'Graceland': Daniel Sunjata on Playing a 'Conflicted,' 'Quintessential' Antihero

Graceland Premiere Episodic Aaron Tveit Daniel Sunjata - H 2013
USA Network

[Warning: Some spoilers ahead for Graceland.]

Ask Daniel Sunjata to describe Paul Briggs, his character on USA Network's Graceland, and the Rescue Me alum throws out terms like "complicated" and "conflicted."

From creator Jeff Eastin, Graceland revolves around a group of law-enforcement agents from the DEA, FBI and U.S. Customs who live together in an undercover beach house in Southern California. After graduating at the top of his class at Quantico, rookie FBI agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) finds himself assigned to work under Briggs, who takes the show's tagline -- "Your lies are your life" -- to another level.

"Briggs is the protector of the sanctity of Graceland and the agents who live and work there," Sunjata tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But at the same time, viewers will find that some of the choices Briggs makes throughout the season definitely call that into question. You find yourself wondering, 'What is up with this guy?' "

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The actor talks to THR about the moral boundaries Briggs willingly crosses, Mike's secret mission and becoming a "sympathetic" character.

The Hollywood Reporter: When I spoke to Jeff Eastin a few months ago, he mentioned that he had envisioned Briggs as being completely different from what the character has become. Were you aware of that before you went in for the role?

Daniel Sunjata: Yeah, that was part of the conversation [I had with him]. He was very up front about that. They were imagining Briggs as kind of a Matthew McConaughey-esque surfer, beach bum-type guy who happens to be a Buddhist. My ethnic ambiguity has sometimes helped me in my career, and sometimes it's hurt me. A lot of times, whether it helps or hurts, it depends on the open-mindedness of the people involved in the casting process, and I think that they needed to see me become Briggs in the room -- in front of their eyes -- so that they could trust that Daniel Sunjata could be that, too.

THR: Did Jeff tell you beforehand where your character was headed?

Sunjata: Before we began work in Florida, Jeff took the whole cast out to dinner and gave us the broad strokes of the season and the major sign posts, but he didn't necessarily tell us how we were going to arrive there.

THR: How would you describe Briggs?

Sunjata: He's definitely complicated. I think that's a great word to describe him. I've termed him as a "conflicted, but well-meaning soul." We find out over the course of the season that he definitely has a past and that that past is influencing his decision-making process when we meet him. 

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THR: And we see very early on that Briggs will cross the line in terms of the ethics of being an agent.

Sunjata: One of the ongoing themes on the show, and not just for Briggs -- and you find this out about Mike and others -- is moral ambiguity. Briggs is definitely the quintessential antihero; he wants to take down the bad guys, but he realizes if you literally follow the book word for word, the prospect of making the arrests that you want and need to make are slim to none. So he chooses when to break the rules, when it's necessary in order to do so. You have to remember these are people from the FBI, the DEA and Customs all living under the same roof, all working in undercover narcotics, where you've got to have the ability to think like a criminal -- or the ability to do so. That makes the line between what's right and what's wrong even more blurry. It's a fun tightrope to tapdance around.

THR: At the end of the first episode, we find out the real reason why Mike has been thrown into the Graceland fold. Can you speak to that other "mission" that's going on?

Sunjata: Definitely. Briggs has a convoluted past, and he's got secrets. One of the taglines for the show is "Your lies are your life" and presumably the audience is under the impression that we're living lies vocationally outside the walls of Graceland when in reality, it's even within its walls. There are certain secrets being kept and told and not everyone is exactly as they appear. Briggs is the best example of that. Mike is cast with an assignment, and we find out why over the course of the first season. There are various reasons.

THR: Is Briggs' weak spot Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito)? They obviously have some history.

Sunjata: Somewhat of a history, somewhat of a past. We find out that Briggs and Charlie, not surprisingly, have worked undercover before -- that they might or might not have had a romantic thing. You never really find out how deep it went. They flirt with the idea of possibly rekindling that. When we meet Briggs and Charlie, Briggs' attitude toward her is more like a big brother-little sister kind of thing. He feels more protective of her. She also has a special place in his heart, but not in the sense that he's holding a flame for her hoping they get back together one day. Next to Mike, Charlie is the other person Briggs has the most conflict with in the house this season, but also the person he has the most affection for.

THR: What were your favorite episodes from the season?

Sunjata: My favorite episodes to shoot were the pilot and the season finale. With a gun to my head, I would say that. Everything in between was just as fun to shoot.

THR: Where do we see Briggs at the end of the season?

Sunjata: By the end of the season, the entire house -- Briggs included -- has gone not just full circle, but in circles. The teasing out of the plot lines ... it takes a very circuitous route and at the end, we understand Briggs a whole lot more. He becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character, but at the same time, not everything -- even at the final episode -- is tied in a neat little bow for the audience. There are a lot of dangling plot threads and unfinished business.

THR: It'll end on multiple cliffhangers?

Sunjata: It'll definitely end on multiple cliffhangers.

THR: What are your plans for premiere night?

Sunjata: I will probably do some live-tweeting. We've all, at this point, seen the pilot a series of times. I think we're all also so excited about this particular project. We'll probably all be on our respective couches to watch it air for the public for the first time.

THR: What have you seen?

Sunjata: I have seen [some episodes], but not the second half of the season. I have seen some directors' cuts of the first four or five episodes.

THR: Were you surprised at all by what you saw onscreen?

Sunjata: We all knew what we were aiming for artistically. In terms of the look and the feel and the world of Graceland. We knew how it was supposed to come off. Of the few episodes that I saw, I thought we were pretty much in the ballpark. Graceland is going to do a great job of broadening USA's demographic. It's a different type of storytelling for them; they've been known as the blue-skies network. Now, it's kind of like "50 Shades of Blue" or "partly cloudy with a chance of rain." [Laughs] I stole that 50 Shades of Blue line from network head Jeff Wachtel.

Graceland debuts at 10 p.m. Thursday on USA.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@thr.com
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