It’s almost impossible to believe that teen heartthrob-turned-mature megastar Alyssa Milano has been in the public eye for over three decades. During that time, she’s starred inTV shows we’ll always remember (and perhaps a few movies she’d like us to forget), but has always bounced back stronger than ever. Now a wife, mother, successful entrepreneur and host of Project Runway All Stars (Season five premieres tonight, February 11th at 9pm EST on Lifetime), Milano chatted with Paste about Who’s The Boss, those crazy Charmed fans, and women characters in TV versus women characters in film.
Paste Magazine: I thought it was really interesting to see that your mom worked in fashion. She was also a talent agent, and your dad worked in film as a music editor. How did their passions influence you, and where you’ve gone in your own career and life?
Alyssa Milano: In every way. My dad is still a music editor in the film field, and there’s not a lot music editors in the business, which is awesome. I grew up in a super, super, super creative household. My memories of my parents as a child consist of my mom sitting on the corner with her sketch pad doing fashion illustrations and designing and my dad sitting at the piano playing music. We very rarely had the television on. I really grew up with creativity, not being like a pastime, but being a part of who you are as a human. I was encouraged at a very young age to figure what that meant for me and what my passion was in the creative space. I started singing and dancing at four-years-old. I was really a very shy child, but singing and dancing and performing was something that came very easily to me, because I think I could escape through it. Who my parents are and what they are made up of is a direct influence on the creative line that I have today.
Paste: Is it true that it was actually your babysitter who snuck you out to your first audition?
Milano: Yeah. (laughs)
Paste: Was there reluctance from your parents to get you involved in the business?
Milano: They had no idea! It was an open audition, so there were 1500 kids there and four were picked. There were just so many kids. In the last round, this woman actually wound up calling my parents and saying, “You should probably come down here because it looks like she’s going to make it.” Then after I got hired, there was a lot of reluctance. It wasn’t so much reluctance of me getting into the business, it was more that I would be working for a national touring company and my parents had been together since they were 15-years-old, so they just didn’t want to be apart from one another. I basically held my breath and locked myself in my room until they agreed to give it a shot. I was seven at the time.
It was very, very hard for them but a lot of great things happened because of it. Not just industry-related, but my parents were separated for a year because we were on the road and then they conceived my brother who is ten years younger than I am. That was something super beautiful that came out of it.
Paste: In 1984, you got your first TV show, Who’s The Boss? As someone who was new to television, did you find yourself bonding with Tony Danza, who shared similar New York roots and also experienced a similar breaking-in period when he starred in Taxi?
Milano: One-hundred percent. From the moment we met, we were incredibly close and are still incredibly close to this day. Then there’s that show, and I say this quite often, those people are just as responsible for me growing up to be a productive member to the society as my own parents because I was around them so much. They really taught me how to behave in this industry in a way that was respectful of not only to the people I was working with, but also to myself. It was a really, really major, major experience that I’m very grateful for, because that is how I grew up in the business.
There was no down time for me. A lot of these kids that grow up in the business, they do a movie, then they have to go back to school, and they don’t fit in. Then they go back and do a movie, and they miss school. It’s such instability. I had a family that dropped me off at work to be with a family that I worked with for eight years straight. It really was a stable working environment.
Paste: You also did tons of theater as a kid.
Milano: I did mostly theater as a kid before Who’s The Boss? Ages seven to ten was all theater.
Paste: Would you say that it was your passion at that time before you experienced working in front of cameras?
Milano: I think it’s where I fit in the best. At that time, we’re talking probably ‘82, all the kids on TV were kind of blond with freckles, and blue eyes and very sort of American-looking. I was considered ethnic at that time. I wasn’t like that cute kid; I was kind of a serious-looking kid. Theater was the place that kind of embraced that. Also, I give my parents a lot of credit. They saw that I was able to have a normal life while doing theater because obviously you’re not working during the day, and then at night I was able perform. I think it was a good balance for me, rather than having to be on set for 10 hours a day as a child. To be able to go in and just do a two-hour performance, and then go home, and go to school the next morning. It was kind of the best of both worlds. When I got Who’s The Boss? they were auditioning out of New York. Obviously they were looking for a Brooklyn Italian girl, and I was both.
Paste: I think a lot of people forget that you actually had a rather successful pop music career in Japan.
Milano: Yes, all over Asia.
Paste: I have to ask you. Are there certain days or nights—maybe when everyone’s taking a nap, everyone’s asleep—and you pull out the old records or tapes?
Milano: Never. I have never done that, but I will tell you that I have watched a couple of the music videos, because my brother is in them with me. It was definitely ‘80s pop, so it was just singing and dancing, all that stuff I love to do, but there’s nothing too outrageous. We were able to control all of that. It was like that bubble gum pop era… that Tiffany, Debby Gibson era. Clean, good fun. I was 14 or 15, so I don’t really remember a lot of it.
