might be due for another reboot (there was a short-lived revival in 2016)? "I would love that", he begins. "But it really depends on what is the reason for going back to it. Is it because there is more of the story to tell or a great direction in which to develop the characters? Or is it for business reasons, to make more money? The former would be worth it, the latter would not."
During the Gilmore Girls era, Milo and Alexis Bledel started a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They ended up dating for three-and-a-half years and Ventimiglia revealed to People that, while they didn't have any concrete plans, marriage had definitely crossed their minds. When asked if "wedding bells" were in the couple's future, he answered: "I think everybody who has been dating for more than a couple of years probably talks about it at some point. It's a fun thing for us to talk about, but that's it - it's down the road."
After that he dated his Heroes co-star Hayden Panettiere but they too broke up and for much of the past decade his love life has sailed under the radar - he admitted he was burned by the intense media interest in his relationship with Bledel. He was most recently linked to Kelly Egarian, who works for fashion designer Stella McCartney.
"I personally try to minimise my life in the public", he says, "because I want people to be able to see the characters I play and not me."
While his career is riding a crest of a wave right now, he says long periods of unemployment in the past keep his sense of humility intact. "I went through times where the struggle was really to keep the cost of living down, just to survive really. But those times made me grateful when I did have work and kind of motivated me to keep my head down, show up and be excited. The heartbreak my characters went through I would process as Milo."
He's 41 now and says that's "old enough to know I don't know everything. I try to slow life down at much as I can. I'm very comfortable in who I am and what I've done. This might be the midway point of life but I try to be young of heart and young of spirit, and that helps my life and my perspective to keep growing."
Second Act is in cinemas now