Not too long ago, Milo Ventimiglia went on a date. Nothing elaborate, just dinner with a woman he’d known for a while, though mainly in passing. As the evening progressed and his companion began to learn more about the 30-year-old star of NBC’s hit drama Heroes, the young lady grew increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, recalls the actor, she blurted out: “So you’re polite, you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you’re a vegetarian, you keep yourself fit, and you’re successful. What’s wrong with you?”

Of course, this being Hollywood, where male stars of the moment come in essentially two flavors—fast-moving party boys destined to flame out by the next Star magazine news cycle, or brooding angsters who wear their codependencies on their black-denim sleeves—one can understand the poor girl’s confusion. Ventimiglia defies easy categorization. Take his recent sprint to stardom in Heroes, last year’s top-rated new drama. As conflicted underachiever Peter Petrelli, Ventimiglia found himself playing the central character in one of the most successful new shows in recent TV history. Many actors would have been content to sit back and let the hero worship wash over them.

Instead, Ventimiglia threw himself headlong into a series of other horizon-broadening projects, each indulging a different facet of his personality. Milo the actor, who had already gained notice for his feature work as Sylvester Stallone’s overshadowed son in last year’s Rocky Balboa, took on the lead role in Pathology, a dark psychological thriller co-starring Alyssa Milano. (The movie opens in theaters Nov. 30.) Meanwhile Milo the entrepreneur, head of his own production company, partnered with clothingmaker American Eagle to produce and direct a series of short films for the company’s Web site. (The shorts also aired during the commercial breaks on the premiere of MTV’s The Real World: Sydney in August.) Even Milo the teen idol—who had gained legions of fans during a four-season stint as prepubescent lust object Jess Mariano on The Gilmore Girls—got into the act, shooting a steamy music video with Fergie, for which he spent most of the time shirtless.

“He’s a single guy on the hottest show on television,” says Sendhil Ramamurthy, who plays Heroes’ questing academic Mohinder Suresh. “He could have become that guy, the one who’s out every night doing whatever it is young Hollywood guys do. But that’s not Milo. He’s incredibly focused, and he knows what he wants. And I have no doubt that he’s going to get it.”

Adds Heroes executive producer Tim Kring: “Milo’s going to have one of these huge careers that is very much in the director-actor-producer category. He’ll be able to control his own projects. He’s a very impressive guy.”

[pagebreak] Less than impressive, as Ventimiglia himself will admit, was his not-so-heroic physique when production on the show first got under way. “I was very slightly built. I didn’t have a lot of man weight on me,” says Ventimiglia. “I wasn’t really grown up.” Ironically, that may have actually helped him land his role. Show creator Kring was specifically looking for an actor who could play someone on the cusp of manhood. “When we first meet Milo’s character, Peter,” says Kring, “he’s a bit lost and unsure of what his role in life is. Then, through the course of the season, he had to go from that to becoming a leading man. So he had to grow into that.”

It was a development challenge that Ventimiglia embraced and, in fact, had already been plotting: “Right after I got back from shooting Rocky [in December 2005], I looked in the mirror and said, ‘OK, I’m not a teenager anymore.’ I still looked young but I didn’t have a baby face. It was kind of a critical point, careerwise, where I needed to start going for the roles that were older. So I tried to get my physique to match and become more of a man.”

Though Ventimiglia, a Southern California native, had always led an active lifestyle (“I grew up skateboarding and snowboarding, and I surfed a little bit”), he had never had a formal fitness regimen. A recent breakup with his long-term girlfriend, Gilmore actress Alexis Bledel, had taken its toll as well. “There’s an emotion that goes with that, and it’s reflected in you physically,” Ventimiglia recalls. “I didn’t really keep myself together as I should have. Once I got through that hardship and emotional hurt, I started wanting to take care of my body more and present myself as a better person.”

