ADTV talks to Jonathan Tucker whose run on DirecTV’s Kingdom has Emmy voters talking
For those who’ve never seen it, DirecTV’s Kingdom takes us into the world of mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighting. But don’t let that stop you. The show also is a character-driven drama that stars pop star Nick Jonas as an up-and-coming fighter and Jonathan Tucker as his troubled brother. Critics have taken notice. Tucker’s performance on the series has been called “mesmerizing” and “unreal” by Entertainment Weekly. Jonathan Tucker has even been compared to Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale (The Fighter) in his ability to completely transform his physical appearance to fit a role.
Now in its second season, Kingdom deftly combines family drama and conflict while taking us into the sport of MMA. I recently caught up with Jonathan Tucker to talk about how he trained for the role and what he’s learned from playing a MMA fighter.
AwardsDaily TV: For people who haven’t actually seen the show, tell us a little bit about your character.
Jonathan Tucker: Jay Kulina is a drug-addled son and brother in a fighting family, kind of like the first fighting family, if you will, of Venice, California. He’s a man of extremes, real highs and real lows. He’s always grounded by loyalty and love for those he cares about.
ADTV: One thing I learned from watching the show is that it actually made me appreciate MMA. I’ve watch a little bit of boxing in the past but not MMA. I have some friends who do it, but I’ve never really paid too much attention to it. I learned that it teaches me about brotherhood. Is that something that was the same for you?
JT: Absolutely. Its this kind of extraordinary balance of two things. One, you’re the only person in the cage when you go to fight somebody. Really, it’s not just you against the other fighter. It’s really you against yourself. It’s this deeply lonely experience. There’s no defense. There’s no offense. There’s no running back to pass the ball to or receiver to throw it to. This is just you. It’s you against yourself.
The second part of that equation, is that you can’t get there alone. You have to have that team to cut weight, to train with, to be able to spiritually and mentally be able to prepare yourself for that kind of crucial moment and experience of fighting. That was something I didn’t understand at all, but I’ve gotten to understand that profoundly both as the character and as the actor playing the character. Particularly with cutting weight, my house was filled with fighters who lost weight for the week to finish off those last few pounds and you really can’t do it without that camaraderie.
ADTV: You talk about the physical preparation of it. I read somewhere that you lost like 30 pounds for the role. Usually, that’s something you hear that movie stars do, not often with TV shows. So, it was very physical for you. What was that process like, having to train your body?
JT: It’s a welcomed opportunity because I think, as an actor, part of the craft is being an athlete. It’s being a dancer. It’s being a sort of fighter in your own respect. You have to appreciate and work on your body and how you bring movement. This is that marriage, in a very heightened way, of the physicality and the spiritual in respect to the craft.
It’s not about losing 30 pounds. It’s more about losing 30 pounds and then gaining 30 pounds and then losing 20 pounds and gaining 20 pounds. It’s a seesaw going up and down while always keeping up that fighting regimen in the gym. So, that part is hard because this isn’t a 2-month movie. This is basically a 6-month journey and, a lot of the time, if you’re going to be cutting weight as a fighter, you’re going to cut for a week or two before a fight. But, because episodes take as long as it takes to do the shoot, if we’re going to be cutting weight for a week in the story, its going to be four weeks on the show. That’s a real battle of will with yourself to either not eat or to be eating quite a bit.
ADTV: Did you actually have any side effects from it at all?
JT: Oh yeah [laughs]. Try not eating for a few days, and it takes almost until the end of the first day and you’re extraordinarily grumpy and uncomfortable. You try to have that be a part of the work. The most important thing about the conversation of the experience of shooting the show is that all of this, the physicality and the fighting and the extremes of the training and getting your body ready, it’s really just a means in which to tell the story of these characters and to reflect them in an honest and authentic way.
ADTV: How many hours are you training for a day?
JT: It’s not how long. It’s how intensely you’re doing it. I’m sure you go to the gym, and there’s people who go every single day and they work out for an hour every single day and nothing seems to change. It really just has to do with the intensity of the training and how hard you’re willing to work when it seems like you’re body is not willing to give you any more. You kind of step further than you ever thought was possible and then you start to see the results. But, it’s also the same thing with acting. You want to keep putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. You have to be able to discover what your weaknesses are as an actor or as an athlete or as a fighter. That’s the first big goal, what are your blindspots and what can you work on? When you recognize that and it’s a little scary, how do you address it?
How do you put yourself into a place, while extraordinarily uncomfortable, you’re going to be becoming a better actor and better human being and better athlete and better whatever you might be. Those are the things are very exciting for me as an actor. Is there an accent that I haven’t worked on and how scary is that and can I find a place where I’m going to put myself on the line and really address this? And different characters and different practicalities and different body work and spiritual work and all those sort of things, if you’re feeling comfortable, there’s something wrong.
