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. On top of that, add in former fighting superstar Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria), who happens to be the ex of Alvey’s current girlfriend Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez), and things are sure to get heated.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Matt Lauria talked about why he fought so hard for this role, how exhausting the physical aspect of the show is, the duality of the character, that all the characters have twists and turns, the high stakes of the situation they’re all in, and how this is a role that he’d love to play for years. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did you come to this show?
MATT LAURIA: I feel as though I’ve been very fortunate in my career, which is not all that long, so far. I haven’t been on a given project for five or six years yet, or even four years, because what so many actors are chasing after is an opportunity to evolve and dive into roles that present unique challenges and give you an opportunity to dig your teeth into something unknown, and therefore risky and exciting. In this business, you’re not always afforded that opportunity, early on. I feel fortunate that, by default, I’ve been able to bounce around. It was such a concerted effort on my manager and my agent’s behalf, and my own, to really seek out opportunities that would challenge me in new ways.
So, the way that it all panned out for this was that my manager came across the script around Thanksgiving of last year. He read it and was just blown away by the character and the writing. This was well before they were actually auditioning, and I went in and met with some of the producers to talk about the script and how much I loved it and the different characters. They initially associated me with what they’d seen before of my work, and there’s a wholesomeness and earnestness about a lot of the characters that I’ve done, and they thought that Nate, the Nick Jonas role, would be an interesting fit. All of that was very unofficial, preliminary, way ahead of the game conversations.
But then, I told them that I was really interested in the Ryan role, and that took some convincing. All of the roles are complicated, but I wanted something that was more of a departure from some of the stuff I’d done. So, a month later, they had to cast Alvey, the Frank Grillo role, and I wasn’t sure if the project would ever come back or if they’d even be interested in seeing me. Finally, they agreed to see me in January or February, and then I had to go through a series of auditions, and really fight for the role and chase after it. It has been the biggest reward.
Having been a part of one of the best sports show on TV, with Friday Night Lights, did you have any initial hesitation before even reading this, or do you try to see how similar or different something is before making that judgment?
LAURIA: No, I didn’t draw the parallel with Friday Night Lights. I played a detective on a show one time, and then there was an opportunity that came up afterward to play a young rookie agent, and that didn’t feel like the right step. Maybe if it was playing another football player, right on the heels of it, then I would want to avoid it. It’s a tough call because it really comes down to the character and the writing. From a very superficial level, I wouldn’t have wanted to do another football show right after Friday Night Lights because I wouldn’t want people to just think that I’m the guy that plays a football player. But, it really comes down to character. I was a huge fan of Friday Night Lights before I ever had the privilege of being on the show, but it had so little to do with football and so much to do with these beloved characters in this small, strange Texas town. So, what it mostly came down to was that it was a lot to take on. It’s a really gritty and really raw show. At a certain point, there’s no turning back. I knew it was a show that required a lot of risk-taking, and that’s very appetizing for an actor. If you’re not intimidated or maybe a little weary of taking on a role, then it may not be challenging enough and it may not be worth doing. This role presented those types of scary challenges in spades, and that was such a big part of the draw. The character was so deep and complicated and dynamic, and the writing was brilliant. The character were so well-drawn and three-dimensional. That’s a gift. That’s where everything starts, as an actor. You’ve gotta have great writing and great character development, and then you have really great materials to work from.
Did you have any idea how much of a physical transformation you’d actually have to make for this role?
LAURIA: I think we all knew, going into it, that it was going to take everything we could possibly muster. Myself, Jonas and Tucker adopted a mantra of, “All in, all the time.” At the end of a long shooting day, or at the end of a long training day, you can make it look committed and as though you’re exhausting everything you have, but you’re the only one who really knows how much you’re giving and how much is left in the tank and if you’re really pushing yourself to your absolute limit. That’s not just with the physical stuff, that’s with the acting, too. It’s about how vulnerable and ugly you’re allowing yourself to be, on the day. Are you holding onto something for the sake of safety and pride, or are you letting it all hang out. That was the healthy challenge that we all had to live up to. I didn’t think that it was going to be as exhausting as it was ‘cause I like being athletic and I enjoy physical activity, but it really required a lot.
This is a character who clearly was on one path in his life, and then got detoured a bit, and now he has to rediscover himself and what he wants to do with his life. Does it ever feel like you’re playing a dual role, discovering who he was before, as well as who he is now?
LAURIA: Yeah, and that’s an awesome question. That, particularly, is the little psychological dilemma that gave me such fascination and curiosity about Ryan. This is a guy who’s referred to as a savage, a monster and a killer, but then you see this contrite, penitent, weathered guy whose confidence doesn’t seem to reflect all those references. You know that he’s gotten himself in some trouble and been through some experiences that have been traumatic for those who he loves. He makes a reference to just trying to get by to survive. So, to see someone who is that extraordinary of an athlete, and who isn’t just a pro that keeps getting fights and doing decently well, but who was a champion at the top of his game, is one in at least a couple thousand or more. The kind of confidence it must instill in you to know, physically, what you hold, but then to keep thinking of him as a monster and a killer, you just don’t get it. If so much of your belief in yourself comes from being a champion and being able to beat people, and helps to define your confidence in yourself, is taken away from you, you’re left in a strange, deflated place that’s so opposite. It’s so extreme. You’re trying to reconcile what you see in the character with what people say about him. And then, what happens when you’ve sat in jail for four years, and you have the best of intentions of what you will do and who you will be after getting out of jail, and how you’ll make all things different and all things right, along with that comes obstacles you can’t anticipate, and it tests your metal. How well are your best intentions going to stand up to these challenges and obstacles? But then, as you begin to succeed and regain your confidence, how well will these new values hold up? Do you then revert back to where your former confidence positioned you? That makes for a lot of internal and external conflict.
Is Ryan really as okay with Alvey and Lisa being together as he tells them he is?
LAURIA: Well, that is just delicious for an actor to try to tackle. You keep asking these questions of, how sincere is he when he seems accepting of Lisa and Alvey being together? Is he really like, “Yeah, I screwed up. You can do better. May the best man win,” or is there an ulterior motive? Is he as contrite as he behaves? Does he really consider Alvey the alpha now, or is it just a tactic? Those are really exciting questions to just sit for hours and hours contemplating. All of the characters are that way. They all have twists and turns. The stakes are so high, across the board. It’s a matter of survival against another matter of survival, and that makes really good drama. Our show doesn’t seem formulaic. It’s asymetrical and unexpectedly designed.
Are you satisfied with the journey that your character takes this season, or are you even more anxious to see where things go next?
LAURIA: It’s an interesting question because I love the character and I love the show and I love the people that I work with. We all want to do additional seasons, but because it was such hard work, and every department put so much into it, when we finished, there was a feeling of accomplishment, reward and satisfaction that came with that. So, it’s both. I felt like we really achieved something together. I didn’t know what to expect from my character, and when I read the scripts, I thought, “Holy shit, I did not see that coming!” It was exciting. Exciting isn’t even a strong enough word. Byron Balasco has done such a tremendous job with these characters. There were things with the characters that I just didn’t see coming, and I would love to play this role for years.
Kingdom airs on Wednesday nights on the Audience Network on DirecTV.