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 Kiele Sanchez, Joanna Going and Natalie Martinez, who play the women in Alvey Kulina’s life (along with the recent addition of Grillo’s own wife, Wendy Moniz, who’s playing a smart and tough attorney that crosses paths with the gym owner). During the exclusive interviews, the actresses talked about the growth of their characters, the physicality of their roles, and where things are headed. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
The journey their characters have taken, since the start of the series:
KIELE SANCHEZ: I talked to (show creator) Byron [Balasco] ‘cause, originally, I just didn’t think this part was for me. We talked about who Lisa was and who she was to Alvey, and he said, “Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a fight a week.” He compared it to Friday Night Lights and how that show wasn’t about football. He said, “This isn’t about MMA fighting. It’s the world that we are in, but it’s not about that.” That really intrigued me. And he wanted a strong woman to come in and be the one who is behind the scenes, making everything happen, and who’s always the smartest one in the room. She’s terrified of being dependent on anyone, and I think she found herself too dependent on Alvey and on the gym. She wanted to get her own thing going, so that no matter what happens in their relationship, she’s not high and dry.
JOANNA GOING: When I first auditioned for [this show], I read the first episode, and Christina appeared very briefly in that. I think Byron didn’t even intend for her to be around so much, but he just kept writing for her. The relationship between Christina and Jay really blossomed into quite a story. I knew she was an addict and I knew she was a prostitute, but that’s about it. We’ve been building her, ever since.
NATALIE MARTINEZ: When Alicia came in, she was a little green. She needed some help and was obviously a bit rough around the edges, and that’s why she wanted to train with Alvey. She knows that if she trains with him, she can get to where she wants to. You’re going to see Alicia grow, as a fighter. What’s really cool about this character is that she’s tough, but she’s also vulnerable and emotional, so she gets a little nervous. In Season 2a, you got to see her grow as a fighter, but in Season 2b, you get to know her past a little more. Her sister has come from Miami, and you get to see what makes her who she is.
Lisa chose to leave town, but it wasn’t easy for her to walk away from her family at the gym:
SANCHEZ: It was about self-preservation. She has put her blood, sweat and tears into the gym and into wanting to do well with new fighters and into wanting to get Jay to where he should be. It’s been her family. So, it was absolutely for her own and her baby’s sake, to get out of that toxic environment. I kept reading the scripts, as they would come out, and I’d be like, “No one seems to care that Lisa is pregnant. It’s almost like she’s not.” That’s the genius with the writing from Byron. I was like, “Don’t these people care that I’m carrying their half-brother?” It was interesting that they didn’t seem to care, so she needed to care.
Having had some distance has changed Lisa’s perspective:
SANCHEZ: When you go through a loss like she has (with losing her baby), it changes you in a way that’s permanent. When she comes back, she wants people to believe that she’s more okay than she is. She is very much trying to cover up how much she needs the gym to feel normal again and to be around her family that she left because she has this huge hole inside of her.
Going enjoys all of the emotional ups and downs of the role, and is happy not to have to look glamorous:
GOING: It’s not been an easy road with Christina, but it’s a lot of fun to be playing a character that isn’t all put together. To have real issues to delve into, research wise, always makes it a lot more satisfying to me. I can pull from a lot of resources and put them into my work, and just have as much information as possible. There’s certainly a lot of information to be looked into, with these issues of addiction and prostitution and parenting gone awry. And I loved getting past the unglamorousness. It was very freeing not to be concerned with what I looked like. It’s always, “You have to look great, you have to look glamorous, and you have to look fabulous on TV.” She is manipulative and really despicable sometimes. She’s not evil, but she’s a survivor. Whether it’s manipulating a guy at a bar to get him to go upstairs and give her 500 bucks, or whether it’s getting what she needs out of her sons, she’s very adept at that. I don’t think she goes around meaning to hurt anybody, but she does what she has to do.
With everything that Lisa has gone through, she has a new appreciation for Christina’s history with Alvey:
SANCHEZ: Before, she just saw Christina as abominable. She was a terrible mother and a junkie, and she neglected and abandoned her kids. She sees Christina in a totally different way, now that she knows what Alvey is capable of doing. I wish we could see more of their bond, but there are bits of that. Her and I threw in some glances and stuff like that, during scenes, to show that we connect on a different level now.
