When USA Network launches “Graceland” this summer, there won’t be any Elvis Presley impersonators in the cast and it doesn’t take place in Memphis, rather the hour-long drama is set in the beach culture of Southern California and follows the lives of a unique group of undercover agents who operate out of a posh home on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. What makes this group of law enforcement officials distinctive is the fact that three agencies — the FBI, the DEA, and U.S. Customs — work together to bring down the bad guys.
At the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California on Monday, the producers and the cast gave us the inside scoop on all things “Graceland.” Here is what you need to know:
The Show is Based on Real Life: Executive producer Jeff Eastin, who is best known to USA Network viewers as the creator and executive producer of “White Collar,” had the idea for “Graceland” presented to him by his agents at CAA. “They met a guy named John Marcello, who was the house father of the particular house I used as a model,” says Eastin. “He took me to Manhattan Beach and showed me the house, which has been decommissioned, introduced me to the guys who lived there and they started telling me stories. At that point, I was [like], ‘I’ve got to make this into a show.’”
Why the Show is Called “Graceland”: The house in the series got its name when the authorities seized it from a drug lord known to be an obsessed Elvis Presley fan. “The working title for the series was ‘Safe House,’ which was boring,” Eastin says. “Thematically for the show, I was looking for something — within these walls there is safety. From that idea came the idea of a sanctuary and ‘Graceland’ floated out of that. There was going to be a big, velvet painting of Elvis hanging in the foyer but we decided that it was not a good idea, but the name stuck.”
Casting was Crucial: The series stars Daniel Sunjata, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Ferlito, Serlinda Swan, Brandon Jay McLaren and Manny Montana. “The one thing I learned from ‘White Collar’ was to cast it right, and once you get it cast right, try to maintain the world that you created,” Eastin says. Swan was added to the series after the pilot, but she says joining the cast was seamless. “They added a line, ‘She has been undercover for two weeks,’ so there was no big splash to bring me in,” she says. “It shows how cohesive it is.”
Florida Doubles for Southern California: There were scenes from the pilot shot in Southern California but the series itself is actually shooting in Florida. “It was a big debate,” Eastin says. “The house that I modeled it after is in Manhattan Beach. We call it ‘set in the beach culture of Southern California.’ My parents in Colorado have no idea [where it is] if they see a surfboard. We do our best to maintain the culture.”
There is Singing on the Set: Tveit, who is playing Mike Warren, the new addition to Graceland’s crew of undercover agents, stars as Enjolras in the big-screen version of “Les Miserables,” and has been known to break into song on the set. “This guy has a fat, black woman trapped inside,” jokes Tveit’s co-star Sunjata.”Aaron sings Motown classics.”
Surfing Doesn’t Come Easy to Daniel Sunjata: The only true surfer in the cast — Tveit is learning — is Manny Montana. He does all his own surfing stunts in “Graceland.” But there actually isn’t a lot of surfing in the show — a fact that makes Sunjata very happy. “We did shoot a surfing scene out at the end of the pier in Santa Monica in the water on our boards, delivering a lot of dialogue,” he recalls. “My mouth started sweating and I wasn’t feeling good. I know I was turning green. I finished my last line of dialogue and at the end of the scene, I am supposed to swim out of frame. As soon as I paddled out of frame, I was hurling chunks everywhere. It was so totally disgusting, I thought I was going to get attacked by a shark.”
Watch for “Graceland” this summer on USA Network.