“Kingdom,” DirecTV’s latest original series, is unlike anything currently on TV. While the brutal and kinetic fight sequences are most reminiscent of Tom Hardy’s 2011 mixed martial arts pic “Warrior,” the compelling ensemble and thorny character dynamics — set against the backdrop of the professional MMA circuit — evoke memories of another drama where the sports took a backseat to character evolution: the short-lived but much-beloved “Friday Night Lights” (which was co-produced by DirecTV in its final three seasons). Another commonality between the two shows is Matt Lauria, who played Luke Cafferty in seasons four and five of “FNL,” and whose troubled new character, Ryan Wheeler, is miles removed from the mild-mannered farm boy who stole fans’ hearts while playing for the East Dillon Lions.
Variety spoke to Lauria ahead of “Kingdom’s” Oct. 8 premiere to learn more about what makes his character tick, Ryan’s relationship with MMA coach Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo) and what drew him to the gritty new series.
Give us a little background on your character, Ryan, and this brutal world he inhabits.
Ryan is a guy who is referred to throughout as a champion and a monster and a killer — but when you meet him initially he’s a guy who’s speaking to a parole officer. He couldn’t be lower. He’s humbled and contrite, and just trying to put his life back together again. And he goes back to the coach who put him on the map, who he then left for greener pastures to try and get some footing again [before being sent to jail], to find out that his fiancee, the woman he was in love with, is now dating his former coach. And then drama ensues. [Laughs.]
What attracted you to the role?
It’s a highly complicated and psychological character, who’s multidimensional. There are so many conflicting aspects of what composes this guy. You hear it throughout the pilot, these stories of glory of this monster of a man. In this world of MMA, I think those who can be professional are exceptional; those who now have a winning record and can be professional are a notch above that; and then there are very few who are the type of champion who Ryan was. And that’s what everyone speaks about him as, except again, you see this guy who is so penitent and humbled, and I think that right off the bat those were two very opposing descriptions of this character, and then [it’s about] trying to reconcile that. And also what’s exciting is, just like a war film, there’s a sort of innate, built-in battle just in the world itself. This show, without a doubt, is about fighting. Is it about physical fighting? Not necessarily. I think that’s the backdrop. But certainly these are humans with desperate, essential needs who are fighting with all they’ve got for survival and to maintain their meager place in a very unstable environment.
The show’s creator, Byron Balasco, has pointed out that these characters are unique in that they’re actively seeking out physical violence while most people go out of their way to avoid it — what drives Ryan to do that, in particular?
It’s interesting. I think that Ryan — and again, it’s another strange juxtaposition — is someone who is not afraid to engage unreservedly, yet someone who is classy and respectful in so doing. And what I’ve come to realize is that I think Ryan is a guy who started wrestling as a very young kid and just had an extraordinary aptitude for it and excelled at it. A feeling of self worth comes from that, especially with extraordinary athletes. So much confidence and someone’s validation must come from knowing that the molecular space that you occupy is operating at such a higher level than the average person. So he had a certain aptitude for it, but then he really enjoyed it and loved it and wrestled all the way through high school and college. And then you find out later on that he had an office job and all the rest of it, and then found a way to continue doing what he loved and what he had a gift for, and make some money doing it. And I think that it doesn’t make him a barbarian. I think it makes him an athlete. And then again, that switch that Byron probably was mentioning is that there is a breed of human who is okay with getting up and looking in the mirror and saying ‘okay, what’s on the agenda today is to go and get punched in the face, and that doesn’t really concern me.’ It’s just a different breed of people.
What can you say about Ryan’s complicated relationship with his coach, Alvey (Frank Grillo), and ex-fiancee, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez)? Obviously there’s a lot of history there — how does he feel about them as individuals and as a couple?
There’s a lot of love and history with Alvey. It’s a familial bond, or a near familial bond. It’s just like war or anything else; when you’re pushing yourself to such extraordinary limits and extremes physically, and the exhaustion and the training and the hours and the heartbreak and the disappointment and the victory, I think sharing that with somebody is a pretty unique and special experience. And he is somewhat of a father figure. Your coach is the boss… They’ve been through a lot together and they have a lot of love and a lot of history and a lot of respect.
Now, Lisa, this is the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. And another aspect of what was appealing about this character… you hand him all the obstacles and hurdles that are presented upon leaving jail: Lisa obviously is the love of his life and he spent four years in prison thinking about her. But she knows what he did and he’s taking responsibility for those things and wanting to make amends. And so I think that initially that includes accepting the fate of this romantic situation between her and Alvey. This is what I love about my character too, it’s like, ‘okay, how sincere is his modesty? How sincere is his agreeability with the current situation?’ Maybe he does think ‘hey, I don’t deserve her and she got the better man,’ or maybe he’s like, ‘fuck this.’ [Laughs.]
As you said, he seems like a fairly penitent guy when we meet him, but how much should we trust how Ryan presents himself to the world, given all he’s been through?
I think there’s a real sincerity about Ryan. I think that is born out of [being] put in situations where bullshit doesn’t fly. In jail you can’t lie. In the ring you can’t lie. You have to be authentic, period. Having said that, you’ve got the best of intentions in jail, ‘this is how things are going to go — I’m on the page now, I’m rebuilding my life,’ but you meet obstacles that you couldn’t anticipate. How do you deal with them? How well do you contain the things that landed you in jail and keep them in check, and how well do you stay on your upward trajectory? Then the other thing you can’t anticipate is, as you begin to maybe succeed and regain some confidence, how does that then affect your initial game plan? You might start off as penitent and sincere and contrite, but then as you begin to get your swagger back, I don’t know…
Being in jail for four years would obviously take a toll on anyone — how would you say prison has changed Ryan?
I’m not purporting to know what it would be like to spend any time in jail, much less four years, but I was fortunate enough to speak with some very generous former inmates who were very open. I think that he can never go back [after] four years in a hole… it’s just the little things. There’s prison ethics, there’s a whole new way for you to deal with respect, and socially, what are the rules there? What are the parameters? How do you present yourself and how do you deal with others socially? I think that one thing is hyper-awareness to the people around you and your surroundings — again, just stripping away the bullshit. One of the things that I heard over and over again from inmates was, ‘look, you seem like a really nice guy, right? Just a good natured person. And if you go in there and try and act like Billy Badass up the street, they’ll eat you alive. You’ve just got to be you. If you’re like super Christian, go be that. If you’re a tough street fighting dude, go be that. But don’t try and fake it.’ And so I figured that kind of thing, you can’t escape it. It’s got to stay with you forever.
Ryan initially seems reluctant to fight again, but how much of that might be because he actually enjoys the violence once he starts, or because he’s afraid to head back down that path when it led him to such dark places in the past? What’s really holding him back?
I think he’s horrified at the idea. I think that he ruined his life and the lives of the people who he loved most, and he associates fighting and the world of professional mixed martial arts as the trigger for him. That may not be for everybody, but it’s certainly the money and the notoriety, and then along with that came the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, which led to his demise — and more tragically, the pain of his loved ones. So I think that more than anything, he goes, ‘that’s the one thing I’ve got to stay away from,’ you know?
I hear that you’re also returning to “Parenthood” this week — what can you preview about Ryan’s return?
I don’t want to say anything, but I will say this: One of the things I think is so beautiful about the Amber and Ryan relationship is, you see two people with open hearts just battling to try and make it work, and against some very complicated odds. And you’ll see more of that. Other than that, I’m gonna let people sit back and see what they see.