How Milana Vayntrub Quickly Rose From Surprise Ad Star Into a Creative Force for Good

The versatile talent talks directing, acting and activism

Vayntrub has appeared in 40 spots for AT&T, although she was only supposed to be in one. Photography by Robert Ascroft

The first thing you need to know about Milana Vayntrub is that she's much more than the bubbly, witty AT&T store manager Lily Adams from the BBDO New York and BBDO Atlanta ads—though she won't fault you if that's why you recognize her, and she's very happy to have the work, thank you very much.

It's a sweltering July morning, and we're in the heart of Los Angeles' Silicon Beach, at YouTube Space L.A., where Vayntrub has sequestered herself to digest footage she filmed the week before in Azraq, Jordan. In January, she released a 13-minute documentary, Milana Can't Do Nothing, introducing the public to her own refugee story (her family fled Uzbekistan for the U.S. in 1989) and making clear the uninhabitable conditions that many Syrian refugees find when they do make it to Greece.

Now she's working on a follow-up.

She'll spend the next month hunched over her laptop, editing a new doc that will show people who have donated to the nonprofit she has since created, Can't Do Nothing, and where their dollars have gone, while using her own recognizable face to bring attention back to the ongoing refugee crisis.

As we sit in the chilly editing room, the 29-year-old actress, director and activist—and now, Adweek's Creative 100 cover star—tries to reconcile the refugee project with her other creative pursuits. She has a bit part in this month's Ghostbusters, she's just wrapped filming on a new David Wain movie, A Stupid and Futile Gesture, and she's directing a new show for the Upright Citizens Brigade.

She feels privileged to be involved in so many projects, and knows that at least some of that success is thanks to the high-profile AT&T campaign that's put her squarely in the spotlight on national TV for two and a half years. Since December 2013, Vayntrub has appeared in 40 spots for the brand, though she was only supposed to appear in one.

Adweek's cover star is working on a second documentary about refugees. Styling: Xavier le Bron; Hair: Mishelle Parry/Celestine Agency; Makeup: Leibi Carias/Celestine Agency; Manicure: Chelsea King/Celestine Agency

"The first spot was so successful for us that we thought, let's do another one and then another one and then another one. It was so well-received that we kept bringing her back," says Valerie Vargas, vp of advertising and marketing communications for AT&T.

"I think Milana's Lily resonates with audiences because she's a multi-dimensional character in a way that's rare for commercials," says Hungry Man director Hank Perlman, who has been behind the camera for most of the Lily spots. "We try as hard as we can not only to make her funny but to make her as strong, smart and human as possible. And hopefully all of that makes her as relatable as a character in a 30-second commercial can be."

AT&T officially supports Vayntrub's activism. "Milana's passion for her cause is absolutely remarkable," says Vargas. Still, as new Lily spots roll out this month, Vayntrub does worry that her political views could jeopardize her ad gig, as she's been vocal not only about her work with refugees but of her support for Black Lives Matter on social media.

Some in social have reacted negatively to her opinions, and threatened to complain to AT&T about her. For its part, the company says: "We respect Milana's personal interests outside of her role in our ads."

Back in the YouTube editing room, after we've gone over the tape she'll use for her new documentary, we talk about creativity, activism, comedy, feminism and that Amy Schumer sketch lampooning her AT&T ads.

Adweek: You just got back from Jordan. Can you tell us a bit about your trip and why you went there?
Milana Vayntrub: One of the organizations that Can't Do Nothing works with is called the Syria Fund, and they've worked with us to erect these classrooms, hire teachers, create music and art programs. So we went there to give [the 120 students] a week of summer camp, like here's a music and art week, but also to visit the classroom. I wanted to shoot a lot of it as a way of letting people know where their donations have gone. Sometimes when you donate to a big organization it can feel like you threw money into the wind, and it's nice to see the fruits of your donations.

The first documentary came out in January and got over 200,000 views. What are your goals for this one, and did you change the process of putting it together?
Yeah, this one had a lot more planning. The first doc was totally impromptu. I was alone and figuring out where to go and kind of thinking of it as a vlog or a video journal more than a documentary. I'm thinking of this one as an update video and also showing people what the next step in the process is [for refugees]. OK, so they have now left Syria, they have landed somewhere, now what, now what are these lives like? What I'm really working to do is abolish a lot of the stereotypes that people associate with being a refugee. I think working with kids and seeing how kids are universally children—no matter what you do, they love playing on a bongo and they love drawing and they love playing—that is a great uniter.

You're a brand spokeswoman, you've directed commercials for Cracker Barrel, you're an actress, you do a lot of improv with Upright Citizens Brigade, now you're a documentarian and advocate for refugees. How do these different parts of your career connect, and is there a different creative process for each?
You're right in that they are all very different parts of my brain. And creativity, especially in improv, is about turning off a part of your brain to get rid of any kind of self-consciousness and allow things to pop in and through you. … When I direct—everything I've directed has had improv in it, because I think there's something special in a performance the first time it's said out loud that's hard to recreate. So I don't know that I would get hired on a project where there was no improv because there are people who can do that better than me. But if you want you get a great off-the-cuff natural performance out of an actor, that's where my skill set comes into play.

How does the creative process differ when you're a brand spokeswoman for AT&T versus a commercial director?
I think the biggest difference between the AT&T job that's been going on now for about two years versus taking on a new job is there is an implicit trust in place. When we have an idea, it's celebrated and upheld, whereas when you're working on a new project you're testing the waters. There's more of a focus on getting it right, and exploration feels scarier on a new project than it does on something that's established and has a reputation of being successful and sometimes even bold.

