You’ve no doubt seen all of Daniel Sunjata’s work. He’s been in hit series like Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy and some of our favorite movies like The Devil Wears Prada. More often than not, Sunjata’s the good guy on screen, not the muscle-bulging, gun-toting, designer-dud wearing drug dealer who’s upset the delicate balance of the world in Power Book II: Ghost. ESSENCE caught up with Sunjata to speak about this new role, working with Mary J. Blige and why ladies want to see him in more romantic leads.
ESSENCE: You’re so drastically different in every role you play. What do you attribute to your ability to transform for each of your roles?
DANIEL SUNJATA: I would like to believe that it has something to do with at least a modicum of talent. And I trust my training. I got really, really good actor training at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Then I would say my ethnic ambiguity. (Sunjata, who was adopted, is biracial with a white mother and a Black father.) I’ve always looked at that as a strength as an actor. It gives you range just on face value. People don’t know what box to check when they look at me. Because of that, I can play different ethnicities.
ESSENCE: What drew you to the role of Mecca?
SUNJATA: The fact that Courtney Kemp, who I hold in very high esteem, just called to offer me the job. And who would turn down Courtney Kemp? She’s a Goliath in talent in television right now. All of my people called me. Any time I get a call from my representatives and I pick up the phone and there’s an assistant that says, ‘Daniel, we have Meg, Nancy, Nicholas…’ That’s always good news. It’s Christmas time!
We arranged the call with Courtney and she broke down the character. It was a character unlike any I’ve ever gotten the chance to play before: an international drug dealer, Mary J. Blige is your love interest. You get to wear Tom Ford and gorilla pimp fur coats. I was like ‘Oh my gosh! This is so exciting.’ There was no down side. There was no reason to say no.
ESSENCE: Did you know at the time that your character was going to be such a disruptor?
SUNJATA: I did. When I had that initial creative conversation with Courtney, she said, ‘Daniel, this is a great role. Not only is it unlike any character you’ve ever played before but Mecca is a driving force for every other character on the show. The decisions Mecca makes touch every other storyline. It checked all the boxes.
ESSENCE: What have you been able to do as an actor playing a bad boy this time around?
SUNJATA: Usually, I’m the guy who almost gets the girl. Or I play a cop, or a firefighter. In The Devil Wears Prada, I’m a fashion designer. This was just completely outside of the box. I wanted to make a choice, in terms of my next role, that people wouldn’t expect. I wanted to do something people don’t normally think of when they think of Daniel Sunjata. So what I got out of the experience was being able to step outside of not only my comfort zone but the type of characters I have played most of my career.
ESSENCE: What have you noticed about Mary J. Blige’s acting chops working alongside her?
SUNJATA: First of all, she’s definitely has those. She’s very skilled. But for me, I just had to not be a fanboy. I went to Florida A&M University. When I was a freshman or sophomore at FAMU, Mary dropped What’s the 411? That’s when I just started majoring in theater and she was already becoming the icon that she is today as a musical artist. So to be on set with her was an out of body experience. I had to just keep it calm–not start humming her songs around her. Just keep it about the acting. But she’s very talented as a actor, very generous and I had a great time working with her.
ESSENCE: What is it about Power and now Power Book II: Ghost that keeps captivating audiences?
SUNJATA: The comparison I draw, even though they’re two totally different worlds, is what Dick Wolf did with Law and Order. Dick Wolf found a formula that worked and just expanded from there with all the other iterations. What Courtney has done, in terms of this particular genre, is very similar. She has the mothership Power. Then you have Power Book II. She has Raising Kanan, BMF. She’s found a formula that works in terms of telling stories about us, even if they’re extremely dramatized. What she’s doing is groundbreaking. Nobody’s ever done this before, not in the context of this genre.
ESSENCE: If you Google your name or search what people are saying about you on Twitter, You’ll come across conversations like, ‘Daniel Sunjata is so beautiful. Why isn’t he in a romantic comedy ever other week?’ Is there anything like that on the horizon for you?
Sunjata: Laughs. What I’m working on right now is kind of romantic lead. It’s a Netflix limited series called Echoes with Michelle Monaghan and Matt Bomer. I’m literally shooting that now. It probably won’t air until the end of this year but it is a romantic lead. So for the people who are clamoring for that, it’s coming. It’s on the way.
Photo Credit: Eric Hobbs/STARZ