Depending on whom you ask, Jess Mariano, Gilmore Girls’s book-smart bad boy, is either the quintessential toxic boyfriend or Rory Gilmore’s one that got away. Even Milo Ventimiglia, the actor who has played Jess since he first appeared 15 years ago during the show’s original network run, is hesitant to place himself within the “Team Jess” faction. “I get it all the time, like, ‘Are you Team Jess? Who’s your team?'” the California native shares. “Jess gave Rory a couple opportunities to go with him. But it was also young love; it was not the most thought-through plan. I wonder if Rory had gone with Jess to the West Coast, would they still be together today? Would it be different? Who knows? It didn’t happen.” When it comes to the show’s four-episode revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, now streaming on Netflix), what Ventimiglia can promise is a more mature Jess: “He again has the same purpose and the same heart, but he’s a little more refined, a little older. He’s there to help people along in their lives.”
In the near-decade since Gilmore Girls first concluded, there’s been a noticeable maturation in Ventimiglia himself as well. It’s evident in his turn as Jack on NBC’s This Is Us, an unassuming stunner of a family drama. Jack is the endearing patriarch of a family of triplets (two biological, one adopted) whose divergent lives are told through a weaving of past and present. The revelation that the family is living in the wake of Jack’s as of yet unexplained death adds a haunting, nostalgic quality to his presence. Though a marked departure from the brooding heartthrob character of Jess, Ventimiglia reveals that he didn’t intentionally seek out more adult roles: “These characters popped up at the right time, not only for my career but also for my growth as a man. I don’t think I could have played Jack five years ago, even.”
We recently caught up with Ventimiglia over the phone while he was in the midst of shooting This Is Us.
FRANK CHLUMSKY: This Is Us is great. For a show that’s set as a family dramedy, it’s so unique and powerful.
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: Yeah, and on network television, no less—something that’s free and available to everyone. I feel like there’s a sentiment where people think to get premium content they have to go to a premium provider. It’s like, “No man, this is NBC—for free.”
CHLUMSKY: Similar to on the show, you grew up in a family of three, right?
VENTIMIGLIA: I did. I’ve got two older sisters, which I think was the best thing, but also the worst thing. They dressed me up like a girl, but at the same time I think they taught me a lot of what they experienced and what they lived through, and passed that on to me as a young man and influenced how I approached not only women, but people. I got very lucky with the family I was born into. From my older sisters to my mother and father, they’re just good, kind-hearted people.
CHLUMSKY: Is there anything from your family that you could draw from for your role on This Is Us?
VENTIMIGLIA: I feel like Jack has the same heart as my father. My father was a very fun dad; he was always coaching our soccer sports teams, he made sure that we had activities to do. He was kind of goofy and fun. But at the same time, he had a lot of lessons to teach us so that we didn’t grow up and just not be good people. I try and reflect a lot on how I was raised by my father in the character that I’m playing now in being a dad. You’ve got to be strong for these kids. You also have to be fun and teach them all the lessons, not just one, or two, or three. I’m in my trailer right now, and in it I have a photograph of my dad from when I was about three years old, and above it, it says, “Be a good father” and below it, it says, “Be a good husband.” It’s really simple—really simple, easy things to look at right before I walk out of my trailer.
CHLUMSKY: Were you in a pretty creative family?
VENTIMIGLIA: My older sister was an artist as she was growing up, but she went into the tech space. And our middle sister was into photography all the time, and now she’s a photographer. We always had an artistic background growing up; the notion that it was all varied—different sides of the arts—was very reflective of my mom and dad letting us explore what we wanted to explore. When I was a kid it went from being a pediatric surgeon, to being a fighter pilot, to being an actor. There were a million different things I could have chosen or wanted to do, but the path of an artist was the one that pulled me the most. I did local theater and plays in school. I think there was a sense of entertaining—being on the stage, making people laugh, making people cry—that I was drawn to. It was also one of those things like, “I can do this for a very long time.” My job is always going to change; the characters that I’m playing are always going to change. I look forward to playing a grandfather at some point.
CHLUMSKY: Your first credited role was on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as Party Guest #1. What was it like on that set?
VENTIMIGLIA: It was fun, man. I had one line. You can still go on YouTube, type in “Milo Ventimiglia Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and you’ll find it. But the most impactful thing for me being on that set was to see how Will Smith was with his crew. I think he was coming off of Men in Black, and was already signed up for Men in Black II. He was not just a TV star; he was a movie star already. He knew everyone’s name and was inclusive of everyone and the crew. For me, being that that was my first job, I just watched and soaked up as much as I could. It impacted me and how I am around my sets and my crews. Will Smith is a good man. So I just try to be a good man. It was a pretty impactful moment, I’m very thankful that that was my first gig—being around him.
CHLUMSKY: We have to talk about Gilmore Girls coming back. When you heard that the show was getting the revival treatment, were you kind of like, “Oh, just let it be,” or were you glad that there was more?
VENTIMIGLIA: I was excited because I stayed close with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. I pretty much would go to the ends of the earth for them. So when Amy called me to say, “Hey, we’re doing this,” I was like, “Great. I’ll be there. Just let me know.” And I let my team of guys know, “I’m going back to do this, so whatever I’m working on, let’s just work out the time to do this.” It wasn’t a decision really based on creativity—like I had a need to play Jess Mariano again—so much as it was exciting to me to be able to speak Amy and Dan’s words again, because I think they’re genius and they’re personal friends. For me it was just another opportunity to get to work with people that I admire, respect, and really love.
CHLUMSKY: Does it take some time to get back into the groove with a cast after you’ve been gone for so long?
