Actors have third eyes, so to speak. It sort of sits on your shoulder, always collecting information.
Here’s the deal: Jonathan Tucker is knocking us sideways with his powerhouse performance on DirecTV’s gritty family saga Kingdom as Jay Kulina, a pummeling MMA fighter, turbulent addict in recovery, an otherwise good-hearted guy taking great pains to stitch together a torn apart family. Since the pilot last fall, and now fast-approaching the finale of “season 2A” (more on that from Tucker below), fights were won, battles lost, peace restored, then shattered again and again.
Full disclosure: In 2003, a mutual friend of Tucker and ours let out a chuckle, “That’s not what he looks like, at all.” This was our introduction to the actor in the lead up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot. We never met the guy, but in the many years that followed, we discovered a true acting chameleon that goes far beneath the surface. Justified’s Boon, Parenthood’s Bob Little, The Black Donnellys‘ Thomas, Hannibal’s Matthew Brown. All him, yet they feel nothing alike.
This is someone to watch. This is also someone you pick to go into battle with. Watch Kingdom.
Kingdom airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET/PT exclusively on DirecTV’s Audience Network.
I binge-watched Kingdom in two days, as you do, and it’s super riveting stuff. The most obvious question first: what did you find most attractive about the material?
It was a script I read at the beginning of pilot season, probably two years ago. I couldn’t put down the script. All the time, you either choose roles or the roles choose you, but sometimes it’s a more tactile process than others. This is a story and a character that felt very much a combination of everything that I’ve done in the past and have wanted to do in the future. So the opportunity to step into this role, or into the cage as Jay Kulina, was something that really shouted out to me. As for what spoke to me about the character, I originally wanted to read for Jay, but they wouldn’t see me for that character. I came in for Ryan [now played by Matt Lauria]. I got a call from Byron [Balasco] personally, saying, “I know you came in for Ryan, but would you consider coming in for Jay?” I had a laugh because that was the character I’d responded to most originally that nobody would see me for. So things kind of work out the way they should sometimes.
I can’t imagine you as Ryan now, nor can I see Matt as Jay. That would’ve been completely different. I’m too far along…
[Laughs] It would’ve been very different, and I can’t imagine anybody better playing Ryan than Matt. Matt is a good friend of mine and a wonderful collaborator.
Did you model Jay after anyone in particular? What was your blueprint?
That’s a good question. Sam Rockwell’s screen test for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the movie George Clooney directed, where he’s dancing. It kinda started there and, also, Christian Bale from The Figher. Then you go onto social media and follow all these fighters, and start training at different gyms with the fighters and coaches. You pick up little pieces, both spiritually and athletically. You build the character in concert with Byron and everybody else that’s helping to create this world on set, from the production designer, the wardrobe designer, to hair and make-up. All those things begin to coalesce and you start to find your own voice through that.
Watching your work—especially The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot and now Kingdom—you’re almost unrecognizable. What’s your process when it comes to creating “the look”?
The first question you always ask is: how is this character like me and how is this character not like me? You know, I do a lot of dream work, diving into the unconscious. I do a lot of animal work. The Alexander technique: voice stuff, breathing stuff, yoga, and weight training. You find really wonderful people who are experts in hair. [Laughs] You find wonderful people in prosthetics and make-up. You find inspiration for wardrobe. Actors have third eyes, so to speak. It sort of sits on your shoulder, always collecting information. You come across something you like and kind of steal it. You put it at the back of your mind and file it away, essentially. Whenever a character and story calls for something, you retrieve it. You know what was really wonderful? This guy I met on a yoga retreat in Hawaii was selling jewelry and he had rings on all his fingers. It’s like, “I’m gonna use that. Maybe not for both hands, but for one and that will be my weapon.”
Is that part of the thrill for you, transforming yourself so fully going from role to role?
It’s a privilege to honor people and communities, to represent those lives, their problems and successes on screen, particularly when those stories haven’t been told before. What’s so gratifying about working on Kingdom is that we haven’t seen a show about fighters and we haven’t seen a show about the wives of fighters, their managers, and those people who make extraordinary sacrifices to step into a cage in front of thousands of other people to face the great fear we all have. Like Alvey [played by Frank Grillo] says, “Are you one of the weak, or are you one of the strong?” There are a lot of TV shows about police officers, doctors, and lawyers and things like that. And that’s not to say many of them aren’t excellent, but Kingdom is a unique opportunity to tell a story of a family set against the backdrop of the fighting world, the world of contact sports.
What about building Jay’s superficial make-up, mainly the tattoos and that hair?
They’re all personal for Jay. It’s about representing a certain sense of honor, a certain sense of family. It’s my role as protector of my brother and my mother. And there’s animal stuff in there. Jay’s primal in many respects. That’s sort of the joy of playing the role: he has a sense of impetuousness that are at many times physical. I have a really good time playing with that.
Just briefly jumping back to what you were saying earlier about first asking how a character is like you and not like you, how is Jay like you and not like you?
I guess having a sense of loyalty, at times to a fault, and certainly a sense of respect for hard work and sacrifice. My dad is Irish Catholic and my mom is Romanian Jewish, so there’s work ethic in that blood stream. [Laughs] I would definitely say I least identify with his drug and alcohol use, and his inability to find discipline outside of fighting. It’s really a trifecta for him: a triangle of discipline and confidence, tough love in the gym, and family. As things come up in the story, one exchanges for another. Many of us have friends that we doubt, but it’s worth having them in our lives because, even though they cause trouble and worry to themselves and others, ultimately, there’s that redeeming quality you recognize as immeasurable, invaluable, and something that you want to have around. I think Jay is that person in many people’s lives.
