It’s hard not to find a unifying feeling of love when your son or daughter reaches up and holds your hand or asks you to help them or runs to you when you open the door for a hug.
Jonathan Tucker, that most reliable breed of committed actor and a welcome presence on any television show, who improves the quality of a given project by simply being in it—as terrifying killer Matthew Brown on Hannibal and MMA bruiser Jay Kulina on Kingdom to gangster Frankie Ryan on City on a Hill—has now settled into his new home on the sci-fi procedural drama Debris.
On Debris, Tucker brings a sly, rough-hewn charm to Bryan Beneventi, an American CIA operative who, with British MI6 operative Fiona Jones (Riann Steele), form an odd-couple alliance in Orbital, a task force entrusted with intercepting pieces of a destroyed alien spacecraft that have been steadily falling to Earth for the past six months and scattering all across the Western Hemisphere. These fragments of alien tech are known to mess with the laws of physics—but not in a fun Mystery Spot kind of way, hence the need for a retrieval team—and more distressingly, causing strange, and often fatal, phenomena in those who come into close contact with it. Although the full extent of its many mysterious properties are yet to be uncovered, these “debris events” are where tragedy and the metaphysical collide: a maid falls, or phases, through 14 stories of a hotel without breaking a barrier upon touching a piece of the wreckage and a much larger piece of the spacecraft manifests the vision of somebody’s deceased family member from their subconscious.
Anthem reached out to Tucker this week to discuss his new foray into network television.
Debris airs Mondays 10/9c on NBC. The series is also available to stream via Hulu and Peacock.
How are you doing, Jonathan?
Good. I can’t believe I’m getting you in the middle of the night.
Oh it’s a nonissue. I’ve been in South Korea for much of the pandemic.
I’m a big fan of the Korean baths, the jjimjilbangs—another casualty of the pandemic. The cold plunges, hanging out, playing games, sleeping there on the floor with multigenerational families. I’m concerned that many won’t recover after the pandemic. We’ll see.
I’m loving the jjimjilbang shout-out.
Those are the best, man. I love that you can spend the night in them. It’s such a cool, fun thing. I’ve even done it in New York on the east side once where I just paid the night fee, went to bed for 45-50 bucks, had a great shower, a great shave, got a great toothbrush, a nice massage. [laughs] It’s the best hotel of all time.
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The last time we spoke, you were on Kingdom so I can imagine that’s several lifetimes ago for you, where characters are concerned. Now you’re in a completely different universe with Debris. You just got back from filming the rest of the season, is that right?
Yeah, that was just 48 hours ago. We were shooting into Saturday morning. It was great, man. I love being employed and I love being employed on good things. I am always grateful to be on set. I’ve never in my career felt more grateful or felt luckier. I appreciate the process more now than ever before. I have come to recognize that the things that used to frustrate me when I first got into the business are just never gonna change and that every show’s kind of the same. We have to do our best, come prepared, be open to the world and the environment and what everything and everybody has to offer on the day, and be excited and kind to the people that are around us.
You’re such a welcome presence in everything you do. How was this show pitched to you?
I got to sit down and meet with Joel [Howard “J.H.”] Wyman. There are a lot of things that are different about the entertainment business from other businesses, but there’s also meaningful crossover. I think in finance, you know, you invest in people. I met Joel and I knew that this was somebody I wanted to work with and to collaborate with. He had the resume. He had the experience. So this was really about, “Is this the sort of person you want to spend the next year of your life with and possibly the next five years?” He and I, I think within minutes, recognized a kindred spirit in one another. And I was excited to be on a platform that people could access, particularly in contrast to Kingdom. Being on a network, it gets eyes. People watch the show, you know? It’s part of the process for actors to have an audience. And sci-fi is something that really intrigues me because it opens up the possibilities for your stories and your characters. So all these things kind of came together. You gotta take a leap, man. You gotta jump off the high dive. Let’s go for this. Let’s sink in.
It’s interesting to consider how the divide between what we consider science fiction and reality is ever so slowly narrowing, particularly looking at recent events like Oumuamua traveling through our solar system, which many believe to be an alien spacecraft. This past January, thousands of documents from the CIA on UFOs were dumped onto the Black Vault. I wonder how the Debris world resonates with you when you’re living in it.
I bring up those two examples all the time. But for us, what’s fun about this show is that it’s so grounded in what we’re familiar with. You’ve got these very small elements that are totally upside down, but I think that makes it a lot more believable for audiences. It certainly points to the fact that this show will be as much of a journey into who the characters are and ask you the questions of who we are as a species, as much as it’s about solving the mystery. If we can put the pieces of this spaceship together, then maybe we might be able to put ourselves back together as well.
Debris is emotive science fiction in every sense. I would guess that was appealing to you, that there would be so much emotion in it, to skew away from a kind of sterility that’s so often characteristic of the science fiction format, not to mention a procedural.
Yeah, for sure. I think what you’re gonna end up finding when you finish this first season is that there are certainly pieces of the puzzle that click completely episode to episode, but you’re also gonna see a much larger puzzle clicking together or fitting together by the end of the first season. You’ll see that the first season is an origin story for these characters and this world.
