InDepth InterView Exclusive: Daniel Sunjata Talks GRACELAND, Plus SMASH, Upcoming Films, Broadway, Hollywood & More
Today we are talking to a titanically talented and charismatic actor coming to a whole new audience this week with the highly anticipated premiere of the exceptional new USA series GRACELAND, although he is assuredly already known to audiences for his formidable stage and screen performances in a vast array of exciting and impressive roles over the course of his career - ranging from his early work in Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT in Central Park through to Richard Greenberg's TAKE ME OUT, and, most recently, CYRANO DE BERGERAC on Broadway to memorable TV roles on series like RESCUE ME, 30 ROCK and SEX & THE CITY to his appearances in films like last year's THE DARK KNIGHT, as well as GONE, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and many more - the dashing Daniel Sunjata. Touching upon many of his most celebrated previous roles onstage and onscreen, Sunjata eloquently explicates his process as an actor in playing various characters thus far - most of all, and with a special focus on, his current (and future) one on GRACELAND - in this extensive conversation. Additionally, Sunjata discusses his preferences for plays over musicals, teases his upcoming film LULLABY, expresses his enthusiasm for a DEVIL WEARS PRADA follow-up film, reminisces about 30 ROCK, recounts working with Woody Allen on MELINDA & MELINDA and more.
GRACELAND provides Sunjata with the rich role of a lifetime, complete with dramatic heft as well as a complex, unique backstory, to say nothing of his impressive line-up of co-stars, including fellow thespian and recent LES MISERABLES breakout star Aaron Tveit. In GRACELAND, Sunjata portrays the head of the household to the central group of undercover agents (played by Tveit and company) who live and work in a picturesque beachfront property in Southern California where where much of the action goes down in the early episodes of the new Jeff Eastin-created series.
In today's substantial preview portion of our complete conversation coming in a few weeks (after the pivotal Episode 5 has aired), Sunjata discusses some of his past work onstage and onscreen as well as introduces us to his elemental character on GRACELAND, Paul Briggs, and what we can expect from early episodes of the atmospheric and action-packed new must-see series. Plus, he comments on his starry assortment of co-stars - including Aaron Tveit and Vanessa Ferlito - and gives us a candid glimpse inside the mind of the enigmatic Paul Briggs before he is unveiled to the world on the premiere episode tomorrow night.
In the next installment of our chat, we will be talking in considerable depth about many surprising plot points occurring over the next several weeks. Stay tuned for more in July!
GRACELAND airs Thursdays at 10/9c on USA.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
Surfing With Sharks
PC: Your Valentine in TWELFTH NIGHT was such a blazing debut - would you like to return to Shakespeare sometime soon?
DS: Oh, absolutely - I would love to. I am always looking for opportunities to do theatre, but it's just been difficult to return to the stage recently. I've had great opportunities with every show I've done onstage, though - I mean, the last show I did on Broadway was CYRANO DE BERGERAC, as I'm sure you are probably aware!
PC: Indeed - and it was filmed and broadcast on TV, as well.
DS: Indeed it was. So, with a television show, though - even if it only shoots for five or six months out of the year - to find the right play that is going up for the right amount of time that fits perfectly into your limited window of availability can be something of a challenge.
PC: To say the least!
DS: So, that's what's been slowing my return to the stage - but I have every intention on doing much more theatre. Since I'm talking to you today, Pat, I'll tell you the truth: I haven't even began to scratch the surface of my aspirations yet, onstage; I haven't ever started. So...
PC: In the theatrical vein, you were a fabulous asset to SMASH this year - were you asked to do the finale or was your character already gone for good?
DS: I was not asked back to do the finale. Unfortunately, my arc from the very beginning was only four or five episodes long. Thank you so much for your kind words, though!
PC: What a shame.
DS: Yes, it was to be a short-lived experience, but I had fun anyway.
PC: Did you shoot the GRACELAND pilot before or after SMASH?
