At the top of his game, Jonathan Tucker talks about his work on TV and the career arc he’s on with David Phillips.
In recent years, Jonathan Tucker has been doing consistently excellent work on television. His roles on Justified, Kingdom, American Gods, and now Westworld, find the actor at the top of his game. In full Bel Canto.
Tucker discusses his recent work with us, as well as the arc of his career. Past, present, and future. His love of storytelling, his craft, and depicting those on the margins of society.
At the age of just 36, Tucker already has nearly a quarter-century in the business. His resume will soon include Showtime’s City On A Hill. A Boston based crime drama produced by Ben Affleck, co-starring Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge, due to debut next year.
Let’s go ahead and jump into Westworld. What drew you to the show?
As I’m sure you can imagine, I was a big fan of the first season. I sat on a panel at ATX, an Austin television festival. Which is a really great festival. For people into television, I think it’s the best event of the year. They were doing westerns and tropes, and I was on a panel with (Justified producer) Graham Yost. I met Jonah (Jonathan Nolan), and Lisa (Joy) there. Lisa had written on Pushing Daisies with Bryan Fuller, who has been a really important person and collaborator in my life and professional career. One of the great privileges of working for a long time is these circles do get small. Lisa had seen me on American Gods and thought there might be a place for me on the second season of Westworld.
You mentioned Bryan Fuller. I remember you doing a couple episodes of Hannibal for him.
Yes, I’d made a pilot with Bryan many years ago that didn’t move forward, but we really connected, and I ended up doing Hannibal where he really gave me a runway to take off. Then we did American Gods together. He remains a very close friend of mind. I’m having dinner with him tonight. What I like about the way Brian works, and the same can be said of Lisa and Jonah, they do a lot of research on you. Looking at your audition, previous work, and having long conversations with you. So, ultimately, when you are hired, they trust you to do your job. They cede a lot of control to you. It’s a sign of people who are comfortable in their own talent and choices. They don’t need to impress their ego upon the entirety of a project. As showrunners, they are excited to let all the different components shine. People like Bryan, Lisa, and Jonah, (Kingdom producer) Byron Balasco, who ask you to come into our world and we will support you while you play, and it may not be the play we originally anticipated.
Major Craddock in Westworld has a significant arc. In playing a non-woke host across from woke hosts and human beings who understand what Westworld is, how did that affect your approach to playing him?
One of the fun things to explore was the idea of taking in new information as artificial intelligence, recognizing it was new, and then carrying that forward as fresh DNA. The character is in a constant state of discovery. What does that taste like? What does that feel like? That was unique to me as an actor.
One thing I’ve noticed in your recent career, is a willingness to go into dark places. Whether it’s Boon on Justified, Jay Kulina on Kingdom, or Major Craddock. Did you fall into that, or is it something you are drawn to?
Real life can be big, and there’s something enjoyable about letting the bigness of life into the character. It’s liberating and exciting to be able to play these characters with all these eccentricities. I was scared of some of those characters early on in my career. It’s not easy to go big, because you set yourself up for criticism. But there’s so many big lives out there and so many interesting characters who have story’s that deserve to be told. It can be incredibly compelling, and it’s critical, I think, that actors don’t shy away from that.
And yet, none of those characters I’ve just mentioned are the same.
I’m drawn to dangerous characters. I like characters that you don’t know what they are going to do next. Life is so unpredictable in every respect. “Man plans, and God laughs” is one of my favorite quotes. Nothing ever goes exactly to plan on set or in life. But if you put all the work into your character before you arrive on set, you can be ready for that unpredictability and just roll with it. If you can settle into that instability and chaos with the character, it is so enjoyable. You open yourself up to surprise, and I love that.
Do you have any immediate reflections on Westworld and Major Craddock?
It was a real privilege because you rarely get the opportunity to work on storytelling of that scope and scale. All of a sudden you’re on a set with a two-story rampart Mexican fort like something out of the 1860’s, and this whole world is built for you to play in. I have dedicated my life to storytelling. I’ll die on set, and when you get to be on a set and every department is at the top of their craft, and they are afforded all the tools that they could possibly want to fulfill the vision, it’s almost once in a lifetime, if you will. The storytelling on Westworld matches the assets afforded it.
On your next project, City On A Hill, in reading about the show, Irish-American crime drama, it made me think of a show you made many years ago, The Black Donnellys. Do you feel any connections between the two pieces?
Completely. In so many surprising ways. We even had the same assistant director on the first day of City On A Hill that we had on Black Donnellys. I felt some of the same patterns, looks, and feelings coming back to me that I had on Donnellys. I definitely found a kinship between the two shows and my characters in both. Tommy Donnelly was trying to hold his family together. Deal with his wayward, drug-addicted brother, and he’s carrying all this weight. Trying to hold this family together. Balancing sin and the reality of having to do bad things to take care of your family. I’ll be looking forward to a similar opportunity when we start filming the series this fall.
Can you tell us more about your character in and how he fits into City?
