Milo Ventimiglia jokes that all it took was a "haircut and a shave" for him to go from the beloved Pearson patriarch Jack on NBC's This Is Us to the probably soon-to-be equally beloved con man Charlie Nicoletti on ABC's The Company You Keep.
The new drama premieres Feb. 19, less than a year after his long-running family drama came to an end. As executive producer and star on this new series, he wanted to create a family vibe on set, in part by bringing over about 90-percent of the same crew from his most recent show, but also because the theme of family is essential to the storytelling.
Charlie comes from a family of con artists who all work together to pull jobs. As Ventimiglia put it during a Television Critics Association press tour panel for the show, "He was born into a family of grifters. This isn't the life he chose; it chose him. And he's really, really great at it."
To tap into who Charlie is, what he needs to do, and what is internal wants are, Ventimiglia said that he was just being himself. "I think there's an honesty to Charlie, even in his life, even in his con," he said. "And for me, I couldn't put on a character anymore, I just had to be myself."
But when he has a chance encounter with CIA agent Emma Hill (Catherine Haena Kim), he begins to feel a romantic pull that divides his time and attention. She, too, comes from a powerful and, dare we say, duplicitous family: a political one. Emma's family was designed as an almost "Asian America Kennedy" family, Cohen said, with Emma being the "black sheep" of that family.
And OK, we don't have to dare to say it, executive producer Phil Klemmer said that "politicians, con artists, they're kind of in the same business." And in that, these characters are both professional liars, per executive producer Julia Cohen, which is what she was compelled by in creating the series from the start.
"What breaks the pattern for our two professional liars is their relationship and that they ultimately see the real Charlie and the real Emma," she explained.
"I, like the rest of us, I think, was just craving something fun and wildly creative and romantic. I created the show that I wanted to watch," she continued, noting that she is a romantic at heart.
And so is Charlie. Emma, on the other hand, is more pragmatic.
"It is a dance," Klemmer said. "Instead of it being a 'will-they-won't-they,' they do. And then it's a question of, 'What then?' It's not a fairy tale. Instead of them kissing and it being the end, they kiss and it's the beginning."
After Emma and Charlie meet, they spend 36 hours together, eschewing their other responsibilities as they are "pulled together like magnets," said Ventimiglia. "But what really makes that stick is the emotional vulnerability, the intellectual vulnerability." The characters don't really know the truth about what each other do for a living or who their complicated families are. The question of trust is "something we definitely explore quite a bit within the dynamics of who these two characters at heart," Ventimiglia explained.
While the characters seem like they should not be together, per Cohen, because of what they do for a living, "sometimes you just meet the right person at the wrong time."
The Company You Keep premieres at 10 p.m. Feb. 19 on ABC. Watch a teaser for the series below.