‘Notorious’ Star Daniel Sunjata on His Hopes for the Scandalous Drama

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo TV
Piper Perabo and Daniel Sunjata star in “Notorious.” (Photo: Kevin Foley/ABC)
Piper Perabo and Daniel Sunjata star in “Notorious.” (Photo: Kevin Foley/ABC)

A powerful defense attorney (Graceland‘s Daniel Sunjata) and a clever TV producer (Covert Affairs‘ Piper Perabo) collude to help his clients and her ratings. That’s the premise for ABC’s new drama Notorious, premiering on Sept. 22.

“The elevator pitch for the show is it examines the point of intersection between headlines and alibis,” Sunjata said when he visited Yahoo TV for a Facebook Live interview. “How do the world of the legal system and the world of the media intersect for mutual [benefit]? When do they bump heads? How are headlines massaged sometimes? How is consensus created? How are seeds of doubt planted in the minds of potential jurors when certain late-breaking news hits our TV screens and our tickers? It’s interesting. One of the things that drew me to the project was that I hadn’t quite seen that [explored] before.” But, he noted, “That particular thematic underpinning or plot point was not a new idea to me; I kinda subscribe to a conspiratorial view of history, so I’ve always kinda thought that there was collusion behind the scenes when it came to news and infotainment.”

Sunjata’s Jake and Perabo’s Julia are loosely based on attorney Mark Geragos and Wendy Walker, who was the senior executive producer of Larry King Live for 18 years. “They actually are good people,” executive producer Josh Berman says of his characters. “Both Julia and Jake have a strong moral compass, but they also work within systems that are broken. Jake is very aware that our legal system doesn’t always get the just result that it should. Because of that, he has no problem bending the law if it helps his client. Especially when his clients are innocent.”

Viewers may wonder if they’re supposed to “ship” the duo. While Sunjata admits that he and Perabo like to think there’s a Moonlighting vibe between Jake and Julia, he knows that can’t be fully explored for, fingers crossed, seasons — both for the show’s sake, and for the characters’. “They’re too valuable as colleagues to risk a romance, at this point,” he said.

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How does Berman view the relationship? “Wendy tells the story about how [she and Mark] were completely at odds over the Scott Peterson case. Mark was convinced Scott was innocent, and Wendy was certain that Scott is guilty. After Mark lost the case, he came over to her house for a drink, and she was supportive of him. [It’s] that kind of unique relationship, where you can be at each other’s throats but, at the end of the day, this is the person that comforts you.”

Key to the relationship is the pact between the characters that, even as they’re manipulating others through guest appearances on Louise Herrick Live, they’ll never lie to one another. “The notion of what is a lie and what is truth, it permeates the entire series,” Berman says. “The fact that these two characters maintain that code is really important and relationship-defining. That being said, I believe in today’s world, if you were an alien looking at our media now, turning from CNN to Fox, you would believe the truth is subjective because it’s reported so differently. We definitely plan to explore the notion of the subjectivity of truth.”

J. August Richards, left, and Daniel Sunjata. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)
J. August Richards, left, and Daniel Sunjata. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

Right from the premiere, the show will dive into Jake’s and Julia’s separate and very sticky personal lives. But there’s something else on that front that Sunjata hopes the show has time to mine — something he hadn’t yet had a chance to discuss with Berman before he sat down with us (when he was just four episodes into their 13-episode order). It involves Jake and his brother, fellow attorney Bradley Gregorian (J. August Richards), who together inherited their father’s law firm. “It’s very clear, and it’s not even commented on, that we are men of color who have risen to a level of supreme success in a world — the world of legal criminal defense in Los Angeles — that is predominantly not dominated by men of color. That’s a story in and of itself,” Sunjata said. “These are black guys with an Armenian last name, and they look nothing alike — and there’s reasons for that, and we’re gonna get into exploring all of that. As black men, as men of color in general, both J. August Richards and myself, we’ve had private conversations about the fact that, you know, that kind of needs to be shown or explored in some way [too], that we know where we came from. We know how hard it has been for us to get where we we’ve gotten, and we’ve done it as brothers. And as brothers. We want to put a little element of that into the show. So we’ll see how that manifests.”

Watch the complete Facebook Live interview with Sunjata to hear more of his thoughts on the show, his supreme thanks to Kerry Washington for her pregnancy (which allowed Notorious to temporarily step into Scandal‘s time slot), and what he learned from Denis Leary on Rescue Me.

Notorious premieres on Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. on ABC. Watch clips and full episodes of Notorious for free on Yahoo View.