DS: I was so fortunate that it all kind of ended up working out the way that it did - we shot the GRACELAND pilot like a year and a half ago, and, subsequently, I booked the arc on SMASH. Then, it just so happened that I finished my arc on SMASH right when we were going into start working on GRACELAND after it got picked up to series.
PC: How fortuitous for you!
DS: It really, really was - and, you know, as an actor, you try to work as much as you can, so I am very grateful to have been able to have done as much as I have.
PC: You also appeared on the last season of 30 ROCK on NBC, as well. Was that a memorable experience for you?
DS: Oh, it was amazing! It was totally amazing - it was a wonderful, warm set full of extremely intelligent and very talented people. And, although I had to play the straight man more or less - I mean, my dialogue wasn't the funniest...
PC: Definitely not.
DS: I had a tremendous time doing it, though - it was an honor to be included in the series, if only for one episode. The body of work for 30 ROCK... it was just a great, great show.
PC: I was curious: do you happen to sing at all, even for fun?
DS: [Laughs.] No, I'm not gifted in that way - I guess I can sort of carry a tune if it was for the character or something; you know, he steps out of the shower and he's singing his favorite Motown song, you know?
PC: As happens often in movies and TV.
DS: Yeah, I could probably do that for a minute or two. But, I do not have the Aaron Tveit vocal cords that it takes to carry a show for eight performances a week on Broadway - at least I don't think that I do!
PC: You never know until you try, Daniel!
DS: That's true. It's interesting you ask, though, because - thank God - I keep getting asked to come in and read for [musicals]. You know, occasionally, Bernie Telsey will call me in to audition for this or that musical - so, he seems to think that I might have it in me, but I have to say that, as an audience member and as an actor, I do have a certain fondness for the straight play; I am not as big of a fan of musical theatre as I am of straight theatre.
PC: One thing I had to ask you about was working with Woody Allen on MELINDA & MELINDA - was it a trip?
DS: Oh, well, working with Woody Allen - first, I have to say that I was pretty nervous. I mean, it was a great honor to work with him, but, showing up for my first couple days onset was pretty nervewracking, I have to admit - just because he is so iconic to anybody who loves cinema like I do.
PC: Understandably so.
DS: But, yeah - it was a great experience. Will Ferrell was great - I thought he would be cracking jokes all the time, but he was actually a rather calm, affable, pretty quiet guy; at least that was my impression of him while we were shooting. That was pretty surprising to me.
PC: On the topic of movies: would you be open to appearing in a film follow-up to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA now that there is a book sequel penned by the original author?
DS: Oh, absolutely! I would absolutely love to - if Wendy Finerman sees fit and if she is the one who is producing the movie again and wants me to play James Holt, I would run to her arms and thank her for the opportunity.
PC: Had you ever worked with Anne Hathaway before - and have you shared a set since?
DS: We actually haven't - that's been the only time. She was lovely onset, though - I remember her always reading; always reading big, big books. [Laughs.] She's a very intellectual woman!
PC: You two never crossed paths on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES set?
DS: No, I don't think so - on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, she wasn't in any of the scenes that I shot so she wasn't around. But, of course, I got to work with Morgan Freeman and Matthew Modine and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and so many great actors on that.
PC: Were you thrilled to be a part of such a big, internationally-recognized franchise?
DS: Oh, it was amazing - when I got the phonecall that I had gotten that part, I would have done a back-flip if I would have known that I wouldn't break my neck in the process! I was so, so excited! I mean, growing up, I loved comic books and I loved superheroes, so who would not want to play even the smallest part in some movie about that world? I was absolutely thrilled to do it and I had an amazing time.
PC: You have some tremendous leading ladies in your upcoming film LULLABY, too - Amy Adams and Jennifer Hudson?
DS: Yes. LULLABY. I would kind of say that what I have is kind of a cameo - just to get to work with [director] Andrew Levitas was a wonderful experience and he is going to have a great, great career as a director, as I'm sure LULLABY will attest to.
PC: The cast is exceptional.