 

What have you learned about advertising by playing a recurring role versus a one-off?
It's kind of like the difference of what you learn from being in a long-term relationship versus going on dates. Like when you're in a long relationship with a brand, you are building something together with a long-term vision, versus when you're on a new spot every couple weeks, you learn a lot at a fast rate but about different projects. So it's been cool to get really in deep with one brand and develop something that has a lot of heart in it.

Do you have a specific creative routine for your various endeavors?
No. It's anywhere I am. It could be on a plane or in a hotel lobby or in a dressing room or on a set. I think it's more about getting myself to feel comfortable and quiet the other voices that say that you can't do it for whatever reason, the voices that say that your ideas aren't good enough or all of the other menacing bullshit thoughts.

You've guest-starred on a bunch of different comedies. What's it like to go in for an episode of The League or House of Lies or Silicon Valley?
The greatest. It's the greatest, most fun thing ever. I love doing it. It's going into work with a bunch of people who are already great at their job, and you just get to come in and be like, 'Can I play with you guys for three weeks? Cool. Bye.' And then they continue on without you, and you go make something else that's new and exciting. There's not a single bad thing that I can say about it. Sometimes it's scary. I think a part of the thing that makes it hard is imposter syndrome. Sometimes the limiting thoughts of 'I don't deserve to be here' or 'I'm not good enough' get in the way, but I think the directors and kind co-stars help you get rid of that limiting belief.

Do you think activism and creativity are becoming more intertwined? Is there more of a relationship between things that people view as entertainment and as activism?
People are really waking up to a global responsibility, especially our generation, and I think the internet has a big part in it. I think it's maybe just a time of so much strife in the world that it's hard to ignore. Then there are brilliant comedians that make it something digestible but also infuriating. So yeah, I think entertainment and activism go very much hand in hand. Though I don't want to say it's an entertainer's responsibility to also be an activist. I don't even really think of myself as an activist. I just feel very passionate about these people who are going through a hard time.

    

Part of activism now is being vocal online, especially when you have a large following. But that could also have an impact on your career, particularly when you are an entertainer.
It's a very weird thing to think about the success of your career, and ultimately your financial well being, your whole business could be made or destroyed based on your reputation, based on your personality, based on how you're seen in the world. It's very weird. I've been commenting a lot on Black Lives Matter and gun control and Islam rights, and all of these things that are really important to me, and the amount of backlash I get is really scary. There's one guy—I posted something about Black Lives Matter on Instagram, and if you want to look through those comments, it is terrifying and embarrassing how many people reply with "All Lives Matter," how many people reply that I'm making this a race issue and it's not. I stopped reading them. My boyfriend read to me that one person said they were going to contact AT&T and file a report. That is really scary to think that I will not be able to work because of my opinions. That doesn't apply in a lot of careers.

And part of getting ahead in the entertainment world is now about your social currency, too.
I think about that a lot. When I started to get a backlash for my opinions, I looked at what other women and men in the industry that I respect are doing. Some of them are big philanthropists and quiet on social media [about it]. Their social media is about their product, and their product is them, and so they post their selfies and their behind-the-scenes pics and people like it and love it and they build their audience and they book their work and then they donate quietly, and that is really cool. Then there are other people I respect like Macklemore, who uses his voice constantly to try to make change in the world, and that's really brave and scary, and I respect that, too. I don't know which one I should be doing because it fucks me up to have to have those conversations. And I do, I engage with those people on Twitter, and I don't know if that's the right thing to do.

Also, it's so cocky of me to think that I could change anyone's mind, but I can't do nothing. How am I not supposed to talk to these 100,000 people about something that's tearing me up today? How am I supposed to act like it's not happening? How am I supposed to post my happy selfie today when I'm actually really distraught about the murder that's happening in the world? Maybe I should. Maybe this will be the downfall of my career if people stop following me and studios don't want to be involved with someone this controversial—not that I am controversial in any way—I don't know what is the right move or the more advisable career move, but life is long and complicated and you've got to do what you feel is right.

With online culture today, you're also made to feel as though you should address everything online.
Have you seen the Amy Schumer sketch where they made fun of the Lily ads? At first I wanted to be flattered and honored and think of it as some kind of rite of passage, and I pretended like I was really cool with it. I shared it on all my social media, and I made a self-deprecating joke. But ultimately, I have a real feminist issue with it. … The way that you're going to portray this character is that you're going to play her dumb? Well, that's lazy. Can we think of any other thing to make fun of this character for? Also, I think the character was portrayed as a prop that was there to entice men and it was all about the way men look at her, and that this brand has put her there to be sexy. I think a lot of brands use women as props to sell products, and we work really hard to make Lily strong and smart and funny and independent. She's the successful store manager, she's really doing it, I'm proud of the girl we have made. I think even in that case, if you see Lily as a prop that's there to entice men, then you need to look at the way you watch women on television. You can't say that we need to give women more roles, and then when we do, say that they're only there because men want to look at them.

What do you want to tackle next?
I would love to keep directing commercials. I love it so much. I love working with brands and ad agencies and old white men who have been doing this for 60 years. I love creating challenging and opposing ideas and using that to make something bigger and better than just my brain or just their brain could have come up with. The creative collaboration is my favorite thing.

Check out all the Creative 100 honorees by category:
50 Agency Creatives
20 Content Creators
20 Creative Celebrities
10 Visual Artists

Also, see the full list of honorees in alphabetical order here.

This story first appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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