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The Light from the TV Shows: Take a trip to “Graceland,” USA’s surprisingly dark new drama

If you read last week’s column about “The Glades,” where I talked about my trip to Miami a few months back and followed it with a Q&A with the cast members, you may also recall that I actually visited the set of two series on that expedition. The other, “Graceland,” makes its long awaited debut on the USA Network this evening, and in this case, calling it “long-awaited” isn’t just a case of blowing smoke.

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I actually had an opportunity to screen the pilot back in January—actually, it might even have been December, come to think of it—in advance of attending the winter TCA press tour, and I was surprised at how dark the tone of the show was. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is still USA, not HBO, so it’s not like the second coming of “The Wire” or anything, but it’s definitely not full of the same kind of quick and witty banter that’s become a hallmark of the network’s series…in a good way.

Here’s how the network describes “Graceland,” in case you’re starting to get curious:

Inspired by true events, USA’s new one-hour drama, “Graceland,” is about the adrenaline-fueled world of a diverse group of undercover agents whose lies are their lives.

“Graceland” is a place where nothing is what it seems and everyone has a secret. From the outside, this idyllic beachfront property is inhabited by a group of young roommates. Inside, a vastly different world is exposed: one that sustains itself through a complex web of lies. “Graceland” delves into the lives of an elusive group of undercover agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who live and operate under one roof. When forced to give up any shred of normalcy and the question of trust is a matter of life or death, the house becomes their sanctuary, their “Graceland.”

Graduating at the top of his class, FBI rookie, Mike Warren 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.  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. The ensemble cast features strong-willed FBI agent Catherine “Charlie” DeMarco, quick-tempered Customs agent Dale Jakes, intuitive and merciless DEA Agent Paige Arkin, and fun-loving prankster FBI agent Joe “Johnny” Tuturro.

Are you interested enough to watch a trailer for the show? I’m betting you are, but I’ll you what I’m gonna do: I’m just gonna embed a trailer right below this paragraph, and either you’ll watch it or you won’t. But it ain’t gonna cost you nothing to click on it, so…

Ha. I knew you couldn’t resist.

So now that you’ve got an idea of how the network’s publicity department is pitching the series to viewers, let’s get a bit more info from the cast members, starting with a brief character bio and a clarification of who’s playing who. Trust me: by the time we get to the last in the bunch, you’ll probably want to go ahead and add a season pass to the series to your TiVo.

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Paul Briggs

(Daniel Sunjata)

Senior FBI agent Paul Briggs has a legendary track record in the bureau. But after a mysterious event that sent him on an unexplained leave of absence a few years ago, he traded in his suit and tie for a more Zen existence. He is assigned to train the rookie who has just arrived at the house, Mike Warren-a task he reluctantly takes on.

Q:  Talk about this character, Mike.  You’re kind of drawn to him, and he’s got a darker side to him.

Daniel Sunjata:  Yeah, I mean, I haven’t had a ton of opportunities in my career so far on camera to play characters that have multiple levels going on at the same time, characters with this type of complexity and texture to them, so as soon as I saw the writing… Of course, it’s Jeff Eastin, so I knew the history of White Collar.  I knew he was a great storyteller.  And it was, uh, kind of a no-brainer. [Laughs.] There was no reason not to take the job.  Definitely a great character.

Q:  Did you chemistry-test with Aaron before getting cast?

DS:  Yeah, Aaron had gotten cast before I did, and he was there at my test, so I actually auditioned with Aaron in the room.  So, yeah, I mean I’m sure they wanted to make sure that the chemistry between, you know, 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.

Q:  What was your chemistry test?

DS:  Well, they basically brought about six or seven guys to USA on the same day, and they had us all go into a room with Aaron and read the same two scenes, and, um, thank God they chose me. [Laughs.]

Q:  All of your costars have basically said that the pilot sort of introduces the world, but it’s really the subsequent episodes that are the reasons why you guys signed on to be part of this show.  Talk about where the show goes after the pilot.

DS:  It’s hard to do that without giving spoilers, so, I mean, I’ll just say that 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 like 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.  So that’s kind of, like, all I can say without starting to describe the things that happen over the course of the season. Which we don’t want to do.

Q:  What’s going to be the balance between the more serialized storylines and the more sort of shorter cases?

DS:  Well, what I like about the first season is that it’s mostly serialized, and I’m hoping that we won’t get into, like, a little short, the crime happens, we investigate it, and we figure out whodunnit by the end of the show.  I hope that we don’t find ourselves in that territory until at least season three or four, when we’ve run out of ways to serialize the show.  But pretty much the entire first season is very serialized.