DS: Jennifer Hudson, Amy Adams, Richard Jenkins - just a really, really wonderful story. It was great to shoot that film - I'm not quite sure when it comes out.
PC: What's next for you now that GRACELAND Season One has wrapped?
DS: Oh, well, we are hoping that the show is well-received and people respond to it and that we are picked up for another season, of course. So, right now, I am just back to the grind - auditioning and taking meetings and seeing what I can fit in between now and when we hopefully will be starting to shoot Season Two. Hopefully, the universe will send me something juicy.
PC: Would you be open to a summer stage role?
DS: Oh, I would absolutely love the opportunity to do that - I would love it.
PC: GRACELAND has a lot of rat-a-tat repartee and many meanings to many of the lines that are said, as we find out.
DS: You're very right - and the sharpness of the script is one of the things that initially drew me to the project, I think. It's a smart script.
PC: The physical confrontations between you and Aaron in particular are quite intense and realistically depicted, as well - do you think your stage background played into the naturalism you two achieved in those scenes?
DS: Yeah, I would say that that was a situation where a theatrical background was very helpful. You know, I have worked before with actors on camera who have not had any stage training or combat training who were literally learning the stunt choreography from the stuntman, but they really might not know everything - you know, once the director calls action they might not pull a punch or forget to make eye contact during a swing; little, small things that are important and helpful to staying safe while portraying violence believably.
PC: Training is everything.
DS: It is. The fact that Aaron had had that background made any scenes we did like that very easy to shoot and I can honestly say that I didn't feel for a moment like he was going to hit me in the face. [Big Laugh.]
PC: Thank goodness he didn't! You two share a great rapport - does it carry off-screen; theatre war stories and all that?
DS: Oh, yeah - for sure! We have great conversations about the theatre, of course - I am a big fan of his in that regard anyway. It's not just Aaron and I that get along, though, because, really, the whole cast - the group of us - have a great respect, and, I would say at this point, love, for each other. And, I am not just saying that to say it, either!
PC: I'm sure not.
DS: I'm sure you talk to a lot of actors who say, you know, "Oh, yeah, the whole cast just loved each other," even if you know behind the scenes it was not the case. [Laughs.]
PC: Without a doubt.
DS: I can say with complete honesty that we really, really, really all enjoy working with each other and we enjoy spending time with each other off, away from work, as well - we are very fortunate in that regard as a cast, I think.
PC: It comes through onscreen for sure.
DS: I mean, it would totally suck to have to go to work everyday on a show that you hate the cast that you're working with, you know?! [Laughs.]
PC: It happens all the time, nevertheless! Speaking of family, another USA family member - Callie Thorne - has done this column and spoke highly of working with you on RESCUE ME when I spoke to her a while back. A lot of theatre actors seem to be employed on USA these days, actually!
DS: You know, it's interesting you mention that because it does seem like there has been this mass exodus from RESCUE ME to USA - you have Callie Thorne on NECESSARY ROUGHNESS; they just picked up Denis Leary's new show SIRENS; I am on the network now with GRACELAND. It's a pretty interesting collision, I guess!
PC: How did you get involved with USA and Jeff Eastin on GRACELAND in the first place?
DS: In terms of how GRACELAND came to me, it was not really out of the ordinary: I got a call from my agent, they sent me the script, I read it, I had a subsequent conversation with Jeff Eastin - kind of a creative dialogue - and he let me know what his vision for the show was. They had not conceived Briggs as an ethnically ambiguous guy - I can say that.
PC: How was Briggs originally depicted?
DS: I don't know, I think they wanted kind of a blond, Matt McConaughey-esque, blue-eyed beach bum who happened to be a Buddhist. But, I think that that is one of the reasons that they needed me to test for the role - they needed to see me in the room and be satisfied and see that I could convincingly play Paul Briggs; Paul Briggs could be Daniel Sunjata and vice versa. And, I am glad they were convinced!
PC: Is he based on any real-life person as far as you know?
