Dan Snierson
September 13, 2017 AT 11:00 AM EDT

Emmy races are always infused with extra interest when multiple stars from a series are nominated in the same category. That’s twice the case this year for This Is Us. Not only did Gerald McRaney, Brian Tyree Henry, and Denis O’Hare vie for an Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy — McRaney claimed the trophy at the Creative Arts Emmys over the weekend — but Milo Ventimiglia will face off this Sunday against his onscreen son, Sterling K. Brown, in the Outstanding Lead Actor category.

Given the warm family affair that is This Is Us, we wondered what the etiquette was in this situation: Is Dad supposed to let his son win, or is it the other way around?

“Normally I would say Dad is supposed to let me win,” Brown told EW earlier this summer. “But I’m actually older than Dad, so maybe I’m supposed to let him win? I’m not really quite sure. Somebody on set asked us that, and we both said, ‘Look, we got to go up against Keyser Soze [Kevin Spacey, for House of Cards] and Hannibal Lecter [Anthony Hopkins, for Westworld]! There’s no guarantees for anybody in this particular case.’ We’re just happy to be invited to the party right now.”

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

When EW posed that question to Ventimiglia this week, his answer was… perfectly, wonderfully Jack. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I went on the Emmy website and I tried to vote for him, and I realized I couldn’t vote in my own category, and it kind of broke my heart. I was voting for Sterling. I was in my trailer, and I was like, ‘I’ve got some time. I’m going to vote.’ And I went on to vote and my category wasn’t there, and I was so pissed. I ended up walking over to his trailer and saying, ‘Hey man, I tried to vote for you, but it wouldn’t let me. So I’m just telling you that I wanted to vote for you.”

Ventimiglia’s gentlemanly outlook extends beyond co-stars. The way he talks about his category elevates the “It’s an honor just to be nominated” game. “The funny thing is that people say it’s a competition,” he says. “I don’t even look it as a ‘Best Actor’ category, I look at it as ‘In Best Company’ category. Because there’s a lot of great acting out there, there’s a lot of people that are doing good work, and to separate just a handful I feel like sometimes diminishes the great work that isn’t getting recognized. So I think it’s just the ‘In Best Company’ award. You’re in the best company.”

This Is Us is in rare company by scoring a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series; it’s the first broadcast network series to do so in six years. “I know how good the show is,” he says. “I feel how good the show is. I experience the show from the inside, and also from the outside. So it didn’t surprise me. It’s a larger understanding that a good show is a good show no matter where it lives, where it’s placed. And to have the show get recognized also is recognizing every member of its entity. We’re all putting in the work, we’re all doing the job well, so it’s very satisfying. But at the same time, I’ve been on a network show that’s been nominated and didn’t win, and that’s okay. Because you don’t need that kind of stuff to do the good work.”

In fact, while he was appreciative of his individual Emmy nomination — it’s the first of his career — he approaches accolades in general with some trepidation. “Part of it was a recognition of 22 years of work,” says the 40-year-old actor. “I’m grateful that people noticed. But at the same time, it’s a little terrifying because sometimes, deep down, I feel like awards make you soft. So it changes the game a little bit, but it also shouldn’t change the game. There’s more of a microscope on it, but then at the same time you also have to say, ‘I never considered awards, so now I’m just going to get back to normal operations, and go to work.'”

Ventimiglia and his TIU co-stars are already fast at work on season 2, which premieres Sept. 26 on NBC.

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