I’ve rewritten this intro over 20 times trying to come up with the most accurate description of Dustin Milligan. Sure I could talk about his jawline, his mischievous grin or the obvious, his abs, but once you get to know him you realize that those aren't his shining qualities. Dustin is much more than just his physical appearance. He’s whip smart, sincere, thoughtful, loyal, creative, self deprecating and one of the funniest people I know. A true geek at heart, Dustin has managed to play against his “type” by creating what could be one dimensional “hotties” into interesting, intentionally layered characters. We sat down and talked about leaving his isolated hometown of 18,000 people to pursue acting, the invaluable lessons he learned from his parents as well as his personal aspirations. His honesty is woven deeply into this interview, but especially when he opens up about being fired from 90210, something I find both courageous and inspiring.
Amanda Crew: So we met in Vancouver, Canada, but you are originally from Yellowknife. First of all, explain how small it is there, and what it's like to live there.
Dustin Milligan: The easiest way I describe Yellowknife to people here in the United States is by saying that it's basically parallel to Alaska, but in the middle of Northern Canada. It’s a town of about 17,000, maybe 18,000 people. It's a strange thing, especially if you drive, because you drive up sort of in this rocky, barren, relatively sparsely-treed area, and then all of a sudden there's these 30-story buildings that just sort of appear out of nowhere. It's like this strange mini-city in the middle of nowhere.
AC: You're forgetting to mention that in the winter time, it's dark for like 18 hours.
DM: Yeah, because it's so far North it’s super dark in the winter time, which lasts about 8 months. So in January and February the sun will only come up at maybe 10:00 or 11:00 AM, and it will set by 2:00 or 3:00, or less. If it's a cloudy day, it's just kind of dark all the time. And it’s cold. Bitterly cold. Like -40, -50, -60 sometimes, with wind chill. And conversely, in the summer time, you have days where the sun doesn't actually set. It just crests below the horizon and then it comes back up again. But it is this kind of cool thing where you experience seasons differently than most other places in the world.
AC: Growing up in a place that has a small population, is far away from any major city (and you were pre-internet), what effects do you think that had on you growing up? Because it’s a pretty isolated place.
DM: You know, it's interesting, because it wasn't necessarily that you’re — I mean, you are isolated in a technical sense, but the thing about Yellowknife that a lot of people who spend even a short amount of time there will often say, is that the sense of community there is so strong. On top of that, my family was always really supportive of me and my sister to do anything creative and just express ourselves in any way; really cool, progressive, liberal parents. I never necessarily felt isolated, but I knew how far away from the rest of the world I was. From a very young age, I dreamed of being "somebody." That was a big part of it, that I was already in a place where no matter what I wanted to be to fulfill this idea of being “somebody,” I would have to leave this place in order to go do it. That's not true for everybody, of course, but for me it was. The only two dreams that I've ever had for myself were to be an astronaut (and one of the first people on Mars) or an actor. When I found out I was color blind, my mom "Little Miss Sunshine'd" me and told me I wouldn't ever be able to be an astronaut. That was when I switched to the next logical choice, which was to be an entertainer. *laughs* A comedian is what I really wanted to be. I had a family that really supported that creativity, and the humor.
AC: I think one of your most unique qualities, and what works in your comedy, is you have a very specific and different perspective on things. Your angle is always one of a kind. Where 90% of the population would see "X", you see “X8!” Which is obvious in your love for puns. But is that, like you were saying, because of the way you were raised? Because it’s such a unique way that you look at things. I've never met someone with a brain like yours.
DM: Thanks. I don't know. Again, both my sister and I were really creative kids growing up. My mom always made really silly, dumb jokes, and my dad introduced my sister and I to a lot of weirder humor. If I can boil it down to something super basic; my mom always taught me to respect authority and my dad always taught me to question it.
AC: That’s almost two opposing things.
DM: Yeah. In a way. But I feel like I learned how to make them work together, and that is that I can be respectful but still question things. Everything I look at, I can still respect it, but also question it. I think that's kind of why I sort of latched onto something so silly as puns. When people are talking to me, I'm listening to them respectfully, but also I'm rhyming things that they're saying and looking at their face and seeing if there's some way I can connect, just for my own amusement, the words that they're saying into a pun about like a booger in their nose or something. Weird things like that. Also, my dad would often let me and my sister stay up really late at night if there was a weird, funny movie or show that he considered a classic on. Like Kids in the Hall, Monty Python or SCTV.
