Graceland Interview: Daniel Sunjata and Aaron Tveit on Mike and Briggs’ Relationship, Finding Chemistry, Surfing Lessons and More

Graceland - Aaron Tveit and Daniel Sunjata

Graceland premieres Thursday, June 6 at 10/9C on USA. TV Equals visited the set earlier this year and got the chance to chat with stars Daniel Sunjata and Aaron Tveit. Check out the interview below to find out what will happen with their characters this season, how fast they found their chemistry and why it’s apparently not a good idea to go surfing immediately after eating shrimp scampi.

Here is a brief synopsis of the show from USA:

USA’s new original series Graceland delves into the lives of an elusive group of undercover agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and US Customs, who live and operate under one roof (the house got its name because the drug lord from whom the authorities seized the property was known to be an obsessed Elvis Presley fan. FBI rookie, Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) anticipates a traditional DC desk job when he’s unexpectedly shipped to “Graceland.” Immediately thrown into his first undercover assignment, he relies heavily on the guidance of legendary FBI agent and mentor Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata). Briggs is an unusually Zen senior agent who notoriously hates the rule book and will go to any length to protect Graceland from the outside world.

Here are a few things we learned from the interviews:

Graceland isn’t your typical “blue skies” USA show, and that’s not a bad thing. Asked to describe the overall theme of the show, Sunjata said: “It’s not going to be the typical blue skies fair of USA. It’s more gray skies, and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I mean there’s definitely some levity. There’s some comedy. But yeah, I think that they should brace themselves for a little trip to the dark side, so to speak. But I think it’s done within a context that keeps it true to USA’s brand. So hopefully we’ll bring their viewers along with us.”

Mike is a smart guy, but his morals will be tested this season. Asked to talk about his character, Tveit said: “He’s a really smart guy, but he’s very much a winning character. He was a person with a good moral structure and good values, and I saw – with all the things that were going to happen in the show and I could see with the character of Briggs and how much he was going to admire someone like that – that those morals were going to kind of probably, I think, pushed a little bit and hauled into play over the course of the series.”

Mike and Briggs have a really complex relationship. Asked to talk a little bit about the relationship between Mike and Briggs throughout the course of the season, Tveit said: “It’s a really, really complex relationship, which is a lot of fun, because I think at the core of it – if there’s a line between what’s right and what’s wrong as an FBI agent, if you wanted to say – I think that Mike is on one side of the line, and Briggs on the other side. And as we kind of grow together, I think we almost learn from each other to grow towards the middle of it, but we’re really still on each side of this line. But it’s really complex because Mike really likes Briggs. Briggs is a great agent, and [Mike] realizes that he can learn a lot from him, but at the end of the day, they just both go about things in very, very different ways. So they’re always going to be at odds.”

Briggs may be the senior agent, but Mike wants to help his mentor as well. When asked if Mike might ever try to pull Briggs back to the side of right, Tveit said: “Definitely. I think that plays into it, too. I think it does come to a point where – how I’ve been looking at it is that everything that happens, it’s all from the point of help, and that maybe I can get Briggs back on track. These things start to develop that, instead of just being a complete servant to this FBI master, that I really can maybe pull Briggs back a little bit and help him as a friend.”

Mike has to grow up really fast. Speaking more about his character and what happens to him over the course of the first season, Tveit said: “Mike is thrown right in it. I mean he’s someone who’s very prepared for this job, but he just kind of doesn’t actually have the sea legs. They drop him right in the water and kind of tell him to figure out how to swim right away. So I have to learn really fast what happens. I think there’s definitely an innocence that’s lost over the course of [the season]. He’s this really book-smart guy who just doesn’t know anything about being in the field, and then as it goes you just really get to see his natural instincts are so spot-on, and it carries him through these tremendous situations, and I think he has really, really changed by the end of the season.”

