The DirecTV original series Kingdom, which airs on the AT&T Audience Network, sees Alvey (Frank Grillo) having to face his past and deal with the impact of what’s happening with his family and loved ones. At the same time, Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Ryan (Matt Lauria) are handling the fallout from their fight, Nate (Nick Jonas) is determined to return to the cage and prove he has what it takes to make it as a fighter, Alicia (Natalie Martinez) is preparing for her next fight, Christina (Joanna Going) is trying to find her footing after overdosing on heroin, and Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) has suffered a tragedy that will forever change her relationship with Alvey.
Back in February, Collider was invited to the North Hollywood set (which is also a working MMA gym) of the intense and visceral series for an exclusive set visit to hang out, watch filming and chat with co-stars Nick Jonas and Matt Lauria, and then we jumped on the phone later with Jonathan Tucker, who was not on set that day. During the interviews, the actors talked about the growth of their characters, the extent of the work they put in, when it comes to the show’s physicality, and where things are headed. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
How the feel of Season 2b has evolved from the start of the series:
MATT LAURIA: Across the board, there’s a real reshaping and restructuring of relationships and of the social aspect of the gym. Season 1 was about establishing the world and establishing the relationships and all of these characters going on tremendous journeys. And then, the first half of Season 2 gave every character and every relationship a heavy shot of adrenalin. If it was dangerous before, it became more dangerous. If it was gritty, it became more gritty. If it was a precarious balance of a relationship, it became all the more unsure. So, the second half of Season 2 whips everyone in a different direction. This season, every single character finds themselves in a position where, if they did feel rooted and were confident, socially and professionally, they feel uprooted.
Where things are at now for each of their characters:
NICK JONAS: With Nate, it’s tough to say. I think that it’s still a journey, in a lot of ways, with him. That discovery is still happening. His circumstances are limiting his ability to be who he is and who he might want to be. I don’t know if he’s got it all figured out yet, or if he’s even that close, but hopefully, he’s on the way.
JONATHAN TUCKER: For Jay, it’s more of the same, but heightened. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. The big arc that gets closer or further away, with each episode, is that he’ll come to find a sense of humility, and a sense of accepting and calmness in who he is, which comes from humility. I think Jay fully knows what he wants in his future, but we sometimes distract ourselves from those bigger and more important questions or goals, not by acting out, but by living moment to moment. And there’s a certain acceptance that his father is never going to be a real father. Even though he’s told that, over and over and over again, by his actions and his words, there’s still a part of Jay that’s holding on to this notion that his father is ultimately going to come around and say, “I made some mistakes. I’d like to be a good dad. I’d like to be a dad, in any respect of the definition of that world.” I think there’s a certain letting go of all of the past words that his father has inflicted on him and his family. When he accepts that, then there can be a sense of peace.
LAURIA: For Ryan, in Season 1, everybody was talking about who he was and who he is – diva, savage and monster – but you don’t see any of that. And then, in Season 2a, those things began to emerge and you went, “This guy is unpredictable and dangerous.” You saw him live up to people’s definitions and characterizations of him. And then, as the warrior and the aggressor began to come out, Season 2b comes around and he finds himself very unsure. In Season 2a, he found his confidence in getting the monster back and becoming The Destroyer again. In Season 2b, he’s very unsure, very lonely, very alone and very doubtful. He’s without footing. He doesn’t have his dad. He doesn’t have his mom because she’s out of the picture now. The fight with Jay leaves his footing in the gym unsure, his position as the top dog unsure, and his relationship with Alvey unsure. Is Alvey ultimately going to have his back? What is his relationship with Jay? And Lisa is gone. Basically, the only person he has is Keith, and that’s not a confidante. It’s not someone that he has history with. It’s family, but it’s a new family. Keith is more of someone that needs to be cared for, and Ryan is his caretaker. Keith does look out for Ryan, but in a different way. We find Ryan in these still moments where he’s reading the Bible, all of a sudden, and he’s just searching. Fortunately, for Ryan, he comes through that and becomes more focused and sure than ever before. While other people are floating around, trying to anchor onto something, I think Ryan finds a way to focus it and get his shit together.
How similar their character journey has turned out, compared to what they thought it might be:
JONAS: I think I had a pretty clear idea, but it’s been a longer roll out than I expected it to be. It’s a slow burn, if you will, for Nate and his story, specifically, which is not a bad thing, at all. It’s actually kind of great to get to tell the story over time.