You watch the pilot thinking, “How will they redeem this character?” Jay is abrasive and a complete loose canon when we meet him. But you begin to see so much of his humanity that’s unique in its own way. How much of your character arc did you know going into the show?
Well, it’s also how much do you want to know about something? There’s something wonderful about only having the sum of the now. More than anything, what sets Kingdom apart from other TV shows on the air is that it’s one of the very few that has the auteur’s voice and that voice is Byron’s. He writes each script and this is his story and vision. He really is somebody who’s in the same camp as someone like Vince Gilligan [creator of Breaking Bad] or Matthew Weiner [creator of Mad Men]. This is somebody who knows these characters and builds these characters with us.
Do you have those moments where you feel strongly opinionated about something that Jay does in the script where you go, “This doesn’t feel like something he would do to me”?
No, because we don’t have a lot of different voices in the writer’s room. It’s not this pie that’s made by many hands. There’s one chef in the kitchen. In many ways, Byron’s playing the music, but he’s also our dancing partners. I dance with Byron and Jay, and we find that sense of truth together.
There’s something really interesting about Jay’s relationship with Lisa [played by Kiele Sanchez] because they’re, in many ways, unexpected confidants. Their bond is, in a twisted but understable way, strengthened by Alvey’s demons that tear the family apart.
There’s something refreshing about addicts in some respect. They’re transparent for the most part, or at least the ones who are open about their demons are. An addict will do everything they can to protect their “lover,” which is essentially the drug, the alcohol, or whatever the vice is. But friends of mine who are sober and friends of mine who are open about their addiction are at times highly transparent. They know who they are and they’re willing to accept who they are, and address it with authenticity. Jay is in many ways his father’s son and he’s, in many more ways, a foil to his father not being able to see the world for how it is. Alvey can’t see how he has torn his family apart. He can’t see that he’s actually not a good father. He can’t address his own issues and all the problems he’s caused. So it almost forces the hypocrisy of Alvey and his inability to recognize the world he moves in to further inspire Jay to be entirely frank, transparent, and forthright.
You guys drink on this show, my god, in like every episode. What are you really drinking?
[Laughs] You mean alcohol? Well, I don’t drink on the second season so much, but when I do, it’s usually iced tea. The addendum to that is, “baby formula,” essentially, for cocaine. Matt’s vegan, so when he’s snorting with us, it’s vitamin C or something that doesn’t have dairy in it.
What can we expect from you moving forward for the rest of season two?
For addicts, like a baby learning to walk, you stand up and take steps with new confidence. With more confidence, the harder you fall, but ultimately, you hope that Jay comes closer to a sense of humility and a sense of recognition that his world can be without the pendulum swinging nature we’ve seen. I’d like to say that you’ll see more of the same, but bigger—well, not bigger than life, but big for Jay—in season 2B. (We have 2A and 2B for this season because there’s the first half and the second set of ten episodes.) Jay is challenged by a potential rival fight for a belt, having taken a large weight loss at the end of season 2A. There’s another woman that comes up in 2B, and drugs and alcohol rear their heads. Jay’s got many demons, but he knows how to tackle.
In season two, Alvey at one point goes, “One’s a mute and one’s a lunatic,” referring to Jay and Nate [played by Nick Jonas]. How do you respond to that as your character?
I mean, there’s a reason why his family’s a mess. [Laughs] It’s not our fault. He’s an absentee father who thinks, by protecting his children physically, that somehow suffices. But sleeping with other women, not being at home, not providing real love, emotional support or guidance—you’ve got a screwed up family. And even though he recognizes that, he calls Jay a “lunatic” out of frustration. How many times can you put me into rehab or a hospital to get my health straightened out? In season two, he tells me to take a 30-pound weight cut and fight somebody. That’s not how a responsible father should behave. There’s an extraordinary sense of hypocrisy in their father.
And what are you, Jonathan, looking forward to these days?
Well, I’m talking to you from the gym. That’s what no one thinks about. It’s a welcomed opportunity, but this is a 24-hour job. This is my day off and I was boxing this morning and I’m here at night. It’s really a privilege. But it’s also exhausting.
That doesn’t sound like a day off.
You’re still eating perfectly and preparing for the next work day. But it’s exciting to be on a job where you’re so consumed by the role and the world of the character. I’ve been acting now for 22 years. I’ve seen a lot of ups and a lot of downs. I’ve had challenging periods and periods of abundance. At the end of the day, I try to do the most dynamic work that I can, I try to prepare as much as I can and put in all of my sweat equity. Then I have to kind of walk away because everything else is not in my control.
The big uncertainty for actors on TV seems to be that you don’t know where your character will end up, and if a show abruptly ends, maybe you don’t have proper closure to that character. Is it ever easy walking away from a role, especially on a long-running TV show?
It’s never easy. It’s like taking off a snowsuit, you know? It comes off kind of slowly, and with a bit of effort at the time. You do the best work that you can and you leave it to the gods. You have to let this stuff happen. You can’t make things happen. You have to really allow for the work that you’ve done to reveal itself, and then you have to allow that to just be and to exist. There’s nothing else you can do. I’m in the studio. I’m not a publicist. I’m an actor. I act.