Milo Ventimiglia, the 29-year-old co-star in the new hit show Heroes, and Rocky’s son in the new film Rocky Balboa, is not your typical Hollywood type. His big dream is not to create a frenzy of media attention and be smothered with public adulation. No, Milo’s focus is on doing good work—actually, great work if he can—and being recognized by his peers as a hard-working guy with integrity. So here’s an actor who tends to go against the grain in Hollywood. You won’t see his name often in the gossip pages, caught among media-starved celebs carousing in clubs and looking for photo ops. Not that Milo doesn’t enjoy going out, but his acting, directing and production work with his company, Divide, leave little time for partying. Not to mention that he abhors the whole celebrity-for-the-sake-of-being-a-celebrity scene (and that he doesn’t drink or smoke). Milo would rather be advancing his career, hanging out with friends in quiet places, or cooking at home (but no meat—he’s a vegetarian), than providing fodder for the paparazzi lenses.
In 1995, his first acting gig was in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and he later had small roles on film and TV, such as those in CSI Las Vegas and Opposite Sex. He came to broader attention in 2001 for his role as Jess Mariano, a wild youth, in Gilmore Girls. This was the first chance for the public to get a good look at the promising young actor. After leaving the show in 2003, he’s had various acting roles, including being cast in American Dreams and having guest appearances on Gilmore Girls, but he’ll remember two events in 2006 as marking a big year in his career path.
The first was the hit show Heroes, a show about ordinary people who discover that they have superpowers. The second, his role in Rocky Balboa, was a big opportunity for Milo to establish his star-power on the big screen. In the movie, Milo, playing Rocky Balboa Jr., watches his father make one more attempt to become the champion and a hero to the people. In real life, despite his boyish good looks, Milo has grown up. With two roles that are pushing him further toward stardom, he is now pursuing his own big dreams. If Milo gets there, will he be our new hero?
What at tracted you to Heroes? On the surface, a story about cartoon character superheroes does not necessarily sound like a winner.
Well that’s the thing though. It was called Heroes, not Superheroes. Tim King had written this wonderful piece about human beings going through a change that was affecting their lives; being presented with abilities that were fearful and exhilarating. It’s like, what would you do if you had the opportunity to fly or the ability to fly? Or if you could read people’s thoughts? You could use it for good or you could use it for bad. So he had written this fantastic character study, the foundation of which is just the human element, the human perspective of what would you do? You have a very real world and then you have these unrealistic happenings that make it special.
So you were impressed right off the bat?
My agent said, “I read that script and it’s amazing. You should do it.”
Did you think this had the kind of potential that’s being realized now?
I saw the void in what television is today. I saw what people were missing. I saw that people wanted something to liven up their days without thinking about war and terrorism and all that’s going on. People were looking for a lighter place to turn to. They were hungry for something truly heroic as opposed to what’s questionably heroic.
Is it gratifying as an actor to be part of a show that is really taking off?
It’s nice to know that I’m doing my job well enough to get accolades with the group that I’m with—all the actors, producers, camera people, props, grips, you know, everybody as a team. And the great part, too, is we have a lot fun on the set. We work our asses off, but we really, really enjoy ourselves.
How much does a good working environment influence the final performance?
It helps a lot. I mean, if you are miserable doing something, people are going to see through it, they really are.
How about the other way around. Have you ever had to work with an actor where you didn’t get along or you just didn’t click?
Yes, but at the same time you have to know how to get around that. I give as much and everything that I can to a scene. If that person gives it back to me and that reciprocity is there, it’s amazing. But if not, I am not going to let their performance or their lack of wanting to rise to the occasion mess up mine. I take my job very seriously and I won’t accept a lousy performance from myself.
On Heroes, do you sometimes speak up when a line doesn’t work?
I would never approach a writer with the script and say this is wrong. If something didn’t sound right—and not that it doesn’t sound right to me, but that it doesn’t sound right to come out of the character—I might bring it up. I had a writer say to me one time, “You know, Milo, you are going to know more about this character the first five minutes of playing him than I will ever know in writing him.” I was blown away by that, because it was him giving me a lot of responsibility and respect for what he was going to be writing for me, for us. So I think I always try to approach parts that I play with the importance of the character in mind. What is right for them. But in this industry you have to work together. Granted, you know, I am not beyond saying to somebody, look, that doesn’t sound right.
That’s difficult to do.
Of course, but I’m a diplomat. I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings, I’m here to make whatever we’re doing the best possible, the best thing that we can do.
Does the writer ever come up to you and ask about your ideas?
It depends on the situation. It’s nice to build a character together with somebody and take notes and walk in and say, hey, I was thinking this. It’s nice because you know that they respect what you bring to the table. There are some writers, however, that what’s on the page is what’s on the page and it’s not going to change. I’ve never responded well to that. I’m not really a puppet with someone’s hand moving my mouth, telling me what to do, I’m not like that.
