USA's 'Graceland': Avoiding politics and swapping Florida for Los Angeles

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Once upon a time, the government seized a drug dealer's seaside mansion in Manhattan Beach, an upscale Southern California community just down the coast from Los Angeles.

While it has a great beach and lots of surfers, the town lacks the funky vibe of Venice or the celebrity gloss of Malibu, and few people from other parts of the country would recognize its streets or landmarks.

That's just as well, because the new USA Network show based on this tale is actually shot in South Florida. (But it does get right the necessity of surfing in wetsuits, as the waters off California are definitely not warm like those in the Sunshine State.)

And despite its name, the show is most emphatically not about Elvis.

Premiering Thursday, June 6, "Graceland" stars Broadway performer Aaron Tveit ("Les Miserables") as Mike Warren, a recent FBI Academy graduate who finds himself assigned to a multiagency team inhabiting the aforementioned seaside mansion, which takes its name from its former owner's fascination with the King.

At the house, Warren is teamed with veteran FBI agent Paul Briggs ( Daniel Sunjata, "Rescue Me"), a rule-breaking senior agent determined to keep himself and his undercover cohorts -- from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs -- safe from discovery.

Along with Tveit and Sunjata, the series also stars Vanessa Ferlito as FBI agent Catherine "Charlie" Lopez; Brandon Jay McLaren as U.S. Customs agent Dale Jakes; Serinda Swan as DEA agent Paige Arkin; and Manny Montana as FBI agent Joe "Johnny" Tuturro.

The series is the creation of Jeff Eastin, who already produced the hit "White Collar" for USA, and he's cool with trying to fake the greater Los Angeles area on the opposite coast.

"If you live in Southern California," he tells Zap2it, "and you really know your geography, I'm sure you'll be able to tell the difference. But for kids who live in Colorado [Eastin's home state], I don't think they'll have any trouble buying Florida for Los Angeles."

Besides, he says, he really wasn't interested in having his undercover agents ducking tourists and costumed characters on Hollywood Boulevard.

"I wanted to stay away from the iconic California," Eastin says. "It's really been done. I didn't want to do Mann's Chinese Theatre. I didn't want to see the Staples Center. In terms of what the show is -- which, for me, is much more of this personal, smaller show -- it's about the characters, so you can't go with the iconic anyway."

For Tveit, more used to the stage and the big screen, playing the same character over the course of many episodes has been a learning experience.

"I was surprised," he says, "and Mike, over the course of the season, was surprised, by the way that he's able to deal with some of the terrible experiences that he goes through and things that he witnesses, and he still can get out of bed the next morning and function and compartmentalize.

"Those are aspects of his job that he didn't necessarily know that he had. That was really neat, to find the whole side of him and discover that. That was all new territory."

Despite all the terrorism talk in the news, "Graceland" sticks to fighting old-fashioned crime.

"It is based on a true story," Eastin says. "It was really taking those stories, and in this case, the real guys, there was almost no antiterrorism role at all. It was all through this smaller personal world, and that's what I wanted to copy anyway.

"And we wanted to avoid politics. Whenever you get into a situation where you've got some terrorism, politics seems to follow. Right now, with the shape of things in the country, you're pretty much guaranteed to alienate half the audience."

Speaking of politics, during his stint on "Rescue Me," Sunjata was very vocal about his beliefs that the terrorist attack on 9/11 was an inside job. Eastin says that wasn't an issue in hiring him to play an FBI agent.

"When I met him," says Eastin, "we talked about it. I figured, it's like, Paul Briggs, the character I created, is played by Daniel. He's an actor. Whatever Daniel's personal beliefs are, I'm not particularly worried about it. I figure, if he wants to be outspoken, he's more than welcome to be outspoken."

For Tveit, he wasn't worried about the larger issues so much as getting the details right.

"We worked with a lot of local law enforcement that were teaching us how to do things," he says. "The thing we got was, they watch cop shows, and they can tell that the people aren't real law enforcement by the way they're carrying on with the weapons and things like that.
So we tried really hard to make those things as authentic as possible. We always tried to check back in to make that work."

"Graceland" premieres at 10 p.m. ET Thursday on USA.
Photo/Video credit: USA
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