With a new starring role on ABC’s ‘Notorious,’ Florida A&M’s own Daniel Sunjata is ready for the big leagues
“I’ve already experienced the thrill of victory,” says Daniel Sunjata. “I had the experience of being on a team, sacrificing for the team. Going undefeated, winning titles, state championships.”
So blame an early peak on why Sunjata didn’t spend his 20s and early 30s rushing quarterbacks and calling defensive plays. As a linebacker at Mount Carmel, a South Side Chicago Catholic boys high school with a storied football tradition, and just about everything a hard-hitting pass-rusher could dream of, Sunjata ticked football off his list before turning 18.
“I also remember having this moment of metaphysical impact — as the final seconds ticked off the clock for the first state championship we won, it was already over,” he says. “And as the moment passed … there was this moment of jubilation and excitation and it actually landed on me a little bit sad. That was the first time I realized you have to stop and smell the roses along the way. Because it’s not [about] arriving. It’s the getting there.”
Sunjata, who attended Florida A&M University — he earned a scholarship to study business administration and decided to pass up a walk-on slot on the historically black college’s football squad — takes on the role of Jake Gregorian in ABC’s Notorious, which is based on high-profile defense attorney Mark Geragos. The series is an insider look at the intersection of cable news and criminal law. And if you’ve ever seen Geragos on TV — and you have — you already know that he’s Armenian.
Sunjata — clearly — is not.
“I love the fact that [ABC has] shows where people of color are the leads of the show, and it’s just not even commented on,” says Sunjata, who is biracial. “It just is what it is. That’s very cool, very progressive thinking. The fact that Channing [Dungey] is now head of the network — a black woman!”
His looks — light skin and European facial features — sometimes don’t fit with Hollywood’s view of what black people look like. That can be a career roadblock. Looking the part in this industry can be — more times than should be the case — as important as line delivery, and it’ll stop you before you start. Sunjata’s managed to push past that obstruction. At the least, he gets in the door.
“For me, it’s been advantageous. The casting director oftentimes will get a breakout for a script, they will look up into the air, scratch their chin and say, ‘What are the 15 faces that come to mind for the role of Paul Briggs on Graceland?’ ” he says, referencing his role on the USA Network show, which ended in 2015. “And at first, they weren’t necessarily — it’s not racism! — they’re not like, ‘We don’t want any black people in this role!’ They think of the guys that they know, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion, a meme, a governing thought dynamic that is made below the threshold of consciousness. My people were like, ‘You know, send him in. Maybe?’ ”
Sunjata went in and got the part. “I’ve been all over the map. I choose to see my ethnic nonwhiteness as an acting asset because it expands my range. I can play Latino, I can play light-skinned black, I can play a bunch of things, or I can play somebody who is just ambiguously nonwhite and no explanation needed.”
In this new role on ABC, his character, despite still holding an Armenian-sounding surname, is a black man. His brother on the show is played by a very brown-skinned actor J. August Richards, and in the show’s pilot talks about how their father founded the firm. That’s a major, yet understated win.
Sunjata, who cut his acting teeth while at Florida A&M — he played Hamlet in a stage production — says that his guiding light has been to stay in the moment.
“It’s kind of like the thing I was saying about football players. You just have to be fully present for the audition. Do the best you can and then not be too attached to the outcome because there’s no objective criteria by which to judge the effect of any action in my business,” he says, before breaking out into laughter. “Not from the standpoint of an actor. Some people can graduate from Juilliard, never be heard from again. Somebody else gets on a bus in Michigan with a suitcase and 50 bucks, hops off in Times Square and becomes Madonna. You got to do your thing. Don’t quit and things happen.”
Notorious has a golden time slot because the return of Scandal has been pushed back due to actress Kerry Washington’s pregnancy. That doesn’t mean that his new series — which kind of feels like a new wave version of Moonlighting, and is set in the world of nightly cable news and high stakes celebrity crime — will automatically grab the numbers and attention Scandal gets. Sunjata and his cast are going to have to work for it. And have no doubt, he’s primed for just that.