STAGE TO SCREENS: Tony Nominee Sunjata Does TV; Series Vet Gugino Debuts on Broadway

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Tony Nominee Sunjata Does TV; Series Vet Gugino Debuts on Broadway This month we talk to Daniel Sunjata, whose breakthrough stage role was as a gay baseball hero in Take Me Out, and who's now up at bat as an everyday hero, a New York City firefighter, in the FX cable series "Rescue Me," which debuts July 21 at 10 PM ET.
Daniel Sunjata in
Daniel Sunjata in "Resuce Me"

We also speak to Carla Gugino, who's making her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller's After the Fall, which opens July 29 at the American Airlines Theatre. Last season, she starred on ABC as "Karen Sisco" (her third series); currently, she's playing a former Mrs. Miller.

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"Rescue Me," says Daniel Sunjata (Suhn-JAH-tah), is "very much an ensemble piece. None of us has a measuring stick out when we get a script. We work on two simultaneously, so right now we're doing five and six [of a 13-episode commitment]. We shoot on location all over New York City. Interiors are shot in Long Island City."

The star of the series is Denis Leary (also an executive producer), who plays Tommy Gavin, a firefighter haunted by memories of 9/11 and ghosts of the past. Father of three, he's going through a divorce. Sunjata's role is a cocky Puerto Rican, Franco Rivera. "My character is extremely single. They're choosing to focus some of the more amorous plot lines through my character."

Affable and enthusiastic, Sunjata says that research for his role included "visiting firehouses and talking to firemen. I'm constantly working on research. I've been watching a lot more of Telemundo [laughs], and am definitely picking the brains of my Latino friends. It's a challenge to play a Puerto Rican firefighter. But Franco doesn't speak with an accent." Is the character similar to himself? "Gee, I hope not, though I certainly have many character flaws — and am far from perfect. "Television is a different animal [compared to stage]; I'm still exploring it. I'll definitely stay on the stage as much as I can. I can't believe my good fortune [with the series]. It's a socially relevant piece that deals with 9/11.

"Some people don't get the opportunity to do something vital even once in a career. Even if things never got any better than they are right now, I feel 'mission accomplished,' in terms of what I wanted when I was an undergraduate." It was while he was attending Florida A & M, where he played Hamlet, that Sunjata realized that "I had an aptitude for acting. That gave me the confidence to move forward."

While Sunjata, who was born in Evanstown, Illinois, was growing up, his parents "used to take me to the Goodman to see A Christmas Carol, and I used to look at Tiny Tim and think, 'How did he get to be there?'" However, I point out, lots of kids could play Tiny Tim, but he waited to do Hamlet. He laughs. "Yes, but I'm sure Tiny Tim would have made my Hamlet better."

Proud of his mixed-race heritage, Sunjata notes, "I'm Irish-German and African-American." At birth, his name was Daniel Sunjata Condon, "and it still is, but I wanted to avoid the 'condom' references [to his surname] that I grew up hearing at school. Not that I'm ashamed of my name; it's a great Irish name. And now that I see that there are some heavy-hitters in Hollywood with the name Condon, I think, 'Maybe I should have kept it.' But I'm totally joking. I love the name Sunjata." He was an only child "until I was ten. Then my beautiful sister, Leah, came along."

After receiving a BFA at the University of Southern Louisiana, and a MFA at NYU's Tisch School of Acting, Sunjata did some regional theatre, at the Guthrie (Twelfth Night) and Williamstown (Camino Real). He recalls that, at the latter, "I got to shake Paul Newman's hand." Other roles include Lord Sand in Henry VIII, in which Sunjata appeared at Central Park's Delacorte. "That was a wonderful experience — to play Shakespeare under an open sky."

His Broadway debut occurred in a Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night, in which Sunjata played Valentine, attendant to Orsino (Paul Rudd), and understudied the role of Orsino. Starring Helen Hunt, Philip Bosco, Brian Murray and Kyra Sedgwick, its final performance (8/30/98) was presented "Live from Lincoln Center."

He was honored with a Theatre World Award and nominations for the Tony and Outer Circle Critics Awards for his role as Darren Lemming in Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning Take Me Out. "It was the first time that I read a part for a person of mixed race — and I happened to fit the bill."

Did the nudity required for shower scenes give Sunjata any pause? "It didn't cross my mind until after I read the script. Then I thought, 'Oh, gee, I guess I'm going to have to be naked.' But [Greenberg] had delivered such a solid piece of art that nudity wasn't gratuitous. Without nudity, I don't think Richard would have been able to underscore and illuminate the play's homophobic, homoerotic elements.

"But it did take some getting used to. From the first performance to the last, I was always self-conscious during the seconds preceding disrobing: Oh, God, I have to get naked. But there is the cliché that being nude in front of a group of people is kind of a liberating experience. I would say it was simultaneously liberating and unnerving. I'm now trying to keep my clothes on, as much as possible."