At the time, the 5'9" Ventimiglia barely tipped the scales at 137 pounds. So he headed for the gym and began performing a self-designed lifting routine four times a week. For cardio work, he ran and jumped rope four to five times a week. He also quit smoking and focused on improving his nutritional habits. Even as a lifelong vegetarian (no meat, no fish, no eggs), he discovered that eating healthy had to be- come a conscious decision. “You can be a vegetarian and still eat pizza every day,” he says. “For the first time, I started to really pay attention to what I was putting into my body.”

Those results started to become apparent midway through the first season of Heroes. Even though he deliberately avoided trying to add size, he still put on close to 20 pounds of muscle mass. Currently his body weight hovers around 155 pounds. “People started to look at me and say, ‘Wow, you’ve grown up. Did you get taller?’” Ventimiglia laughs.

Getting fit also paid off for the show, which, as a fast-paced, sci-fi action series, is one of the more physically demanding productions around. “I get beat up, I’m bloodied, I’m in a flying harness, I’m knocked down. I’ve definitely had a lot of bumps and bruises,” says Ventimiglia, who does the lion’s share of his own stunt work. “I’ve got to keep myself strong and flexible and in the right state of body to do a lot of those things.” Says Kring: “I don’t think we would have written a lot of the stuff that we did in the second half of the season had we not seen what Milo could do physically.”

[pagebreak] Of course, the demands of a hit show mean it’s often a challenge to keep up a regular workout schedule. “It’s either wake up early in the morning or go late after work,” says the actor. “I also bring dumbbells to my trailer and see if I can’t maintain there.” And when he’s tempted to blow off a session now and then, he calls to mind the example of a previous mentor. “When we were on Rocky,” recalls Ventimiglia, “I saw the discipline that [Stallone] had. Physically, he put himself through hell to get into shape. Even when we were shooting the boxing scenes, he was constantly drinking from his water bottle because it contained all these vitamins and supplements.”

Stallone also stands out for Ventimiglia as a potent example of what can be accomplished in Hollywood, given the proper combination of determination and talent. “He wrote the film, he directed it, he starred in it. And he was always in good spirits, always calm,” marvels Ventimiglia. “If I could do that, do it all—producing, directing, acting—I’d love it.”

To that end, he devotes the majority of his non-Heroes energies to working with Divide Pictures, the three-year-old production company he runs with longtime pal Russ Cundiff. In addition to the American Eagle deal, Divide has feature films and assorted TV projects on the docket, all of which Ventimiglia hopes to have his hands in. By his reckoning, it’s this extracurricular work that keeps him balanced in his life. Says co-star Ramamurthy: “I don’t think he would know what to do with himself if he only had one thing on his plate.”

“Don’t get me wrong—would I love to be sitting on a beach right now? Hell, yeah,” exclaims Ventimiglia. “But if there’s an opportunity to do great work and in turn it’s going to give me a chance to work with talented people down the line, I’m not going to pass that up just because I want to work on my tan.” By the same token, Ventimiglia has no interest in parlaying his Heroes welcome into boldfaced status in the celebrity tabloids: “I would hate it if my publicity overshadowed my actual career. That would suck.”

Unfortunately, on that front, the press and adoring public may not cooperate. The success of Heroes has already thrust Ventimiglia and his cast mates onto magazine covers and into celebrity-news programs on a regular rotation. The blogosphere practically hums with Heroes fan sites, not to mention Ventimiglia-centric pages with names such as The male stars of the show were even given a glossy two-page photo spread in People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue. “My friends were like, ‘So, you think you’re sexy?’” chuckles Ventimiglia. “They couldn’t wait to give me shit about that.”

Ventimiglia is happy to go along for the ride, but he’s careful not to buy in to the hyperbole of it. If the journey of his physical transformation has taught him anything, it’s to avoid extremes and to make sure he’s prepped for the long haul. “When you fall into perfect balance with yourself—mentally, physically, spiritually—that’s when you find you’re content,” says Ventimiglia, the dark rumble of his voice softening a shade. “That’s when you can sit back and enjoy everything around you, when you’re right there, in the middle of it