Q:  Do you think the typical USA figure will need to approach this show differently than they view other shows in the network?

DS:  Um, I think that they should be ready for, y’know, 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, you know, 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.

Q:  Have you gotten tired yet of explaining to people that you’re not, in fact, doing a show about Elvis?

DS:  [Laughs.] You know what?  That question has only come up a very few times, so no…and hopefully we’ve done a good job publicizing that it’s not that, so I don’t have to answer that question in the future!

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Mike Warren

(Aaron Tveit)

Mike is a freshly minted FBI agent just out of the Academy. He is sent to live at Graceland and work with Briggs, whom he idolizes. What he doesn’t have in life experience he makes up for in smarts. He’ll need them to fulfill his secret mission at Graceland, one that will put him at odds with his roommates.

Q:  What attracted you to the role in “Graceland”?

Aaron Tveit:  You know, when I first read this, I really liked the whole construct of the show, but, really, what drove me to Mike is that, you know, they speak about how he’s kind of the top of his class.  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, I saw that those morals were going to kind of probably, I think, be pushed a little bit and hauled into play over the course of the series.  But, really, I had an acting teacher tell me years ago that if you play someone, you want them to be the best at whatever they do.  Like, it’s not fun to play someone who’s a car salesman who’s an okay salesman.  It’s fun to play the best car salesman.  So that’s the other thing that I really loved about Mike is that this guy, he’s a brilliant agent, and he kind of has no field experience.  So I thought it was very interesting to see how all those things are going to come together, and I just was instantly drawn to it.

Q:  What is the process of choosing to be on a series like this?

AT:  You know, it’s been amazing.  It’s really been an amazing few years.  I worked on Next to Normal for so long, and at the same time I was also working on Catch Me if You Can,  so being involved in those two shows, it kind of took me out of the possibility of even auditioning for a pilot or a television series. But I was just really, really lucky that I was able to work in the theater but also kind of get my sea legs a little bit working on camera doing guest stars in New York for the shows that shot there that I didn’t have to have a contract on.  And then, you know, it was one of these things where Catch Me became closed in Labor Day of 2011, and I did a couple of things in New York, and then I literally read this script about a month later, and it was the first real pilot season that I was going to be available for.  And the script… I loved it, and I auditioned for it, and it happened really fast.  So it was one of those things where I was devastated that the show closed, but if the show didn’t close, I wouldn’t be able to do this. You know, you just got to stick to the work that you’re doing and hope that everything else is going to line up.  The last few years for me have been a huge example of that, and I’m just so grateful of all the different kind of work that I’ve been able to do.

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Catherine “Charlie” DeMarco

(Vanessa Ferlito)

Charlie is a strong-willed undercover FBI agent. She’s a chameleon on the job, easily turning herself into anything from a believable junkie to a classy businesswoman. Whatever her guise, she’s brimming with attitude and determined to take the bad guys down.

Q:  When you read the pilot script what was it about the show and the character that appealed to you?

Vanessa Ferlito:  I automatically thought, “This is the shit-TV that I watch!” But I automatically thought of reality TV, in the sense that…not comparing the writing, which was phenomenal, but just how you take, like, six or seven strangers and you put them in a house.  That’s what intrigues people.  That’s why people are so drawn to this we because, you know, just people and relationships and stuff and it wasn’t your typical procedural way.  This was more in depth with the characters and that’s what I loved.  I loved Charlie and how she was written as a strong and powerful girl in the house with a bunch of boys.  And the story was great.  The writing was really great.  And, you know, pilot season is hard, there’s so many and good writing’s so far and few between. You don’t really know. They’re, like, “Oh, this is gonna be the hit!” But you just never really know.  You kind of just have to go with what you like, and that was the one.  It was. I mean, it was, like, the beginning of pilot season, but I was, like, “This is it!”  And they were, like, “Do you want to wait? Do you want to see what’s out there? You can!” I was, like, “No, this is it.  This it it!”

Q:  It looks like a lot of the undercover cases that other people are working on it’s easy to get a little too deep and lose yourself in that.  Is that something we see with Charlie?