Sure. The show is about a newfound relationship between and entrenched FBI agent towards the end of his career, and this young African-American district attorney from outside of town, played by Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge. They form this unlikely partnership trying to change the law enforcement system in Boston. They run into my character, who is from Charlestown, Massachusetts, and my bank robbing squad who have recently committed a murder in the process of a robbery. That will play out over the course of 12 episodes.
I know Ben Affleck is one of the producers, and in reading about the show and going by your description, there seems to be a surface similarity to The Town. In what ways does City On A Hill diverge from that basic concept?
The similarity is the focus on law enforcement, the Boston political scene, and bank robbers. After that, they are really quite different stories. One of the exciting opportunities working in television today is you can go so much further and find a more enriching experience as an actor and as an audience member when you have the time to draw and tease out these stories. We just get to go much deeper here.
Do you find that cable television, due to having shorter seasons than network shows, which allows a better maintenance of quality, while also allowing you to do all the thing you can do in movies, that maybe television is actually better than movies, and that stigma of being a TV actor vs. a movie actor has been removed almost entirely?
On an aggregate, I don’t think there’s a question. And the distribution is so much better. You look at the best-case scenario for an independent film, you go to one of the four festivals, you get a really great response. As an actor, you do all the interviews, and you feel all this heat and buzz, but a lot of those movies barely get released. Of course, there’s still things that really pop here and there, but it’s harder and harder to find an audience for a small film even when the project is wonderful. At least in television, even in a small-scale viewership scenario like Kingdom, at east a few hundred thousand people are watching each week. That type of audience doesn’t happen in independent film on a regular basis.
I know I’ve spoken to a lot of people who haven’t seen Deep End, the great movie you made with Tilda Swinton, and I find it really frustrating that more people aren’t aware of it.
And that was at the height of independent filmmaking. You think about a show like Justified. Say they averaged three million viewers an episode. If you look at the average price ticket at the movie theatre – say it’s eight bucks. That’s like having a $24 million weekend every weekend. And that’s just the first watch, not taking into account all the ancillary viewership that follows. You do get seen. That’s gratifying. You work so hard on these projects. Speaking for myself, I’m not working any harder on one project than I am on another. My commitment to the character and the story is the same. So, you do want people to see your work. I’m not looking to do full black box theatre for ten people every night. I think as a species, we like to commune around stories.
If you put your effort into something creative, you want to be able to share it.
Yeah! I’m not looking to please people. I’m not terribly comfortable with accolades. I do this because I love acting. I’m confident I’m going to make a few epic stumbles in my career. Where I take a certain direction with a character and it just doesn’t work. I’m okay with that. I’ve come to terms with the fact that not everything is going to work. But you do want to share it. For sure.
How hard is it to leave a character behind? I mean, how much do you miss Kingdom and playing Jay Kulina?
All of these characters become a part of your life. You don’t just put these things down and they go away. There were as many joys playing Jay as there were profound challenges. Being an addict. The diet. The working out. The sadness he carried. I had a very challenging time saying goodbye to him. It’s been just over a year since we wrapped Kingdom and I’m in a good place with leaving the role now. I read all the big books on acting, talk with my colleagues about the process, and I’m always in a class. It’s funny how there’s almost nothing, and I mean nothing, about how to leave a character behind. In television, when you are doing something for years, it’s important to have some sort of process to say goodbye. It just takes time.
One of the things I loved about Kingdom was all the little details that went into the show. The specifics on fighters cutting weight. All the way down to how many shits you’ve taken in a day. That’s why I loved the show. It took you deep into a world that few know much about.
What I hope will be the largest part of my professional obituary is that I authentically shed some light on those sorts of subcultures, and those sorts of characters. A character like Jay is not often given his due in life. There are a lot of people whose lives and stories are not valued as compelling enough to be seen by a larger audience, and the same thing with their cultures. Getting to honor those cultures and characters is just a thrill. What do we get off on as human beings more than being in service to others? In one step you are in service to the character, which is very rewarding. The next step is you are in service to the live these people are representing.
Back to City On A Hill, when can we expect to see it?
We’ve shot the pilot. We won’t start shooting the remaining episodes until the fall. I’m guessing the spring.
What else is on your docket that we may not know about?
My dear friend (former Justified producer and writer) Dave Andron is the showrunner of Snowfall on FX. We got tipsy in Austin, Texas last year and on a taxi ride from the bar we chatted about me doing a small role on the second season coming out in July. We were able to work that out and it was a lot of fun. It’s a minor role, but it’s great to work with friends.
How do you feel about where you are in your career?
One of the blessings of having a long career is I no longer fear failure. Which affords me the ability to live the life I choose. There were times in my career when I thought things should be moving forward at a faster, more successful rate. Persistence and an ability to separate the concept of work from employment. Even when you aren’t employed, you can always be working at being an actor. At this stage I know what’s important to me as a human being and as an actor. I’ve never felt so privileged as I do now to be working with such talented people.