Paste: Were you called upon to do live performances or promotional tours?
Milano: Yeah, I performed live a bunch in Asia, which was always great fun. Those are probably my most distinct memories of that whole experience, because it was the first time in my life that I’d ever been away in such a foreign land. Nothing resembles home. I would say that it probably sparked my love of travel.
Who’s The Boss? ended after eight successful years, and you’d grown from a young girl to a young lady. I imagine that’s a challenging time for an actor, trying to transition to a new phase of your career. What was your mindset? Were you looking to sort of attack it and try to change your public image, or were you willing to just wait and see what happened next?
Milano: No, I think when you’re 18 or 19 years old, that’s never a conscious decision, but I do know that I was smart enough to realize that a lot of actors from that era were not supposed to go on to be adult actors. A lot of the child actors did big shows and then kind of disappeared. I was aware of that, and I knew that I had to continue working. So I basically took the work that came to me, which was always about producers or casting directors thinking it would be a smart thing to show me in a different light. Believe me, if I had a choice between Beetlejuice and taking of my clothes for a movie, I would have chosen Beetlejuice. Obviously that was not the option at that point, so I did what I had to do.
Also, I look at people like Miley Cyrus and all those people that are making that transition now and everyone is so shocked, but really is just kind of a natural projection of things. The only difference is obviously we were in the public eye. Whether it’s girls in college or what Miley Cyrus does, it’s all kind of that natural process… but we do it in front of a lot of people.
Paste: Let’s talk about another very public debate: gender inequality and ageism. Over the past 30 years, how do you think the issue has evolved, and how has it affected you at various points in your career?
Milano: I don’t know. Because I grew up in the business, there are things that I don’t necessarily know the answer to, because I’ve just kind of gone with it. I will say that I definitely think there are less and less roles for women after they hit a certain age. I think that all comes down to whether men, in particular, find women sexy anymore, because a lot of the roles are in that sexy realm. Then there’s very few interesting roles where you’re playing the mom or the wife. The older you get, it is a lot harder to find good roles for women.
That’s why I’ve pretty much stayed in television, to be honest. Television has always created great, strong female characters even when the film world didn’t and doesn’t—because it’s still that way. If you look at these factors, years, and years, and years ago, even when you look at shows like Cagney and Lacey—those were two really strong women. Even Who’s The Boss? Look at Angela. She was a divorced, single mom that ran her own business, who hired a dude to take care of the kids and house. That’s crazy, but I think it’s because more women are the consumers, and so brands are going to spend more advertising money in television. TV really has this way of developing and embracing female characters that the film industry just has not caught up to at all.
If you think about TV with shows like The Good Wife or any on the ABC lineup, like Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder. Even Glenn Close doing Damages, or Lena Dunham’s Girls, Sex And The City… strong, strong, strong female characters that could have only been developed for television. TV has always developed better roles for women.
You look at the film world and usually women are the side-kicks, or the dorky friend, or the damsels in distress, or the girlfriend, or the wife, or the mother. It fits them neatly into these categories in film. In television, they’re really exploring women.
Paste: There came a point where you got an opportunity to jump on Melrose Place, which was a great return for you to TV. Do you see that as sort of a gateway into the Aaron Spelling world that inevitably led to Charmed?
Milano: Yes, one-hundred percent yes. I had met with Aaron numerous times before I agreed to do Melrose Place about different projects throughout the years, which was always lovely. Aaron Spelling was that guy where, if he liked you, he was going to find some place to put you. You have to realize that at that point, Who’s The Boss? ended when I was 19. Melrose Place was when I was 21, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do long-term television at that point, because I had just gotten out of a show for eight years. I thought it was a perfect way to sort of get my toe in. I fell, not only in love with working for him, but also the working environment that he creates.
Then Charmed, that was just the craziest whirlwind. That was about a year after Melrose Place wrapped. There was another girl that originally played my part. Her name is Lori Rom and she decided to back out right at the last minute. When they got picked up, he called me on a Thursday. I had the benefit of watching the pilot because they had already shot the pilot with Lori and I was like, “This show is going to be a hit. I need to figure this out really quickly. This is something I want to do.” I was on set on Monday. That’s how fast it happened.
Paste: That’s crazy.
Milano: Yeah, and it was almost exactly 17 years ago that the show premiered.
Paste: It was on TV this morning, as it is every day because it is still strongly syndicated.
Milano: Yeah, and also one of the top-ten most teen-watched shows on Netflix.
Paste: You mentioned that you knew the show was going to be a hit, but did you have any idea about the passionate fan base that would grow from this thing. Did you expect it to follow you for the rest of your life?