AC: I feel like those early influences had an obvious effect on your body of work. You've already managed, in your short career, to kind of create these interesting characters that are not stereotypical. Or if they are stereotypical characters, you're able to weave something a bit off beat into them.
DM: I definitely try. I think that also sort of goes back to when I was younger and kind of developing this idea of who I saw myself as when I grew up. There was a sense of ownership and individuality that I really attribute to it. When I was growing up, and figuring out that acting is actually what I wanted to do, I would watch shows like Smallville, or The OC, and there were certain characters, and actors, that I would look at and say, "I don't want to do that, because you're just playing generic." I saw myself playing some of these characters, but I didn't want to be Ben McKenzie on The OC, I wanted to be Adam Brody. I wanted to be the best friend who was interesting, and crazy, and got those laughs, or whatever. I liked the character actors, because I like big, broad, dumb jokes.
AC: You said when you were starting out that you would watch Smallville and The OC and you wanted to play some of those characters. You were essentially on the next generation of that show, 90210, playing one of “those kinds of guys.” Did you feel like you were able to do that with your character on that show?
DM: Here's what I'll say. That was such an interesting process, because I actually got cast off of tape when I was still in Vancouver.
AC: Which is a big deal, FYI.
DM: *laughs* It was a big deal. I put it on tape, and I loved it because it was comedic. The character was kind of a dumb jock, and I thought it was so cool. I was like, "Wow. This is really one of those opportunities where I can kind of do bits and be a little off center, and create something neat." I ended up booking it based off of that tape. But as a lot of studio projects, and network TV goes, there's a lot of different changes and processes that happen before anything is even shot. So the character changed quite a bit from that to what ended up being in the pilot episode. But at the same time I still saw plenty of opportunity to do it slightly differently. The producers and show-runners, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, were guys who I was ecstatic were on board. They have a great history with Judd Apatow on Freaks and Geeks. They know comedy, they know the teen world, and they get how to mine a lot of the subtly funnier things out of what could potentially just be more bland, dramatic, teenage angsty scenes. So I was stoked, and they were really great with all the actors and finding out their strengths and letting those fly. A lot of the stuff that I tried to do never made it to the edit even though Gabe and Jeff would sign off on a lot of, what I thought were great attempts to make the character a little different, funny or insecure. That was a big lesson I took from that show; A very smart actor friend of mine once told me, “give ‘em what they want, they'll take what you got.” Which essentially means that if I gave them the character they were looking for, they would let me add my own stuff to it, but in the end that doesn’t mean that they’re going to keep it. Though, there was something in that character that I would like to say is a little bit different than what you might expect.
AC: You haven’t really talked about it publicly before, but you weren't brought back for the second season of 90210.
DM: No, I got fired from the show.
AC: Which is something that happens. It’s pretty rare for an actor to go through their entire career and not get fired. I've been fired from a job. Most actors that I know have been fired from a job. But whether you were completely in love with the project or not, it's the worst fucking feeling ever. Not that many people talk about it and it's kind of a mind-fuck.
DM: Yeah. I mean, it was definitely frustrating. There were some behind-the-scene shifts involving the show runners that were going on with things mid-season and towards the end. And, as these new people came aboard, it was becoming clear to me and my team that, as much as I was trying to bring something to the role, they weren't really that interested in what the character was and what I was doing with it. That was frustrating and disheartening because, again, I had this kind of idealistic idea that I could give them what they want and they would take what I got, (which I still believe is a good way to look at things), but they didn’t. There was definitely a lot of difficult introspection I had to do. I had to ask myself the question, "Shit, maybe what I have to offer isn't good enough. Maybe what I am, who I am…” Because as much as a lot of people try to say that to separate yourself from your work is the best thing you can do, I can't separate myself from my work. I just can't do it. I have been thinking about doing this since I was very, very, very young. It's just part of me. That's what the rejection that you're feeling is. It's like getting dumped. Except completely publicly.
AC: That one was especially a super public dump.
DM: It was, and, without getting into the details of it, I was definitely disappointed with the way it happened. Even though there was no scandal or anything disrespectful done on either side. I will say this much: The next year, for the promotions for the second season, they had brought on a couple new actors but they still used the same wide, panoramic shot of all the original cast who were all still on the show. So I was in that original shot. I was wearing a pink shirt and a tie, and I think I was facing to the right and looking over my left shoulder or something and touching my tie. When they did the upfronts for the second season, they used the same promotional shot. I was no longer on the show, but they used the same shot and they literally cut off my head from that original shot and just… I want to say Photoshopped, but they just might as well have glued on a head of one of these new actors who had been brought on.