VF:  Yes, you see that.  What they’ve been writing for the character has been so intense,and I kind of just threw myself right in.  Right in.  I don’t want to give away too much, I always give away too much, but, you know, there’s drugs and…uh, y’know, the life of an undercover FBI agent is really dangerous and really intense and you really don’t have much of a personal life.  This becomes your whole life.  So you play hard and you work hard in the house.  And you’re kind of like a celebrity in a way.  Like, you’re like a fish in a fish hole.  They’re all living in this house, they don’t know what’s outside the door, and I think that…what was the question again? [Laughs.]

Q:  Is that something we see in the show, that everybody gets in too deep?

VF:  Oh, yeah, that’s what I was saying.  [Laughs.] Yeah.  Everybody gets in too deep.  I was going on about how, in real life, I get in too deep with the character.  But, yes, it’s inevitable, because it’s just like anything else in your life: if you look, you’re going to find it.  So if you keep going in harder and harder with these people, you’re playing with fire, you’re putting your life on the line, you’re going to get in too deep.  You’re not, like, going, “Uh-oh, a guy shoplifted at Wal-Mart.”  You’re messing with, like, the top drug dealers and killers.

Q:  You keep mentioning how dark it is and how these people are in really deep, and it seems like, of all of them, your character would be the one that’s most at risk for going over that line.

VF:  Charlie becomes really obsessed with this whole situations.  Briggs…um, I’m so bad at this part of it, because it’s, like, I don’t want to give away too much. [Laughs.] But Briggs has a secret and I’m on to it, and it could destroy everything, ruin his life.  So his eye is on the prize, but he’s hoping that it quietly goes away.  I’m looking to expose the whole thing.  I have a feeling something’s going on in the house. I’m becoming  a pain in the ass. I’m like the Debbie Downer. I’m in the middle of the living room doing my work.  I’m, like, “If I’m not having fun nobody is.”  So she’s, like, totally obsessed.  So, yeah, both mentally and physically she’s probably the most at risk.  But then again, Aaron is kind of obsessed, too.  He’s got a whole other bag of something going on. Briggs, too.  I think we’re all pretty much at risk at this point.

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Joe “Johnny” Tuturro

(Manny Montana)

The fun-loving prankster of the house, Johnny is Briggs’ right hand man and the heart of Graceland. Growing up, Johnny almost followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined a gang. Instead, he became a Navy Seal trainee, where he learned everything from undersea recoveries to diffusing bombs, and then finally joined the FBI.

Q:  So, in the pilot we see that Johnny’s kind of fun and light, compared to some of the other characters. Do we see a darker side to him as the episodes come along?

 

Manny Montana:  You know, Johnny… I really like him a lot because every other character I’ve ever played on guest starring parts on TV, it’s all serious and dramatic.  Johnny’s really light and he gets serious when he gets involved in other people’s issues.  Like, when somebody’s lying to him, he gets hurt.  He’s such a sensitive dude, in that way, like, he wants everybody to love each other, so whenever somebody’s doing something wrong or doing it not the way that he thinks it should be done, the right way, he gets emotionally involved in it, and that’s when he gets upset.  So he hasn’t had really a dark issue yet, or a dark scene yet, but he gets into it with people, in the house.

Q:  How did this guy become an agent?

MM:  Johnny?  [Laughs.]  Johnny… You know what? When I first read the part, I think me and Johnny have a lot in common, and the fact that… I’m from Long Beach, and not the best area in the world, and I had a lot of ghetto friends growing up, and I think Johnny was the same way, you know?  Just a lot of hood people around him, but he’s the one kid that does right.  You know, like ‘Boyz in the Hood,’ ‘Menace II Society,’ you know, that one good kid who’s surrounded by a lot of bad people but ends up doing good.  And I think he, unlike his friends growing up, saw the cops as friends.  And he wanted to do that.

Q:  I was going to ask about the procedural aspect of the show.  Is it one case each episode, or is there ongoing undercover plotlines?

MM:  Yeah, yeah.  It’s definitely more serialized, and that’s another reason why I like the show so much. I’m sorry, I can’t stand cop shows on TV.  I’m not gonna say names, you guys know which ones they are, but, you know, how many times can you say, “Where were you on the night of such and such?”  You know, and the guest stars are the big part of the show, in all honesty.  In this show, you know, we have stories that go on the full season, we have guest stars that are there the full season, and amazing guest stars like Benga and Jen.  One of my friends is actually on the show, Billy Lush. I mean, these guys come in and do such a great job, and we’re just in the mix of it. So…it’s more serialized. You have to watch to know what’s going on.  So it’s more that kind of show and that’s why I say it’s more like these HBO shows that I love, like the ‘Game of Thrones’ and the ‘Boardwalk Empires’ and the ‘Breaking Bads’ of the world, you know, where people are just genuinely involved in it.  So, yeah, that’s why I like it a lot.