TUCKER: Part of the welcomed opportunity of doing a show like this, in the premium content space, is that it becomes a dance between the actor and the character and the writers, or in this case, the showrunner Byron Balasco. What we find, in our personal and professional life, through the lens of this character and story, as you pick up things along the way or you find yourself in a place that seems in concert with the character, is that it makes itself organically into the story. It really does feel like a dance.
Whether Ryan feels like he’s close to the person he used to be, or if he feels like he’s someone new and different:
LAURIA: Ryan’s greatest fear in the first season and first half of the second season was being the man who he became. Something Byron and I have always talked about is that the man is who the man is. In Season 1, you saw this really contrite, apologetic, humbled guy, who was penitent and wanted nothing more than to show Lisa, in particular, his family and everyone that he’s changed, he’s different, and he’s not that guy. It was less of a concern to get Lisa back, and more of a concern for her to see him in a new light and accept that he’s a new guy. But as the season went on, the more confidence he got and the more that Alvey got him back in the cage and fighting again, and then he was like, “I’m taking what’s mine.” Unfortunately, that seems to be Ryan’s struggle. Fighting is his gift and he’s truly extraordinary, but those things that are such a gift to him come with a price. That price is the animal it requires him to transform into, to have that competitiveness. That’s unique to Ryan. It’s not the same for every fighter. That’s just Ryan’s burden. So, the more that he feels alive and the closer he gets back to his purpose, it’s the same thing that comes with hindrances and damaging qualities. Ryan is trying to turn over a new leaf in Season 2b. He’s gotta find purpose. He’s gotta get rid of the old and bring in the new. He doesn’t have anything anchoring him. Very little of what was his foundation before remains, so he has to restructure and rebuild.
Whether Jay feels like a guy who’s always on the edge of falling apart, or if he’s more together than we might actually think he is:
TUCKER: That’s a great question. One of the reasons that I really like Jay is that, for the most part, he does really well when put against the ropes, and I do, too. I can relate to that. What makes him such an interesting character is that he’s vulnerable, and a lot of that comes from the fact that addicts can sometimes be the most honest people in the world. They’re honest, even when they’re manipulating someone to feed that addiction or they’re trying to get that money to get their fix. There’s a real transparency to somebody who’s struggling with addiction and who might find other avenues and means than just drugs and alcohol to make them feel better. For Jay, that’s the discipline of the cage, fighting and the gym. The gym gives him a self-confidence that allows him to not heal his wounds with drugs and alcohol. And then, you’ll see him look for another salve for those wounds, which is finding a love and relationship. You get these wild undulations in this life, but they’re all based and centered around what it means to be your own man, without the vices that you think you need, in order to be a full person.
The physical challenge of the fight scenes on this show and working opposite real fighters in those moments:
JONAS: It’s really fun. It’s rare that you get to work on something where the emotional and dramatic element of the show is matched by the physicality. It’s incredible to learn and be able to work with so many amazing fighters that commit their whole life to this. For us to get to step in and tell that story is really an honor. I don’t think any of us are trying to prove that we’re real fighters. You’re very aware that you’re not, if you step into the cage with any one of these guys for 60 seconds. You’re humbled, very fast. But, it’s amazing to be around so many gifted people who have really dedicated so much of their life to this sport. There’s a certain responsibility that I feel like we carry, as the actors who are telling their story. It’s pretty amazing to see the reaction from people within this world who have watched the show, and people who have no interest in fighting. It really is not a show about fighting, in my mind. It’s more about family and life, complicated by very human circumstances.
TUCKER: It starts with the diet. You have to eat, all day, and you have to have the right fuel to get you through different physical and mental obstacles that fighters have to get through. Just dealing with the diet alone becomes an all-encompassing, fully immersive experience. And then, there’s the physical side of it, having to put your body through everything required to make you look like a fighter. And then, it’s the hair and the facial hair. It’s hard to put that on and walk into a restaurant and have people look at you like they did when your hair was cut normal. And then, there’s all of the outside apparel. When you’re dealing with that world, you have your wraps, your gloves, the shin guards, the headgear, and all the different things you need to go in and out of the gym that become a part of your daily calendar. And then, there’s the mind-set. I went up and down 30 pounds in Season 2a, and I went up and down 20 pounds in Season 2b. You just live it, and that’s what you want, as an actor. I don’t know if it could be any more immersive than this has been, but you welcome that, for a limited time. I like to immerse myself in a world and a character, and this offers that to such an extent and depth that I need a break. There’s really no days off on this show, but that’s great. I love to work and I’m lucky for the job, but it is a transformative and immersive experience like I’ve never had and am so privileged to be a part of.
