Milo Ventimiglia knows a little something about the power of a good cry. After all, for three season he’s spiked the tear-o-meter as Jack Pearson, the perfectly flawed husband and father who perished after saving a dog from a fire in NBC’s ‘This Is Us’.
Now comes ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’, in which he stars as Denny Swift, a race car driver, devoted family man and — here’s the clincher — faithful owner of Enzo, a golden retriever intent on mastering life’s greatest lessons so that he can be reborn as a human when he dies.
Get out the Kleenex box. Make it two.
“I guess I’m just fortunate enough to be a part of projects that are tapping into emotions that maybe we need to feel right now,” Ventimiglia said.
Based on Garth Stein’s 2008 bestseller, ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ accelerates through some hairpin turns as Denny falls in love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and has a daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), then finds their happiness threatened when his wife falls ill. Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), in thrall to the roar of the engine and the wind in his fur, narrates the ride with a philosopher’s wisdom from puppyhood to his final sprint around the track.
Ventimiglia has three more seasons to wring us emotionally dry on ‘This Is Us’ and recently snared yet another Emmy nomination alongside Sterling K Brown, who plays his son Randall. “I was FaceTiming with Sterling the other night, and we were both just smiling because three years in a row we’ve managed to get nominated — him winning one of those years,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”
Calling from Los Angeles after wrapping the first episode of Season 4, Ventimiglia, 42, explained why his game isn’t about grabbing the most golden statuettes — something he learned from those dogs.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What’s it like acting across from an animal?
Technical, very technical. Animals are different. They have a specific A point and B point, and there’s usually a reward at the end of every take. When we started the film, I had some pretty long conversations with the trainers, asking them their opinion of helping me have a scene partner. And what we created was this relationship that I personally had with our dogs.
We had two hero dogs — Parker, our two-year-old, who plays the younger Enzo, and Butler, our nine-year-old, who plays the older Enzo — so many puppies and three auxiliary dogs, one for running, one for barking and one just to hang out. I’m kind of a needy actor. I need a scene partner in order to feel what I need to feel at times. I can’t just pretend. And I really had willing partners through Butler and Parker.
Enzo is learning life lessons in preparation for being reborn as a human. Did you learn anything from working with the dogs?
Patience. Slow things down. Follow your gut. Sometimes it leads to food. To be around a dog, who is looking at things very simply, is a good reminder that we don’t always have to complicate life.
I’ve read that one of the most searched Google questions about Jack Pearson is whether men like him actually. And Denny is another almost-too-good-to-be-true husband and father. Do you ever feel pressure in real life to be this guy?
Yeah, there is a pressure and a responsibility, but I also feel like those guys are kind of borrowed from me and men that I admire. So the expectation is very high. I’m not without my mistakes as a person, as a man, but I’m also trying to represent the good guys that are out there. I have a lot of people saying to me, “I’m married to the real Jack Pearson” or “I want to find a Jack Pearson.” And I think that raising of the bar is a very good thing — because we’re looking for men to be better and we’re looking for our partners to be better and that’s just something we need right now.
Your TV wife, Mandy Moore, recently let it drop that there was a big hot plot twist at the start of season four. Can you hint at what we should expect?
I think I’m a little more of a Fort Knox than Mandy Moore. [Laughs] But she’s not wrong. There is a pretty big plot twist. I don’t even know if it’s a twist so much as it is just this beautiful reveal of what’s to come. And it set me back in my chair when I read it.
In a show filled with twists, which one is your favorite?
I kind of go back to the original of Jack being dead in the present day. I think that was a cool one. And then the very first one [where it’s revealed that] they’re a family. I think it was such a beautiful device that [series creator] Dan Fogelman connected these people that seemed to only share a birthday.
You reprised your first major role, as Rory’s troubled love interest Jess Mariano, in the 2016 ‘Gilmore Girls’ sequel. Any plans for another round?
Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino are kind of busy on something great for Amazon called ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’, which I’m a massive fan of. So I think they may stay in the ’50s for a little while. But you never know.
You invited Sylvester Stallone to be on ‘This Is Us’ after playing his son in ‘Rocky Balboa’ and ‘Creed 2’. Should we expect more from that relationship?
I don’t know if there are any more, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was. I think opening up the Rocky Balboa universe is a good thing, because there’s nobody like Sly. Sly’s incredible. He is such a force to be around, but he’s also so welcoming and he inspires good work. The second those cameras roll, he’s right there looking you in the eye. And that’s a unique experience as an actor that I always try to embrace — living out the lives of these men that I play, making them real and then processing what that emotion is, processing what that life is the best I can for an audience while the cameras are rolling.
By the way, congratulations on your Emmy nomination for ‘This Is Us’. Is the third time a charm?
Who knows? Maybe I’ll be television’s new Susan Lucci. But hold on, what’s bad about that? She’s an amazing, amazing actress who’s consistently been in the conversation for years and years and years.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ releases in the UAE on August 8.