The actress is trying to stay just famous enough to still get invited to Washington.
Alyssa Milano was on Capitol Hill in a floral dress and black Dr. Martens combat boots, her hair pulled into a tight bun atop her head. This is the look — the bun and the boots — that her best friend, Alaa Khaled, says signals to him that "we're in for something."
That something might be Milano knocking on voters' doors before a special election in Georgia, where she was filming her Netflix series, Insatiable, or calling up Khaled on a lazy afternoon in Los Angeles to declare "we're going to San Diego" for a protest — now. Could he drive?
"I was like, 'Yeah. But what are we protesting?'" Khaled said. (It was the lack of legal representation for immigrant families at the border.)
That something often means lending her voice to Time's Up, the Hollywood organisation formed in the wake of #MeToo — the phrase that Milano tweeted and sent viral two years ago.
Or it may be, as it was on an early fall day in Washington, traipsing between Congressional buildings — clipboard, reading glasses and overstuffed backpack full of research documents in hand — for meetings with Democratic members of congress and Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
"I think that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two things," Milano said of the relationship between her acting work and her advocacy. "I realise that I need to maintain that to still have clout in here." She motioned to the Congressional hallway.
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This is Alyssa Milano, it-girl activist for a very strange political era in which politicians are celebrities, celebrities are politicians and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the two. Indeed, in the 2020 presidential race, a self-help guru and an entrepreneur without a tie have outpaced actual politicians in fundraising, media attention and, in some cases, earning debate stage spots.
Milano, a former child star, isn't starring in box office hits or creating awards buzz. Her Netflix series has been met with criticism. Yet she is regularly talking politics on cable news, has a children's book out that just made The New York Times' bestseller list, and when she tweets to her 3.7 million followers, people listen. Politicians are eager to meet with her.
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If we are living in a world where CW credits and fast-on-the-draw hashtags can have direct impact on the causes politicians care about, those politicians don't want to miss out. Milano's outrage at the celebrity in the White House, meanwhile, seems to have burnished her own.
During her recent trip to Washington — where, Milano said, she has been more than a dozen times since President Donald Trump was elected — Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., greeted her with a hug, declaring, "I loved that boss show! You're the boss!" ("Who's the Boss," somebody corrected her.) They were there to talk about health care.
With Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas, whose district was still reeling from a mass shooting, Milano described the strategy she planned to employ in a meeting about gun control with Cruz — set up after the actress and the Texas Republican had a tense back and forth on Twitter. "I think I'm going to just talk to him as a concerned mum," Milano said.
Milano declared Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., her "favourite" as she headed to his office to talk immigration reform. But when she arrived, Raskin was still in a meeting with Ralph Nader. "You don't mind, right Ralph?" Raskin said to Nader, motioning for Milano to join them.
"I do mind," Nader responded. "I need five more minutes."
Each of these meetings ended with a selfie ("The Republicans want just as many as the Democrats do," Milano said) and a question posed by the celebrity to the politicians: "What can I do to help?"
"You have a bully pulpit," DeLauro told the actress. "You can get to people that I will never reach."
From child star to 'resistance' leader
Milano, 46, made a name for herself as the quick-witted Samantha Micelli, daughter to Tony Danza's character on the 1980s sitcom Who's the Boss?
"She was just this force, even at 10 years old," said Danza, who still views his former co-star's accomplishments with a kind of paternal pride. "You know, most celebrities don't know what they're talking about. She does."
As she moved from child star to young Hollywood ingénue, she was cast on Melrose Place and later starred on the CW cult classic, Charmed.
"I mean really, how many times a week is Charmed on?" Cruz said as he and Milano sat down for their meeting, referring to the show's frequent reruns. "It's incredible!" ("I knew that's why he must have taken that meeting," Milano remarked later. "That there was some weird fan thing going on.")
Milano is still acting: She has starred in a handful of Lifetime movies, an ABC series called Mistresses and recently had a guest spot on Grey's Anatomy. The second season of Insatiable, the black comedy on which she plays the wife of a pageant queen coach, is streaming now; last week, she announced she would star in and executive produce a family film about a young woman separated from her mother at the border.
But acting is more of a means to an end these days — in that playing other people in front of a camera is what gets her access to the people she really wants to talk to. (She said her improv training frequently comes in handy in those meetings.)
Like former Vice President Joe Biden, to whom she talks to "a couple of times a month," she said. (The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) Or Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, whom her friend Kim Raver, an actor and director, recalls her taking calls from while on set in Vancouver, British Columbia — between shots for a Lifetime romance saga they were filming. "Literally, it was like she had the bat phone calling," Raver said.
And Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat and documentary filmmaker she campaigned for in 2017, whose texts and calls she was ignoring as she made her way between meetings just hours after he announced he would run again. (She would deal with them later.)
"It's a very interesting balancing act, because I'm straddling both worlds," Milano said. "I get texts from politicians asking me what the activism community thinks, and I get texts from the activists asking what the politicians are going to do."
And Hollywood? "I think they're bewildered by me," she said, laughing.
These boots were made for protesting
Milano said that she had always been an activist.
Seated in the sweeping marble lobby of the Hart Senate building, she was a petite fixture amid the towering walls and echoing male voices. On a break between meetings, she unzipped her boot as if to reveal a secret: It had a 2-inch platform inside, to make herself taller.
"I've been wearing these Docs since I was 15. Not the literal docs, that would be gross," she said. "These are my shoes to remind me that I'm going to fight."
Indeed, it was at precisely age 15 that Milano kissed an HIV positive boy, Ryan White, on The Phil Donahue Show — a favour for Elton John, she said, to show that the disease could not be spread through casual contact.
