From show creator Jeff Eastin (White Collar), the USA Network drama series Graceland delves into the lives of an elusive group of undercover agents from the FBI, DEA and US Customs, who live and operate under one roof. Johnny Tuturro (Manny Montana) is the fun-loving prankster of the house, Briggs’ (Daniel Sunjata) right hand man and the heart of Graceland. In a world that forces them to give up any shred of normalcy and the question of trust is a matter of life or death, they are each other’s family and the house is their sanctuary. The show also stars Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Ferlito, Brandon Jay McLaren, and Serinda Swan.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Manny Montana talked about what drew him to the character of Johnny, how much research he did for the undercover agent aspect of the show, how excited the actors get to read each new script, whose backstory most surprised him, getting to be at the center of much of the comic relief, and his concern for the fact that these characters tend to talk a lot about being undercover agents when they’re out in public. He also talked about the experience of shooting Cyber, about a case of high-level computer hacking, with director Michael Mann. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
MANNY MONTANA: No, I got the breakdown for Johnny first, before I read the script, and it read, “Latin, 20-something kid from the streets, who’s a surfer,” and that’s me in a nutshell, anyway. You always look for something you can relate to, but when it’s so close to home, you get excited about it. And then, I got the script and it sounded like me talking. It sounded like me, in my everyday life. And then, I met with Jeff [Eastin] and his vision for the character and the growth of the character were in the same light that I saw it. I was scared of him becoming the Mexican sidekick and goofy guy who’s always laughing, but USA and Jeff did a great job of helping him growing throughout the season. With the first three episodes, Johnny was nothing but light and funny. In Episode 4, he got into some serious stuff when he went undercover as a Mexican gangster. From here on out, Johnny becomes a man, but still keeps his humor and lightness about him. That’s what I’m proud of. That’s what I like most about Johnny.
Did you do much research into the undercover FBI agent aspect of this character?
MONTANA: Yeah, I did a whole lot of research, actually. Thus far, in my career, I’ve pretty much only played cops and gangsters. Two of my best friends in Long Beach are cops, so I’ve gone on ride-alongs with them. I think I’ve been on three or four ride-alongs. I recommend that everybody do that because you view both sides and see it from different angles, for the rest of your life. If you’re driving and a cop is behind you, you automatically think they’re going to pull you over, but cops have so much more going on than to think about pulling you over. The last thing a real cop wants to do is write a ticket. That’s the truth. And I learned about the mundaneness of their job. You’re not going to get shot at, every day. It was great to learn about a regular beat cops lifestyle. And then, once I got booked on the show, Jeff set us up with a consultant who actually worked undercover. We also met different undercover agents in Florida, when we were shooting out there. And just the fact that they had regular lives killed me. A couple of them had kids. One guy coached a baseball team. It blew my mind that they were able to separate their job from their real life. To talk to them and to hear their stories was a treat.
MONTANA: I don’t know if I could ever do it, to tell you the truth. I get too involved with my job. If I was to do anything besides acting, I would be a fireman or a beat cop. I’d do a regular job.
It seems like any number of things could explode on this show, at any minute. Does it always feel that way for you, and does that feeling make you excited to read the script, each week?
MONTANA: Yeah, most definitely! We always get excited just to get the script. It’s hard doing this show. Sometimes we wouldn’t get the script until the day before we started shooting the next episode. As an actor, that frustrates you because you want to work on it and bring something good. You don’t want to just say lines. And then, me and the cast are really close, so we have a party text line that everybody is in. We’ll be like, “Holy shit, did you see what Charlie does? Have you seen what Briggs is going through?” We all get excited for different characters’ arcs and the peaks and valleys they go through. We’re close, so we always like to get together. On the days when we would get the script last minute, we would go and read the scripts, on our off time, with whoever could get away. I only shoot my scenes and things that I’m involved with, so I still watch the show as a genuine fan because I wanna see how everybody else did their work and what things look like. I’m genuinely a fan of the show. I was a little iffy about the way it started because I think the first three episodes are very cute. But, from the fourth episode on, it became the show that I want to watch. From here on out, it just continues down that path, and I’m excited about it.
Was there a particular character’s secrets or backstory that most surprised you?