ADTV: There’s one scene that really stays with me so much. It was the scene when you and Frank are together. Jay just won his belt and Alvey comes to see him and he finally sees that moment that his son is actually a champ. What was it like filming that scene? There wasn’t music in the background, there was no noise, it was just an intense and deep moment.
JT: It was one of the harder scenes for me, and by for me, I mean for Jay, because all of the sudden there’s this sense of validation and pride that has nothing to do with who I am as a human being and everything to do with that piece of hardware. It really reflects their relationship and the characters in it because it’s like “Here I am, and I’m your son and you should be proud of me for just being your son. Having won this fight, you ask me to lose all this weight as my father, instead of allowing me to fight at the weight that would have been healthy. You ask me to do this even though you never ask me to go to rehab and never ask me to get clean and never ask my mother to get clean, but now, all of the sudden, like a 10-year-old boy with a sense of ‘fatherly pride’ because somehow I won. I have this really good gut feeling that you wouldn’t have had that same love and compassion if I had lost.”
That was the difference between Jay and my dad. My father has an extraordinary inability to see himself as the world sees him and to see the world as it really is. The line that would address that scene is the one from the first season when I set this family dinner up and surprise my father with it and during that dinner we had a kind of big explosion and I said, “I’m a fuck-up, but at least I know I’m a fuck-up.” My father is a fuck-up and can’t acknowledge it, and it’s that inability to see himself that makes the scene with the belt at the end so painful.
ADTV: There are so many scenes, but that one stays with you because of the way they shoot it and the characters are great. What are some of your favorite moments or highlights from the season?
JT: As an actor, you feel so lucky to have a character who has these extremes in a world of highs and lows. This isn’t going to the supermarket. It’s going to the supermarket when it’s getting robbed and to be put in that situation with this character is everything you ever wanted out of the role in the high school play. It’s not larger than life. It’s life when it’s large. That is really, really scary because you’re coming into a scene like, “Okay, well I’m opening this door and I’m going to open it like 15 to 20 times and every take I open it for the first time, and I’m going to see my mother passed out, maybe potentially dead from a heroin overdose.” That’s such great, meaty material and how is my character going to respond to this? But then, on the day, you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m going to be opening this door 20 times, for the first time, with my mother potentially dead having overdosed on heroin.” The world itself presents a lot of dichotomous feelings and emotions and experiences.
ADTV: How has the MMA community reacted to your role in this? Have they been favorable?
JT: I could not be more honored by their enthusiasm for the character and the veracity of the character and the world that Byron Balasco, our showrunner, has created. What’s really great is that it has top-to-bottom support, like from the owners of the USC all the way down to the guys who are sleeping in gyms to train with no family support or financial means. The support and the acknowledgment of the truth of the characters has given me so much honor.
ADTV: What’s next for you? What are you up to now?
JT: I had a great time, in between the hiatus last year, doing the final half season of Justified, which was such a thrill for me because I’m such a big fan of the show. In terms of talking about being uncomfortable, that was such a daunting offer to get because I’m such a big fan of the show, and I love these actors and it’s the final season and [I was] the big final bad guy and it was critical that I honored the fans of this show and, in doing so, you have to really do something dynamic. How do you not go over the line? That was an exciting thing to do.
This hiatus, I’m doing a few episodes as Low-Key Lyesmith on this new Starz show called American Gods with Bryan Fuller. I’ve worked with him in the past, and I love him very much. That’s again one of those things where I’m playing a god and there’s all these rules, in terms of the Greek and Norse mythologies, of what you’re allowed to do and not allowed to do. But you’re also playing a god who can kind of do anything he wants. The boundaries are much further and wider than other opportunities. This is a fun chance to take some big leaps and risks and I’m excited about it.
ADTV: What can you tell us about your involvement in the Pegasus Fund?
JT: I’m thrilled that you’re asking me about it! I kind of feel like given how much is given, much is required. A number of years ago having graduated from my high school, which was a boarding school in Ojai (I’m originally from Boston), I was able to recognize the fact that I had been really privileged with my education. My parents sacrificed quite a bit of luxuries in life to send my sister and I to really extraordinary schools. There was an issue I had seen a number of times with students in under-served communities coming to private secondary school environments and struggling a lot with the environment, the geography, the spirituality, and transitions from their own communities. So, what we do, in terms of adjusting that problem, is work with a national charter program to take the top performing students and send them to a summer camp to help them adjust. We’re getting them in the fifth and sixth grade and commit to three summers as a means to have them bridge that geographic, social, and spiritual transition and introduce them to high school. It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.
Jonathan Tucker can be seen next on season two of DirecT’s Kingdom, which continues June 1 at 9pm ET on Audience. For more information on The Pegasus Fund, click here.