The name alone suggests something out of the Elvis era, but do not let the name fool you. GRACELAND is the code name for a beach house stocked with undercover agents from the FBI, DEA and U.S. Customs all working to bring a halt to the importation of illegal narcotics in the new USA Network series of the same name. In an exclusive interview, star Manny Montana talked about how hard his character will strive to keep this unusual task force together and offered a few teasers at the challenges ahead in the momentous first season of GRACELAND.
What drew you to GRACELAND and the role of Johnny Tuturro?
MANNY: When the breakdown came out originally it was for a 20-something Latin kid from the streets, surfer. That’s like me in a nutshell. So when I saw that, I was like, “If I don’t get this part I just need to stop acting in general.” It was just right for me. Then I read the script, I saw that Johnny and I have a lot of the same qualities; in part, he approaches his work lightly or it seems lightly to others. It just came together just perfectly. Like it was just right.
How would you describe Johnny?
MANNY: Johnny is like the heart of the house. He has that classic middle-child syndrome where he wants everybody to get along. So if the parents are fighting or his brother and sister are fighting, he wants to be the one to make light of the situation and for everybody to get along. Stuff is going to start happening in the house where somebody is going to think another person is lying. Then somebody’s going to be investigating another person in the house, and Johnny doesn’t want to believe any of it. He wants to believe they are all friends and everything is happy-go-lucky. But in reality, it’s not. So when Johnny gets in the mix of all that, he starts getting a little jaded. All that lightness and stuff eventually starts to diminish in him a little bit, but it’s always going to be there. So Johnny is the complete heart of the house.
What do you most admire about him?
MANNY: Honestly, how sensitive he is and how much he hides it. He hides behind the humor and all that. He just hides how much he cares about everybody. There will be an episode in particular (either 8 or 9) where all that love just comes out in a freaking meltdown. Like he literally yells at everybody in the house. It’s a great scene and I think it’s going to solidify Johnny’s character as a whole. From being a sensitive, nice dude to being mean, arguing, but then laughing and joking.
As the series unfolds, it is revealed that Johnny has a military background, which informs a bit more about who is.
MANNY: Exactly, and that’s what I love, when they start introducing things like that, whether it’s he is a prankster or what not. But he’s also the lead SWAT team guy. So he’s a badass. He’s not all joking and laughing and he’s up to cover any serious situation. So I really like that he’s balanced. I didn’t want him to be the sidekick jokester.
What do you think propelled Johnny into this world of undercover law enforcement? Coming from the military it seems like a natural transition, but given his natural affinity to be so sensitive and loving, it seems like an odd match.
MANNY: I think that’s why I relate to him the most. I come from a really ghetto area in Long Beach, California and most people just say, “Oh gangs, whatever.” But it’s a rough upbringing. I was surrounded growing up by gangsters and my friends are tough knuckleheads – but I was always a good kid. For whatever reason, whether it be my family or whatever, I was always a good kid. So no matter what your upbringing is or what your background is, what a person truly is just comes out. So even though I was around people who hated the police, I would always want to be a cop. If I wasn’t an actor, I would be a cop or a fireman. It always just appealed to me. So just because my background is a certain thing doesn’t mean that’s what I’m going to be later on in life.
Johnny also seems like a solo player on the show as he doesn’t seem to have a partner that is helping him out with any of his cases.
MANNY: We talked about this on set in the last episode. One of the writers was like, “Holy sh*t! Did Johnny have any cases this season?” And I was like, “No, he doesn’t.” And we laughed about it. But it made much more sense for Johnny to just want to help everybody else out in their cases. So like Aaron [Tveit] and Daniel’s [Sunjata] character may always be together and working together, but Johnny has complete balance with everybody in the house. I think that says so much about Johnny and that’s what I love about him.
The other thing that stood out was Johnny’s relationship with Dale [Brandon Jay McLaren]. I couldn’t quite put a finger on what’s up with those two.
MANNY: First of all, Brandon is like one of my favorite persons to do scenes with because our characters are complete opposites. Completely. So once we get together we start improving. We’re always fighting and then we love each other. That’s what I love most about him. Any of the writers would say that Johnny and Dale are the easiest two characters to write for because whatever is going on with them, it’s pretty apparent. It’s not like Vanessa [Ferlito] or Aaron’s characters that have so much depth to them and the audience doesn’t know where they are at mentally, whether they are investigating somebody, or whether they are just going along with the flow. You know Johnny. He’s just fun and fun-loving, so you know what’s going on with him; and Brandon’s character Dale is the same way. So when we get together it’s the stereotypical “opposites attract.”
So they rub each other the wrong way most of the time?
MANNY: (Laughs) Yes, they rub each other the wrong way.
With Johnny being a man of love, does Johnny get to have any particular lady-love this season?
MANNY: (Laughs) None, and it pisses me off! We always joked about it how Aaron [Tveit] gets all the hot women this season. I get one, but I can’t say anything about it without giving anything away. But it’s not really a love interest. It’s part of a case. Something just kind of happens in the middle of it. So Johnny doesn’t get any particular love interest, but I would like it if that works out for next season. That would be good for him.
It seems like he is more concerned about all his housemates. Like you said, he’s kind of the caretaker of the bunch.
MANNY: Yeah, definitely.
For you, what have you enjoyed most about working on GRACELAND?
MANNY: My castmates. Honestly, it’s a blessing as an actor because there’s a lot of bad stories about actors who don’t get along with their castmates, and I was scared I’d be a part of something like that. So once we all met and got along really well, it was just a blessing. Everyday laughing and joking, we had fun every day.
If you could offer some advice to your character, Johnny, what would it be?
MANNY: (Laughs) That’s a good question. Easy. Johnny is portrayed to be this ladies’ man and he’s so not. So he’s always trying to hit on people and he talks a good game to his housemates like he gets so many girls, but he doesn’t. So I’d want to tell Johnny to shut up sometimes, and just be a gentleman – which he is, but he just tries to act like he’s a ladies’ man. So I’d tell him to shut his mouth and be nice to girls.
Finally, what kind of teasers can you offer for the first season of GRACELAND?
MANNY: Regardless of what people think of the show or the storylines, I really think they will relate to the characters. I’m proud of that because I think we have something for everybody, in my opinion. The relationships and bonds that are made and broken within the season within the house, I think people are really going to like. I think people’s favorite characters are going to change week by week and I like that. Its really good writing and it makes you care. It invests you in the story, which is what I think great TV is. So I think people are going to love our show and I hope they really give it a shot.
To see how tricky it is living undercover and yet trying to have real relationships in the midst of it all, be sure to tune in for the premiere of GRACELAND on Thursday, June 6th at 10PM on USA Network.
Tiffany Vogt is the Senior West Coast Editor, contributing as a columnist and entertainment reporter to TheTVaddict.com. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).