Milano: I did not, but I learned very quickly, because we premiered so strong. From that first season on, the fans were just awesome… really awesome. I kind of think of them like Star Trek fans. They followed us quite a ways through network changes, because we were with The WB and then The WB closed down, and then it was the CW. Like, who knows what network we were on towards the end? Those fans found us no matter what night, or what time we were on. This was obviously before DVR and social media. We might still be on the air if we had these things then—these social media campaigns that keep shows in the air. These fans are that passionate; they would have figured it out.
Paste: We could just be a few years away from the reboot.
Milano: They tried to do that a couple years ago. CBS tried, and there was such an uproar from the fans that they killed it.
Paste: Really? They just didn’t want to see it done differently?
Milano: It’s so hard to replicate because it is such a part of that generation. The chemistry was so unique. I don’t know how you replicate that show. Unless you just spin it off in a totally different way, with different characters, and try to replicate what we did. TV in general is lightning in a bottle—it doesn’t matter what the show is about. It’s really about chemistry between the cast and whether people are going to tune in to see what goes on. That’s really hard, and that’s why so many pilots fail—they get made and only very few get picked up. There’s no formula to it… it’s a crap shoot for sure. When something works that well, I don’t know how you try to replicate it.
Paste: That leads to an interesting twist in your career: Mistresses, an ABC show that you were a big part of for two seasons before electing to leave.
Milano: I always said after I had Milo, I’m not going to go back to work unless it’s an ideal situation. For me, that meant shooting in LA so I could be with my baby.
Then Mistresses came up. As soon as I put that into the universe, I was offered the part. I was like “Wow this is crazy, it’s perfect.” We shot in LA for two seasons, I was pregnant the last season. I gave birth and three weeks after I gave birth to my daughter I got a phone call saying that they were moving the show to Vancouver. I was like, “I can’t go to Vancouver, I’m sorry.”
I don’t regret that decision for a second. I’m never going to get this time back with my kids, and I’m not going to separate my kids from their father. To be honest, I like my husband. I don’t want to be away from him for four months. I think this business is hard enough on relationships, and then you add on to it that you have to have a long distance relationship for four months? There’s nothing for him to do in Vancouver. It’s not like they moved the show to New York, where he has an office and he could work in New York. It just wasn’t right for me and my family. That’s how I make career decisions now. It’s always going to be based on what’s best for my husband and my children, and that just wasn’t. It changed from an ideal situation to probably the most un-ideal situation. I don’t regret [my choice] at all.
Paste: Clearly, things are working out just fine for you, as you are set to return to your latest gig on Project Runway All Stars this season. You talked about how your mom worked in fashion, and how her work helped fuel your passions. How did you get involved with the show?
Milano: It’s kind of an amazing story. We have this clothing line called Touch that’s all sports-fashions. Harvey Weinstein was watching TV with his wife, who is Georgina Chapman. Harvey produces Project Runway All Stars.
My UNICEF commercial came on because I’m an ambassador for UNICEF—I have been since 2003. He kind of looked at Georgina and said they were looking for a new host for Project Runway All Stars and he said, “What do you think of her?” She said, “She has that clothing line too, so I think that makes perfect sense.” I had never hosted anything except for bad dinner parties. I went in and met with the show runner and I had such a great meeting with them. I think more than anything, I just really responded to the show runner and I felt like if I was going to ever branch out into hosting, this is the guy I wanted to do it with, because he was going to protect me and not let me fail.
I can’t believe it’s like three years already. I did the first season and fell so in love with the job. It is the funnest job and, again, this all goes to my thought process of being a mother now. I’m only going to take jobs that are conducive to me having a strong family unit. We shoot in New York and Harvey has been very, very good to me as far as making sure my family is taken care of. While we’re in New York, I bring both of the kids. Milo is enrolled in a school there. I’m there for like seven weeks and I get to come home. I get to talk about fashion for seven weeks, wear amazing clothes, get my hair and make-up done by the most talented people in the business and be with my kids.
Paste: What would you say is your favorite part of the job?
Milano: I think I have a lot of favorite parts. I think first and foremost is the fact that Georgina [Chapman] and Isaac [Mizrahi] and I have become very good friends. To be able to go to work every day with my friends is really fun.
The other aspect that I really enjoy is just being surrounded by the creativity of these designers. It’s really inspiring seeing what they are able to accomplish. To be able to just be surrounded by that world is exciting… truly, truly such a creative process.
Paste: We’ve talked about so many things that you’ve done in your career, but what is one thing that you would love to do that you have not yet done?
Milano: I guess I would love to create a show.
Paste: Any specific kind of show in mind?
Milano: Maybe a comedy. Comedy is so universal. I produced Charmed and I produced a few television movies. If I could actually get something like an idea that I had on the air, I think that would really incredible.