'Notorious' Star Daniel Sunjata Talks Taking Over 'Scandal's' Timeslot and 'Moonlighting' Comparisons

The Tony nominee plays a criminal defense attorney inspired by Mark Geragos.
Eli Joshua Ade/ABC

Daniel Sunjata had his pick of roles this past pilot season. After his USA series Graceland was canceled in October, the actor quickly shot to the top of casting wish lists' across Hollywood and received 10 offers for various projects.

"That's never happened for me before in my life," Sunjata tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When I hear that or read that kind of thing, it sounds like they're talking about somebody else, to be quite honest."

It's this kind of humility and sincerity that show just how different Sunjata is from his character on ABC's first-year drama, Notorious. In the series, premiering Thursday on ABC, he plays criminal defense attorney Jake Gregorian – a character loosely inspired by famed real-life criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos.

"I looked carefully at all the options that I did have on the table," Sunjata says. "I was very grateful that I had options at all."

After all, Sunjata has logged more than 15 years in the industry. Since making his TV debut in the short-lived political drama D.C. back in 2000, Sunjata has amassed a slew of memorable supporting roles on TV (Grey's Anatomy, Law & Order: SVU) and films (The Devil Wears Prada, The Dark Night Rises) in addition to starring roles in the ESPN mini The Bronx Is Burning and the Broadway play Take Me Out, which for he earned a Tony Award nomination. He was perhaps most well known for his seven-year turn as firefighter Franco Rivera on the FX series Rescue Me.

After the end of Rescue Me in 2011, Sunjata moved up to No. 1 on the call sheet with Graceland, playing the morally ambiguous and multi-layered veteran FBI agent Paul Briggs. However, ratings waned and as the network moved its focus to more edgy fare like Mr. Robot, Graceland got the axe.

"I was grateful that the opportunity had come my way," he says. "We did get three seasons in and I had a fantastic time playing that character."

The question soon turned to what came next. "There is a factor in having just gotten off of a TV show," he admits. "I didn't know when Graceland started how long it might stay on the air. Anytime you sign up to do a show, you're mentally preparing yourself for either anything between canceled before first day of rehearsal to 10 seasons on Grey's Anatomy or something like that; you kind of never know."

Unsure of his next move and hesitant about the what he calls "the unknown quantity" of pilot season., Sunjata stayed in South Florida, where Graceland filmed. He eventually started going on auditions "here and there," and soon he received the Notorious script.

The writing and, specifically, the character of Jake "aroused my artistic creative curiosity," as Sunjata puts it. "Knowing that it was based on Mark Geragos – what the complexities of representing somebody like Scott Peterson or having a client like Chris Brown would be like, and that it was going to be loosely based or inspired by Mark – it just made it appetizing," he says. "Also I've never been the lead on a major network or a lead on a major network before."

It's no coincidence that that network happens to be ABC, which Sunjata also says played a role in his decision to come onboard. "I don't think they're trying to do so but they've been fairly progressive," he says, pointing particularly to Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. "When you look at ABC and you compare it to the landscape of its peers, [there is] diverse casting."

Sunjata signed on in February and the pilot was picked up to series by ABC in May. The network further demonstrated its confidence in the series by bestowing Notorious with the prime post-Grey's Anatomy timeslot normally belonging to Scandal, after the Kerry Washington drama was pushed to midseason.

"I don't know it just seemed like a confirmation. It was certainly not the time slot we were expecting to get, and we were all overjoyed," he says. "It just seemed like the universe saying, 'Yeah, there's something special about this show, Notorious.' At the very least, even if that's not true, it's an honor."

Notorious is specifically inspired by Geragos' working relationship with longtime Larry King Live executive producer Wendy Walker. For the lawyer, the relationship helped him get ahead in court as well as the court of public opinion. For the TV producer, it bought big ratings and buzz as her show landed exclusives on headline-grabbing cases. Although each toe the line for their personal benefit, Sunjata is quick to defend his character.

"As long as he's not an intentional monster. … It's clear that Jake aspires to be, at least, a good human being. He wants to do good" he says. "When you see people's flaws, it actually humanizes them, de-mythologizes them and makes them more relatable and I think more sympathetic. I'm not afraid of going into the deep water."

It also helps that both Sunjata and Perabo have an important resource in the real-life figures their characters are based on, both of whom are executive producers on the series. "So much of it is related to me by Wendy," says Sunjata, who notes Walker is a frequent presence on set. "She's constantly relaying stories about her relationship with Mark, and about Mark himself while she's around."

The back-and-forth between Sunjata's Jake and Perabo's Julia is played up in the promos for the series, which made it all that more important for Sunjata and Perabo to get it right from the get-go.

"The very first thing we shot together was one that they use in a lot of the promos where she's dragging me into an elevator. … She says, 'You're impossible,' and I say, 'I'm so possible.' That was just us playing, that was actually not even scripted," Sunjata says. "I think that gave us both the confidence. We can be open to each other in a way on set that allows her discovering magic moments. Throw enough of those into the life of the show, you could possibly have a hit."

Sunjata even goes so far as to compare their will-they-won't-they dynamic to TV's golden standard. "Me and Piper joke a lot about it being kind of like a 2016 Moonlighting kind of situation. We actually did part of their classic poses: the iconic poster of Moonlighting with the two of them back to back and smirching over their shoulders at the camera," he says with a laugh.

Knowing the Moonlighting curse and the fickle business that is TV, Sunjata is already looking at the long game for their characters.

"Their professional relationship is such, that I don't think either one of them would want to risk hurting or losing that for the sake of a tryst," he says. "There's a lot of incentive for them to actually not go there. That can make ending up with each other so much more interesting, but only if you economize the roll out of that plot line. I'm hoping if they lock lips, it doesn't happen until at least season four."

Notorious premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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