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.