What happens when there’s a crack in the foundation? Fans of USA’s undercover cop drama “Graceland” are anxious to find out, considering the show’s season two finale saw lead character Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) go into cardiac arrest and flatline after a vengeful foe’s deadly visit.
Or did he?
The Workprint sat down with Tveit and co-star Daniel Sunjata at NBCUniversal’s Summer Press Day in Pasadena, Calif. April 2 to discuss Mike’s fate, and how the rest of the agents will “narrow focus” and reconvene in light of what appeared to be a devastating loss — at least initially.
When the season two finale aired, you guys still didn’t know if you were going to have a third season or not. For all you knew, it could have been a series finale which, considering Mike’s condition, would have really left fans reeling — and did. So, when you got the news that a third season was greenlit after all, how did you react?
AARON TVEIT: I am in the first episode in some capacity, but I don’t want to say what that exactly is or when it is or how it plays out. But they’ve really found a good way to frame it all and make it work. Beyond that, I don’t want to say too much. We could have left it that way, but I’m glad that we didn’t. Even if it did, like, the show begins with me graduating from the FBI academy and ends with me dying? [laughs] I joked with the writers that if they did that, they could just insert a scene after me flatlining with [Courtney B. Vance] just picking up a phone and going, “Oh, damn.” [laughs] And that’s it. What would that have meant? I’m glad that’s not the case.
Briggs’ reaction to Mike’s apparent death was so emotional. This is an ensemble show, but you guys are ostensibly the two leads. The dichotomy between your characters positions you as essentially two sides of the same coin. I think, despite the ethically questionable things your characters have done, these are inherently good guys who are trying to do the right thing within their scope of really difficult circumstances. In terms of what’s on deck for season three, how do you think the structure of the show is going to be affected with regards to Mike’s fate? Sid is certainly being anchored as more of a consistent villain than we’ve seen in the past.
DANIEL SUNJATA: The plotline with Sid is something that is addressed at the very beginning. Where we leave off in season two is pretty much where we pick up for season three, almost out of necessity. We wouldn’t really be able to move forward or add any dimension or texture to the show unless we handle these things first. Plus, there were so many bad decisions made by so many members of the household moving toward the season two finale that a lot of that needs to be resolved. Two of the buzzwords for season three have been “atonement” and “penance,” and also “sin eating,” which is kind of an ambiguous term that only fans will understand when they actually start watching season three. We have a lot of making up to do if we are to maintain the integrity of the relationships in the house.
TVEIT: In season two, everyone was kind of on their own personal mission. They all had a goal in mind and a singular focus that got spread out and away from helping each other and trusting each other. I think that in season three, we’re bringing that back in and, like you said about Briggs and Mike, I think they’ve now learned that in the outset it seemed like they were such different people but they’re really similar, and on similar paths. Where we leave things off and can potentially go, I think they could begin to understand they can lean on each other and hopefully do some good instead of making these terrible decisions and having to compromise. That’s my hope for where the show’s going, that these people can come back together and actually affect some positive change instead of having to make these terrible choices all the time. They can actually, it sounds so cheesy, but do some good.
With the revelation that Paige gave up Mike’s location to Sid, what is Briggs going to do? How will the rest of the group handle this betrayal?
SUNJATA: We shall see. Paige is in a little bit of trouble. [laughs]
TVEIT: Yup. Everyone’s going to have to have to take responsibility for their actions, including her. So, I think that’ll be really interesting to see how that factors in with everything.
You both come from ensemble-driven backgrounds: theater, TV shows like “Rescue Me,” “Gossip Girl,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” et cetera. Obviously, things change from project to project in terms of how you approach a role, but are there any consistent philosophies you guys have learned along the way that help you with your work on “Graceland”?
SUNJATA: Every actor has their own approach to their craft, their own approach to the work. You have to trust that casting has done their job in bringing the right personality types as well as high levels of talent together. You can’t expect the other actors in the room to necessarily work the way you work. So, giving everybody their own space to approach things in their own way, and hoping as a group that there’s a chemistry in which everyone gels, and the final product will reflect that. Trying to muscle your way of doing things into a situation where there’s a group of other people trying to do the same thing is not the best approach.
TVEIT: And I think we’re really lucky that all the actors on our show really take this seriously and, it sounds so silly, are actually prepared every day. They have a clear vision of what they’re doing, so once that’s off the table you don’t have to worry about it and we can get to work and play and see what these scenes are. It’s always interesting on our show; you would think that a scene in the house with all six of us would be the hardest thing to shoot, but those scenes actually seem to just go and happen and take their own life, and I think that’s a testament to how prepared everyone is.
SUNJATA: It also helps that we work with a creator like Jeff Eastin and producers who operate collaboratively and take our input. If we float a really sucky idea, they’ll be like, “That sucks. Not going to do that,” and if it’s something good they’ll say, “You know what? We didn’t think of it that way,” and it’ll end up being reflected in the final product.
TVEIT: Yeah, it really feels like we’re part of the artistic process of this show, which is a nice thing.
There’s some meta layers to the show with you guys playing characters who are, essentially, playing characters. How does that affect your approach? Undercover cops are, in many ways, actors themselves.
SUNJATA: It can be a little confusing. I call it the Russian doll effect, kind of like a fractal. Every time you zoom in, another one opens up. So, staying in touch with Jeff, keeping a close relationship with your showrunner, there’s somebody who can always help you place the event of a particular scene in the right context so you remember what to play and what not to play, like what I know as Daniel but Briggs is not supposed to know in this particular moment. That can be hard to keep track of.