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Dale “DJ” Jakes

(Brandon Jay McLaren)

A quick-tempered U.S. Customs agent, Jakes is the most territorial of the roommates. What’s his is his, and he’ll make sure everyone know it. He’s a tough nut to crack, but underneath his shell is a truly dedicated agent with a lot of wisdom. Jakes is a bit of a lone wolf, but he is always there to help the team when they’re in need.

Q:  When you read the pilot, what was your attraction to the show and the character?

Brandon McLaren:  Um, you know, it just had a really cool feeling. My manager sent it over, and she’s, like, “Brandon, read this, it’s just cool.”  That’s the word that she used.  And I read it, and I was, like, “Yeah, this is pretty cool.”  It’s the way Jeff writes, the way he kind of delineates the different characters. And the setting. And there’s this sexiness to it. Yeah, I loved it.  You know, it kind of makes that kind of cool vibe with good character development.  So kind of everything you want in a pilot as an actor when you’re reading it.

Q:  Was your preparation for this different than any other past roles?  Did you focus on this one different?

BM:  Yeah, a little bit.  I mean, I had to think about what type of person would want to enter this field of work, you know, because I do believe it’s a special type of person.  Me, personally I could never do this work in real life.  So I always think about what kind of person wants to get into this and what are the reasons why?  Why do they stay in it, even when it-it continues to rip away at their personal life, even when they can’t have normal relationships? Why?  So I thought about that a lot and then, and then subsequently read about that a lot.  So, yeah, I did prepare in that way, because I think that’s important.

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Paige Arkin

(Serinda Swan)

A smart and sexy DEA undercover agent with a smile that lights up the room and a killer left-hook, she drinks hard, plays hard and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She’ll do whatever it takes to arrest the enemy and after she has them in cuffs, she uses her talents for ballbusting to make even the hardest criminal cooperate.

Q:  You weren’t in the original pilot? Did you get a chance to see it before you signed on?

Serinda Swan:  No.  I didn’t.  I had to do this basically on the trust of past projects that USA have done, and on Jeff Houston and the entire team that basically is a part of “Graceland.”  It was a really quick process, extremely quick.  It was one of those things where we ended up pushing the audition because of scheduling and I ended up going in for the audition and within two days, basically, papers were being signed.

Q:  How did they explain the character to you?

SS:  Um, Paige was a bit of a mystery at first, because I think it was kind of a collaboration on where we thought she was going to go and how we wanted to play with her and if she was going to be anybody’s love interest or if she was just going to come in and be this energy. But I think her thing is and part of the reason why I wanted to play her is that she’s pretty light.  And they give her a good sense of humor, but at the same time, she’ll kick your ass, which I was, like, “Oh, that sounds like a fun female character to play!” [Laughs.] And I’ve had a lot of more tough female characters that have had anger issues and have been very dark, and she’s not like that.  She doesn’t have this big skeleton in the closet that’s driving her.  Yes, she has personal reasons on why she got into the DEA, but the way they described her is as this light that comes in, and she’s got that kind of fun energy, she’s the girl that’ll come in and listen to your problems and then smack your ass and wink at you and be, like, “Get back to work!” So she’s got that. She’s got a very fun personality which I love, which I was completely drawn to.

Q:  What are those personal reasons?

SS:  That’s one of the beautiful things about “Graceland”: it’s not just a procedural, and obviously we have several different cases that you’ll see us go through, some we solve in one episode, some go through the entire season, and within that it’s really about the characters. And obviously, y’know, it’s USA, so characters are welcomed, and this is a very characters-welcomed show.  You’ll start to see that, as you think you’re getting to know one of the characters, it’ll just completely switch it around.  So sometimeswe’re reading our scripts and all of a sudden, it’s, like, “Hey, I didn’t even know this about me.  What’s going on?” And Jeff’s, like, “Yeah you’re welcome.”  So you’ll get to see a little bit of back story through the season, and a lot of it is just kind of how we deal with situations.  It’s kind of when you meet somebody, they don’t just sit down and go, “What’s up?  I was born here, I did that, this happened to me, this is why I’m making this choice.” You know, the audience is really left to form their own idea of who this character is.  Which I think is kind of a really beautiful and interesting way for an audience to get to know a character.

  

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