Why Martinez feels so comfortable in this world:
MARTINEZ: One of the things I love about fighting and the art of fighting is that you are always learning and you are always getting better. I’ve been doing it for six years and I’m still perfecting my kicks and my punches, or turning something over, or getting on my toes more. I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better, just ‘cause, with anything, in time and practice you get better. But, I feel very comfortable in this world. I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. I feel so comfortable in Alicia’s shoes and fighting. The writing is so great and the character is so great to play with that it’s worked out perfect.
Alicia’s fighting style plays to Martinez’s own strengths as a fighter:
MARTINEZ: I’ve done Muay Thai for six years, so we based it around that because that’s my strength. I also worked with (MMA fighter) Joe Daddy a lot on the groundwork. I’ve never really studied Jiu-jitsu or wrestling, so I got to learn that and incorporate that a little bit more. So, in the beginning, she was this green fighter, but now you see her rolling on the floor and learning a lot of the different moves, as well as her Muay Thai.
While Martinez enjoys filming the fight sequences, she also has to keep up with training, even if she’s not currently shooting a fight scene:
MARTINEZ: It’s so much fun. I get butterflies because I feel like I’m really going to fight. All of my energy gets pent up. I don’t even use a double. I do everything, and I do it the whole time. It’s something that I really love. I love being active and I love playing a strong female character that gets to do a lot of cool shit. You see Alicia as a tough fighter chick, but you see her crying before the fight. When she wins and she talks to Alvey, she’s crying. She’s scared of the normal things. As tough as you might be, and these fighters are tough, they still get nervous and they still get butterflies. You want to do good, and when something means a lot to you, you don’t want to fail. I keep training. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not something that you just pick up because you’re doing it now. My shoulder got hurt. I have nerve damage with my foot. I definitely get hurt. I get bruises. There was a scene where Matt [Lauria] and I were in the cage, hooking up, and I had bruises all down my back, the next day. They usually sweat us up with water, at the beginning, but after the first or second take, it’s our own sweat. We’re really working out and doing what you see. The only thing is that we’re not making contact.
Even though Christina has a relationship with both of her sons, Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Nate (Nick Jonas), she is not yet in a position where she can help Nate embrace his sexuality:
GOING: I’m not the storyteller, and Byron could throw something at me, but I feel like Christina would be a lot more open and accepting than Alvey might prove to be. I don’t think she judges. She’s hung out with all types, and she is all types. She’s a mess, not that coming out and being openly gay would be a mess. I think she would celebrate him accepting himself and being his true self, as much as she also understands the world where they all come from and how difficult it is for him. I think that’s why she hasn’t pushed him in that direction.
What they think would make their character happy:
SANCHEZ: I’ve thought about that ‘cause I’ve thought about what drives Lisa back to this place from San Francisco. I think Lisa is the kind of person who could run shit anywhere. She’s a hustler. She’ll figure out a way to make it. But, I think what brings her back is that she’s looking for that family. She’s someone who lost her mother, and these people became her family. Even though it’s not hers, per se, it is the one that she wants to be around, more than anything. If this family could work in a functional way and everyone just got their shit together, I think she would be happy. It’s hard to say. She’s in such a dark place right now, but I think she’s searching for that, for sure.
GOING: Christina needs a purpose. She’s in a bad place, and I don’t really see her getting into a good place until she finds a real reason for being. The drugs fill up that hole for her. Now, she’s got these sons, but she’s realized that they don’t really need her the way she would like to be needed. When she first came back and was living with the boys, they were playing house. It was a novelty. Mom was off the drugs and home with the boys again, but that wore off quickly because these young men had their own lives. She’s trying to find some kind of life, but she’s not equipped for anything. Nobody trusts her. She has no history, so what can she build on? Where does she go? Sadly, that’s where a lot of people find themselves.
MARTINEZ: This whole show is so great because you have these situations where there’s so much drama, but then you have a lighter comedic side. And then, you have a really emotional, gut-wrenching moment. And then, there’s the action and fighting in the gym. Every aspect is there. My character has gone through every emotion, which is so great to have, as an actor. And esveryone is so great to work with. It’s an ideal show, and it’s very true. These guys really do train and fight. I’ve been training and fighting. It’s pretty real deal. It’s as real as it gets.
Kingdom airs on Wednesday nights on the AT&T Audience Network on DirecTV.