Sterling Sulieman: From 'Pretty Little Liars' to 'Station 19' [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

STERLING SULIEMAN, Still Star Crossed

Sterling Sulieman, a 34-year-old Hawaii native, has shown off his striking looks and on-screen charm in a variety of projects since his first acting credit in 2005, a show called Half & Half. He’s best known for playing friend-turned-foe Nate St. Germain in the ABC Family/Freeform hit Pretty Little Liars, but also appeared in The Vampire Diaries, the gone-too-soon comedy The New Normal and had a significant role in Rhimes’ short-lived 2017 Shakespeare-inspired period drama Still Star-Crossed.

Now, as Grant in Station 19, Sulieman – named a breakout star by GQ in 2013 – is one-half of a developing couple. Calling from his current home in Los Angeles, Sulieman took some time – just days after an off-screen gig officiating a friend’s wedding (he swears he didn’t cry), and hours before a friend was arriving at his doorstep – to speak with The Celebrity Cafe about Station 19, the significance of his role and the show’s cast, what he thinks of aliens and vampires and more.

The show follows the dramatic lives, both on the job and off, of Seattle firefighters. It’s a spinoff of Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, starring Grey’s alum Jason George and Jaina Lee Ortiz (Rosewood, Girls Trip). Sterling Sulieman joined the ensemble cast midway through season 1 as Grant, a chef and love interest for firefighter Travis (Jay Hayden). Now he’s back for more.

Here’s what he had to say:

Note: This interview was edited for length and conciseness.

STERLING SULIEMAN
Photo credit: Vince Trupsin

 On getting started

The Celebrity Cafe: Starting at the beginning, your parents are both doctors but you and your sister (singer/Broadway actress Yasmeen Sulieman) are performers. How do you think that happened?

Sterling Sulieman: My parents were both pretty artistic growing up. My dad played music and my mom used to dance and do shows, but they chose the doctor route. [Still], growing up they used to show us all these old musicals and take us to all the shows in town. They definitely exposed us to all of the different shows and art and stuff that came through town. I started doing it right away – as an afterschool thing and it just kept growing.

TCC: Was there one movie or actor who particularly inspired you?

SS: I mean when I was young I really liked Robin Williams, because he was really doing all those movies [back then] … so, I was like, this guy’s hysterical and I want to be like that.

TCC: What made you choose acting over music?

SS: My sister [and I] started doing musical theater shows together and I think originally that was where the aim was: musical theater. I had to learn how to dance to stay competitive with everybody, so that’s still one of my favorite forms of acting.

TCC: What was your experience getting gigs early on–did you do the LA grind?

SS: I went to UCLA for musical theater, to be in town, and they told us not to start hustling but my roommate and I were like, “uh this takes a while, so we’re going to get going right now.” And yeah, I got my first managers and agents in college and started going out on auditions in college.

TCC: So, do you recommend school to young aspiring actors?

SS: I think you don’t have to go to any type of conservatory to come here and get started because most actors in LA are still taking classes. Out of college, I’ve taken countless improv classes and a theater workshop and scene-setting class, you name it, I’ve still done it because when you’re not working, you have to keep your skills sharp, so either way, you’ll be in school.

TCC: So what role do you consider your big break into the business?

SS: I would say… [in 2007] I got a contract role on All My Children. So, I flew to New York and I was with All My Children out there for a year and a half before I came back.

TCC: How did you land that role?

SS: Just the normal way – auditions, agents, it was great.

TCC: How was that experience on a daytime soap – is it a different ballgame from regular shows?

SS: It’s interesting. I had a lot of ideas about what daytime soap was before I got there. I was like “oh, it’s so cheesy,” but then you realize, it’s just because it’s on every day and you’re kind of just saying the same thing or changing your opinion and saying it in a new room every day.

But I thought the actors on there were amazing, and I learned a lot and I learned about how to handle the cameras and stuff – because things move quick, way quicker on daytime television. You shoot a scene, you do it a couple times, you go a little tighter and then you’re out. And on normal programs, it could take like four hours or something… [And] it helped me be more comfortable and confident and definitely more off-book.

TCC: Since that role you’ve done a lot of genres. Is there one you prefer or want to do more of?

SS: I’d like to do more comedy than I’ve been doing so far… I just really like doing comedy. Fantasy, I also love, but even if I was gonna be on a dramatic show, I’d love to be the character that has a little bit of that comedic edge.