In an ideal world, should an actor have some input into the creative process?
In an ideal world, yes. Some people think that actors are difficult because they have opinions. You hire actors because they have opinions, because they care, because they are there to interpret the words. And if you don’t like the way they are interpreting it, fire them and find somebody else.
And I imagine, actors also want feedback about how they are doing.
Absolutely. If you are not told when something is bad, you are going to continue in the bad habit. I’m not going to be able to fix it unless you tell me what I did wrong. And I’m going to keep doing it, you know? It’s the same thing on the set. If an opinion that I have, an idea that I have isn’t good, I’m not beyond someone saying, we don’t like that, we’re not into it. Okay, what about this one? No, okay. What about that one? Oh yeah, that’s interesting.
How did you get the gig for Rocky Balboa?
I was living in New York when I first heard about the new Rocky film. I had a meeting with a casting agent and just went in and read on tape. A week later I’m in the room with Sylvester. And you walk in and he’s got that deep voice and he shakes your hand and his hand just wraps all the way around your hand. And literally, you are just like, holy shit, this is Sylvester Stallone—megastar, megastar. So we’re sitting in the room with him, the casting directors are there and I apologize that I’m not clean-shaven because I’m doing re-shoots on a film. Sly says, “It’s not biblical, is it?” And I’m like, “No, no, it’s not.” And we shared a laugh. And he leans over to the casting director and says, “His lip even hooks down like mine does” and I’m like, “Was that acceptance?”
I sat around at home for maybe two or three hours waiting to hear something. Finally my agent called and I’m like, “Did I get it?” And he’s like, “Yeah, you got it.”
They tell you that fast?
It came really quick. I had my audition, a week later I was in the room with Sly, that afternoon I had the job. It was unbelievable.
He used to have a reputation about being difficult to work with.
I’d heard stories, but from my experience with Sly, it’s much different. He recognizes that you are an artist too and he’s collaborative. You just have to listen to what he wants. He’s the writer, director, producer, actor, star. So I’m like, okay, how can I best serve the material? How can I best serve the story? How can I best serve the performance? And that’s the way I approached it. He was just a charm to work with.
When you read that, did you think this is the original Rocky again?
Well, the other Rockys, they were just big budget shows. When you are a kid, you enjoy it. I think a lot of people gave him hell for the last Rocky. I think that turned out even differently than he had originally thought. So this was an opportunity to change people’s minds back to what he did in the late ‘70s. I read the script and it was an amazing story about a man trying to connect with his family again and get back to the heart of what drove him as a young man. So I really bought into it.
You are also learning for all these other roles—producer and director—that you really want to pursue.
Absolutely! So I basically shut up and watched.
What was it like working with Stallone?
Working with Sly was great. He’s truly very talented, very professional, a very cool guy to be around. I think he’s an incredibly talented actor, writer and director. It was cool being with him on the set. That was a great experience for me. I was watching when he was setting up shots, composing these beautiful, beautiful pictures. I really hope that this film and hopefully the press surrounding it will give people a different perspective on him.
What kind of a guy is Stallone on a personal level?
He’s a very warm person, which is nice. I’m into photography and I took a handful of pictures on that set and I took this really cool picture of him in the cemetery with the hat on. It’s this big panoramic shot and it’s from behind him and there’s Adrian Balboa’s grave. Entertainment Weekly wanted to run it on a two-page spread. But I had to get Sly’s permission. I called him up and I’m like, “Sly, this is Milo,” and before I could even get a word out he says, “Hey, I’ve been watching your show, this new hero is really amazing.” And he kind of went on and on and I’m thinking to myself, he’s actually a fan of a show that I’m doing and he watches it.
It must be great when a megastar takes your call.
Absolutely. And Sly starts talking about the cinematography, and the stories and my character. That blew me away. It was a nice moment to know that he was even looking beyond the one experience we had on a film set to see what I was doing. I was very happy with that.
How did you get into acting?
I did plays when I was young. I’ve always enjoyed performing. A friend of my mother took some pictures and sent it to an agent. The agent starting repping me and I slowly started building a career.
What’s it like acting for a living?
I love it. I also love being anonymous, but it doesn’t bother me if someone walks up and complements a job that I’ve done. If someone says “Hey, I love your show, I love your work, I saw this and I saw that,” it’s pretty cool. But at the same time I’m a normal person like anybody else. Acting is my job. And just because my job is in your home at least once a week and I’m 17 inches tall when you see me, it doesn’t make my job any different than anybody else’s.
Do you try to think ahead for your next projects?
It’s important to maintain focus. If you are worried about what the next job is and you are not focusing on the one you are working on, how is that going to be good? You have to keep your head on the one that you are working on.