LAURIA: It is exhausting. As a fighter, you have a weight cut, and if there’s a weigh-in scene you want to look way smaller and depleted. You want there to be a noticeable difference between that and the fight day. You don’t drink water, except for tiny sips, and you’re not really eating anything, except for a tiny slice of sweet potato every hour. I’ll wait all day, gaunt and wasted, until we film the weigh-in scene. So, on the day, I was 155, but then, by the time of the fight, I was back up to 167, or something like that, five days later. It’s hard. It’s been a long run of staying in that shape. It’s definitely a challenge. I don’t want to sound as if I’m complaining, but it’s hard. This show is so demanding and all-consuming, with the writing and the physique. You can’t fake it. If you don’t have the moves, you can’t do it. You’ll look really phoney.
Where things are at among the Kulina family:
JONAS: [With Nate and Alvey], it’s really complicated, and it just keeps getting more and more complicated, but I think there’s also a lot of love there. Like most families dealing with really human issues and tapping into the things that make family life really complicated, a lot of that is driven by insecurity and the expectations we put on each other. It’s interesting to dive into that, for me, coming from a pretty big family where work was a big part of it, as well. This job of being a fighter and the fact that it is the family is definitely something I connect to.
TUCKER: There’s a certain point where Jay has got to live his own life. We don’t really talk about it on the show, but there’s an understanding that addicts have that the angels in their lives are the ones that close the door on us. That’s one aspect of what changes between Jay and his mom. There’s also the sense that he thinks he should be able to have his own cake, at some point. He’s given up so much and worked so hard to keep everybody together, and he wants to have his time.
How the men on this show have such a terrible time in their relationships with women:
TUCKER: Jay wasn’t given the emotional tools that are required to take on the world or a relationship, in a meaningful way, from his father. He had to develop that himself. I think what women really like in Jay is that little boy, that vulnerability, and that need for motherly attention.
LAURIA: Ryan has a way of really quickly assessing the needs and the values of a situation. He’s got laser acuity, that way. Lisa is the love of his life. Not only is she really special to him because there’s history and he just loves her for who he is, but he knows how badly he fucked it up. He spent his time in prison thinking about how perfect she was for him and how much, if he had a second chance, he would try to prove to her that he’s different. She gets pregnant with Alvey’s baby and his ability to define the situation allows him to move on. That’s all there is to it. It’s done. He was not going to pursue her, and then, for the rest of his life, deal with Alvey as her ex and the father. Visiting rights with Alvey was not something that he was interested in dealing with. He has a good thing with Alicia, and that develops more, but he’s not in a rush. It does become tender and sweet, but there’s a reality to it. The relationship is what it is. They do care for each other and they have some fun, but I don’t think it’s the same as a true love.
What kind of place Nate would have to get to, in order to be comfortable enough to be open about his sexuality:
JONAS: He’d probably have to be pushed a bit. I think the community that you’re in really can define your ability to be at peace with your circumstances. Whether it’s this community or another one, he’s going to have to step out of his usual cycle to really feel that freedom.
What it’s been like to work and collaborate with showrunner Byron Balasco:
JONAS: Having an open dialogue, in any creative atmosphere, is really important to feeling free to tell the story the best way you can. Byron really creates an excellent environment for that, where it feels safe to share your thoughts and outlook on your character. We’re all passionate about creating the best thing possible, and that starts from the head down, with Byron really steering the ship. His vision, from day one, has been really clear, so you know it’s going to turn out great.
TUCKER: There are only a few auteur voices in television right now, who have these singular voices. Byron is a very crisp and very rich singular voice. Getting to have him as a dance partner, with a character that has the license to go so far in both directions, is thrilling, dangerous, dynamic and comforting. It feels like everything one wants when they first step into the world of acting.
LAURIA: I couldn’t trust in Byron any more. I literally would follow him to the ends of the creative earth and do whatever he says. I believe in him that much.
Kingdom airs on Wednesday nights on the AT&T Audience Network on DirecTV.