TCC: Is that because of your personality or because acting-wise you think it’d be a new challenge?

SS: Both. I think it’s harder in some ways because you have to be more specific and grounded at the same time. And then also, I think it’s a personality thing. I definitely notice that some actors can’t wait to cry and some actors can’t wait to be funny.

TCC: One of your most recognizable roles is “Nate St. Germain” on Pretty Little Liars. That was quite un-funny, so how was playing a stalker-killer?

SS: I mean as much as I just talked about comedy, that was also really, really fun. Because they kind of had it slow-build so it just kept unraveling more and more, and then yeah, getting in that headspace – because you know there’s people who are like that, but you justify it. You justify why it’s ok for you to be acting that way, why the other person deserves it and why you’ve been wronged. It was dark and weird but it was definitely fun to play.

On starring in Still Star-Crossed

 TCC: And then you went on to get your first starring role in a series with Shonda Rhimes’ Still Star-Crossed... How’d it feel to join the iconic Shondaland empire?

SS: That was a huge moment. Also, that process was so fast. Usually, pilot season is all these rounds, and that one was audition, call back, you got it, you’re going to Spain, and you’re part of Shondaland, and I was like, “oh my God.” It was just so many things at once. Working on it was a pleasure from start to finish. It was absolutely amazing and all it was cracked up to be right away.

TCC: What did you think of playing in the Shakespeare world?

SS: I do love fantasy and – this was Shondaland casting – I never expected I would be playing a prince in that time on television, and I would definitely have wanted to, so when it came about I was just so excited to be riding horses and sword-fighting. I didn’t think this could happen.

TCC: How did you cope with Still Star-Crossed’s cancellation? Is it hard not to take it personally?

SS: We were definitely very sad. That cast got really close because we were abroad together so we did everything together. So yeah, we were definitely very, very sad when it happened. But honestly, it’s hard for shows to survive these days so you know it’s a possibility, you’re kind of lucky that it made it all the way on TV and played the whole season, so we had to be grateful.

TCC: Having been a prince and vampire, would you prefer a king’s wealth or vampire powers?

SS: Oh, wow, I think I would rather have the powers that come with a vampire…I just feel like they’re more private—you can use them, not use them, tell people, not tell people. Whereas if you’re the king, everyone is your responsibility—which was that character’s whole problem. I’ve learned from my experience.

TCC: And Still Star-Crossed was your first time being on a show from the start… how did that compare to your experience joining shows late in the game?

SS: It’s so different, because when you’re visiting a set, you’re not quite sure where you fit in, even where things are or things go on the set, and when you’ve been there from the beginning, you know your storyline, kind of, and you know all the relationships and you just have a bigger idea of what is happening in the bigger picture, and it definitely changes – there’s more guesswork when you’re a guest star. I’m like, “yeah Grant’s a chef and he’s from, um… a normal family?”

On Station 19 and the significance of the cast and role

 TCC: Speaking of Grant, and Station 19, do you think your prior Shondaland gig helped you get the role?

SS: I think it was because I was already in Shondaland. I had gone out for the pilot and not gotten it, but when this part came up, they called me and they talked to me about the storyline Grant would have in season 1, and I absolutely love working with Shondaland and I was excited to be part of the show. Especially the storyline, it’s so good to have representation for the LGBTQ community, so yeah, it kind of fell in my lap and I was so excited to say yes.

TCC: How did it feel to join a cast that’s predominantly people of color, as is Rhimes’ legacy?

SS: That’s amazing, that’s one of the best parts of working for Shondaland. I feel like they do use a lot of people of color and women in positions that we don’t see them in on TV and so, I just think it’s so good to have that representation because these are jobs that people of color do.

TCC: Do you think Hollywood’s reached a point, or almost, where Station 19’s cast isn’t radical?

SS: I think there’s definitely been a shift in Hollywood where there’s more casting for more diversity, and people are enjoying it, the numbers are the same or better. So, I feel like across the board, there’s been more representation and I do think Shondaland is responsible for a lot of that.

TCC: Do you feel any pressure playing a gay person, also of color, also a boyfriend of a firefighter – a profession stereotyped a bit by an “alpha male” image?

SS: I don’t feel a lot of pressure. But I do want to do right by the storyline, and I think there’s something aspirational about the way they treat our relationship. Even like you said, for the firemen, they don’t deal a lot with like, “you’re a female fireman, you’re a gay fireman,” so it’s lovely to see a world where people didn’t put up those walls that shouldn’t exist, what it would be like, because they’re such a strong unit, it’s such a strong family.

