In Season 2 of DirecTV’s intense drama series Kingdom, Alvey’s (Frank Grillo) improved fortune has led to a bigger gym, but also bigger risk and responsibility. With Ryan “The Destroyer” Wheeler (Matt Lauria) defending his title, Jay (Jonathan Tucker) working to be taken seriously again and Nate (Nick Jonas) determined to get back into the cage, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) is focused on managing Alicia (Natalie Martinez), an impulsive but skilled female fighter.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Jonathan Tucker talked about his character’s journey of humility in Season 2, the ups and downs of playing an addict, trying to find a way to have a healthy romantic relationship, and just how grueling the physical aspect of the role is. He also talked about the experience of joining the last season of the hit FX series Justified as one of the final villains, and being in a place with his work where he wants to take risks and is comfortable with failing.
Collider: This is such a great show with complicated characters that are so fascinating to watch.
JONATHAN TUCKER: It’s so exciting to have real three-dimensional characters that (creator) Byron [Balasco] has offered to us and we’ve been able to flesh out, in some respects. It gives you the opportunity to pick up a glass of water like the character would pick it up, and that’s exciting.
When it’s so hard to get and keep a show on the air now, how reassuring was it to have this show picked up for two 10-episode seasons, at the beginning of Season 1?
TUCKER: I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old and life comes in waves, but it’s exaggerated in this business. I’ve had some real success and I’ve had some real times of struggle, and I’ve learned a lot in those times of struggle. It has to always be about the work, and you have to always be working. You also have to be grateful for the opportunities because something like this just doesn’t come along all the time. This is one of those things where all of us, for the most part, are keenly aware of what kind of magical thing we have. Sometimes you look back at things and you’re like, “Wasn’t that an amazing experience?” And sometimes you’re in an experience and you know it’s an amazing thing, right then and there, and I feel that way about Kingdom because of the characters and because of the story. DirecTV and Endemol give us the full reins to ride this horse. Their confidence in themselves as leaders allows them to give us that freedom to create these characters, tell this story and make it our own. I feel like we’ve got something that reflects, in an honest way, what’s happening in the world of a family, in general, but particularly in the world of MMA and contact sports.
Throughout the first season, your character was just trying to get back on track and get his head straight. Does he find it increasingly harder to keep himself together?
TUCKER: Jay is an addict, and if you’ve seen a graph of recovery for an addict, it’s not entirely inspiring. It’s not an optimistic outlook on how a person finds sobriety. There are a lot of ups and a lot of downs. Like a baby learning to walk, every time you stand up, your legs get a little bit stronger. But the higher up you stand, and standing up with more confidence, when you fall, you fall harder and from a greater height. That’s what you end up seeing, this season, for Jay. It’s more of the same, but in new colors. For the second season, it’s a humility arc for Jay. It’s about finding a sense of humility. Jay has to take a physical step backwards or down to take a step forward or up, emotionally and spiritually.
How does his mother’s struggle with sobriety affect his own?
TUCKER: Jay doesn’t really understand fully how to deal with addiction and sobriety, in a healthy way. In the first season, you see him try to muscle it out. When you hit rock bottom, you have to want to get sober to have a life without substance abuse. Jay has learned from that first experience. It’s not quite the healthy way that you’d hope for with an addict, and it’s not going to be entirely successful, but he’s more mature.
Is he at a place where he can have a healthy relationship with a woman?
TUCKER: Yeah, I hope so. I think there’s a balance act that Jay has to do, when a woman comes into his life. Has he earned the right to take his eyes off of what has worked for him, in the past, which is fighting. Can he take that time and that energy and that focus and put it on somebody else? Are his legs sea-worthy enough to be able to handle that? Can he earn that and be vulnerable? It’s fun to see Jay in new situations, trying new things. He’s such a visceral character. It’s like watching a kid try a new food. You just want to see how that kid responds. You know that he’s going to do something very colorful, and it takes him out of his comfort zone. It’s fun to play.
Does the physical aspect of this show get easier, or is it always a challenge?
TUCKER: This weight cut is really killing me. I keep thinking I’m going to get to a point where I just accept it, but that hasn’t happened. My wife calls me grumpy cat. I’m normally a very pleasant person to be around. My whole day revolves around food. If you think you’ve won the day, only because you haven’t eaten over 1,000 calories, you know that things are off-kilter. That’s not a healthy way to be thinking. The thing is, if everybody says you’re a great dancer and the whole story is based around the guy being a great dancer, when the actor stands up to do the dance on the show, he better be a great dancer. Otherwise, the whole show falls apart. If people are talking about my weight cut all the time and are telling me how skinny I like, you have to respect the audience. You also have to respect all of the fighters who do this. It affects their wives, their girlfriends, their parents and the people who have to put up with cranky assholes for extended periods of time. My wife and family are having to do it. We have no dinner schedule. I’m not brunching. I’m not fun to be around. Who wants to hang around and have a nice Italian dinner with a guy who’s stuck with a glass of water?
How much fun was it to be a part of Justified for its final season?
TUCKER: It was a little intimidating ‘cause it was such a legendary show. To have the opportunity to go on the last season for the last six episodes, and to play the foil for Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan, if the train was going 100 mph, I wanted to go 200 mph, but I also didn’t want to derail it. You want to play just enough, but not too much. I have a lot of respect for the writers and the creator, so it was a little intimidating, but I brought a lot to it. I just put it on the table to see what they thought about it, and they were very helpful in giving me the chance to have some fun and take some risks. Thankfully, it played out. I’m also at a place with my work where I have to be comfortable with failing. I did Hannibal and Parenthood, and that was great, but I was also fired from a job in between there because they didn’t like the choices. I have to be comfortable with turning on the TV and going, “That’s not quite right, Jonathan Tucker.” A diver can’t tumble with fear that they’re going to belly flop. They can’t jump off with that fear in their stomach. It’s the same with walking onto a set and having 150 people be like, “Who is this dude that I haven’t heard of? We’ve been doing this show for six years and this is our final season. You want rings on all of your fingers? That’s a little weird. You’re going to walk like that? You already straightened your hair before you got to set?” But, you have to defend your character. That’s your job, if they’re hiring you. That doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate, but you do have to make some big, bold choices. We do that in real life, too.
Kingdom airs on Wednesday nights on the Audience Network on DirecTV.