PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Daniel Sunjata, Going From Smart Phones to Swordfighting in Macbeth
By Carey Purcell
Tony nominee Daniel Sunjata, currently playing Macduff in Lincoln Center Theater's Macbeth, chats with Playbill.com about the roles of good and evil on the stage and screen.
Daniel Sunjata is used to fighting battles. After giving a Tony-nominated performance in Take Me Out, the actor, who also played the handsome soldier Christian in Cyrano de Bergerac, was cast in USA's "Graceland," a modern-day spy thriller set in southern California, as the morally ambiguous FBI Senior Agent Paul Briggs. His screen credits also include "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Devil Wears Prada," "Rescue Me" and "Smash."
Sunjata, who is currently playing Macduff in Lincoln Center Theater's Macbeth, directed by Jack O'Brien, spoke with Playbill.com about the timelessness of Shakespeare's tragedy and the challenges of going from a modern-day spy thriller to a Shakespearean classic.
You're playing the good guy in this production. How do you approach the character of Macduff?
Daniel Sunjata: Macbeth himself doesn't start out as a bad guy, and Macduff and Macbeth are actually friends at the beginning of the play. And it's only throughout Macbeth's descent into pure evil that they turn out to be at odds. And, of course, there's that climactic fight scene at the end of the play.
"Lay on, Macduff!" is such a great line.
DS: Yes. Macbeth itself is filled with tons of great quotables, as if all of Shakespeare were not. At this point in his canon, Shakespeare really exploded the form and wasn't abiding by the standard forms of iambic pentameter. He was kind of making the form serve his own creativity. It's very much like an opera, this play.
How is your return to the stage going, after starring in "Graceland"?
DS: You definitely feel like you're coming home, because all of my training as an actor was for the theatre. I had to learn to act on camera, after I booked some jobs. But it's also a reminder that you've got to keep those stage acting chops exercised, because the muscle does atrophy after a long enough period of time.
How do you view the character of Macduff, the good guy in Macbeth, after playing Paul Briggs on "Graceland"?
DS: It's interesting if you're trying to embody a combination of archetype — if you're examining moral ambiguity and tightrope walk between good and evil — how both things can exist in the same person. That is its own interesting challenge and interesting examination — to be able to examine the archetype of goodness and justice and what's right is its own particular satisfaction.
Was it an adjustment to go from the modern-day world, with guns and smartphones, to classic Shakespearean work without appliances?
DS: Absolutely, for sure. That is a challenge in of itself. Thank God for the four-week rehearsal period, because it's a nice period of declimitazation.
Are you practicing sword-fighting and fencing?
DJ: There will be lots of swords. Not fencing so much, but a particular brand of sword-fighting that the fight choreographer decided to employ in the play.
This is such a timeless play. What do you think it is about Macbeth that speaks to so many different generations?
DS: It's really a play about the psychopathy of patriarchy spinning completely out of control… the descent into madness, that kind of psychopathic form of cancer leads to. I saw that and felt that immediately. As soon as I heard they were going to do Macbeth at Lincoln Center, I thought, 'Wow, how very timely.'
To be able to play a character that represents the light in a play that's about a descent into darkness and madness is kind of cool, because I want to be the Jedi in any situation. I'm really excited about the opportunity to do a play in which the parallels between the themes of the play and what we see happening on the world stage are only veiled by the thinnest of veneers. My hope is the audience will leave the theatre having been entertained, provoked and maybe even a little troubled, because it's a cautionary tale, and it should be told especially in times like these.
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