DANIEL SUNJATA, once a football hero at Mount Carmel, is sure to draw fire as he promotes 9/11 conspiracy theories
April 4, 2009
by Mary Houlihan
Daniel Sunjata's character starts talking 9/11 theories this season on "Rescue Me." (via YouTube)
Daniel Sunjata stars in the acclaimed cable series "Rescue Me," where he plays Puerto Rican firefighter and ladies' man Franco Rivera.
A stranger looking at Daniel Sunjata's sports-filled high school years would find it difficult to guess his chosen career. Could it be football player, business executive, sports agent? Wrong. The answer is actor.
How in the world did that happen?
Sunjata, who grew up in Beverly and was a star football player at Mount Carmel High School, laughingly admits acting was a long shot for him.
"I remember our English teacher, Mr. Taylor, would direct the school plays and was always after me to audition," Sunjata recalled. "But I never did. I was pretty consumed by sports."
Now 37, Sunjata has a long list of accomplishments. He's been nominated for a Tony Award ("Take Me Out"), acted in films ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Melinda and Melinda") and is a member of the ensemble cast in the critically acclaimed television show "Rescue Me," where he plays Puerto Rican firefighter and ladies' man Franco Rivera.
"Dan is a very solid actor," said "Rescue Me" co-creator and executive producer Peter Tolan. "Whatever you give him, he does something interesting with it."
Sunjata will get extra attention in the fifth season of "Rescue Me" (beginning 9 p.m. Tuesday) when it's revealed that Franco believes in a 9/11 conspiracy theory, a view the actor shares (see sidebar).
Of mixed-race descent (Irish-German and African-American), Sunjata was adopted as a baby by a Caucasian couple. To keep ties to his heritage, his parents gave him an African middle name, which he uses professionally.
Sunjata remembers being a "generally reclusive" child. "There was a period in my life when I was definitely figuring out who I was and what it meant to be adopted," he recalled, in a conversation from his home in Harlem. "Which group do I belong to and all that."
Sunjata remembers his years at Mount Carmel as "one of the most formative and important experiences of my life." After his team won the Class 5A championship he had plans to become a "world-class athlete" but realized years later that the real goal of an education at Mount Carmel was to "produce world-class citizens with courage, class and self-esteem."
"Dan was a very focused kid with a great work ethic," Mount Carmel football coach Frank Lenti said. "He always led by example and worked toward his goals."
The Goodman Theatre is where actors and acting first caught Sunjata's attention. Like droves of other youngsters, he was taken on an annual excursion to the downtown theater for its production of "A Christmas Carol."
"I remember watching Tiny Tim and thinking, 'I wish I could do that,'" Sunjata recalled. "But that wish definitely became a dream deferred."
Sunjata would not return to that dream until college. At Florida A&M University, he planned on studying business until one day in his sophomore year he "stumbled across the theater program" and was smitten for good.
"The experience at Florida tipped me off to the fact that I definitely had a propensity for acting," Sunjata said. "I thought if I could go further and learn the details of the craft, maybe this was something I could do for a living."
A few years later, Sunjata was at New York University working on a masters degree in acting. After graduating in 1998, he gave himself 10 years to make the "acting thing work." He needn't have worried. His first job out was a role in Lincoln Center's staging of "Twelfth Night," starring Paul Rudd and Helen Hunt.
"It was a low-level job in a high-profile piece of theater, and that was fortunate," Sunjata said. "But after that I definitely went through periods of unemployment and had to beat the pavement and work to become a fixture in the minds of casting directors."
With talent and a bit of luck, Sunjata found interesting work in several Broadway productions. In 2003, he received a Tony nomination for his role as gay baseball player Darren Lemming in Richard Greenberg's hit play "Take Me Out." He also starred with Jennifer Garner and Kevin Kline in a 2007 staging of "Cyrano de Bergerac."
While theater remains his first love ("I prefer the immediacy of a live audience"), Sunjata says film and television work helps pay the bills.
"Rescue Me" does just that, but it's also "socially relevant," which he says is rare in television.
"Rescue Me" stars Denis Leary as a firefighter haunted by memories of 9/11 and ghosts of the past. Sunjata's character is one of his buddies in the New York fire station where they work. Many of the more amorous plot lines revolve around his character.
"The show oscillates between examining the heroism of being a firefighter and what it is that makes these guys, at the same time, very human," Sunjata said. "You see their sins and shortcomings and forgive them."
Tolan recalls having trouble casting the role of Franco until Sunjata walked into the room.
"I was looking for the right blend of handsome guy and firefighter," Tolan recalled. "And I was getting desperate until Daniel walked in with the right sex appeal and the acting chops to go along with it."
With his smooth good looks, Sunjata made People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list in 2003. Last month, he made a TV Guide list of television's sexiest actors. It's not something he really cares to talk about.
"You have to hope that kind of thing is good for business," Sunjata said, good-naturedly. "But then again, it doesn't really say anything substantive about me as an actor."
Sunjata remains focused on his rising career and has his eye on an elusive prize. It's a goal that he has yet to fulfill: performing at a Chicago theater. He says he's "taken a meeting" with people at the Goodman, where his dream to become an actor was born so many years ago.
"If I end up working on a stage in Chicago, that to me will be coming full circle," he said. "I know there's a lively theater scene here and I'd love to be part of it, to set some roots in it, at least for a little while."
Sunjata has his own 9/11 suspicions
One of the more interesting, and controversial, storylines in the new season of "Rescue Me" revolves around firefighter Franco Rivera and his belief that 9/11 was an "inside job."
As it turns out, Daniel Sunjata, who plays Franco, subscribes to the same conspiracy theory.
"I was shocked that they added it to the show," Sunjata admitted. "When I saw the script, I thought it was a practical joke."
Executive producer Peter Tolan says Sunjata is "well read" and has "done a lot of research" on the topic.
"Obviously, not all of us buy into it," Tolan said. "But we thought it was an interesting angle and it was sitting right there in our lap."
In the second episode of the season, Franco delivers a two-minute monologue to a French journalist about a "neoconservative government effort" to control the world's oil, increase military spending and "change the definition of pre-emptive attack."
Ask Sunjata about these theories, and he'll talk your ear off. It's an interesting rant that, at times, verges on the convincing.
"I think this is something that should concern all Americans," Sunjata said. "And the fact that it's included in the show, without bias or slant, is laudable."
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