Unique premise for ‘Graceland’ is based on real events

Posted Thursday, Jun. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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More information Graceland • 9 p.m. Thursday • USA

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What captures Daniel Sunjata’s imagination about Graceland, a new crime drama on the USA Network, is that it’s based on a true story.

It so happens that the U.S. government seized a beachfront property in Manhattan Beach, Calif., from a drug dealer in 1992 — and for the next decade the place was an undercover residence for federal agents of the FBI, DEA and Customs.

The mansion was called Graceland, by the way, because the drug lord who owned it had been obsessed with Elvis Presley.

“The concept of all these different agents living under the same roof and working undercover narcotics together is so utterly original,” says Sunjata, who stars as a near-legendary agent named Paul Briggs. “Yet it’s based on a true story.

“Just to know that an actual Graceland-type situation existed is pretty fascinating.”

Graceland, the series, which premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, will take liberties, of course, by dramatizing the scenario for entertainment value.

“We’re going to live in a much nicer house than the actual agents in the actual Graceland lived in,” Sunjata says. “And we’re going to have nicer clothes. And we’ll debatably even drive nicer cars.”

It also goes without saying that the residents of TV’s Graceland will be much better looking.

This is a stylishly filmed show that is thematically reminiscent of Miami Vice, Hawaii Five-0 and USA’s long-running Burn Notice (which precedes Graceland at 8 p.m.).

They’re all set in paradise, but the idyllic surroundings are sullied by the presence of ugly crimes and ruthless criminals. It’s a tried-and-true combo that television keeps using because it works.

Sunjata’s Briggs is a living legend in FBI circles — although new agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) is surprised to find he’s not the super-agent he expected. Instead, Briggs is a laid-back surf-loving dude, at least until those moments when his training kicks in.

Sunjata, who starred on the acclaimed Rescue Me, had to test for the role, because the producers didn’t initially see him as the right type to play Briggs.

“The issue, I think, was that they had imagined the character as kind of a Matt McConaughey, long-hair, beach-bum type,” the actor says. “And my ethnic ambiguity doesn’t really lend itself to that particular look.”

But in Sunjata’s hands, the character is one of the show’s greatest assets.

One highlight of the pilot episode is the story of a bad guy recognizing the undercover Briggs as a law-enforcement type — and Briggs quickly sells an explanation that he looks like a cop because he sometimes plays one in low-budget movies.

To prepare for the show, Sunjata and his co-stars went through extensive police training.

“I would have loved to have shadowed an actual FBI narcotics agent, but that unfortunately did not happen,” Sunjata says. “What was made available to us was a couple interesting and informative conversations with a gentleman who presided over the actual Graceland.

“And then, as well, we got gun training. We worked with a SWAT team in the Miami-Dade police force. They showed us how to clear houses and wield our firearms appropriately. So hopefully we’ll come off as being genuine.”

Now Sunjata is armed with so much insider information that he wonders, if given a prop badge and gun and dropped off at a police station, how long he could fake it before being found out.

“I think the other cops would probably know immediately that I wasn’t really a police officer,” he says. “I don’t think I could fool people who actually do the job. I’m sure there would be some lingo or something that I wouldn’t be hip to in the first few minutes.

“But I think I might be able to pull a fast one on a civilian for an hour or two.”

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