Have you ever turned down a script that looked like crap and then are surprised it did well? Or did it pret t y much look like crap and it was crap?
If it looked like crap, it was crap. The fun thing to do is to identify writers and talent that, given the right circumstances, the right money or input, they can really do something great with it. I’ve been in the business 11 years so I’m fortunate to have great people who want to work with me.
How about the whole Hollywood life? You have to deal with a lot of people that are very pretentious, overly artsy, taking themselves a little too seriously.
There’s a lot of pretension and a lot of people buying their own press. You see people that are too concerned about the image of it as opposed to what the real nature of the business is. But there’s also a lot of really talented, really cool people in this industry that bust their asses.
Let’s talk about Gilmore Girls, where you were cast as sort of the bad boy.
Reckless youth, misled youth, troubled youth, yes. That was the first job where I really was put into the public eye, where I was on a show regularly. With Gilmore, I had a two-year contract, they wanted six years and I said no. Gilmore was one of those things where two years was just the right amount of time and they went for it, so I went for it.
As an actor just getting established, why would you choose a less secure route?
In this business, you never know where your nex t job will come from, if at all. It put me in a position of, okay, I’ve got two years to bust my ass and make a difference in my own career. And by the end of the first year they started lining up a spin-off for my character, so I would have my own show on the network. I had worked at Warner Brothers for years. I’ve had contracts with them since I was 21 years old, whether on a TV show or a holding deal or a development deal or something and one contract would kind of piggyback off the next. I knew that at a certain point I had to mature beyond that. And that’s what happened, the character kind of matured and it was like he had served his purpose.
What did you do afterwards?
After Gilmore, I went to NBC Universal with a show called American Dreams, which is a great show about the ‘60s, a very turbulent time. And it was just an amazing show that nobody watched, a beautiful, beautiful show, one that was wonderfully acted, written and directed. I was on it for a year and the show got canceled. And then Heroes came up because of the relationship I had with the director, who was one of the executive producer/directors from American Dreams. They couldn’t find the guy to play my character and they looked at everybody. And the funniest part is, I was the last guy they looked at. They had no choice, which kind of cracks me up, but I think it worked out okay.
Between the acting and your production company, you must not have much time for rest.
Seriously. I had a 20-hour day yesterday. I had a shoot this morning, some possible meetings tonight and then I’m working tomorrow, the following day and then I’m on a plane to the East Coast on Sunday. So it’s literally like non-stop, non-stop, non-stop. I don’t sleep much, maybe three or four or five hours a night. The hard part of all this is balancing my time. I just have a lot of work on the horizon. If I only had acting to worry about I’d have plenty of time in my day. I work three shifts basically. I got the acting gig on Heroes, my production company, Divide, and then having a personal life. My partner in Divide takes a lot of the day-to-day responsibility for the company, but still there are a lot of things that get funneled through me and through relationships that I have so I still have to make a lot of the phone calls and emails. I won’t see a vacation coming for the next couple of years outside of a long weekend or something.
Are your goals mostly in acting or is it a combination of ‘I want to thrive as an actor’ and ‘I want to thrive as a production company?’
They all work together. For roughly nine years I was successful in the sense that I didn’t have to wait tables anymore. I was an actor, I was actually paid, I bought a house, things like that. So the production component started to pop up a little more. I became more interested by the business of it, getting behind the camera. I directed some things for Warner Brothers, some marketing campaigns that go in between the commercials in the show. I directed those for two years. And I’m directing a campaign for a Fortune 500 clothing company that was looking for original content.
You must have made personal sacrifices to accommodate all of this work?
I grew up skateboarding and snowboarding and surfing and my friends and I used to go do crazy, stupid things. I quit years ago, because of liability. I thought, “Is it worth it to go out and enjoy myself, go down a mountain, potentially get really hurt and mangled, versus the money that I could be making in my career?” What’s ultimately going to support a family within this business?
You don’t mind putting in all those hours?
I like working, I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the people that I work with and I know that if I bust my ass now, it is going to pay off into my late to mid 30s, 40s and 50s, to where hopefully I have a production company that’s completely self-sufficient and barely needs me to check in.
Is your goal to produce features—is that the big fish you hope to land?
You know what? It’s business. I’m happy with any combo of what I’m doing. I just want to work. If it’s acting and producing, great. If it’s producing and directing, great. Or acting and directing, great. If it’s acting on its own, directing on its own, producing on its own, that’s great too. Ultimately I’d love to produce and direct and be in movies for my friends. Whether that means I’m playing a bellhop for one hour of one day of a year’s shoot or I’m in a film that’s going to take me eight months to shoot, that’s good too. As an actor you try and surround yourself with a lot of support and talent and hope you give as much to them as they are to you.
You just want the business to work. You don’t care what shape it takes.
As long as I can make a steady income that will help me support a family as I get older, that’s what I want to do.