The first blip on Daniel Sunjata’s “hmm, I might want to be an actor someday” radar came between the ages of seven and nine while watching the Star Wars trilogy. “After that, I used to dream and fantasize about being in the movies,” he says. “But it became a dream deferred.”
So deferred, in fact, that the blip didn’t reboot until he was in college studying business administration — a pragmatic choice he regretted, passion being the missing element.
Production shot from Graceland with Manny Montana (left) and Sunjata. Photo courtesy USA Network
Finally, more than decade after his Star Wars epiphany, Sunjata made his way to the theater department and his acting debut in a student-directed one-act play called Suppressed Desires. “I honestly don’t remember what the play was about, but I do know I had a wonderful time performing for these tiny audiences of ten to twelve people,” Sunjata recalls, adding simply, “I caught the bug.”
After graduating from the University of Southwestern Louisiana — passion reignited — Sunjata headed to Manhattan and New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, where he was introduced to various acting methods, polished his craft, and “learned by doing.” His mentors? “All my teachers. I was very fortunate.”
M.F.A. in hand, Sunjata threw himself into New York’s cutthroat audition fray. But unlike most rookie theatre grads, the Evanston, Illinois native was able to support himself as a working actor right out of the gate.
Sunjata with Aaron Tveit in Graceland. Photo courtesy USA Network
Multi-ethnic — Irish, African-American, and German — and drop-dead hot with both edgy and romantic undertones, he was able to sidestep typecasting to take on a sequence of diverse characters early on, including a Supreme Court clerk in the short-lived series television series D.C., a sailor on leave in an episode of Sex and the City, and a recurring role as CSU technician Burt Trevor on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Seizing the momentum of his TV bookings, Sunjata turned again to theater. Concurrent to his Law & Order gig was his Broadway debut, playing the lead role of gay baseball player Darren Lemming in Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning play Take Me Out — a performance that not only garnered him a Tony nomination, but led to his being cast in the role of firefighter Franco Rivera in the hit FX series Rescue Me.
“I don’t believe in the ‘big break,’ but it’s true that work begets work,” says Sunjata, who was hired for Rescue Me after its creators, Peter Tolan and star Denis Leary, caught a performance of Take Me Out.
Still, he is quick to acknowledge the importance of luck when it comes to building an acting career. “I can tell you, the people I studied alongside at NYU were amazing talents, every one of them,” he says. “There’s no telling why some get work and some don’t.”
While still working on Rescue Me (2004-2011) Sunjata’s rising star guided him to other projects/roles: designer James Holt in the film The Devil Wears Prada, alongside Meryl Streep; Reggie Jackson in the ESPN series The Bronx Is Burning; and a 2007 return to Broadway playing the ever tongue-tied Christian to Kevin Kline’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Also floating around this jaw-dropping timeframe was the film Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a bunch of TV movies and guest spots, and eight dynamite episodes of Grey’s Anatomy as Nurse Eli.
Which brings us to 2013, the year he not only went all manipulative-metrosexual as dramaturge Peter Gilman on NBC’s Broadway-centric Smash, but also put down roots on USA Network’s new police drama Graceland, playing FBI Senior Agent Paul Briggs, who has been enlisted to train rookie agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) while heading up a beachfront condo in Southern California housing law-enforcement agents from the DEA, FBI, and U.S. Customs. Sunjata’s role got extra juicy in the season’s final episode when it was revealed that he lives a double life as drug kingpin Odin. “I’m very process-oriented when working on a character,” Sunjata notes, adding that this new layer of duplicity is making his experience with Graceland “singularly fantastic.”
Ethan Hawke, Sunjata, Richard Easton and company in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
And now, to top off 2013, Sunjata is taking on the role of Macduff in Lincoln Center Theatre’s new production of Macbeth, teaming with fiercely engaging stage veterans and stunningly talented newcomers.
“I got a call from the show’s director, Jack O’Brien, offering me the role and was grateful not only for the offer, but for the show’s frame — it fit perfectly in my window of availability between Graceland seasons,” says the actor, who finds himself humbled to working with such a phenomenal cast, one that includes Ethan Hawke (Macbeth), Anne-Marie Duff (Lady Macbeth), Richard Easton (Duncan), Brian d’Arcy James (Banquo), and Malcolm Gets, John Glover, and Byron Jennings as the Three Witches.
Finally, when asked to compare his characters in Macbeth and Graceland, Sunjata says, “Macduff is a morally unambiguous character that kills the villain, whereas Paul is probably more like Macbeth. My mental image of Macduff is the Archangel Michael slaying the dragon; I don’t know what my model is for Paul.” Perhaps it will come to him once Graceland starts filming its second season in March.