While most former childhood actors wind up as questions on trivial pursuit and filler fodder for gossip magazines, a few manage to shake off their kiddie image and go on to achieve long and successful careers. Alyssa Milano, now 31, is one of those who’s made it comfortably into the latter camp. She has a pile of film credits to her name, she stars in and co-produces Charmed, one of America’s hottest TV shows, and she’s now an ambassador for UNICEF.
But getting there has been something of an epic journey. Born in Brooklyn. Alyssa moved to Staten Island with her fashion designer mum and musician father when she was four. As an only child until the age of 10, when her brother Cory came along, she describes herself as an artistic and introverted child. She instinctively learnt to use her imagination to improvise scenes and sing and dance around the living room.
Like many young girls, Alyssa was sent to dance classes by her parents, unlike many young girls this resulted in her big break at the ripe old age of seven. It just so happened that her babysitter (a dancer) was auditioning for a part in the Broadway musical Annie. She suggested that Alyssa should try for a part too. “I didn’t know what that meant” she remembers, “but I knew that kids were on stage singing and dancing, and I knew I could do that”. Several hours, and many gruelling rounds later, four people- including Alyssa but not her babysitter- were selected out of 1,500. She then went on tour for 18 months playing July, one of the orphans. “I always say, I didn’t choose it, it chose me.” After touring and gaining a bit of a reputation for herself on the theatre circuit, Alyssa won a part in the hit TV show Who’s The Boss ?, playing Samantha Micelli, Tony Danza’s cheeky Brooklyn born daughter. Alyssa’s parents deliberated before moving the family 3,000 miles across the US to Hollywood. “New York represented to them a lot of struggle and was the beginning of their relationship”, Alyssa says. “I think they were simply ready to give it a shot.”
The shows first season started when Alyssa was 11, and thrived for 8 memorable years. In spite of the demanding filming schedule, Alyssa aced her studies. “My whole academic career from when I was eight was being tutored on set,” she says. “I’m heavily dyslexic, and I think that really helped ; if I were forced to be in a classroom, I probably wouldn’t have excelled like I did. Being with a tutor that early on and having one-on-one education really saved my life in a lot of ways.”
When the show ended, Alyssa was 19 and well aware of the danger of being stuck with the child-star stigma. But thanks to a nude appearance in a magazine and a number of very grown up roles, she broke free of her old teen persona with relative ease. Staring in a string of sexy thrillers alongside celebrated actors like Martin Kemp, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Wahlberg, Sean Penn and Malcolm McDowell, Alyssa made the transition to serious star look easy.
But by 1992 she was ready to make her return to TV, this time as sexy Jennifer Mancini in Aaron Spelling’s Melrose Place. A few years later, spelling was working his magic again and approached Alyssa about taking a lead role in Charmed, playing one third of a sisterhood of good witches. Now in its sixth season, the show has been a ratings winner from the start. The original cast featured Alyssa as phoebe, Holly Marie Combs as piper and Shannen Doherty as Prue. When Prue was killed off at the end of the second series, the girls’ long lost half sister Paige played by Rose McGowan entered the plot.
(Please note that the magazine has got it wrong about Prue being killed off at the end of the second season, I know it was the end of the third season but whoever wrote the article must have made a mistake).
The show follows the sisters who possess special secret powers. Alyssa’s character has a gift for martial arts- an extremely useful skill when it comes to fighting demons. “Martial arts started to develop later,” says Alyssa. “I never had an active power, so they couldn’t figure out how to keep me involved in the fight scenes. I wasn’t able to do telekinesis or freeze time like my sisters or anything like that so they were like. ‘Do you want to do martial arts ?’ And I was like, ‘All right, sure !’” Her enthusiasm for the craft continues, although she admits, “It makes the workday a lot more exhausting.”
But that’s not the only reason a typical day leaves Alyssa tired. Together with co-star Holly Marie Combs, she was recently asked to become one of the show’s co-producers. “Basically, it’s what we’ve been doing since day one, but now we have a credit for it. Everything from casting approval to dialogue changes to guest stars’ wardrobe to a little bit of editing. It’s hard because we are so exhausted anyway from acting that sometimes I feel the producer aspect is neglected a little bit,” she admits. With the added production responsibilities, sometimes she finds herself working 16 hours straight, and six day weeks are common. “It’s hard,” she says, “I’m tired but it’s worth it.”
