Daniel Sunjata stars as FBI agent Paul Briggs in USA Network's "Graceland." (James Minchin III/USA Network )
“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."