Mike will get a romantic interest this season. Asked about the chance of romance for Mike in the first season, Tveit said: “I meet a girl; actually, it’s really nice. [Mike] is such an East Coast guy that being out on the West Coast and being in this situation is so not what he bargained for, and then [he] meets this beautiful girl, and she happens to be spending the summer out here, and she’s from the DC area, and we kind of bond over that. And then that gets very complicated too, because I really care for this girl, but then I literally have to lie to her all the time, and so it becomes a very straining thing too about that I want to be honest with this person, and I can’t be honest with this person.”

The chemistry between Sunjata and Tveit developed early on. Asked to talk about the chemistry between himself and Tveit, Sunjata said: “Aaron had gotten cast before I did and he was there at my test. So I actually auditioned with Aaron in the room. I’m sure they wanted to make sure that the chemistry between whoever they cast as Briggs – thank God it was me – and Aaron was going to be on point. And I think they saw that in the audition.”

Briggs may look like a slacker, but when it comes to the job, he’s anything but. In the pilot we learn that Briggs tests really well, drinks during the day and sleeps continuously, but Sunjata says there’s more to Briggs than that. “Well, I guess what makes him so good is that he can do all of that and he still does his job at a very, very high level – not that functional alcoholics are something that we should be praising. I mean he’s got kind of a surfer-slacker-Bohemian vibe, and yet when it comes time to take care of business, he’s absolutely all about it and he always-always gets his man, so to speak.”

Nothing is at is seems on Graceland. Asked about Briggs’ journey this season, and if we’ll be seeing him fighting any internal demons, Sunjata said: “Absolutely. You’ll see not only Briggs’ demons, but some demons from other people in the show. Nothing is as it seems in Graceland. I mean we set the tone with the pilot and with the first episode, and then from there, threads start to unravel, and you start to see what’s going on the underbelly of the ship. And yeah, everybody’s got secrets.”

Everything changes after the first episode. Speaking more about the upcoming season, Sunjata added: “The pilot obviously sets the tone, draws the broad strokes of the relationships between the individuals and the house. The reason why I personally was attracted to the show is that it’s not a procedural. It is a show that’s character driven and dialogue driven, and so after the first episode, the relationships in the house become more and more complex and become stripped of their façade of happy-go-lucky normalcy, and you get to see what it’s like to live in a house with people who lie for a living outside the walls of that house, and then sometimes have to play secrets very close to their chest, even when they come home, presumably to be themselves, but they can’t even be themselves at home, you find out.”

Briggs may fight it at first, but he will end up liking his mentoring job with Mike. Asked to talk about how the relationship between Briggs and Mike develops, Sunjata said: “He is my new trainee, and so it develops through us spending time together and me kind of showing him the ropes of working undercover narcotics in the greater Los Angeles area. You see a little resistance from [Briggs] during the pilot, but after that he pretty much begrudgingly takes on the responsibility. I can say that Briggs ends ups liking Mike as a person, so it’s not like a huge burden.”

We’re not going to see much of Brigg’s personal life in the first season – at Sunjata’s request. Asked if the show will delve into Briggs’ personal life in the first season, Sunjata said: “Not so much in the first season, actually. I actually made the request that Briggs not have a real intense love interest or that we get too deep into his personal life outside of the house. Most of – and I think it’s true for almost all the characters on the show – most of what you’ll see in the first season is all about the relationships within the house. We don’t really dig too much into what-what they do outside of the house with very few exceptions.”

According to Sunjata, going surfing immediately after eating shrimp scampi is a very bad idea. When we got on set, we were regaled with a story about Sunjata losing his lunch on a surfboard so of course we asked him to recount how it happened. “My recount of that? So, uh, yeah, for all of your readers and listeners out there: never go surfing after eating shrimp scampi. That’s what I would say. We had broken for lunch, and we were doing this scene where we’re out on our surfboards at the end of Santa Monica pier, and it was right after lunch. And what can I say? I mean the swells were pretty intense, and we were out there for about 45 minutes, and I’m not really a surfer, and you know before I knew it I was chumming the water with my lunch.”

What do you think now that you’ve heard a bit more about the first season of Graceland from its stars? Will you be checking out the show when it premieres on USA?

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