When “The Family” creator Jenna Bans approached Zach Gilford about starring in her new ABC series, he figured she wanted him to play another nice guy role.

“Everybody thinks of me as the nice guy,” said Gilford, who made a name for himself playing Matt Saracen, the sweet high school quarterback in “Friday Night Lights.” “She was like, ‘No, it’s the drunk, fuck-up brother.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’m totally in.’ ”

In “The Family,” which airs at 9/8c Sundays on ABC, Gilford plays Danny Warren, the black sheep of a family thrown into turmoil 10 years ago when the youngest son, Adam, disappeared and was presumed dead. In the series premiere, Adam (Liam James) is found and returned home. Family matriarch Claire (Joan Allen), now a politician running for governor, husband John (Rupert Graves) and daughter Willa (Alison Pill), welcome Adam with open arms.

Danny, however, almost immediately suspects the boy is not Adam. Once a promising young man, Danny was supposed to be watching Adam when he disappeared. He’s spent the years since drowning his guilt in booze. His family thinks he’s wasted his life, and they resent his suspicions.

For Gilford, playing Danny is a chance to show he can be a scruffy screw-up.

“It’s a blast,” he told me. “It gives me the freedom in scenes to just do stupid stuff, … to do something unexpected.”

I had a quick chat with the Evanston native, who is married to actress and Chicago native Kiele Sanchez, in January at the TV Critics Association winter tour in Pasadena, Calif.

 

Zach Gilford

Zach Gilford (from left), Liam James, Alison Pill, Joan Allen and Rupert Graves in ABC’s “The Family.” (ABC/Jack Rowand)

 

You said you’ve made some bad mistakes in the past with your work choices. Do you take it personally if the show doesn’t work out ratings-wise?

You can’t control whether people watch a show or not; you can only control what you do on camera. The thing I love about TV and film is there are so many thumbprints on it; it’s collaborative. So I can only do my job the best and then you have to trust all these other people to do a good job. Once you’ve done your part you have to say it may work out great or it may work terribly and not be upset about that.

I’ve had experiences where it feels like you’re butting your head a lot and not everyone is trying to make the best thing possible. This has been the exact opposite. It couldn’t be more collaborative. During the pilot I went to Jenna [Bans, the show’s creator,] and I was like, “Hey, I want to change this line.” She’s like, “Zach, do whatever you want. That’s why I hired you. You’re good at taking it and doing something with it.” 

 

You’re from Evanston. Did you ever see John Allen on stage at the Steppenwolf?

No I didn’t. I wish I had. I’ve known who she is forever and when I found out she was doing this it was so cool. The first scene I did with her I texted my wife and said, “She’s a real actress.”

I’ve worked with good actors before but this is a real actor. She’s just amazing and so kind. It’s like anything that would be intimidating about her, just as good as she is, as soon as you talk to her it’s taken away and you just feel so comfortable and you feel like you can act with her.

 

One of my favorite scenes from the pilot is your scene together in the kitchen at the house where she hugs you but says, “I love you but don’t ever say that again.”

It was awesome. Honestly I feel like on this show I have been so lucky because all I have to do is show up and kind of follow the lead of the other people in the scene with me. Allison [Pill] is so amazing. She and I have developed this awesome brother/sister relationship that I think is so easy for me to do on the show because she plays her character so well. She would annoy my character! I can just sit there and be annoyed with her character and it feels very natural.

 

Danny is the only family member really who suspects this Adam kid may not be his little brother after all. Does his mother’s threat make him stop questioning?

No. For a while at least, it drives the wedge further between him and the family. He gets a little more bitter about the fact that he’s the black sheep. It’s almost like he thinks, “Well, I want to prove [he’s an imposter] if no one will listen to me.”

 

Bridey the reporter hits on Danny to get more on the story of his family. How will that relationship work out?

There’s definitely a relationship that kind of builds and it’s fun because it changes. It’s like you say, something you would think would take a season happens in four episodes. That’s fun because you’re not thinking, “When’s he going to find out that she’s a reporter?” It’s not drawn out forever. What happens? Who knows. [Laughs.]

 

Can he find his way back to the family?

I think he can, whether he does or not you’ll have to watch and see.

Zach Gilford

Zach Gilford stars as Danny Warren in ABC’s “The Family.” (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

ABC bio for Zach Gilford