PASADENA, Calif. — It’s not just a coincidence that actor Daniel Sunjata is starring as the lead FBI agent in USA Network’s taut new series, “Graceland,” premiering June 6. It took a mountain of circumstances to land him on the show, which is based on real-life federal enforcers who lived undercover in a Southern California beach house.
It wasn’t exactly luck. In fact Sunjata — who spent seven years as the fiery Franco Rivera on “Rescue Me,” and co-starred in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Dark Knight Rises” — doesn’t believe in luck. What he believes in bears far more consequence than luck.
“I believe in a universe where even though we might not be able to comprehend the divine calculus behind it, I believe in a universe that makes sense on some level, even if we can’t quite fathom how and why,” he says, his long legs grazing the small, round table in front of him in the lounge of a hotel here. “So there has to be a reason — karma — I don’t know,” he shrugs.
All of his life Sunjata, 41, has been goaded by forces beyond his control, starting with his adoption when he was two months old by a loving couple who nurtured and supported him.
“The only memories I have are of the same two people who adopted me and raised me to adulthood,” he says. “I never met my biological parents. There was a time when I thought about (finding them). I think it’s because I didn’t have any incredibly traumatic experience as an adoptee — I was very, very fortunate in my experience with adoption.”
His adoptive mother suffered from a polio-like disease when she was a child and was confined to a wheelchair. But it didn’t prevent her from being the major breadwinner in the family and encouraging her son’s imagination. It was a confluence of circumstances that put Sunjata on the path to acting in the first place.
He was in college majoring in business administration when he happened to catch a discussion on television between Bill Moyers and philosopher Joseph Campbell.
“I remember they were talking about how Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces,’ was one of the things that influenced George Lucas to make the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy,” he recalls.
“When I was a child those three movies really just set my mind ablaze creatively. Like many people, I was just so inspired by that. So I remember later, like the next week ... I was digging through a box of memorabilia I’d brought to school with me. And one of the things in the box was a baby book my mother had put together for me ...
“I flipped to the back and found a letter I’d written to George Lucas when I was 6 or 7 years old. And my mother, who was always very encouraging even if she might have known as an adult this is probably not going to go anywhere ... I remember her encouraging me to write this letter to him,” he says.
“Flash forward. I’m 19 years old trying to decide what to do with my life. Seeing that program on TV, finding that letter that I’d written to him, I felt like the universe was dropping breadcrumbs that I think I should follow. The moment I made that decision in faith, feeling forward blindly in the dark, kind of using the ‘force; so to speak, the moment I made that decision, the universe started to conspire to confirm and aid me in that decision,” he says, leaning forward.
“I got cast as Hamlet in a production. Help started arriving from unforeseen sources. Doors started opening where I did not know they would be. It was really a life-altering experience.”
Once he decided to act he never worked a “civilian” job to get by. “After I graduated from NYU there was a period of about three months where nothing much was going on and then I got my first job. It was ‘Twelfth Night’ with Helen Hunt and Paul Rudd. It was a very small role, but it was a Broadway show,” says Sunjata, who’s wearing denims, a gray T-shirt and a hoodie.
There was a period of five months when Sunjata’s dad helped with the rent so he could concentrate on auditions. “After that, it was like every time I really needed a job the universe would send one to me somehow. I know there’s a lot of incredibly talented people who don’t work ... there’s a lot of incredibly beautiful people who don’t work … I don’t know what to attribute it to. I had excellent training at NYU, very motivated, had a lot of desire. But there are a lot of aspiring actors out there who had all the same things, and it just never fell together for them. So I have to call it grace.”
He finds grace in other facets of his life. “Even though we can’t factor and compute the force behind events that seem completely random and totally meaningless, does that necessarily mean there is no higher power?,” he says.
“I find that hard to believe because I see evidence of a higher power everywhere I look,” says Sunjata, whose full name is Daniel Sunjata Condon. The name Sunjata comes from the founder of Mali.
“I’m paraphrasing somebody else’s brilliant quote,” he continues, “but I tend to believe we’re spiritual beings that have human experiences, not human beings that have occasional spiritual experiences.”