Daniel Sunjata fell in love with the movies the first time he saw “Star Wars” at the age of 7. The film inspired him so much that, from his home on Chicago’s South Side, he drafted a letter to director George Lucas. “Dear Mr. Lucas,” he wrote, “I love your movies, and I’d like to make my own ‘Star Wars’ movie. Can I borrow your actors and camera equipment? I’m willing to give you my entire life savings: $123.23.” Sunjata, now 41, never did make that film. But the letter resurfaced at a crucial juncture later in his life. “I was in college, deciding whether or not it was a good idea to change my major from business administration to theater, and I found that letter,” he recalls. “I think the universe was dropping bread crumbs in front of me. That letter came back to me at a time when I really needed guidance as to what to do with my life.”
It’s safe to say that Sunjata chose wisely. Guided by that irrepressible ambition and assisted by chiseled good looks and impressive range, the actor has lined up role after high-profile role over the course of his 15-year career. He spent seven years playing opposite Denis Leary as heartthrob firefighter Franco Rivera in the FX series “Rescue Me,” stared down Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and battled evil with Morgan Freeman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” He’s also had guest stints on hit shows like “Sex and the City,” “30 Rock” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Now, Sunjata is finally taking his own place in the spotlight: He’s starring as brooding, undercover narcotics agent Paul Briggs on USA’s newest series, “Graceland,” which debuted earlier this month.
“It’s interesting how many people think you to be an overnight success when they see you on TV doing something substantive, as opposed to a guest role,” Sunjata says of landing the lead. “But I’ve been in the game for quite some time. And while I’m proud of the fact that I’ve always been able to pay my bills with my passion, I have wanted more. So it’s a wonderful gift.”
Sunjata says he was attracted to “Graceland” immediately, both because of its creator (Jeff Eastin of “White Collar”) and the unique premise. The series follows a group of undercover DEA, Customs and FBI agents living together in a Malibu beach house — and because it’s based on actual events that took place in the ’90s, the cast was able to gather intel from the agents who had overseen the real Graceland years before. “They indulged our actor-y questions,” jokes Sunjata.
Sunjata had to do some convincing in order to land the role of Briggs in the first place. “At first, they were imagining more of a Matthew McConaughey, longhaired beach bum type [for the role],” says Sunjata. “And listening to that description, the name ‘Daniel Sunjata’ isn’t the first person that pops to mind.” Luckily, he aced the audition — and Eastin deleted the references to Briggs’ beachy mane. “That long hair just wouldn’t look right on me, man,” he laughs.
Much to his dismay, Sunjata couldn’t get Eastin to shed the veteran FBI agent’s passion for watersports. “What I learned from shooting the show is, not only can I not surf, but I will never be able to surf,” he says. While filming the pilot episode just off of Santa Monica Pier, “I started feeling sick at the beginning of the very first take,” he says. “We were out there for about 45 minutes, and I definitely churned the water with my lunch. Thankfully not on camera.”
Despite his surfing struggles, Sunjata has an athletic background. During his stint as a star linebacker at Mount Carmel High School, he imagined being recruited by a Big Ten college. When it didn’t happen, Sunjata says, “I started entertaining the possibility of doing something else with my life.”
At first, that meant a business degree, something he says he “chose arbitrarily because it sounded dependable.” But after a semester spent struggling through calculus at Florida A&M, Sunjata started to question his decision. “I imagined my life 10 years down the road, working 70 hours a week on Wall Street, making six figures, having a house in the Hamptons and being absolutely miserable,” he says. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m young, what’s my dream?’ ”
While considering that question, Sunjata spotted an audition notice for a student-directed play, and despite being “nervous as all get-out,” tried out and got the part. Though he only performed the play a handful of times in front of a sparse audience, “I had the time of my life,” he says. That’s when he stumbled upon the letter he’d penned to Lucas in a box of his childhood belongings.
Sunjata promptly transferred to the theater department, and after graduation trained at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After a brief period of unemployment in the late 1990s, he began picking up parts in plays like Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and the Tony-Award-winning “Take Me Out,” plus guest spots on “Law and Order: SVU” and “Sex and the City.”
The actor says he’s still recognized more for his role as Carrie Bradshaw’s would-be suitor than for any other character he’s played. “On the street, I still get, ‘Weren’t you that sailor?’ ” he says. He credits his current success in part to the series. “I’m not a big believer in ‘the big break.’ It happens to so few people, probably as many that win the lottery. I got lucky enough to book a few relatively high-profile jobs close together.”
The most memorable? The role of fashion designer James Holt in “The Devil Wears Prada.” “That was the most surreal moment of my career,” he says. “I could not stop thinking, ‘You’re acting in front of Meryl Streep. You’re acting in front of Meryl Streep. What’s your next line?’ ” he says. “That was the only time I was starstruck out of my game to the point where I had to collect myself in order to do my job.”
Now that he’s reached a high point in his career, Sunjata says he relies on his Chicago roots to stay grounded. He comes home as often as he can to reconnect with his family, which is scattered in cities like Aurora and Oswego. “We’re very traditional in the sense that we just spend a lot of time at home together. It’s so great to chill on the couch with my dad and watch a Bears game, because I’m away for so much of the time,” he says.
He’s also kept his strong emotional ties to the city. “I truly do love Chicago; my roots are there. But in particular, what I love and miss the most are the people,” he says. “Which is why the exponential rise in violence — particularly among the city’s poor and working classes — has got to cease. I’d like to see Chicago’s leadership be proactive about getting tough on the circumstances which give rise to crime in the first place. Fighting fire with fire usually just results in more fire. We need water instead.”
Though his heart lies in Chicago, Sunjata spends most of his time in LA, where he’s fueled by the same burning ambition he has had since childhood. Even with “Graceland” on summer hiatus, he’s not looking to take a break. “When actors aren’t working, they’re looking for work,” he says. “Maybe I can squeeze something between now and what will hopefully be the second season of ‘Graceland.’ It depends on what the universe sends my way.”
Story by Rachel Handler
Where You’ve Seen Daniel: Sunjata has graced screens big and small for more than a decade. You might recognize him from: