Milo Ventimiglia on the ‘Honest Deception’ of ‘The Company You Keep’
Milo Ventimiglia reached television stardom during the age of cable and streaming dominance. But his signature shows, including “Heroes,” “Gilmore Girls” and “This Is Us,” have all aired free of charge on network TV.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
“I’m a product of broadcast television,” Ventimiglia said in a recent video call. “I like the idea that anyone can turn their TV on and watch the show.”
“People want to give exclusivity,” he added. “I prefer inclusivity.”
Ventimiglia’s newest venture, “The Company You Keep,” based on the Korean series “My Fellow Citizens!,” follows suit, but with a twist on his usual handsome charmer persona. Premiering Sunday on ABC, the series tells the story of Charlie Nicoletti, the main talent in a family of Baltimore con artists that also includes his sister, Birdie (Sarah Wayne Callies); his dad, Leo (William Fichtner); and his mom, Fran (Polly Draper). It’s Ventimiglia’s first starring vehicle since the hugely popular “This Is Us” ended its six-year run last year. (He is also an executive producer.)
A smooth operator and skilled thief, Charlie finds himself facing changes bad and good as the series opens. The family, which owns a neighborhood bar as a front for their capers, has just been burned on a job, owing mostly to Charlie’s carelessness. The consequences are dire. Reeling from his mistake, Charlie falls into the arms and bed of Emma (Catherine Haena Kim). They’re a very secretive couple, especially with each other. She is a C.I.A. agent. He’s a con man.
Unbeknown to them, their jobs are about to converge. It’s love, and lust, at first sight. Trust, however, is another matter.
“It’s a different kind of communication when you are playing two people that are fundamentally in love, but there are a lot of obstacles to their being together,” he said. “I think it mostly comes down to communicating vulnerability.”
Ventimiglia, 45, was drawn to Charlie’s duality. “As a barkeep, he’s unremarkable, a simple neighborhood guy,” he said. “But as a con artist, he has to adapt and change shape and become somebody else believably, as a real human being, not a caricature.”
Ventimiglia discussed the art of the con, moving on from “This Is Us” and why he looks to help military veterans however he can. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the transition from “This Is Us” like?
I brought over about 90 percent of the “This Is Us” crew. For me, it was always them that made the show. It wasn’t just the subject matter. It wasn’t just those beautiful Dan Fogelman scripts that he and the writers crafted. It was the different departments, everything from camera to grips, electric, art departments, transportation, craft services, the folks that were feeding us. There was a lot of magic in that show, and I loved bringing that team over. I miss Fogelman, and I miss aspects of production. But because of the crew, there was no real loss.
That was such a beloved show. Why do you think it struck a nerve in so many viewers?
I think it had a commonality. Viewers were able to see themselves inside of a lot of the characters. It wasn’t built for one lane. It didn’t fall under any particular genre. It was just a show about everyone.
The original title was “36,” which was the birthday that Jack and the three kids were celebrating. But Dan Fogelman kept toying with this idea: This is us and us and us. And it just makes sense. That’s what the show was about. It was about all of us, every single one of us. That always felt like the appeal: Everybody could relate to the life that was lived in those characters.
I imagine people often identify you with Jack.
I remember once I was getting off a plane and a guy stopped me and said, “Hey, you’re that guy from that show.” I said: “Yes, sir, I am. Nice to meet you.” And he goes, “Man, you’re my Tuesday night.” I thought, wow. Every Tuesday, this guy sits down and he hangs out with me and my co-stars on the show. There’s something really rewarding about that when you know an audience member is giving you time.
How do you approach playing a con man? It’s interesting that the word “con” comes from “confidence,” which Charlie definitely has.
To be an actor, you’ve got to be confident in what you do, but you can’t cross that line and be cocky because you get knocked right down. And you’ve got to be confident as a con man to get people to do what you want need.
With the cons that we’ve been setting up, and the characters that Charlie plays within those cons, it’s exciting and it’s fun. It’s given me an opportunity to stretch, not just playing one part, but playing several parts through a season.
Charlie is kind of an actor in that sense.
Totally. Either that or I’m realizing that acting is absolutely a con. When I was a little younger, I used to joke and say, “I lie for a living.” Then it turned into, “I wear makeup and read lines for a living.” Now, in a way, I’m back to what feels like an honest deception.
How do you think the secrecy of the characters translates to the performances?
It’s funny, in real life, romantic partners tend to under-talk things until they realize they need therapy. On set, we’re over-talking things for absolute transparency and communication to find the best possible solution that works for [Kim’s] character, my character, and then ultimately the show.
You have worked with and supported several veterans organizations, including the U.S.O., Team Rubicon and America’s Gold Star Families. What is the source of that passion?
My dad was a Vietnam War veteran, so I think I always had this understanding of the community from that point of view, and from studying the war. But having never served in uniform, I asked myself how I could serve the community. The work is never done. But I think it’s a community to which we owe a lot of gratitude. I nearly went into the Navy when I was 18. I had this grand idea that I was going to be flying jets because I grew up on “Top Gun.” But then I took a different path.
When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
I’d always put on plays and stuff when I was a little kid. And I remember when award shows still felt glamorous, and I would hear Whoopi Goldberg talk to the camera at the end of the Oscars, when she was hosting, saying, “Maybe one day you’ll be on this stage.” That inspired me. I’d see an actor putting on a character, and then I’d see him putting on a different character. You’d see Michael Keaton as Mr. Mom. Then you’d see Michael Keaton as Batman. You’re like, Oh, it’s Batman. But no, it’s Mr. Mom.
It was all an understanding that these people are playing different roles, and that is the profession of acting. How do you do that? How do you make those roles so convincing that you get to do the next one? It’s weird. At 45 years old, I feel like I’m just getting started. That’s a good feeling.