VENTIMIGLIA: I think it was a pretty easy return to Stars Hollow. The only thing you really need to know is: in the Gilmore world, just talk really, really, really fast. And when you think you’ve gone fast enough, just go a bit faster.
CHLUMSKY: How has your approach to playing Jess evolved from then to now?
VENTIMIGLIA: I think I’ve gotten older, just as a man. So maybe if when I was younger I would want to see a reaction, at this point I want someone to open their heart up and give me all the details, make me see how I can help them along. It felt a little more akin to how approach things in life nowadays as opposed to reckless juvenile antics, which I think is what Jess was kind of a master in.
CHLUMSKY: Fans seem to have that need to give the show a kind of afterlife, to envision what the future might have looked like for the characters. You’ve said that, for you, Jess’s story kind of ends where the show ends. Is that generally true for you with the characters you play, or are there some that you hold onto more than others?
VENTIMIGLIA: I think there’s an initial shedding of the skin of a character when you’ve played them for so long, almost like a snake losing its skin. But when a job is done, I kind of walk away from it because I know that I need to prep for whatever else I’m going onto—I need to get back to being myself, which… Who knows exactly who that is, with all the talking voices in my head. [laughs] You know, back to being a bit of a blank slate again. It becomes a necessity as an actor—at least for the way that I act. I need to shake these guys as fast as I can. It’s a different experience for an audience, though. An audience gets to hang onto those characters for the rest of their lives if they want. I think it’s great that the fans do that. It’s just not too practical for a man like myself because I have to move on. If I’m hanging on to Jess… Woah. I’m in trouble. I think with actors, we tend to get rid of [characters]—and not get rid of them as in discard them or throw them away, but it’s just that you take that jacket off because you’re going to be putting a different jacket on. You know, [quoting Lawrence Olivier] “It’s acting my dear boy, you should try it sometime!”
CHLUMSKY: What do you make of the “teams” debate when it comes to Jess, Dean, and Logan?
VENTIMIGLIA: For Rory and who she was, I was always interested more in what does she want to be for herself? What is she going to achieve for herself? It isn’t reliant on the guy that she “ends up with.” It was one of those things that I never really thought about in great detail, other than what she was going to do in the world of literature or business or anything else that she excelled in. [That] was much more interesting to me.
CHLUMSKY: Without revealing too much, do you think that this revival is going to give a definite conclusion to the show, or will there still be room to pick it back up along the line?
VENTIMIGLIA: I think that any good storytelling lends itself to closing a chapter but also knowing that there’s a few more volumes beyond that to dream off of. Amy and Dan really crafted a story that gives the satisfaction of a closing, but people are also still going to want more. It’s not quite like sugar, where if you eat more you want more. It’s more like you found a coin on the beach and you wonder if there’s buried treasure underneath.
CHLUMSKY: Moving on to This Is Us—what were your first impressions when you got the script?
VENTIMIGLIA: I was blown away. Honestly, just blown away. I had known who Dan Fogelman was; I had been a fan of his writing. I knew who John Requa and Glen Ficcara were and I was a fan of their films and writing. And we all had mutual friends in common. So knowing that I already had a connection to these three incredibly creative men, when I read the script and saw the family connection and that Jack was the patriarch and was going to be shaping how the adults became the people that they are, it seemed like a really, really nice journey piece—something that didn’t have a premise, didn’t have a scandal. It was about a family and life, and life can be endless when you think about stories and moments and what impacts us as adults, what we hang onto from our childhood. I thought that it was a beautiful representation of what life could be.
CHLUMSKY: With Jack, is it at all intimidating to play the guy that you want the audience to root for?
VENTIMIGLIA: No. I don’t really consider it. I don’t feel the pressure to deliver this unrealistically great man to the screen; I just want to be honest to who he is on the page. If I can reflect that and put some heart into him and make him real, then I think I’ve done my job, and I think that people will like who he is.
CHLUMSKY: There’s a lot of jumping back and forth chronologically—do you shoot all the scenes from the past in sequence and do the same with the present day narrative?
VENTIMIGLIA: We shoot episode to episode. Even though we jump around from ’80 to ’88 to ’80 again, to ’75, to ’95; we’re bouncing all over the place with each episode. So the wardrobe is always changing, the hair and makeup is always changing. For me a lot of my work is, “Am I wearing the beard today, am I not wearing the beard today? Am I wearing the mustache or am I not? Am I in a goatee that’s grey?” We have an amazing, amazing hair and makeup department. They’ve really managed to take both Mandy [Moore] and I to different stages of these characters lives.
CHLUMSKY: We meet Jack ass-first in the pilot. Was that always the plan, or was that kind of a spontaneous decision?
VENTIMIGLIA: [laughs] I knew that I was going to be bare-bottomed, but I didn’t know that my ass would precede my face. I honestly didn’t know. It was one of those things: “Jack is in his birthday suit.” That was actually moment one of filming the show, too. It was the first part of the day on the first day. So it was meeting the crew, “Hey, how are you, nice to meet you,” and then all of the sudden bare-assed.
CHLUMSKY: You’ve done work as a director and producer, and have had your own production company, Divide Pictures, since 2003. Have you been able to make time for behind the scenes work in the midst of your acting schedule?
VENTIMIGLIA: We sold a show to FOX this year, a law enforcement show that takes place in Central Florida. It’s basically Bloodline meets El Chapo. So we’re delivering that soon. Hopefully it’s something that we can go to pilot with. Then we’re trying to get a few other things that were on the front-burners kicked up to production. That stuff always runs concurrently with the acting. I tend to take my lunch break and catch up on emails or, at the end of the day, do the office work that I need to do. Slugging away.
THIS IS US AIRS TUESDAY NIGHTS ON NBC. GILMORE GIRLS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE IS NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON NETFLIX.