Take Me Out, claims Sunjata, "was the most rewarding experience I've had on a stage so far. Well, actually, it's on par with Othello, which I did at NYU in 1998. I can't choose between the two." A short-lived 2000 Dick Wolf series, "D.C.," led to a recurring role as CSU Technician Burt Trevor in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Recalls Sunjata, "That came at a time in my life when things were really not good. You have to make very complicated dialogue sound second nature, and at the same time handle props. You have to get it in as few takes as possible. It's a trial by fire." Sunjata's first "SVU" appearance was as a bomb officer, then came 15 episodes as the CSU Technician. "I only got to play the first character once, but I liked him better."

Last year, Sunjata was voted one of "The 50 Most Beautiful People" by People Magazine. While his mother and sister were pleased with the designation, it also caused some razzing. "At the time, I was doing Take Me Out, and we were such a close, close cast. I got razzing, especially from my buddy, Neal Huff, who played Kippy."

Upcoming for Sunjata are two movies. In "Noel," directed by Chazz Palminteri ("what an actor's director he is"), he plays opposite Susan Sarandon. "It's a movie about miracles, and I'm a part of her miracle that Christmas season. It was a dream come true working with her; she's someone whose work I have grown up admiring." The other picture is Woody Allen's "Melanie and Melanie." Notes Sunjata, "Who wouldn't jump just to do background on one of his films? He's such an icon. It was a thrill getting to meet Will Ferrell."

Sunjata's excited about "Rescue Me," which deals, he explains, more with firefighters than fighting fires. "We do fight fires — and I can count them on one hand, maybe two or three [in the first six episodes]. We answer calls like a West Side Highway accident, or a kid stuck on a fence." Meanwhile, he's no longer a kid wondering how the child actor playing Tiny Tim got onstage. Daniel Sunjata's crossed over to the other side of the looking glass.

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Last Thursday afternoon, between rehearsals and a performance that evening, Carla Gugino manages to squeeze in a few minutes to chat. She says, "I feel honored to be working with such an exceptional group of people [on After the Fall]. To be able to do an Arthur Miller play, and him be involved, which he has been, is incredible! He came to rehearsals and to our first preview. He's given us some really interesting thoughts, and he likes how it's being done [under Michael Mayer's direction]."

Although her character's named Maggie, it's no secret that she's based on Marilyn Monroe (Mrs. Miller from 1956 to '60). "Clearly, she's heavily influenced by Marilyn, but I'm not playing her as Marilyn. I know that Arthur Miller feels this is a separate character. The great thing is to know that there was that person in his life. I've done a lot of research — and then kind of let it go. I've used it as a point of departure."

She and co-star Peter Krause (who plays Miller's counterpart, Quentin) worked together previously in a 1997 movie, "Lovelife." Says Gugino, "We've been wanting to do something together since then." She's done some plays, "but not for the last eight years." The actress' ABC-TV series, "Karen Sisco," was a quick departure from the 2003-04 lineup. Based on Elmore Leonard's character of a U.S. Marshal, played by Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 "Out of Sight" movie, the series seemed to have definite potential, but it was put on hiatus and never returned. "Quality and whether something stays on television seem to be two separate issues. It was a cool character, and one I would have liked to explore better, but had it gone [on], I wouldn't have been able to do this."

Gugino auditioned as Maggie "two or three times for the director. It's nice to be offered something, but it's so nice to audition, because you get to see what the work process is going to be like."

Called back to rehearsals, Gugino telephones me a little later, but can't stay on long because she needs to eat dinner. Born in Sarasota, Florida, she had kidney surgery at four, and moved with her mother to Paradise, California. "We lived in a teepee." She worked briefly as a teenage model. "I'm far too short, but I was recruited by Elite Petite. I came to New York at 14, but New York City was far too daunting. I went back to California and stayed with my aunt, [actress] Carol Merrill. She was always incredibly encouraging. In fact, she became my manager for awhile."

Carla began acting in Los Angeles at 15. Her first movie was "Troop Beverly Hills" (1989). Other films include "Welcome Home, Roxie Carmichael," "This Boy's Life," "Miami Rhapsody" ("where I first met Antonio Banderas, with whom I did the 'Spy Kids' movies"), "Michael," "Snake Eyes," "Judas Kiss" (which she co-produced), the three "Spy Kids" pictures and the upcoming "Sin City."

On TV, Gugino did three series prior to "Karen Sisco." "I did the last season of 'Falcon Crest,' the first season of 'Spin City,' and a season of 'Chicago Hope.' Film has really been my home, but I've done some television. I didn't really want to do 'Karen Sisco,' but I'm such an Elmore Leonard fan."

To research her Broadway-debut role, Gugino "read Arthur Miller's autobiography, 'Time Bends,' which gave me a nice context for the play. We had only 16 days of rehearsal, but we have quite a long preview schedule. We're still exploring a lot of elements of the play. It has a different life at each performance." Dinner time arrived, and Carla Gugino had to depart. I am grateful for our brief encounter.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He's the author of "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in spring 2005.

Carla Gugino
Carla Gugino
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