MONTANA: Yeah, Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren). He’s my favorite guy to do scenes with because we improv a lot, and it’s just fun. People are gonna understand why he is the way he is, and why he’s moody and territorial, and why he views Graceland as just a house and not a family. Once I read that script, I was like, “Oh, the audience is gonna love him now!” I love that they’re building him up to be this dry guy who’s always moody, and then people are gonna get it. It’s gonna make so much sense, and it’s gonna tug at people’s heartstrings.
MONTANA: He’s in the middle of things. I compare it to when you’re growing up and, around 17 or 18, you start seeing your parents as real people who have actual problems and issues, just like everybody else. You’re like, “Damn, my dad actually has some issues!” That’s how he starts viewing Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) and everybody in the house. They’re not just these perfect people. They actually have problems. He tries to help, but then he gets in the middle of the drama.
Even though they have a history, as Johnny learns that Briggs may not be exactly who he thinks he is, does he start to get closer to other people in the house?
MONTANA: Yeah. Johnny views Briggs as a father figure, so as he starts realizing that he’s going through his own stuff, he questions his trust for him. That changes the dynamic, a little bit. He’s always gonna view him as a father, but he grows up and sees him as a regular person with flaws. He’s always gonna have that bond with him, but he’s also gonna get very close with Mike (Aaron Tveit) and really everybody in the house. Johnny is gonna stay that nucleus in the house. In that sense, it doesn’t really change, but it grows.
MONTANA: It is a freakin’ blessing to be that. I’ve only played gangsters and cops, and I always have to be serious. I’ve never gotten the chance to play somebody like this, and it’s the best. I never thought I’d get to do something like this. I get to laugh, every day. It makes my days go by so much faster, and I’m always in a good mood. In that sense, it’s a treat. There are a lot of similarities between me and Johnny, but I’m not always upbeat. I’m quiet and introverted, and I like to just be by myself a lot. I like to read, and just get away and surf. I have a lot of alone time.
Johnny seems like someone who would let a lot of things roll off of him, but does he have a point where he would draw the line?
MONTANA: It’s so funny that you say that. I think he just acts like he lets a lot of things roll off his shoulders. A lot of people that are always trying to be funny and “on” and performing are just hiding. It’s just a cover for what they really are and how they really feel. He takes his job so seriously that he covers it with humor. There’s one moment, that’s my favorite moment of the season, that I think is in Episode 10, where he tries to throw one of his housemates a birthday party and things go very sour. He completely lets everybody in the house have it, all at once. So, to see Johnny go through that, first on the page and then in cuts of it, it blew my mind. That’s Johnny, in a nutshell. It made me really proud, and I hope the audience likes it when they see it.
MONTANA: Yeah! It was like, “If I don’t get this job, I need to stop acting.” It was just me. There was no way I was not gonna get it. And that’s not coming from an arrogant place, or to disrespect any other actor, but I don’t think anybody else could do it the way that I do it. When we actually shot that scene, I took a picture and posted it on Twitter and said, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid right now.” It’s just a joy. It’s a treat to do something that you would do for free, and get paid for it. Now, if I ever get the chance to do a football movie, that would also be a dream come true.
Do you worry, at all, about how much these guys talk about working undercover when they’re out in public?
MONTANA: Yeah, we joke a lot about that. We’ll be at the bar, doing our scene and talking about being undercover, and the director would be like, “You guys have to whisper because there are people all around.” So, we would do that, but then sound couldn’t catch it. It’s a constant battle of, “How real is this, that we’re talking about being undercover agents at a fucking bar?!” It’s TV, so you have to use your imagination, but I agree with what you’re saying. We thought the same thing.
What was it like to shoot Cyber with Michael Mann?
MONTANA: You know, I auditioned for one of the leads and I didn’t get it, but they liked me and offered me for another role. So, it’s a smaller part, but I’m not going to turn down a chance to work with Michael Mann. We wrapped that a couple weeks ago, and it was fun. That dude is meticulous. Every little detail of the movie, he’s involved in. I’ve done a lot of TV, but not film. To be on a set like that, it just makes me want to do more film. It’s the best. They do three scenes, at most, per day, and they don’t have deadlines, the way TV does. I hope the show goes for several seasons, and I get to do parts in movies on my hiatus. I hope my career continues to grow from here.
Graceland airs on Thursday nights on the USA Network.