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Daniel Sunjata on his deep connection to his character on USA’s newest series, “Graceland”

Daniel Sunjata

Daniel Sunjata

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Updated: June 6, 2013 10:39AM

Growing up in Beverly on Chicago’s South Side, I never dreamt that one day I’d make my living as a professional actor, much less be afforded the chance to write about my life and career by the same newspaper that I used to pick up for my father at our local grocery from time to time. Yet here I am.

Amazing grace. Without it, I cannot honestly say where I’d be in this life, or if I’d still be here at all. As an adoptee who was blessed and fortunate enough to have been raised by two committed, encouraging and loving parents, every opportunity and open door that has presented itself to me has been nothing short of providence. I’ve had to work for my modest victories and successes, but the chance to do so was given to me by and through the love of family, and I will not forget it.

As math has never been my strong suit, I could never comprehended the cosmic calculus that led me from matriculating at St. Barnabas and Mt. Carmel to bowing on Broadway and sharing screens of varying sizes with the likes of Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Morgan Freeman. But I do know that my passion for the arts was an outgrowth of an innate longing, not only to create, but also to understand, translate and reflect the ephemeral shades of human-being. Playing Paul Briggs on USA’s newest show, “Graceland,” should be an excellent experiment in all of the above.

Created by Jeff Eastin and written by him and his tremendously talented staff, our show centers on the lives of a group of undercover agents from the FBI, Customs and DEA who live together in a southern California beach house (dubbed “Graceland”) while navigating the treacherous waters of undercover narcotics work in the greater Los Angeles area — and trying to preserve their humanity and the secrecy and sanctity of Graceland itself in the process.

My character, Paul Briggs, is the senior and most seasoned agent in the house. Reflective of the show’s themes of sacrifice, ethics, mentorship and moral relativism, he is a wounded yet well-intentioned soul who is also a quintessential boiling pot of seething contradiction. It’s a substantive and challenging role that has so far been awesomely fun to play.

My favorite aspect of Briggs so far is his struggle to master himself and understand his complexities through the lens of his chosen spiritual path: Tibetan Buddhism. Throughout the shooting of each successive script, just as I’d be saying to myself, “Wow Paul, that’s not so Buddhist, bro. Or Catholic, for that matter,” he’d throw a curveball, do or say something unexpected or pull back yet another veil obscuring the reasons for his psychologically fragmented, tectonic motivations — and I’d forgive him. Briggs, however, is far less concerned with the absolution of sins than he is with the resolution of opposites. He doesn’t particularly care to be baptized in life’s ocean so much as he seeks to surf it while sitting on the nose of his long board in full lotus.

For Briggs, it’s ultimately about the inner alchemy of archetypal resolution — and getting the bad guys in the process. How fitting, how apropos, how amazing, that ultimately it will be grace that determines the outcome. I hope Chicago will be watching.

“Graceland” premieres Thursday on USA Network at 9 p.m. CST. Daniel Sunjata has donated his fee for writing this column to the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Chicago.

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