What are your thoughts on the possibility of coming back for season two?
Well, I really hope that we have the opportunity to do it. I think we will. It’s just a fabulous group of people. I think Riann [Steele] is just magical and magnificent as an actress. Joel is a very special human being. It’s just a privilege to work with them.
Bryan is rather incognito, I guess more so in the beginning of the season, but we do get glimpses into who he is in smaller pieces. How did you relate to him?
I guess I’m interested in finding out how far back you can lean in a performance before an audience gives up. You want your audience leaning in so you don’t want to give them so much. You don’t want to take to your own opinion so strongly on the character in the performance that the audience is unable to have their own experience with that character. I think Bryan does that very well as a ploy, as some sort of a defense mechanism, like a chameleon. But I guess the parallel that I’m interested in is this idea of the transcendental method of acting, directing, writing: seeing how much you can reduce before it doesn’t excite somebody anymore.
I appreciate the moments of levity on the show, although they’re spare, because you see different sides to him. I think the scene that most forks into comedy was when you’re asked to fetch a rectangular box from the lab fridge and it turns out to be that man’s lunch.
Those are really fun on the show. I think you’ll end up seeing more of that in the second season. There is fun, for sure. There’s that scene, there’s the sunglasses, there’s the drinking and the eating. We try to show that this guy does have other colors and I think you’re rightly highlighting those because it wouldn’t be fair to the character. And it’s also not respectful to the audience to give them everything right away. You have to believe that the audience has patience. So to see these various colors over the course of the season, you’ll know that this is where Bryan will end up in the second season or what he will look like in the second season.
Can you ad lib on a show like Debris when you’re shooting however many pages a day?
There are certain things that are critical to the much larger five-season arc that Joel has in his head that you don’t want to mess with, but then within certain scenes, you know you’ve got some leeway where it’s completely specific scene by scene and case by case. Sometimes I’ll even get a note from Joel: “You gotta say this thing just like this because it’s gonna be mimicked seven episodes later.” That comes down to a number of words, you know? You have to be respectful of that. But you’re also trying to bring as much to the scene as possible and you gotta be open to incorporating things that come at you unexpectedly into the material. So what happens in one room on a computer isn’t exactly what we’re gonna end up getting out in the elements on the day.
Because each episode is self-contained as much as it is exploring a larger puzzle as you were saying, each story is very dynamic in terms of scenarios and the visuals. Are you able to single out an episode that was particularly technical or memorable for you to shoot?
Well, I guess each consecutive episode kind of reveals more about the character’s backstory and there’s a scene coming up in episode 1.08 where I realize we’re in different dimensions. It explores the emotion of not being with my partner, where I’m aware that I shouldn’t be here. It’s this feeling of being lost. One of the first things we look to do as human beings is to orient ourselves, even geographically. The feeling of being lost is universal and it’s very emotional. I know exactly where I am and I know exactly where I should not be, but I can’t figure out how to get to where the world is right again. This allows a lot more of the character to reveal himself and I found that to be very gratifying, particularly having held back the performance for as long as we have.
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I remember just how immersive your work was on Kingdom throughout that entire run. You were literally taking my call from the gym because that was a 24-hour job for you. It was your day off, but you were still at the gym morning and night.
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
On the clock, but off the clock.
Debris is a lot less strenuous.
Has this show proved challenging in ways that are very different?
It’s not about more or less dedication. There’s just certain requirements for certain characters that need to be satisfied. You can’t play a MMA character if you don’t physically look like one. You can certainly pretend you’re a scientist without knowing the science, but you just gotta honor the role that you assume. I would say some of the challenges for this was really just being in every scene, leading a crew, leading a set alongside Riann, and trying to find a way to balance wonderment and joy and credulity in the scenarios that are presented to us week to week. You’re also trying to be mindful of the fact that we’re gunning for a larger arc and not every scene has to pop, so to speak—that you can allow a whole season to unravel as it should without having to force it. That’s the challenge. The challenge is that directors often come on and want every scene to pop. Actors want to make everything to be explosions or fireworks. Everybody’s going to do that because it looks good on their reel, you know? But life is about strategic patience and successes. You have to operate with that in mind as well, scene to scene, episode to episode, season to season.
You’ve also come into fatherhood since Kingdom, which is a forever-role you’re inhabiting. That must inform your decisions, be it the time you spend away or even the material itself.
The threshold for the material hasn’t really changed only because it was high before. But I think having kids just gives you such a clarity of concept—such a clarity of the world that brings you closer to your intuition and your gut. It removes any dissidence between that creative source and the decisions you’re going to make. Decisions become abundantly easy to make. The smaller moments in our time here on Earth take on a sense of holiness that they might not have had before. It’s hard not to find a unifying feeling of love when your son or daughter reaches up and holds your hand or asks you to help them or runs to you when you open the door for a hug. These aren’t grand gestures or monumental action pieces here. They’re just the daily deeds of our life. You can appreciate and find the sacredness in them, and then I think your whole life becomes sacred.