The arduous schedule seems to suit her, however, since Alyssa is looking toned and fantastic. “Everyone kept telling me, ‘your metabolism is going to slow down tremendously when you reach 27,’ and mine went the other way.” She’s also a fan of yoga, which fits nicely into her busy schedule. “The great thing about yoga is that its there for you whenever you need it, and you can do it in such a small area- you don’t need much space.” So Alyssa’s life is one that’s typical of hard working LA actors : filling her bulging diary with performing, producing, yoga and the occasional high profile romance. Before her relationship with Justin Timberlake grabbed the headlines, she was married to August Cinjun Tate, front man with the band Remy Zero. And in true Hollywood style they were divorced after only a year. “He was a musician and was on the road a lot of the time, and it was just one of those things where we looked at one another after 11 months and said ‘why did we do that ?’” she explains. “But we’re still close and nice to each other.”
Being able to move on, no matter what life throws her way, seems to be Alyssa’s real special power. When filming the mini-series Diamond Hunters in South Africa she was only required on set one day a week. While trying to occupy herself during her free time she discovered she had a dual interest in humanitarian issues and photography. She says : “I think that every person with the brain capacity to actually have an awakening has one in their lifetime, and that was mine”
It all started when Alyssa began taking pictures with her Canon EOS, a Christmas gift from her father. Soon, her hobby developed into something of an obsession. “In South Africa, because I was so inspired by so many different things, I’d get rolls back and every single shot was great. And of course when you do something well it becomes a passion.” She also volunteered her services to help out in a children’s hospital while she was there. “I was able to do it in a way that wasn’t about celebrity- it was about them needing help, and I was able to do whatever they needed me to do,” she shrugs.
“Towards the end of my trip I got kind of angry that I had to go back. I knew every day I was home, the experience would occupy a smaller part of my being, and that was just unacceptable to me. To be in a place that had come from such political hardship, with apartheid and the social issues they’re going through now with AIDS, there were so many things that fascinated me about it. “I started shooting a lot of pictures,” she continues, “because I knew I was going to come home and look at my parents and have no words to express to them how I was feeling, and why I was bummed to be home. I shot everything- a lot of pictures of kids, motion and landscape and safari. I just went nuts.” Alyssa hid the shots in her closet and didn’t get them out for months. When she did her mother instantly remarked that she should do something with them. It wasn’t long before an exhibition documenting her journey was in full swing. At the end 135 of her pictures were auctioned and raised over $50,000. Alyssa gave the sum to Nikosi’s Haven, a charity for mothers with HIV and AIDS and their babies.
Then, in response to the success of the exhibition, the South African consulate nominated Alyssa to be honoured by the United Nations. At the age of 30, she received the UN’s ‘Lifting Up the World with a Oneness-Heart’ award for her achievements. Soon after that, she began volunteering at an LA children’s hospital. “then I thought, ok, I love to travel, I love to take pictures, I love to take care of sick children- find me a way how I can do that,” she remembers.
“Obviously UNICEF was the answer. I went in for a meeting with them, and they made me one of their ambassadors, which was really incredible,” she says “my first field trip is to Angola. My job is to make people aware of countries that aren’t in the news every day, so that change can be implemented. It’s to use my celebrity to go on the talk show circuit to educate people on Angola- just get it out there- and to go into congress and ask for money for the Angolan people
“I like acting- its fun- but it’s not my passion,” she admits. “I feel very fortunate to have had the 23 year career that I have had, but to me it’s about implementing change in the world. That’s how I justify what I do. It’s given me the voice to show people different cultures and traditions.” And she’s not just paying lip service either. “I sold my house in Beverly Hills when I got back from South Africa and moved to a place about half the size. More land, so that I can be with my horse and my dogs. To me, life is the most beautiful thing, and to be surrounded by things that are alive is much more important than any mansion.”
Is Alyssa so passionate about her quest that she would leave the whole acting world behind ? “That would be ideal, yes. I’m that passionate,” she says emphatically. “There’s no reason to be a celebrity if you can’t make a difference in peoples lives, because its pretty easy work and you get a lot of money. Films, television, theatre- it’s just acting, and it’s not my life it’s my job.” And when charmed finishes its eight year run ? “It depends on what happens. I can definitely see it going either way. I think right now where I am in my life ; I’ve experienced hardships and have grown from them. And I’m happy with who I am.” She explains “in your 20’s, you’re so consumed with trying to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do, and how you’re supposed to feel about things. Since I turned 30 I’m happy with the woman that I grew into. With all the struggles, I wouldn’t of changed any of them. Seriously. Even all the heartbreak, I go to sleep at night and feel pretty good