TVEIT: It’s a lot of fun, and a huge challenge as an actor to do that, because you’re never just doing one thing. You’re never having one thought or one feeling about something. A lot of times, you don’t want anyone else to know how you really feel so you may be projecting something else. I’ve thought a lot about the first season when there was this big secret that I was investigating Briggs, and I always had to write it out, map it out for myself what the audience knew that the other characters didn’t. So then, in my coverage and my close-ups, how looks and the way I reacted was a nod to the audience, but the other people didn’t know that. It’s a really interesting dynamic to play, and you can go as deep as you want.
Let’s talk a little bit about the themes of “Graceland.” Daniel, you mentioned atonement earlier. Jeff Eastin has talked about revenge and justice in context of the show, and in one interview he cited a Chinese proverb that basically says, “If you seek revenge, be prepared to dig two graves.” Do you think that’s a perspective from which the characters could benefit as well, or do they not even think about it like that?
TVEIT: Well, I think that if there is a going forward with Mike Warren, that’s something he’s really going to have to deal with. Season two was this kind of Shakespearian, “King Lear” ambition trip that he was on, and he was completely blinded by it. Hopefully, he’ll have some self-reflection and realize that if this is going to continue he needs a whole new approach. So, I think that’s something that really rings true for me with Mike, especially.
SUNJATA: I think it’s safe to say we’re aware that if retribution becomes our primary goal and objective, we’ve seen where that kind of pointed, one-minded focus – especially when something selfish is the motivating force behind it – can lead. I think ultimately we’re interested in coming together as a house again and trying to, as Aaron keeps saying, do some good and actually affect some positive change instead of just racking up all these dead bodies everywhere we go.
Right. And in terms of some of the interpersonal relationships between your characters and the others, of course, there’s Briggs, Charlie and the baby to think about. So there’s a lot more at stake than just yourselves.
SUNJATA: Oh, yeah, that’s still going on. There’s that thing, too. [chuckles]
SUNJATA: What will happen with that is something we’re obviously not allowed to speak about, but we do begin season three with that being something that still needs to be addressed, for sure. I absolutely love working with Vanessa Ferlito, by the way. She’s such a good actress.
I loved her in “Grindhouse,” definitely.
SUNJATA: She’s great in “Grindhouse.”
TVEIT: She’s awesome. She’s one of the most natural, just grounded people I’ve ever worked with. She’s great, man.
SUNJATA: But the fact we’re not gonna have the majority of our scenes in Briggs’ bedroom or kitchen this season, I am happy about that.
Aaron, I know you said you’re at least involved in the first episode of next season in “some capacity,” but regardless of what happens to Mike, his presence is always going to be felt on the show. Season one kind of focused on Briggs, season two kind of focused more on Mike. As far as you guys going forward, can you join forces from here on despite what might prove to be a major shift?
TVEIT: Yeah, I think that’s what’s really exciting is that these guys have finally figured out that they’re very, very similar. All these guys are A-players, but [Mike and Briggs] are double-A. They’re brilliant. They just, instinctively, are really great agents in ways maybe the others aren’t. I think they’ve finally realized they have something together that could really do some good things. The core of the show, too, is that it is this complicated relationship where we are friends and it’s a mentor/mentee relationship, but there’s also the fact that I was investigating him. It’s just a really complicated thing, and the kind of in and out of that and going back and forth is where the show lives, and how all the conflict can emanate from that place.
Jeff has talked about how he enjoyed leaving these loose ends. Without knowing if there would be a season three or not, the finale could have been a definitive ending depending on how you interpret it. But there’s still a lot left out in the open. Do you think the show will continue maintaining that framework, or start working toward some real closure?
TVEIT: I think we’ll definitely have some closure from what was started before, but then as far as the end of where this season is going and beyond, I don’t really know.
SUNJATA: One thing they definitely seem to be working toward is instead of having plotlines for each individual character move in different directions, they’re starting to narrow focus and have us reconvene as a house. It’s reestablishing, I think, the balance of power and chemistry that kicked the show off.
Do you guys even try to project into the future about what you think might happen to your characters, or do you like to stay in the present moment and deal with what the script sets forth as it’s written?
TVEIT: Jeff gives us kind of an overall scope of where the year may be going, but then the details of how we’re going to get there are left in the grey. I think it’s good to have an idea where we’re going in the end, you know, I mean obviously you don’t ever want to play the end of something, but to blindly walk through it would be really tough. So, I’m appreciative of that, but I also enjoy reading the scripts and being surprised on a week-to-week basis, too. It’s an interesting balance and I’m grateful he fills us in a little bit.
Yeah. Some of the benefit of working with a 13-episode season on basic cable is you’re able to have both structure and content freedom that you’re not necessarily given on a network show or a feature-length project or a theatrical production. So, what are some of the benefits you’ve experienced working with USA Network?
TVEIT: It’s great. I think it’s an ideal amount of time. Trying to do this kind of serialized story over 22 episodes and maintaining that throughline would be so hard.
SUNJATA: That’d be crazy.
TVEIT: I think that’s why a lot of these shows that do that many episodes are procedural, just one and done for an hour. That’s why that formula works. But this seems to be really great for our number of episodes.
SUNJATA: I would agree. I would agree.
Are “Graceland” fans in for heartbreak or happiness? Share your thoughts in our comment section, and find out if Mike Warren returns to the house for good when “Graceland” kicks off its third season Thursday, June 25 at 10/9c on USA. Check out the first teaser below!
— Graceland (@GracelandTV) March 31, 2015
Follow Erin on Twitter: @ErinBiglow