The highly compelling, 10-episode DirecTV drama series Kingdom is a visceral family saga that takes place in Venice, California against the backdrop of the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) subculture. Former MMA legend and gym owner Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo) is so focused on turning his youngest son, Nate (Nick Jonas), into the prized fighter that his oldest son, Jay (Jonathan Tucker), was too unfocused and unpredictable to become.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Frank Grillo talked about what attracted him to the world of Kingdom, why he loves doing a shorter season that’s more like a 10-hour film, Alvey’s place in this world, playing such an aggressive character, Alvey’s relationship with his sons, and working with such a talented cast. He also talked about the fact that he couldn’t be happier with his career right now, and how much he’s looking forward to exploring his Captain America character (Brock Rumlow, aka Crossbones) more deeply in future films. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did this show come about for you?
FRANK GRILLO: My agents just sent me the script and I read it and was like, “This is great. I want to talk to the guy who wrote this. So, Byron [Balasco] and I had a Skype meeting and within about half an hour, I was like, “If you want to go down that road, I’ll go down that road with you.” It was instantaneous. I did not want to do network television. I didn’t really have an interest in doing that. I liked the idea that DirecTV was doing this because I knew we were going to get the freedom we needed to execute the show that was in that script. So for me, it made it all the more exciting. I was like, “I’ll take less money. I don’t really care about that. If we can do that show, that’s fantastic.”
What was it about the script that appealed to you?
GRILLO: The characters. I’m a huge fan of The Sopranos. That’s the only show I used to tune in to watch on Sundays. When I read it, the backdrop was the mixed martial arts subculture, much like organized crime was the subculture of The Sopranos, but it’s a visceral family drama with people who are uneducated. They’re striving to make a living, and they’re striving to be relevant. There’s a very physical aspect to the show. The language is raw and real. How do you say no? You can’t say no to that. You’re like, “Really?! You’re gonna let me do and say that?!” I thought maybe they would ease back on some of the language, but it’s exactly what they did. It’s great. It’s exciting.
Were you also enticed by the shorter season and few episodes?
GRILLO: It’s great that it’s only 10 episodes, so you know the story won’t be diluted. It’s like making a 10-hour film. We’re not worried about ratings. Obviously, DirecTV isn’t a ratings-driven network. They just want subscribers. So, you don’t have to worry about the constant buzzing of ratings. When you have 22 or 24 episodes, I have friends that are on those shows and the writers are like, “Okay, what are we going to do this week?” And then, they start getting outlandish and melodramatic. All of them. Even the good ones on network TV get that way, after awhile. My wife did a show called Betrayal last year, and by Episode 4, I was like, “Really?! It’s Episode 4, and you’re doing that already?” So, I like the idea that it’s 10. I can continue to do films and have a great life with my family. It gives me some downtime. I have three kids, so that’s the priority.
What is Alvey’s place in the world of this show?
GRILLO: It’s his world. He cultivated this world. This is a guy who’s been in the sport since before the sport was as port, which makes it interesting. He falls into the category of being born too early to have been a participant in the sport now. He’s too old. So, although he was a great fighter, he could not get involved in MMA, the way it is now, because he got too old. It’s about being relevant in a different way, which is as a coach. But deep down, every coach who was a fighter really wants to have his shot at being a fighter. Those complexities are what creates this world of really crazy relationships, and they all are crazy relationships, with his sons, with the women in his life, and the boys with their own thing. It’s really complex. You immediately get sucked into it because it’s not unlike most real families.
When you’re dealing with something that has such heightened intensity, that must bleed out everywhere.
GRILLO: Everywhere. The physicality of that world bleeds into your personal life, so these are aggressive people. By nature, you’re aggressive, if you’re a fighter, so you deal with things in an aggressive way. You have to pull yourself back from the aggressivity of being in the cage to go home and have dinner with your family. I love that challenge.
Is it difficult for Alvey to watch everyone else living out his dream as a fighter?
GRILLO: Absolutely. He still walks through the gym being the best guy. He’s the best fighter, and he can’t do it. So, all he sees when he walks through that gym are mistakes. He doesn’t see greatness, he sees mistakes. There’s frustration about the lack of opportunity that he has. But he’s beholden to these fighters because without them, he doesn’t exist. There’s this duality of them sometimes disgusting him because they don’t work as hard or learn as easy, but without them, he doesn’t have anything. It’s great. Through conflict comes great drama, and there’s constant conflict with this show.
What sort of relationship does Alvey have with his sons?
GRILLO: It is awful. I have three sons, and my relationship with my real sons is phenomenal. I consider myself a great dad. I have a 17-year-old, and we have a beautiful, loving, open and caring relationship. Alvey has got the antithesis of that. He’s a guy who struggled with alcohol when he was young. These kids came at an early point in his life and were in the way of what he wanted to do. He has problems communicating. He can’t talk to either son, for different reasons. He can’t be honest. It’s very difficult for him to be honest with these kids, or to teach them anything and be objective. It’s a tough triangle with the three of them. The older one, who is more like Alvey and is reckless, is probably the more talented one. But the young one has more of the dedication and the discipline that it takes to get in the ring. That’s just my opinion. The one that Alvey is always at odds with is the one most like him. That’s biblical.
What’s it been like to work with Jonathan Tucker and Nick Jonas, and even Matt Lauria?
GRILLO: I didn’t know them. Unfortunately, and I don’t say this out of hubris, I don’t watch a lot of television, so I didn’t know them, which I liked. They all came in and read, and I read with all of them. I was amazed at how good they were, and I felt ignorant that I didn’t know who they were because they had done some great stuff. All three of those guys were the best, out of the 30 people that I read with, for each character. All three of those guys were head and shoulders the best, and got the characters in the room, before they got the jobs. Jonas had to work twice as hard because he’s Jonas. We had to really consider, “Okay, this kid is a pop star, and this is a show about mixed martial arts. What is that going to reflect?” He was so good in the room that you couldn’t deny him. His physicality and his acting skills amazed me. I became a fan, immediately. I was like, “He’s the guy. He’s the best guy.”
GRILLO: Yeah, I’m giddy. I am like an 8-year-old child, every day. I feel blessed for the opportunities. I feel blessed that people are responding to the work, and I’m landing myself in things that people far more talented than I am are allowing me to work on. There’s luck involved and there’s hard work, and then there’s that intangible think that people have to see. That seems to have been working for the last few years. I couldn’t be happier. I really couldn’t be happier. It would be gross, if I said I wanted more. If it goes away today, it’s been a great one.
People loved you in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Are you looking forward to exploring your character more deeply?
GRILLO: Yeah. I have a multi-contract deal with Marvel. The movie was an origin film for that character. If you know the comic, he has a significant presence. So, knock wood. With Marvel, you can’t say very much, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll have some fun, in the next few Marvel movies.
Kingdom airs on Wednesday nights on the Audience Network on DirecTV.