AC: One of your replacements, basically.
DM: Basically like a studlier replacement actor. *laughs* You have to laugh at that, because it's just like, "Good God!" There were moments like that, even though I was in a pretty dark place, those moments were key in bringing me around and helping me see how great a gift this was for me. Nothing against the show, but it wasn't the right thing for me. I thought I could do my version of “that guy”, but this wasn't that opportunity. I was beating myself up about it because I felt I should have somehow made it that opportunity, but it just wasn’t. You start to realize how silly and unpredictable Hollywood is. As much as you want to control everything, and be in charge of every little side step that your career takes — and every direction that you take it in — it’s just not that way. It allowed me to then, all of a sudden, look at this completely open road in front of me where I now knew more clearly not only who I was, but who I wasn't.
AC: And what's interesting is that the next thing you did was essentially you getting to do your funny, weird version of a “prom king” type character. A good-looking, idiot guy who is comedic and offbeat. You got to fulfill that in Extract with Brad, the pool boy/gigolo. I think it’s one of your greatest performances.
DM: Yeah. It was kickass.
AC: I'm actually starting to see a bit of a theme. You did Extract with Mike Judge, and then you played another idiot character with Mike Judge on Silicon Valley, on Schitt's Creek you play a dopey guy, and on Dirk’s Gently, another idiot. Why do you think you're so drawn to playing those characters? And not just playing them, but trying to put a different twist on them?
DM: I don't know. I think self-deprecating humor is something that's inherent in every Canadian’s sense of humor. I’d rather make fun of myself. I'm not necessarily a super-funny storyteller, standup comedian type of guy. What I think is funny is just kind of the strange things that happen between us on a more intimate level.
AC: Do you think there's a part of you that is drawn to those characters because possibly - I know for myself, I always felt kind of betrayed by people's reaction to my physical appearance. They just kind of see that and think, "Oh, pretty girl who is dumb, stupid, simple-minded, basic or whatever." And I was always like, "No. I'm actually really awkward and weird and uncomfortable in my skin." Do you think there's something similar to that effect for yourself?
DM: Yeah. I see what you're getting at. Yeah. 100%. I understand I've been able to play some of these other roles - 90210 was a role I got because of how I looked. It also had to do with what I was bringing to the table, but again, that process proved that what I was bringing to the table wasn't really that crucial to it. I get pretty uncomfortable with that kind of attention, which is strange because in high school I was embracing it - or so I thought - but it wasn't genuine, and it was something that ultimately was kind of uncomfortable, and I didn't really know how to handle it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not like, "Woe is me. I have cheek bones," or whatever. But it is one of those things where what I looked like had nothing to do with who I saw myself as.
AC: Earlier you said that growing up you wanted to "be someone," which makes me think about legacy and our aspirations for our self and what we can leave behind. What do you hope is your legacy?
DM: That's a tough question, because I'm not always sure I understand what people mean when they say "legacy."
AC: Well, what is your personal definition of legacy?
DM: I guess for me a legacy is just kind of what remains of you when you're gone. The only thing I really want people to think of when I'm gone is that shit that my parents always said is really true. You really can be anything. It might not work out in the end, but you've got to fucking try. I think if nothing else, I just want people to say, "He was trying to do something." Is that too cheesy?
AC: No, not at all. I like it.
DM: I didn't even get to talk about my 6 to 60.
AC: What's that?
DM: Most of my major life decisions - or when I'm in a time of crisis or something like that - where there's a fork in the road ahead of me. I think "Okay. Here's this decision." Then I think about what my six-year-old self would think of this decision, and my six-year-old self is, more often than not, the version of me who is noble, strong, kind, and does the right thing. And then I think of the 60-year-old version of me, or the version of me on my deathbed who understands that life is not as simple as maybe that six-year-old thought, and this person is forgiving, but wants as few regrets as possible, and basically you just live to not disappoint either of those two versions of yourself. Just because you grew up doesn't mean you're not still that little kid and you can't still fulfill that kid's dreams. And just because you aren't an old man on his deathbed yet, you should still be thinking about your legacy, because that old man's going to be thinking about his legacy, too. Anyway. That's what that is.
AC: 6 to 60. I like it.
// dustin's favorite songs at the moment \\
all images by amanda crew except the scans of dustin's personal photos.
interview edited & condensed.