“Graceland” star Daniel Sunjata decided to become an actor partly because he would get to experience different challenges on the job. At the time he may not have been thinking he’d have to surf.
“My surfing? As Daniel, not so great. As Briggs, I'm a fantastic surfer. I'm an awesome surfer as Paul Briggs,” the Evanston native said during a recent phone conversation from New York City.
In USA Network's new crime drama, Sunjata stars as enigmatic FBI agent and “fantastic surfer” Paul Briggs, the alpha male in a California beach house where six undercover FBI, DEA and Customs agents live incognito and make the base for their investigations.
Sunjata shows Briggs' surfing prowess in Thursday's 9 p.m. premiere, as the senior agent and fellow FBI agent Johnny (Manny Montana) take newbie Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) to catch some waves.
Although the scene looks great (thanks to a double who did his more difficult maneuvers), Sunjata didn't have an easy time on the water, as southern California native and avid surfer Montana explained in a separate interview.
"We're doing the scene and then we take a small little break and Daniel is like, 'Hey guys, just give me five minutes,' and he paddles away. ... I looked over and I see Daniel just throwing up, just throwing up like crazy," he said. "I gave him [bleep] all the time for it."
Sunjata, 41, says he'd never even held a surfboard prior to filming the pilot. Growing up in Beverly, he didn't have any opportunities to surf. "We don’t have very vicious waves rolling off of Lake Michigan," he joked.
But he did play football for Mount Carmel, where as a linebacker known as Daniel Sunjata Condon he was part of two state championship teams.
Sunjata’s interest in acting also began in Chicago. His family made a tradition out of attending Goodman Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
"I do remember as a youngster seeing Tiny Tim up on stage and realizing, ‘Wow, kids can be actors, too. That would be kind of cool. I'd love to do that,'" he said.
He deferred that dream until the end of his freshman year at Florida A&M University, when he felt uninspired by his decision to major in business. "It was remembering my childhood dreams that gave me the courage to ... change my major," he said. "Statistically, it was a pretty dumb move."
"I really do feel like life is for at least an attempt at living dreams. I think we are here to put our individual visions to reality to whatever degree we are able," he continued. "And so it just seemed to me that it was best to use my youth in that endeavor and all of the idealism and energy and motivation that we have to live our dreams when we're young. And then if it didn't work out, then settle for something that seemed more pragmatic.
"And I guess I was just very fortunate that it happened to work out for me."
It worked out and then some. Sunjata worked consistently in New York theater, earning a 2003 Tony nomination for his role as a baseball player who comes out of the closet in "Take Me Out." He went on to play Franco Rivera on "Rescue Me" for seven years, and costarred in "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Dark Knight Rises."
Sunjata has found another meaty role in "Graceland," which comes from "White Collar" creator Jeff Eastin but is much darker than that series. Once he read the script, Sunjata couldn’t wait to play the "incredibly complex" Briggs, who isn’t quite what he seems at the beginning of the series.
"He's unlike any character I've ever played before," Sunjata said. "I’ve played law enforcement type guys before but never somebody exactly like Paul and definitely nobody as textured and multidimensional as Paul."
Sunjata talks more about Briggs, growing up in Chicago and bringing a little of the city to "Graceland" after the preview video below.
I saw you in "Take Me Out" in New York City and wanted to say I loved it; it's hard to believe that was 2002.
Yeah, it's been a while. Like 11 years. And can you believe that just a month ago the first active professional athlete, although not a baseball player, came out as being gay?
That's pretty astounding that Richard Greenberg had his finger on the pulse of that subject matter 10 years ago. I mean that's pretty crazy.
But we're here to talk about "Graceland," so tell me a little bit about what attracted you to the role.
One of the things I loved about it was just the style of storytelling--the dimension and texture and depth of the character of Paul Briggs, in particular, but also the other characters in the show. And [I liked it] for the chance to work with Jeff Eastin. That was definitely a plus because I was thoroughly familiar with "White Collar" at the time I received the script for "Graceland."
He told me that I definitely was going to need to test for the role because they weren't 100 percent [about me]. They said they had no doubt about my acting ability, but they just had envisioned Briggs being a different kind of guy in terms of look and everything. They were imagining more of a Matt McConaugheyesque, beach bum, long-haired, quasi-Buddhist type of guy.
And I guess when they thought about those factors, Daniel Sunjata did not necessarily jump to mind. But I went in to test for the role opposite Aaron Tveit, who is my ultra-talented costar--one of them. And, yeah, thank God they liked me and they offered me the part.
Tell me what you initially thought of Paul and what you planned over the season a little bit.
He's a fascinating character to play on a lot of different levels. He's got a very--oh, I don't know what the word is--I don't want to use the word dark because it's so generic, but he's had somewhat of a troubled past. He's a well-intentioned soul but he's also deeply conflicted. He's trying to fight the good fight and arrest the bad guys, make the streets a little bit safer by taking drugs off of them.
At the same time he realizes he's kind of the quintessential antihero in the sense that although he wants to get the job done, he knows that if he does it by the book that the job is not likely to get done. So he is definitely prone to bending rules when and where he thinks it's absolutely necessary to do so.
I love the relationship between Briggs and Mike, for various spoilery reasons. Can we talk about their relationship a little bit? Do you think Briggs has respect for him and enjoys training him? Or do you think he's just trying to see what he's really about?
I think all of the above. I think he has no choice but to respect Mike because Mike has graduated top of his class from Quantico, which is the FBI training academy. This is something that Briggs also did. Briggs was also top of his class, scoring only slightly better on his practical exams than Mike. So, from an intellectual standpoint I think Briggs knows that this is not the average agent.
