Daniel Sunjata, born in Chicago, likes ‘incredibly complex’ TV role
BY LORI RACKL TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org June 4, 2013 9:27PM
Daniel Sunjata on "Graceland" on USA Network.
9 to 10 p.m. Thursdays on USA Network
Updated: July 6, 2013 6:35AM
USA Network’s new crime drama “Graceland” is a bit like MTV’s “The Real World.” With guns and drugs.
Six good-looking strangers (all undercover agents) are picked to live in a house (a beachfront mansion in Southern California) and work together. And as is often the case in “The Real World,” you’re not sure which roommates are being real or fake.
That’s especially true of enigmatic FBI agent and house alpha male Paul Briggs, played with just the right amount of mystery by Chicago native Daniel Sunjata (“Rescue Me”).
“Briggs is an incredibly complex character,” Sunjata said. “His dimensions are revealed over time. He’s certainly not what he seems in the beginning.”
Peeling back the onion on Briggs is a big part of the fun on “Graceland,” a drama that skews a bit darker and more serialized than USA’s typical fare. It comes from a familiar name at the cable net: “White Collar” creator Jeff Eastin.
Eastin’s agents had put him in touch with a former DEA worker who’d served as a den leader of sorts for undercover FBI, DEA and Customs agents living incognito in a waterfront Manhattan Beach, Calif., home seized by the federal government in 1992.
“He took me down and showed me the real house that had been decommissioned at that point for a couple of years, introduced me to some of the real guys who lived in the house and they just started telling stories,” Eastin said. “I was like, wow, I got to make this into a show.”
While the premise is rooted in reality, the characters, plot details — even the somewhat confusing name of the home, Graceland — are all fiction.
“The working title was just ‘Safe House,’ which I thought was a little dull,” said Eastin, the showrunner. “Daniel’s got a pretty good speech in the pilot where he says within these walls, there’s safety. … ‘Graceland’ just kind of flowed out of that.”
As the story goes, the house was seized from a drug lord who happened to be a rabid fan of The King.
“There was going to be a big velvet Elvis hanging in the foyer, but we decided that wasn’t a good idea,” Eastin said.
The ensemble cast stars Aaron Tveit (“Les Miserables”) as promising newbie Mike Warren, whose ink is barely dry on his FBI diploma when he’s unexpectedly assigned to Graceland.
Vanessa Ferlito (“CSI: NY”) and Serinda Swan (“Breakout Kings”) play street-smart DEA agents; Brandon Jay McLaren (“The Killing”) is a hot-headed Customs agent and Manny Montana (“Chicago Code”) is the house prankster working for the FBI along with Briggs (Sunjata), a savvy senior agent who bristles at the rule book.
The very nature of their jobs provides a built-in tension — will their cover get blown? — that courses through the first five episodes. But it’s the broader story of Briggs — is his hat white or black? — and his unfolding relationship Warren that elevates “Graceland” a cut above your dime-a-dozen crime dramas.
“Graceland” has a grittiness to it, especially when it delves into the heroin world. That darkness is offset, with mixed results, by Southern California’s sunny beach culture. That means ample opportunities to showcase bikini-clad eye candy and surfers, including Briggs.
“I’d never stood on a surfboard or even held one in my hand before the day we shot those scenes,” said Sunjata, 41, who had a double do the trickier maneuvers shown in the pilot.
Sunjata’s upbringing in Beverly was better suited to land-based sports like football, which he played for Mount Carmel.
“I’m very proud to say my class was 44-3 over the course of those four years and we won two state championships,” said Sunjata, known as Daniel Sunjata Condon in those days.
Half black and half white (German-Irish), Sunjata was adopted at birth and given the middle name Sunjata to reflect his African-American heritage. He made that his surname when he went pro as an actor, a profession that began to pique his interest during childhood outings to Goodman Theatre.
“It was part of our holiday ritual,” he said. “We would go see the annual production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Goodman. Seeing Tiny Tim run around on stage, I thought, ‘How’d that kid get that job? I’d love to do that kind of thing.’ ”
Sunjata eventually took to the stage, landing a Tony nomination in 2003 for his role as a baseball player who comes out of the closet in “Take Me Out.”
Performing at Goodman or Steppenwolf remains on his bucket list. But he jokes that “Graceland” made him realize he might have made the wrong career choice with acting.
“We shot the pilot in Malibu, in somebody’s $17 million weekend house,” Sunjata said. (The remainder of the 12-episode season was filmed in Florida.) “It was a wake-up call. I was like, ‘Wow. People live like this?’ Maybe I should have been a lawyer.”