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?