I think the opportunity excites him, but not at first. As a matter of fact, at first he's actually a little bit reluctant. He's not really feeling like taking on a new trainee. But I think once Mike arrives to the house and he and Briggs are introduced to each other and kind of start getting to know each other ... the relationship starts to develop. I think he does kind of enjoy showing Mike the ropes, teaching him the ins and outs of undercover work. How to stay safe doing so. How to play the game the right way and not let the game play you.
So although their relationship at first is sort of a mentor-mentee type of relationship, I think that it evolves past that fairly quickly because really the only thing that Briggs has over Mike is his years of field experience. Again, intellectually they're already on par. So once Mike learns the rules, he then pretty quickly starts bending them himself in ways that are unexpected even to Briggs. And at that point their relationship becomes a little bit of a chess game, a little bit of like one-upsmanship that kind of escalates as the season progresses.
Yet they still like each other.
I don't think there's ever a point during the season where Mike and Briggs just detest one another. I think that they do actually genuinely like each other. I think that Briggs is definitely suspect upon Mike's arrival. I think Briggs' radar goes up not just because Mike got assigned to Graceland unexpectedly, but because of what Briggs knows about his own secrets and his own past. Later, on top of that, Briggs also knows how the agency works or how it can work. And so all of those things together definitely kind of have his spider senses tingling by the end of the pilot episode for sure.
How is Miami and working in the sun and the heat?
It was great. We all enjoyed South Florida. The people down there are great. We were working pretty hard. Thank God we weren't shooting during the summertime when it's really blazing hot and humid down there. We were there for the cooler months of the year and hopefully if we get picked up for a Season 2 we will shoot during the same time of year. Because honestly, I cannot imagine working in South Florida in August. I really don't want to do that.
You said the surfing wasn't easy.
I've got to tell you, anybody over the age of 30 who decides that all of a sudden they're going to go learn how to snowboard or rollerblade or surf usually comes back in a cast or a sling or something. I was thinking about it; I probably shouldn't have done that. I give a lot of thought to those kind of things before I do them.
I didn't think a Chicago guy would be great at surfing.
Yeah, we don't have very vicious waves rolling off of Lake Michigan.
What do you miss about Chicago?
Everything. Everything. I wouldn't go so far as to say I miss the winters. Although growing up there you get accustomed to it, so in a certain way even the winters are something that I miss. But just everything about the city. I love the way it looks. I love how pedestrian friendly it is. I love that you can park your car on the near South Side and walk straight through the city, be entertained the entire way either just by people-watching or by shopping or stopping here or there, grabbing a bite to eat. You walk all the way to the North Side. You can be in the middle of a huge metropolitan, cosmopolitan environment and then within minutes you can be on the water. And the architectural boat tours. I just love everything about Chicago--the people most especially.
Do you think that being from Chicago has helped in your career?
I can't say that it hasn't. Yeah, of course. In fact, it was a place where some of my dreams and aspirations were born, where certain seeds were planted. If it hadn't been for going to see "Carol" at the Goodman every year, who knows? I might not have ever even fantasized about it as a child ...
I also think that there's a certain Midwest meets East Coast kind of sensibility that Chicago's got. And I don't know how that may have formed me as an actor, but for some reason I just can't say that it didn't or that it hasn't. I kind of feel like it did in some way. I definitely still feel my roots planted in Chicago so I feel like I owe part of who I am and what I've become to where I came from and that's Chi-town.
There's a scene where Briggs makes the Chicago connection in one of the undercover cases. And you get to rattle off a bunch of Chicago things to help Mike form his cover.
I'm glad you mentioned that because actually those two or three lines that I rattled off about Chicago were improv. And thank God Jeff Eastin let me do it. It just came to me and it seemed realistic. I was trying to give him things to help him maintain his cover. Of course, I was like, "Wrigleyville, you know, blah, blah, blah." Yeah, that was cool.
What's your favorite to play, FBI agent or firefighter?
That's really tough, man. I would say it's a tie, but I know you want a real answer. I'm loving playing Paul Briggs. I'm loving playing an undercover FBI agent. But there's something about what firefighters do for a living, about the fact that no matter who you are, no matter your skin color, your religion, your sexual orientation or what have you, when that alarm goes off they're going to get in that truck and they're going to put their own lives on the line in order to save yours.
It's not only heroic, it's almost like there's a level of--I don't want to get too poetic with it but they're almost like guardian angels in a sense. What I loved about being on "Rescue Me" is that although they definitely showed all of what I just mentioned, they also showed how human these guys are. They kind of took them down off of this pedestal that we put all firefighters on post-911. Everybody was thinking that firefighters were Gods. "Rescue Me" kind of showed the human side of what these people deal with and how it affects them and dealing with the post-traumatic stress of dealing with trauma on a daily basis. So the fact that they deal with all of that and they still do their jobs, I've gotta go with being a firefighter. That's pretty amazing.
Doing a show like "Rescue Me" for so long, when it ends do you suffer in a kind of let down or think, "I'm never going to find this kind of gig again?"
The short answer is no. At the end of "Rescue Me" there was a little sadness. When you've spent that much time with a group of actors as I was blessed to do while I was on that show, and great writing, something that had never been seen on TV before--it was totally new, totally original. Yeah, there was a little sadness in letting that go, but there was also this very palpable sense that it had run its course. It was time to let go and to move on and to do other things.
One of the reasons I decided to become an actor is because you get to have a series of different experiences. You go from kind of temporary family to temporary family going from job to job. You're always doing the same thing. You're acting. But you're doing it in a different context. And so at a certain point, I would say enough is enough; it's time to let go of whatever it is that's in front of you so that you can move on to whatever is coming your way.
And I was very proud of what we accomplished on that show. And very grateful because actually "Rescue Me" did a lot for me. So, you know, I was very happy to have done that.
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