PASSION PLAYER. With a Master of Fine Arts degree from the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Daniel Sunjata is well-equipped with the tools to be a star of stage and screen. He has been capitalizing on that with prominent roles in Grey’s Anatomy and the upcoming Gone alongside Amanda Seyfried. By Refa Koetin
Shirt by Klein Epstein & Parker
Originally from the U.S. state of Illinois, Daniel Sunjata has an exotic and diverse heritage, giving him a distinctive style all his own. Once garnering the honor of ‘most beautiful people,’ Sunjata doesn’t shy away from flaunting his style in fashionable ways.
With credits that go back to the late 1990s and include guest appearances on the likes of Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada, 30 Rock and others, he’s finally become a household name since playing the role of Nurse Eli on Grey’s Anatomy, in which he has guest-starred in eight episodes since 2010 and continues to be a part of.
An award-winning theater actor, Sunjata’s perseverance has been rewarded with a prominent role in this year’s Gone, alongside Amanda Seyfried and an intriguing role as special forces agent in The Dark Knight Rises directed by Christopher Nolan.
DA MAN: Tell us about your upcoming movie Gone. What is the role that you play and how does it fit into the plot of the movie?
Daniel Sunjata: In Gone, my character’s name is Powers. I play a detective who has serious doubts about Jill’s (played by Amanda Seyfried) story that her sister has been abducted by a serial killer. We had an absolute blast shooting the film!
DA MAN: Do you have a method for choosing which roles to pursue, or do you just let fate decide and then go with it full-speed ahead?
Daniel Sunjata: When it comes to choosing a role my main considerations are the quality of the script, the type of character I’d be playing and the other people working on the project. Ideally, I want to work on well-written, high-concept projects with great actors and talented directors. So does every other actor in the world. Therefore, usually we must choose from the opportunities before us that most closely approximate our criteria.
DA MAN: One of your first TV appearances was in All My Children, whose cancellation, some say, signaled ‘the end of an era.’ How did you react to the news?
Daniel Sunjata: With a nod of respect to a long-running, iconic show that entertained millions of viewers for decades.
DA MAN: Speaking of daytime soap operas, do you have any guilty pleasures?
Daniel Sunjata: Pizza. And doughnuts.
DA MAN: You have appeared in a number of 9/11-focused projects. Has that been a conscious choice?
Daniel Sunjata: Yes and no. Regarding Rescue Me, it was not so much a choice as it was a great opportunity to pay my bills while being socially relevant at the same time. I couldn’t pass it up. I also narrated a documentary titled Loose Change 911: An American Coup, which can be viewed for free on YouTube or Hulu.com. That was indeed a conscious choice.
DA MAN: Your Rescue Me 9/11 episode stirred quite a controversy. Did you have an inkling beforehand that such a stir was going to happen?
Daniel Sunjata: I felt gratified and humbled that I was being given the opportunity to advocate on behalf of an issue that I care very deeply about. I definitely knew it would raise eyebrows, but honestly I was surprised that it didn’t cause more of a stir than it did.
DA MAN: Can you tell us more about your role in The Dark Knight Rises and working with Director Nolan?
Daniel Sunjata: Under penalty of death, I have been sworn to secrecy regarding this project, but what I can tell you is that I portray a special forces operative who tries to help Batman defeat Bane. Working with Christopher Nolan was a great thrill for me. Taking direction from such a visionary artist is what every actor dreams of. I was very thankful for the opportunity.
DA MAN: It appears that Nolan has been extremely secretive about The Dark Knight Rises. Was that part of something the whole cast had to buy into?
Daniel Sunjata: Appearances can sometimes be deceiving, but not in this case. Indeed an impenetrable cloud of secrecy surrounded the entire shoot—to the extent that most of the actors never saw a full script. We even had to sign confidentiality agreements. Beyond that, however, the burden of maintaining secrecy rests mainly with the production staff and with Mr. Nolan.
DA MAN: You have an impressive education, including an MFA. At what point—before, during or after university—did you realize you should and/or desired a career as a professional actor?
Daniel Sunjata: I realized during my sophomore year at Florida A&M University that acting was a passion of mine, so continuing along an academic arc was the best option and path of least resistance for me. Undergraduate degrees in theater are oftentimes too general to fully prepare an actor for life after graduation, so I felt the need to further study my craft in a conservatory-style graduate acting program in order to solidly develop and establish my own approach to the work.
