'Graceland' interview: Daniel Sunjata previews his new, character-driven crime show

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The newest original program making its appearance on USA is "Graceland." This drama -- set in a beach house where representatives from multiple federal agencies live undercover -- stars Daniel Sunjata ( "Rescue Me") and Aaron Tveit ( "Les Miserables"). On a recent visit to the show's set, we spoke with Sunjata about his role and about the show as a whole.

Warning: There are some minor spoilers about the "Graceland" pilot here.


Why did you want to take on the role of Paul Briggs?

Daniel Sunjata: I haven't had a ton of opportunities in my career so far on camera to play characters that have multiple levels going on at the same time, characters with this type of complexity and texture to them. And so as soon as I saw the writing -- and of course, it's [series creator] Jeff Eastin. I knew he was a great storyteller. It was kind of a no-brainer. There was no reason not to take the job. 


By the end of the pilot episode, all we really know about Briggs is that he tests well, he's a day-drinker and he likes to sleep. What makes him such a good FBI agent?

Daniel Sunjata: I guess what makes him so good is that he can do all of that and he still does his job at a very, very high level -- not that functional alcoholics are something that we should be, you know, praising.  But he's got kind of a surfer-slacker-Bohemian vibe, and yet when it comes time to take care of business, he's absolutely all about it. And he always gets his man, so to speak.


Does the character have some sort of internal struggle that made him this way?

Daniel Sunjata: Absolutely. You'll see not only Briggs' demons, but some demons from other people in the show.  Nothing is as it seems in "Graceland." 

Everybody's got secrets.


What was so intriguing to you about "Graceland"?

Daniel Sunjata: Why I personally was attracted to the show is that it's not a procedural. It is a show that's character-driven and dialogue-driven. After the first episode, the relationships in the house become more and more complex and become stripped of their facade of like happy-go-lucky normalcy. You get to see what it's like to live in a house with people who lie for a living outside the walls of that house ... They can't even be themselves at home, you find out. That's kind of like all I can say without starting to describe the things that happened over the course of the season.

What I like about the first season is that it's mostly serialized, and I'm hoping that we won't get into the-crime happens-we-investigate-it-and-we-figure-out-whodunnit-by-the-end0-of-the-show.  I hope that we don't find ourselves in that territory until at least Season 3 or 4, when we've run out of ways to serialize the show. But pretty much the entire first season is very serialized.


How would you describe the relationship between Briggs and Mike (Tveit)?

Daniel Sunjata: You see a little resistance from him during the pilot, but after that he pretty much begrudgingly takes on the responsibility [for training Mike]. Briggs ends ups liking Mike as a person, so it's not like a huge burden that you see and he's complaining about it every episode. He likes Michael.


How does "Graceland" fit in with other shows on USA?

Daniel Sunjata: It's not going to be the-the typical blue skies fair of USA.  It's more grey skies, and I don't think that that's a bad thing. I mean there's definitely some levity.  There's some comedy. But yeah, I think that they should brace themselves for a little trip to the dark side, so to speak. But I think it's done within a context that keeps it true to USA's brand. 


There's a story floating around that you vomited into the ocean ...

Daniel Sunjata: I did, I did.

Never go surfing after eating shrimp scampi. That's what I would say. We had broken for lunch, and we were doing this scene where we're out on our surfboards at the end of Santa Monica pier. And what can I say? I mean the swells were pretty intense, and we were out there for about 45 minutes. I'm not really a surfer, and before I knew it I was chumming the water with my lunch.


Don't worry -- that last bit doesn't make it into the show. You can see what does happen on "Graceland" when it premieres on Thursday, June 6 at 10pm on USA.

Photo/Video credit: USA