Daniel Sunjata is currently jousting with Kevin Kline's Cyrano for the heart of Jennifer Garner's Roxane in the Broadway revival of Edmond Rostand's 19th-century French classic Cyrano de Bergerac. But it was less than a decade ago that the rising young star was fighting a very different sort of battle — struggling to pay the rent and eating only once a day to save money while trying to keep the self-doubt about his acting career at bay.
Fresh from the MFA program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Sunjata says, he went through a dark period of about six or seven months when he received no phone calls about work and no auditions. "My father had paid my rent for about three months straight. And I was counting out change from my little piggy bank so I could order fried chicken wings and white rice from the Chinese food place on the corner," recalls Sunjata without a whiff of nostalgia. "I probably should have taken another job, but I was doing everything possible to avoid that so I would be available for auditions."
Just as Sunjata was questioning whether or not he had the resolve to be a starving artist, he landed a blink-and-you'll-miss-him recurring role as a lab tech on "Law & Order: SVU," which gave him an infusion of cash and some much-needed visibility. "It allowed me to continue pursuing my dreams and enabled me to continue acting without having to supplement that with other forms of work. Every time I have been in most desperate need, the universe seems to come through with something."
His stint on "Law & Order" led to a memorable part on the fifth season of "Sex and the City" as a Fleet Week Navy stud who nearly steals Carrie Bradshaw's heart. Around the same time, Sunjata landed his breakthrough role — and a Tony Award nomination — in Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out. He played Darren Lemming, a major league baseball megastar who publicly announces to the world that he's gay, setting off a firestorm of homophobia in the locker room. The drama, which went on to capture the Tony Award for Best Play, made waves for its provocative shower scenes, for which the strapping Sunjata had to strip bare. "There were two or three things that I had acted in, all of which seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly people were seeing a little bit of me here, a little bit of me there, and all of me on Broadway," he says with a laugh.
Today, Sunjata is light-years away from having to scrounge up pocket change to feed himself. Not only has the 35-year-old actor become one of Broadway's most talented — and hunkiest — young stars, but he's burning up TV screens as the roguish, firefighting lothario Franco Rivera on the acclaimed FX cable drama "Rescue Me" opposite Denis Leary, and as another baseball great, Reggie Jackson, in the ESPN miniseries "The Bronx is Burning." And a few years back, Sunjata landed on People magazine's roster of the "50 Most Beautiful People."
With his return to Broadway in Cyrano, Sunjata's once again playing the handsome devil. Tongue-tied, loyal and love-struck, Christian falls head over heels for the gorgeous and brainy Roxane. To win her heart, he forms an unlikely alliance with Cyrano, the brash and eloquent duelist with the protruding proboscis. Cyrano himself harbors deep feelings for Roxane but thinks she could never love him. The two pass off Cyrano's love letters and speeches as Christian's own and create the ultimate romantic hero — a man with both brains and good looks.
"Christian has historically been a very difficult character to play. It's a beast of a play, and it's very easy for his storyline to get lost in the magnitude of the rest of the drama. So to perform him in a memorable way and that also serves the telling of the story has been a challenge," admits Sunjata.
While the play stands as an epic tragedy of the prideful, arrogant yet self-loathing Cyrano and his unrequited love for the beautiful Roxane, it also explores Christian's own ill-fated story amidst the larger drama. "It's tragic in a certain sense, but in another sense it's kind of heroic in that Christian goes fearlessly after something that he wants and overcomes obstacles to get there," observes Sunjata. "Ultimately, I think his arrival as a hero is in the moment of letting Roxane go."
Sunjata admits that he's been trying to get into Rostand's head and reconcile the meaning of his own character's storyline within the larger context of Cyrano's. "I feel like he's talking about the mind and the heart and the relationship between those two things and how both are incomplete without the other. The cerebral quality of Cyrano's character seems to be hollow without the heart space of Christian. And Christian's heart space seems ineffectual without the cerebral quality of Cyrano."
While Sunjata relished the challenge that the role presented, he was also inspired by the opportunity to work with TV and film star Jennifer Garner ("Alias"), director David Leveaux (Nine) and the inimitable Kevin Kline. "[Kevin's] accomplishments speak for themselves. I wrote him a little love letter on the night of our first preview, telling him that every time I look at him, I have this vision of that door opening in "Sophie's Choice," and him standing there pretending to direct the symphony, and nobody's there, and he's just doing his thing," say Sunjata. "Every night, I look at him and think, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm on stage with Kevin Kline.' I'm just very fortunate."
It's likely that a young actor will someday be saying the same thing about him.