DS: No, I don't think so - as far as I know, I don't think that any of the main characters are based on any actual real people; the situation itself is. There was an actual house in Southern California that was owned by a drug lord that was seized and did subsequently house agents from the FBI, DEA and customs who worked undercover narcotics together. That is real. Beyond that, I don't think that Paul Briggs is based on any real-life character, though.
PC: Are you comfortable working with guns and other weapons? Were the actors put through a boot camp of sorts so you could familiarize yourselves with the various police paraphernalia?
DS: Yes, I am comfortable working with guns - for sure. In preparation for the show, we had a conversation with the gentlemen who was kind of the overseer or the head of the actual house that GRACELAND is based upon. So, that was an invaluable source of research to be able to talk to him about it - we got to ask him all of our burning questions, of course. Jeff Eastin also provided us with lots of books and things to read and they gave us the requisite gun training and we worked a little bit with the Miami SWAT team to kind of make sure that we were all wielding our weapons authentically and believably.
PC: That must have been very helpful, as well.
DS: Oh, it was - we had them with us on the set quite a bit, actually. On the show, the tag teams - the FBI tag teams; that's what they are called - they are real officers. So, when we were shooting if there was anything that they saw us doing that didn't seem realistic to them, they would come over and respectfully give us their input. It was really invaluable to have their unlimited amount of research kind of present and working with us there onset.
PC: Is there a moral dilemma implicit in what these agents do, day to day - pretending to be something they are not most of the time? Are we going to see more of the agents' home lives or their world outside of the Graceland compound? Do they have families they go back to at any point?
DS: For some of the characters, yes, for others, not so much. In terms of the moral dilemma, though, I think that one of the main thematic underpinnings of the entire season is the moral ambiguity that is inherent in pretending to be someone you are not, even if your reason for doing so is presumably a good reason. I mean, you are talking about people who vocationally have to live lives outside of the walls of Graceland - and, when we come back to Graceland, one would assume that it is some kind of safe haven or sanctuary where we can kind of be ourselves, but, what the audience discovers over the unfolding of the first season is that within the walls of Graceland there are secrets being kept and there are lies being told - not everything is as it seems.
PC: Appearances can be deceiving, apparently.
DS: The examination of moral ambiguity is selective relativism in that sense - I mean, if you are going to swim with the sharks then sometimes you have to be one.
PC: What a way to put it!
DS: In the case of Paul Briggs, it is his years of field experience that inform his decisions - and he has decided that if he were to do everything by the book then nothing would ever get done. So, in that sense, I think he is the quintessential anti-hero - his intentions are good, but the choices that he makes in order to execute his plans are often somewhat questionable.
PC: Do the ends justify the means?
DS: Exactly - and I think that makes for great TV.
PC: The look of the show is so stylish and filmatic. Have you seen the final cuts of the first few episodes yet?
DS: I have - I've seen the first few episodes, but I think I've only seen about as much of the show as you have seen [up to Episode 5], and I have to say that one of the amazing things about the show besides the writing and the directing and the acting is, yes, the look and the feel of the show - I love it, too. You mention the look of the show being filmatic - and it totally is - but so have been the posters and the advertising, too. I mean, they started advertising this show like nine months out and they are almost advertising GRACELAND as if it were a movie that was going to come out and not a television show that is about to premiere! But, I think that is a really unique and interesting approach for TV.
PC: How does Briggs see Charlie [Vanessa Ferlito], do you think?
DS: I think that Charlie is the one person in the house for which Briggs has the most affection - there is a real familial nature there that exists between them, I think. And, at the same time, though, she is the one person in the house other than Mike Warren [Aaron Tveit] that he has the most conflict with. And, again, I think that that makes for entertaining television!
PC: GRACELAND is nothing if not thoroughly entertaining! Thank you so much for this today, Daniel.
DS: Thank you so much for that, Pat, and thank you so much for talking to me today - it's been really great. Bye.
Photo Credits: USA, Walter McBride
From This Author Pat Cerasaro