TCC: Is there a gay TV couple that you think set the bar for Grant and Travis to aspire to?

SS: I feel like I’ve seen a bunch – I used to watch Brothers & Sisters, they had a couple on there, Grey’s Anatomy definitely did it really well, where they’re not like cookie-cutter sweet all the time, but they’re also not always tortured by it. I think just keeping everybody human is the whole thing, like [gay couples] can do anything, they’re not different.

TCC: How was the fan response to Grant when you first appeared on Station 19?

SS: I got a good reaction, and I do have a small Twitter following and they were excited to see me on this show as well – they love connecting the dots with people from [Shondaland] shows.

TCC: What do you think of how Travis and Grant got together, with Grant’s grandmother setting them up – that’s another stereotype-buster, the elder matriarch being so supportive.

SS: Yeah for sure. I thought that was fun. I also thought it was hysterical that you would be sharing your love life with your grandma as a grown man – and people do, everyone has a different story. But yeah, I thought that was a really fun way to get them together. And, you know, [Grant and Travis] always say they’re moving slow but I feel like they’re moving fast.

TCC: What’s your take on the grief element with Grant coming as Travis still mourns his husband?

SS: I definitely think there’s more to uncover there. I think one of their problems in their relationship in the first season is like, you can say you understand and you want to move slow but you can’t really understand what someone’s been through and you do have to respect some of those boundaries. But on the flip side, you also have to move on and sometimes you need encouragement to do that, so I think they’re handling it well because it’s different for everyone.

TCC: What do you think is the key to the relationship enduring and not failing due to bad timing?

SS: I would say communication. If you keep communication open then you don’t run into the drama – but of course, we need drama on the show.

TCC: Travis’s life was in the balance at the end of last season. Assuming he survives, how do you think his near-death experience might change his perspective?

SS: I don’t know, I mean for him, I think it’s always been part of the job. I feel like Grant, you could definitely add an element of, “oh your job is extremely dangerous and you could die,” especially being that Travis’s husband did die, I think that would all just become more real.

TCC: Did you know you’d be coming back for season 2 when you signed on?

SS: No, I definitely did not, I had no idea.

TCC: Do you know if the creators always had that planned or if it was based on support for Grant?

SS: I think they always have a plan that they’re always allowed to change directions, so yeah, maybe it was just, they tried it and they are enjoying it so it’s not done yet.

On his hobbies

 TCC: You’ve played very specific professions, like a chef as Grant. Do you have related skills?

SS: Well I like cooking. I’m definitely someone who likes to get creative in the kitchen.

 TCC: What’s your favorite thing to cook?

SS: My favorite thing to make is lamb because my mom used to always make lamb growing up.

TCC: Speaking of past times, I read you’re big on fitness. Do you have a favorite type of exercise?

SS: Currently, my favorite is, I started taking a class at Orange Theory. They have a heart rate monitor and it’s running, rowing and weights. It’s right at the bottom of my street so [it’s perfect] … [Otherwise] I just hike and do other random things.

TCC: If you’re busy on a show or other project, how do you find time to work out?

SS: [On a really busy day] I just have to get up earlier… the priority is high, so I have to get it in.

TCC: How do you feel about social media?

SS: I’m pretty bad at it. I’ve been told I need to step it up. Instagram is definitely my favorite of the things, so I’m gonna try to be better on my Instagram.

TCC: Why is that your favorite?

SS: I like putting up and captioning a picture. Twitter… I don’t have anything to just say all the time.

TCC: Are you a diehard fan of any shows yourself?

SS: I think Game of Thrones is like the only one I’m really on.

TCC: Would you want to be on that show?

SS: I would’ve said no, but I’ve already played a prince, so yeah, bring it on, get me in there.

On his experience in the business

TCC: What’s the hardest part about the audition process?

SS: Probably just that you get really excited to get them. You know you’re not gonna book all of them, but you’re always like, “yeah this is me, this is great” and then you have to get over it.

TCC: How do you get over not getting a role?

SS: Usually by another one showing up. But otherwise, I’d say staying creative, busy. That’s one of the reasons I started writing because then your mind is occupied, you’re busy… I think every young actor should write because you learn a lot. You’re already reading scripts, you’re already in the world and in this day and age, you can create content so easily you might as well do it.

