When Milo Ventimiglia was in third grade, he applied to his school’s honors program. After the testing was complete, his parents were told that their son wasn’t as inherently gifted as the other young candidates. Compared to his bright pupils who’d scored perfectly, Ventimiglia had only managed to get roughly 70% of the answers correct.
“But I would work and work and work until I got a 100,” he recalls. “The program head said that my work ethic exceeded that of the naturally smartest kids who came through. So they put me in the honors program.”
This story has become a part of Ventimiglia’s foundational identity. He defines himself as the guy who will work four times harder than anyone else. Yes, he recently earned his third Emmy nomination for his portrayal of beloved father Jack Pearson on “This is Us.” But acting doesn’t necessarily come easy to him, he says. After 12-hour days on the NBC set, he drives home to his place on the Westside, showers, eats dinner, and starts studying his script — “for one, two, three hours sometimes.” Then again in the morning.
“People look at me from the outside and go: ‘You’ve got a dream. You’ve got it easy,’ ” he says, “No. This is ... hard.”
It’s a narrative that helps to explain why, at 42, Ventimiglia is just now starring in his first studio film. He’s been a steady presence in Hollywood for more than two decades, best known as a television actor: Before “This Is Us,” he had memorable roles on the long-running series “Heroes” and “Gilmore Girls.” But “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” now playing in wide release, marks new territory for Ventimiglia.
The movie — based on Garth Stein’s 2008 novel, which spent three years on the New York Times bestseller list — is told from the perspective of a dog watching his owner, a race car driver, try to balance a Formula One career and a family life. (Ventimiglia plays the driver; Kevin Costner voices the soulful golden retriever.)
The part was initially slated for Patrick Dempsey, himself a professional racer who optioned Stein’s book shortly after publication. But as the project stalled — going into turnaround at Universal Pictures before ultimately landing at Fox 2000 — the “Grey’s Anatomy” veteran aged out of the role. He agreed to produce the movie instead, and in early 2018 the search began for a new star.
Coincidentally, the hunt began just as Ventimiglia’s most iconic “This Is Us” turn was about to air: the post-Super Bowl episode in which the Pearsons’ family home goes up in flames due to a faulty slow cooker, and Jack dies from a heart attack after inhaling too much smoke.
“We had just seen him run out of a burning house with a dog in his arms and everyone was like, ‘He’s so right for this on so many levels,’ ” says director Simon Curtis, remembering the casting meeting with producer Neal Moritz and Fox 2000 head Elizabeth Gabler.
“So Neil grabs his phone and just calls Milo’s agent right there,” Gabler continues. “‘Hi, it’s Neal Moritz. Can you tell me when Milo’s hiatus [from ‘This Is Us’] is?’ He found out his hiatus was perfectly timed; Milo read the script that night and committed the next day.”
Growing up, Ventimiglia glorified movies. He dreamed of being 40 feet tall on the big screen — being the guy whom people left their homes and paid money to see. But as he established himself as a television actor — and the era of prestige TV came to pass — the desire to chase a film career evaporated.
Still, he liked “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and the idea that he could play “a different version of the man [he] was already playing on TV — a good guy.”
“I feel like actors worry so much about being typecast, so they go against type,” Ventimiglia says. “Jack is such a beloved character, I wasn’t going to play someone so horrible. Why? I think we need more good guys out there.”
Ventimiglia is obsessed with the notion of “good guys” — of playing them and of being perceived as one in his off-screen life. On this Friday night, bouncing between various promotional events for his new movie, he pulls up at the Four Seasons in his black Porsche. (A publicist notes that he eschews studio-offered chauffeurs, instead opting to drive himself everywhere.) Inside, at the hotel’s restaurant, he asks the waitress to clear the dinner table and tells her the space will only be used for conversation.
“I’ll leave her a nice tip after,” he says. “I waited tables. I understand what it’s like when someone comes in and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re just gonna sit and drink water.’ ”
Ventimiglia knows that when people on the street look at him, they see Jack Pearson. And Jack is a hard guy to live up to.
“My comment is always, ‘Hey, I was here first,’ ” he says, half-kidding. “I just came from a bookstore event, and some guy said to me, ‘Hey, man, I really enjoy your acting. You play such a great father.’ He was with an older gentleman and I go, ‘Is this your dad?’ He was, so I said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got the real deal right here. Look at you and how courteous you are introducing yourself to me. You must have been raised by a good man. So you’ve got the real Jack Pearson right there.’ ”
Ventimiglia is close with his own father, Peter, a businessman who once sold equipment to printing presses; The Times was one of his dad’s clients. But unlike the character he has become so identified with, the actor himself is not married and does not have children. It’s a “massive responsibility,” he says — one he thinks many take too lightly before they understand what they’re getting into.
“I just don’t think I’m there yet,” he says. “Will I ever be ready? Who knows. Would I be a good dad? I’m sure I would. Hopefully. I came from a good father and good parents. I think it’s in my DNA to do it, but I haven’t yet.”
Despite his personal life, being on “This Is Us” allowed audiences to see Ventimiglia in a paternal light. He was able to display his protective qualities — his confidence in leading a group.
“The show allowed an audience to look at me and not see Jess or Peter,” he says, referring to his prior television characters. “It allowed people to go, ‘Oh, who’s Jack? Not Milo — Jack.’ Because we spanned decades and went from Jack in his 20s to Jack in his 50s, people just bought in. ‘Oh yeah, Ventimiglia? I can see him at 54.’
“Right now,” he continues, “what I have going for me is playing America’s favorite dad — and we on ‘This is Us’ have an audience. And hopefully the bosses at these film studios are going, ‘Well, wait a minute, not only is that a popular show — so there’s a lot of eyeballs on him — but he’s talented.’ ”
Curtis, the filmmaker behind “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” calls Ventimiglia’s casting in the movie his “Clooney moment — when an actor very well known on TV emerges as a film star.”
“Like George Clooney, it just took a certain maturity and body of work for Milo to get his movie,” agrees Gabler. “Tom Cruise started out basically as a teenager and had that movie right off the bat. Brad Pitt got it from a supporting role in ‘Thelma and Louise.’ But Milo is somebody who has had a chance to really live his life. He can walk the line as a real guy’s guy with physicality who also has emotion and sensitivity.”
Still, Ventimiglia insists he’s not trying to capitalize on his “This Is Us” heat: “There’s no striking while the iron is hot. It’s hopefully gonna be hot for a while.”
Instead, he says, he’s focusing on moving away from his try-hard mentality. He’s testing out what it’s like to not accept every project that comes his way because he feels he needs to be working.
“I mean, I’m 42 this year. I really, really know who I am and I really know what I can offer a project,” he says. “Which is an interesting shift as an actor. I’m not leaning forward on my toes. I’m not sitting back on my heels. I’m just flat, feet on the ground ready for anything that comes at me.”