DA MAN: What can you tell about your very first exposure to the world of showbiz?
Daniel Sunjata: My first significant experience after graduation was a small role in Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center in New York. Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick, Philip Bosco, Paul Rudd and David Patrick Kelly rounded out a cast that I could literally not believe I was sharing a stage with. It was magical.
DA MAN: Theater, TV and movies. You’ve become somewhat of an expert at all three, but which one do you like most?
Daniel Sunjata: I’m far from an expert at any of those three, but my greatest passion is live performance in the theater. There is something sacred about its ritual and something resonant about its transformative power as a tool for individual and collective introspection.
DA MAN: We’ve heard you were quite an accomplished football player at your high school in Chicago. Did you ever consider seriously pursuing a career in sports?
Daniel Sunjata: I thought about playing pro football, but soon realized that that was not my path. I learned a lot from my years playing sports and recall those times with great fondness and affection. Winning championships alongside people you’ve sacrificed and suffered with is an amazing experience that one never forgets.
DA MAN: What sports or fitness regimen do you do these days when you have free time?
Daniel Sunjata: Lately, nothing [chuckles]. It’s pathetic.
DA MAN: What do you think has been the single most important turning point in your career thus far?
Daniel Sunjata: A play called Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg.
DA MAN: You’ve worked with a lot of great people throughout your career. Can you tell us who you look up to the most among the people you’ve worked with and why?
Daniel Sunjata: I try to learn something from everyone, but working with Meryl Streep on The Devil Wears Prada was certainly a singular experience. I could wax poetic about why, but I wouldn’t say anything about that woman’s artistry that hasn’t already been said.
DA MAN: What can you tell us a bit about what you have planned (or hoping for) in the future?
Daniel Sunjata: I’m hoping that [my 2012] films do well, that audiences find them entertaining, and that they will help to attract exciting and challenging opportunities to continue doing what I love; acting.
DA MAN: What do you think makes a truly great actor?
Daniel Sunjata: A truly great actor is one who lives life fully and viscerally retains the savor of its experiences, one who knows the inestimable value of truly listening, one who approaches the craft of acting with a beginner’s mind, one who communicates volumes in silence, and one who understands and appreciates the grand power of storytelling.
DA MAN: What do you do to unwind?
Daniel Sunjata: Read.
DA MAN: Where do you see yourself in a decade from now?
Daniel Sunjata: I don’t tend to set my sights that far afield because I hold a belief that the seed of the future is in the present moment.
DA MAN: What qualities do you most like in people?
Daniel Sunjata: Kindness. Compassion. The ability and tendency to think contextually.
DA MAN: What do you most value in your friends?
Daniel Sunjata: Loyalty.
DA MAN: What is your dream of happiness?
Daniel Sunjata: Insight and overstanding.
DA MAN: Who are your heroes, both in real life or characters in books or movies?
Daniel Sunjata: My parents, Bob Marley, First Responders, whistle-blowers, Cynthia McKinney, peaceful protesters, addicts in recovery, teachers, Aslan from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles Of Narnia, Neo from The Matrix, Luke Skywalker from Star Wars.
DA MAN: What is it you most dislike about showbiz?
Daniel Sunjata: Its subservience to market forces, the cult of celebrity, gossip, superficiality and extreme egotism.
DA MAN: What natural gift would you most like to possess?
Daniel Sunjata: Love; though I’d rather be it than possess it.
DA MAN: Your most prominent characteristics?
Daniel Sunjata: Curiosity and Imagination.
DA MAN: What, to your mind, would be the greatest of misfortunes?
Daniel Sunjata: To die without having truly lived, without knowing love, without believing in dreams and without having explored one’s true potential.
DA MAN: What would you like to be?
Daniel Sunjata: A peacemaker, a dreamer and an inspiration.
Photographs: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Styling: Joshua Seth
Grooming: Sarah Uslan/Jedroot
Creative director: Jennifer de Klaver
Associate editors: Eric Silverberg, Yann Bean, Thomas Miller, Vanessa Miller
Special Thanks: Mark and Denise
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