Milo Ventimiglia on his new racing flick: 'There’s heart, there’s laughter and there are tears'

Cape Town - Milo Ventimiglia sits down in Vancouver for an interview about his starring role in The Art of Racing in the Rain.

The accomplished actor plays Denny, a single-minded and ambitious race car driver who is devoted to his beloved dog, Enzo. 

Everything changes when Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried). The couple fall in love, marry and have a baby. It seems as if they have it all – until they are confronted with a crisis that turns their lives upside down. 

Told from Enzo’s perspective (voiced by Kevin Costner), this is a compelling story about love, relationships, family, big dreams and the wisdom of a funny, philosophical dog! Directed by Simon Curtis, the film is based on the bestseller of the same name, by Garth Stein. 

WIN: 1 of 2 'The Art of Racing in the Rain' books by Garth Stein

On the Vancouver set of The Art of Racing in the Rain, director Simon Curtis is filming a heartwarming scene in which devoted parents, Denny and Eve Swift, are celebrating their daughter Zoë’s third birthday, surrounded by a group of toddlers. Zoë (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) blows out the candles on her cake and everyone cheers. It’s a picture-perfect happy family – and central to the celebration is the Swifts’ dog, Enzo who bounds around the house. 

The film follows the journey of Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a man with big dreams of becoming a Formula One race car driver.

Those dreams remain intact but are placed on hold when he meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried), the love of his life. There are inevitable challenges in the marriage – as there are for any family. Denny’s demanding career involves being away from home and he must balance his job with his home life. But the problems are insignificant in comparison to the big challenges that lie ahead. Complaining of headaches, Eve starts to feel unwell and it transpires she has ¬a life-threatening disease. There are further complications because Eve’s parents (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker) do not see eye to eye with their son in law. 

Milo Ventimiglia. The Art of Racing in the Rain

Throughout this engrossing drama, everything is seen from the vantage point of Enzo, a dog with a unique view of life. Wonderfully witty, philosophical and funny, Enzo has remarkable insights into human nature. In turn poignant, humorous and inspiring, the films sweeps us up in the lives of this endearing family – but, unusually, it is Enzo, who relates the story. 

Milo, who plays Jack in the massively popular TV drama, This is Us, delivers an authentic and empathetic performance as Denny. “Milo brings great integrity to the role,” says Simon Curtis. “He’s a brilliant team player and he’s so good with the dog and with Ryan, the young actress playing Zoë. When I saw him emerge from the burning house in This is Us, with the dog in his arms,” recalls the director referring to a dramatic episode in the TV series, “I thought, ‘He’s the right man for this job.’ I saw it after we had cast him, by the way!” 

An actor, director and producer, Milo Ventimiglia has twice been nominated for an Emmy for his role as Jack in the acclaimed, award-winning TV drama This is Us. Early in his career, he starred in the popular shows Gilmore Girls and Heroes. Other notable TV credits are Gotham, American Dreams, and Boston Public. Milo’s movie credits include Creed II, That's my Boy, Grace of Monaco, Devil's Gate and Second Act. Together with Russ Cundiff, Milo runs a production company called DiVide Pictures. 

In a break on the film set, Milo sat down to discuss the film and his impressive career. 

What was the appeal of the film? 

"I was excited that this great story was being turned into a feature film. It’s an emotional and uplifting film that shows life through the wise and humorous perspective of Enzo, the dog. I liked the fact that the story is for families and Denny is a family man. Like This is Us, it will appeal to an audience that wants to experience emotion. It’s also very relatable. At the same time, it has this fun element of racing, so for me it checked all the boxes in terms of the kind of films I like. I spend seven months a year on the set of This is Us, which is about family, and the relationships between a husband and wife, father and daughter, man and his best friend. Those are the stories I’m drawn to."

Who is Denny and how do you relate to him? 

"Denny isn’t too far off from who I am: just replace acting with race car driving. You know, racing takes focus, as does acting. Racing takes stamina and endurance and a steadfast approach, so does acting. But I think there’s also an element to both that is exciting and even dangerous at certain moments. As an actor, you’re exposing yourself to emotions. As a racer, you’re exposing yourself to the threat of injury, car crashes and the elements. So, Denny feels closer to myself than I’ve really experienced in any other character. He’s a good guy, he’s a simple guy, he’s a guy’s guy."

Can you explain what the title The Art of Racing in the Rain refers to? 

"As you can surmise from the title, racing in the rain is very difficult. Rain is an unpredictable factor. You can apply that metaphor to life: the unpredictability of life and how you don’t know what’s coming your way. You really don’t know as a race car driver how the rain is going to affect your car, so the idea of mastering the art of racing in the rain is akin to how you deal with life and the things it’s going to throw at you to take you off the track."