"Nobody would ask me to the prom," she said of the judgment that ensued.
She went on to become a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, spending time in Angola, India and Kosovo. She campaigned for Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts during his 2004 presidential run and was among the chorus of celebrities to speak out against President George W. Bush. She has talked openly about her anxiety disorder, revealed on her podcast that she had two abortions in her 20s and might say she's not above using her celebrity for the good of a cause — once leaking a "sex tape" of herself that was actually a video about the bloodshed in Syria.
"There could be a new cause tonight," joked her husband of a decade, talent agent David Bugliari.
She says that's exactly right — she is "multi-issue focused," particularly right now, when there's "so much to fight for."
But it was #MeToo that galvanised her. Lying in bed late one night, about a week after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein hit, she was encouraged by a friend — transgender activist Charlotte Clymer — to send a tweet: "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet."
"I closed my computer, went to sleep, and woke up to 35,000 replies," Milano said.
The rest of the story we now know: The hashtag went viral. Terms like "reckoning" were used by the media to describe the cultural ricochet. Tarana Burke, the activist who founded the MeToo movement in 2006, and Milano soon met — the actress did not know about Burke's work at the time of her tweet — and were named, alongside other influencers, Time's person of the year (dubbed "The Silence Breakers").
Since then, it's been a pretty consistent staccato of Milano's topknot popping up where you least expect it: As a background fixture to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee — "I could see the sweat on the back of his neck," she said — which was later parodied on an episode of Saturday Night Live with her depicted as a cardboard cutout.
"You just want to humiliate me in front of my wife and my parents and Alyssa frickin' Milano!" Matt Damon, playing Kavanaugh, exclaims.
"She's our foremost activist now, it's incredible," said Raskin, who met Milano earlier this year after she gave what he described as a "dazzling" speech about the Equal Rights Amendment.
Asked about the role of celebrity in this political moment, he said: "I think of political power these days as something that doesn't travel in a vertical direction, but it travels in a horizontal direction. People get it through their Twitter followers and they're organising out in the world."
"She, um, she clearly has a very big following," he said.
It isn't glamorous, exactly. A Twitter army may hold political sway, but it doesn't come with hair and makeup.
While in Washington, Milano was flanked by two activists she met on Twitter — Peter Morley, a disabled health advocate, and Hassan Ahmad, an immigration attorney — but no publicist or security. She powdered her own face over the smell of deli sandwiches in the Senate cafeteria. She gives out her personal cellphone number to people she meets.
"I'm like, what are you doing?!" said Khaled, her best friend, who often accompanies her on political trips as a kind of wingman meets security guard. "She's not an idiot, so I assume she's not giving out her number to people who are going to take advantage of her. But I'm like, 'We need to get you another phone.'"
She is a regular reader of Governing magazine ("It's the greatest magazine. It's totally nonpartisan," she said, flipping through an issue) who gets star-struck by John Lewis, the civil rights activist and congressman from Georgia who she recently passed in a Congressional hall. "I was like, 'Oh my god, oh my god. It's John Lewis over here. Oh my god,'" she said. She carries a pocket Constitution in her purse.
"She's an oddball. I say that as a compliment," said Burke, who calls Milano a friend. "I think she's an activist who accidentally stumbled upon acting, you know? I think that she, in another life, would be running a nonprofit."
Of course, entering the world of social justice can present its own challenges — full of land mines, virtue signaling and battles over what endeavours a wealthy former child star has the right to wade into.
"I get it. Activists on the ground are like, 'Wait, I've been fighting for this for 20 years and she comes in and puts her name on something?'" Milano said, referencing Kim Kardashian West's recent side-gig as a prison reform activist. "You know, I totally understand it." She said she hoped that when people think about her activism, they consider all of the work she has done in her life.
"People know it's part of the package"
It's a balancing act, for sure: How do you stay famous enough to get in the room but not too famous to not be taken seriously at all?
"I do think there's always that fear that if you're too vocal you're going to lose half of your audience — or people aren't going to hire you," Milano said.
We were seated in the office of her home in Bell Canyon, California, where she lives with her husband, two children, four dogs, eight chickens, two bunnies and 10 horses.
It had been less than a week since her trip to Washington, and she was tired. "Probably from all the walking in those boots," she said.
Today she was not in boots but in tennis shoes, moving documents from a three-ring notebook with an inspirational quote on its front — "Each day is a blank canvas, go and make some marks" — into file folders labelled by subject: immigration, guns and so forth. This is where she does monthly tutoring sessions with a constitutional lawyer named Justin; a giant flat-screen television was streaming CNN on mute overhead.
But about the potential liability of her activism on her acting career: "I don't worry about it," Milano said, reflecting on Hollywood colleagues who have muttered that they wished, like her, they could speak out. "I feel like I've been doing it for so long that people know that it's part of the package."
Still, she is not not thinking about what might come next.
"You know, my business is tough on women, especially women that are over a certain age. I feel like I could get probably 10 years out of my acting career, and then it's probably going to be time to …"
Run for office?
"I haven't not thought about it," she said. "But I don't think the time is right."
She explained that if she were to run in her district she'd have to compete in the Democratic primary.
She wouldn't be opposed to something more local, like City Council. Or maybe an alternative could be the Congressional district where she and her husband have a house in Lake Tahoe — though "the problem there," she said, is that the district veers Republican "by 12 per cent." She delivered this political analysis in front of a table full of papers, a book on Roe v. Wade and other research materials.
"So that's a really big uphill battle that would need preparation for," she said.
Written by: Jessica Bennett
Photographs by: Melissa Lyttle and Rozette Rago
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES