BEVERLY HILLS — Barely a year ago, life wasn't looking too good for affable actor Milo Ventimiglia. After a decade in Hollywood, the only leading-man role he could land was playing nearly half his age in "Dirty Deeds" — a rarely seen "American Pie"-rip-off that could quite possibly be the most mind-numbingly bad movie ever made.
Now, he is the face of "Heroes," an intricately written blockbuster TV show that has rendered Ventimiglia unable to walk down the street without being mobbed by people demanding answers about when the Japanese guy is going to fight the dinosaur. It seems only appropriate, then, that the 29-year-old actor is returning to the silver screen to play Rocky Jr. in "Rocky Balboa," perhaps Hollywood's ultimate overnight-success fable.
We recently caught up with the fast-rising star to get his thoughts on a "Heroes" movie, taking a job away from Sly Stallone's kid and why he wants to tell the movie community to kiss his ass.
MTV: I've got to say, I was one of the few who actually saw "Dirty Deeds" in a movie theater. Wow.
Milo Ventimiglia: [He laughs.] There's jobs all of us do to make sure we make money and keep our abilities intact. On that one, I read the script and I actually said no — I passed — I said, "I don't think I can do this." They said, "No, no, you'll be good," and I said, "Guys, I'm 27 years old — I don't know if I can pull this off any more, being a kid." Well, I just went and committed, and made it as funny as I could.
MTV: And now, here you are in "Rocky Balboa," and the press is as eager to talk to you as they are Stallone. How did he manage to catch lightning in a bottle and cast you while you were still unknown?
Ventimiglia: I think I was just possibly the right guy for the role, and maybe Sly — having the intellect that he has — saw it ahead of anybody else. For 11 years, I've been in this business, and I've worked and worked and worked, gone from job to job, and always remained under the radar. Being picked by Sylvester to be in this film, to play his son — that's a really nice feeling.
MTV: You look back at "Airplane II: The Sequel" from 1982, and they were already making jokes about Stallone going to the "Rocky" well too many times. Fess up — you must have giggled a little bit when you heard they were making a "Rocky 6"?
Ventimiglia: You have to. You think, "They're making another one?" And not just "Rocky," but the sixth installment of any film? It's like, "Come on!" But then, I looked at it, and I read it, and you strip away that 30 years of history and it's a beautiful script that he wrote. Every level, every layer was just filled with the feeling I got when I watched the first one. So at the end, when I turned that last page, I thought, "I've got to be a part of this. I could care less what anybody thinks about [me] potentially getting laughed at." I saw Sly this morning, and he said that what's surprising him is that a lot of people want to dislike the film — but then they watch it.
MTV: I can remember where I was when I saw each "Rocky" movie, and who I saw it with. Does seeing this classic character again bring back similar emotions for you?
Ventimiglia: I think I was too little to remember where I was and when I was watching them, if I was in a movie theater or my parent's house or whatever. But I remember all the films. And I went back before I met Sly, I actually watched a marathon of all five movies in a row, just to make sure I had a history and was studied in them.
MTV: Stallone's son, Sage, played Rocky Jr. in the fifth movie, 16 years ago. Why are you taking over for him here?
Ventimiglia: To go out and look for an actor to play the role was something that naturally came up. I didn't know, or wasn't privy to, conversations about whether Sage would play the role. But from what I understand, he's very successful in other endeavors [directing and producing], and he may have put the acting away.
MTV: Did you watch "Rocky 5" extra close, to capture Sage's performance in your own?
Ventimiglia: No, I watched number five the same way I watched numbers four, three, two and one. I tried to be respectful of the work that was put in before me, but at the same time, I had to create something with this character — because he is in a different place. In number five, he was a 12-year-old boy trying to have a connection with his father while he was giving that attention to someone else. In number four, he's a kid who's in the United States while his father is fighting communism in Russia. With this one, it's a different character because he's grown up. He can't be that 12-year-old or that 7-year-old any more. He has to be his own person with his own identity.
MTV: There was a time when movies and TV were considered very separate, but "Heroes" is as high-concept as any big-budget summer superhero film. Have the lines been blurred for good?
Ventimiglia: When you see all the big producers and all the big stars of film running over to television, you can't call TV the little brother to film anymore. The medium, the way the work is done and the care and intellect with which television is produced nowadays, some television is better than movies. So, anybody who holds an air of arrogance where film is better, I could basically say, "Kiss my ass!"
MTV: There are rumors already of a "Heroes" movie. Would you like to take Peter Petrelli to the big screen?
Ventimiglia: It's a great group of people that we're working with on the show, the most ego-less group of talent I've been around. If feature films were to come up, or comic books were to come up, I'd love to be a part of it.
MTV: Is playing Peter the best gig on the show, because you get to siphon off everybody else's powers for a little while?
Ventimiglia: I think so. Not only do I get to [have] everybody's powers, but I get to build on what they've created. For this last episode, I sat down with Greg Grunberg, who plays [mind-reading cop] Matt Parkman and ask, "What do you physically do? What do you hear when you're listening to people's thoughts?" Or when I talk to [unbreakable cheerleader] Hayden [Panettiere], I'm like, "What do you feel?" So, really, I'm respecting what they've created for their character. Even Santiago [Cabrera], the heroin artist, [his character] is right-handed in real life but he paints with his left hand [when he's envisioning the future], so I tried to mimic that along with his facial expressions, so that Peter is seeing it through the lives of the characters.
MTV: Are you getting sick of the "give me spoilers" questions yet? And also, can you give me some spoilers on what's coming up next?
Ventimiglia: [He laughs.] It's not that the actors are kept in the dark, but there's so much that we just don't know. We're only briefly ahead of where the show was when it last aired. So, when people ask me questions, I just smile and think, "God, there are people who really love this, really embrace this, really want to know." Actually, they usually say, "Tell me! ... No, no, I don't want to know, I don't want to know!" I love that — it means we're doing our job.
Check out everything we've got on "Rocky Balboa."