The Buddhist Concept that Shaped Daniel Sunjata’s Acting

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Photo Source: Courtesy USA Network

“Cops that work undercover, especially deep undercover, have to have the skills of actors,” says Daniel Sunjata, “except that the stakes are a lot higher; as opposed to getting a bad review, you’re talking about a bullet to the face. Your performance has to be absolutely convincing because your life depends on it.”

If Sunjata’s performance as Paul Briggs on USA’s “Graceland” is any indication, he could conceivably have a second career as an undercover agent. Based on a real safe house, “Graceland” follows a group of government agents (and roommates) and the ways in which they embody the show’s tagline: “Your lies are your life.”

Now in its second season, time at the beach house has gradually cracked open Briggs’ outer shell to reveal some serious problems beneath his enigmatic exterior.

“What appealed to me was the fact that he was going to have all these layers. He was going to have so much going on at the same time at any given time, dealing with being a recovering heroin addict—and he’s an undercover narcotics agent,” says Sunjata. “I’m an actor pretending to be someone who’s pretending to be things that he’s not, and so on and so forth…a thing within a thing within a thing within a thing, in a mental way.”

Sunjata’s focus on his character and craft, and his continuous questions for creator Jeff Eastin, have kept him in the “beginner’s mind”: aware that one’s full grasp of the process is “always just past your fingertips.” It’s an aptly appropriated Buddhist concept called “shoshin” that brings him closer to Briggs, who in addition to everything else is a Tibetan Buddhist.

“What I said to Jeff about Season 2 was that I wanted to see Briggs spiritually be more than some bracelets and a necklace and having an altar in his room,” Sunjata explains. “What attracted me to Briggs? His darkness and his complexity, but the fact that he’s trying to resolve the opposites within him within the context of a spiritual discipline and a spiritual practice…we have that in common, I can say. I’m not saying I’m an incredibly spiritual person—I’m deeply flawed, completely fucked up like most human beings—but I have spiritual aspirations, so I can connect with that.”

To help further that connection, Sunjata and the “Graceland” cast met with the former head of the safe house upon which the show is based. Instead of asking direct questions, Sunjata observed the former agent. “I was watching the way he talked,” he says. “I saw how generally friendly and relatable he was. In my mind I was trying to reconcile, like, Wow, you would not necessarily think that this man did such a dangerous profession. I’ve noted that before about different individuals, some of whom are soldiers or had been soldiers, some who had done police work or undercover work—they can come off in a way that’s disarmingly warm. They have a sense of humor and kind of a little sparkle in the eye.”

Sunjata brings that charm and warmth to Briggs, as well, something he says comes in part from the foundation he built as a theater actor. “That has informed all of the work that I’ve done on camera,” he says. “[Theater] is a slightly different thing—you’re doing the same thing but you’re using different muscles, is the best way I can describe it, but that training has been foundational to everything I have done as an actor.”

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Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
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