So, Denny is single-minded? 

"Yes, he’s a young man who’s dedicated to racing and his career. He wants to hone his skills. He meets Eve and they fall in love and quickly get married and have a kid. I think he takes on a different kind of race at that point, because all of a sudden he has a family to provide for, though he still has his dreams. So Denny’s journey involves going from the passion of driving to the reality of what his family needs, and the film looks at how those two intersect in both a positive and a negative way. Then he loses sight of racing because of the events that happen to his family. Eve gets sick and there are some other circumstances that are difficult in his life. But he finds his way back to his dreams."

What has it been like working with Amanda Seyfried, who plays Eve? 

"She’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. She’s fun, she’s funny, she’s beautiful and she’s unique in her outlook. Everything is real for her. The moments on screen are real for her. That is very much how I work too, and I feel that Denny and Eve come alive through us. So, when we’re on set and we’re playing this very deep love story, there is a lot of love between the two of us."

It is a touching story – as well as being uplifting – and the subject matter must be very emotional for you both? 

"Yes, Amanda actually said to me, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to remind me that I’m not sick,’ and so every day we would have to play pretty heartbreaking scenes and at the end of the day, I’ve had to say to Amanda, ‘Hey, you’re not sick. This is all pretend, you’re doing great.’"

Milo Ventimiglia. The Art of Racing in the Rain

What is Denny’s relationship with Enzo like? 

"His dog is his best friend, who is always there with him. He even has a line where he says, ‘You and me, Enzo. It’s always you and me.’ And that is something which tracks through the entire story. But Denny has to open his world up of course when love strikes his heart with Eve and then when he finds a deeper love with his daughter, Zoë. But Enzo is a constant."

The film is interesting because Enzo is a central character as the narrator? 

"Having Enzo as the storyteller is really interesting because we, as the human characters, don’t know what’s going on in his head, so we’re not hearing anything he ‘says.’ We’re just living our lives and experiencing what we are going through. For the audience to have this journeyman taking them through the story is exciting. When we’re acting, Parker and Butler, the dogs playing Enzo, are my scene partners. I look at them and I think, ‘I need to experience this bond and camaraderie with these dogs as I would as a dog owner. I’m not hearing the narration at all, but I know our script supervisor is timing everything. All I’m doing is looking into the dog’s eyes or petting the dog or walking or running with the dog. I’m just being a dog owner."

Are you a dog owner? 

"No. And I’m not a father or a husband either. But I am a dog lover – absolutely. It was very important to me to bond with the dogs, so any moment I’ve had in between takes or before filming has really been time spent understanding how they train the dogs. I had to connect with the dogs just like I would with Amanda or anyone else in the film. They’re my scene partners and I want to be their scene partner, so the moment the trainers need me to do something, I’m there for them."

Dogs do become part of the family. 

"Oh yes, they do, and they have their own personalities and needs, and they pick up on frustration or anger or sadness, on an animal level. Those are things we’ve had to be mindful of during the filming of the movie – those moments where Denny is frustrated or angry or overwhelmed with emotion. We know whatever I’m feeling –the dog will ultimately and instinctively feel it as well. So it’s kind of a science and an art working with the dogs to make sure they feel safe, trusted and welcome."

What do you think about the casting of Kevin Costner as the voice of Enzo? 

"He has such a beautiful and soulful voice, which we’ve all known and loved for years, so for him to take us on this journey is great. I’m excited to hear him play Enzo."

What did you learn about racing during this film? 

"Well, Ayrton Senna (the late, legendary, Brazilian Formula One race car driver) is Denny’s hero. Racers say he was the best at racing in the rain. When everyone else would falter and their cars would get out from underneath them, he seemed to go faster and stronger – and that ties into how Denny races. Denny’s strength is like Senna’s. It’s been incredible to embrace that world of racing because I knew very little about it and now I have such great appreciation for what the racers go through. They have the physical strength as well as the mental focus you need to keep the car underneath you and have the car be an extension of you as the driver. I’ve been able to sit in some cars, get in some gear, do a little bit of work, and there are also moments while we’re filming when I can’t do too much."

You have stunt people doing the riskier action? 

"Sure, exactly, and that’s great, because racers train. Me, I’ve taken 23 years to train as an actor, but I can’t just become a professional race car driver!"

Finally, what do audiences have to look forward to?

"There’s heart, there’s laughter and there are tears. It’s about the warmth you get from human interaction. This is a great story about a man, his family and his relationship with his dog – and it’s different because it is all told through the dog’s eyes."

Milo Ventimiglia. The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain is showing in SA cinemas now.

(Photos: Exclusively supplied by 20th Century FOX)