TCC: Any other advice for aspiring actors?

SS: Other than creating your own thing, I’d say really just believing you can do it, and knock on all the doors. Just don’t be afraid. People always love to tell you how hard it is… [you’ll] just end up a waiter… don’t listen to those people, they have literally no idea what they’re talking about.

TCC: Speaking of creating your own thing, are you working on anything right now?

SS: I’m writing a movie with my writing partner, and that’s about it.

TCC: And what about one of your current credentials on IMDB, Couch People, what’s that?

SS: That’s just a web series I was writing with some friends. We’ve been filming it a lot. We started it before I left for Still Star-Crossed, so it’s been hard to finish it… I got back and then the girl left, and then the guy left. We’re like, “we just need to be in one place so we can get this done.”

TCC: What kind of series is it?

SS: It’s kind of gonna be like short, small, little comedic episodes. We just kind of wanted to work together and we were like, “well, let’s just make something.”

TCC: What do you think of your trajectory so far, since All My Children?

SS: It’s been fun. I’ve had high moments and lower moments, but it is absolutely always really fun when you’re on set and it’s really fun to get new characters. I’ve loved the variety of things that I’ve been able to do. I didn’t really get typecast as anything, so mainly I’ve loved it. But if I could put something out there, I’d like to do more movies and stuff.

TCC: With film stars doing TV nowadays, do you still see films as a higher, or different level?

SS: I do kind of view it as a different level, or different beast, because I have some friends who seem to only be in movies, and then friends who only seem to be in TV, and they have trouble, like I don’t know, there’s some kind of invisible wall there.

TCC: So, crossing over the first time is hard, either way?

SS: Yeah, people will be like, “no that’s a TV star,” and you’re like, “but that guy’s been the star of everything, why can’t he be in a movie?”

TCC: I agree! Now you mention not being typecast. Would you credit luck, being selective or…?

SS: I don’t really know. I think sometimes, it’s just branding. Sometimes you clearly occupy a space and sometimes you don’t. So even when it comes to race, I go in for any ethnicity – well, no, if it says “urban inner city,” they’re like, “not Sterling,” and I’m like, “you know, people look like me in inner cities.”

TCC: So, what is your ethnicity, if you don’t mind my asking?

SS: Both my parents are African American. But I did Ancestry DNA and I’m like a quarter British, a little more than a quarter Nigerian, and then a lot of other random things in Africa, a few random southern Europe.

TCC: So, you find people can’t pin you down and that can help or hurt?

SS: Yeah exactly, it goes either way.

TCC: Do you feel like anything’s off limits to you at this point, character-wise?

SS: No, not really. I’ve had some auditions come up – those HBO shows where they’re like, “must be nude and fine with sexual acts,” and I audition and when I don’t get it, I’m like, “oh thank God.”

TCC: I always wonder if everyone knows what they’re getting into for that.

SS: Right! But I think you’re like, “yeah, I’m comfortable, I can do that, totally—” and then…

On the future

TCC: Some Shondaland shows are steamy, though… will you and Travis get there on Station 19?

SS: You know I really don’t know, because I used to think, “not on network TV,” but then Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder had some steamy scenes. And then Still Star-Crossed, we didn’t have anything steamy... I don’t know if it’s like when it comes on at night, who knows?

TCC: Going forward, outside of Station 19, is there a show or movie franchise you’d want to join?

SS: I would love to get involved in Star Trek.

TCC: Would you rather be an alien or human?

SS: Just because of the makeup chair, I’ll say human. Maybe a funny ear… nothing too crazy.

TCC: Can you hint at anything in store for Grant on Station 19?

SS: Yeah, I don’t really know anything, actually.

TCC: Anything else you want to add about the show?

SS: I really hope they bring back my grandma [Edith, played by] Marla Gibbs (The Jeffersons, Martin). She was fantastic to work with, she’s a legend, so that was awesome. But I don’t know what’s gonna happen with either of us so… it all depends on people living.

TCC: What can fans expect of this season overall?

SS: I know they’re gonna learn a lot more about the characters’ lives and how they met and how they ended up where they are now. And [there’s] a new series regular coming in this season.

Dare I say I detected a little slyness in his tone? Could it be Grant/Sulieman himself? Tune in to season 2 of Station 19, airing Thursdays at 9/8 central, to find out. The season premieres Oct. 4.

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