Over the past nine episodes, DirecTV’s “Kingdom” has immersed viewers in the brutal, bloody world of professional MMA, focusing on a tumultuous family of fighters and the gym that holds them together. Patriarch Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo) has groomed sons Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Nate (Nick Jonas) for glory on the canvas, but his prized fighter is Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria) who makes his long-awaited return to the cage in tonight’s season finale after a stint in jail. Complicating matters is Ryan’s fractious relationship with ex-girlfriend Lisa (Kiele Sanchez), who has been involved with Alvey in the years since Ryan went to prison.
In the season-one finale, simmering tensions come to a head in and out of the ring, so Variety caught up with Jonathan Tucker, whose impulsive character, Jay, also has a chance to re-establish himself as a contender in tonight’s episode. Below, we discuss Jay’s evolution over the course of the season, his relationship with his mother, Christina (Joanna Going), and what’s ahead for the inhabitants of Navy Street.
Jay has had one of the most fascinating trajectories this season, starting in such a wild, chaotic place and evolving into someone who really takes responsibility for his family. Talk a little about his arc.
Tucker: One of the really welcomed and satisfying aspects of getting to play Jay was the opportunity to really watch a young man come to a point of self-realization, and I think that kind of culminated in [episode 8]. Alvey and Jay are kind of foils to each other, but the difference that Jay sees is that at least Jay’s willing to admit his misdeeds, and own up to his mistakes and recognize that while he has faults and that he’s a damaged human being, at least he knows that. Whereas I think that he feels that Alvey doesn’t acknowledge that, refuses to acknowledge that and continues to live in a world where he won’t.
In a lot of ways, Jay’s probably the most well-adjusted member of the Kulina clan, because at least he isn’t keeping secrets like the rest of his family.
Yeah, addiction and the road to recovery, that path is often filled with relapse and with mistakes and with false truths. But ultimately, he is beginning to know who he is, and every time he falls, like a baby, he gets back up again and his legs get a little stronger. So, in dealing with all the mess that he has created and all the mess that he is, he becomes a more realized human being, and perhaps a more interesting character.
He forced his mother to detox from her drug addiction, but how does he feel about Christina’s progress at this point? He seems constantly paranoid that she’s going to bolt.
Yeah, addicts know addicts. He knows her because he knows himself. He knows her struggle because he’s struggling with it himself, but there is a bit of ignorance in him, and I think it comes from being raised by Alvey, where he thinks he can just muscle it out, and that’s not a healthy road to recovery. And maybe there’s some part of Jay that knows subconsciously that you can’t heal yourself unless you, yourself, make that decision. You’ve got to hit rock-bottom. You’ve got to want to recover, you have to want to be clean, and there is no part of Christina’s recovery that was of her own will. So maybe subconsciously, I know that she’s walking on a razor edge. But Jay doesn’t have the right tools to help her, other than love and muscle. That doesn’t cut it, and that’s kind of what he learns from Alvey. And I think that’s why there’s so much resentment there. “You think you’re a great dad because you put a roof over our head and you protected us, but that a great dad does not make.”
We’ve had some hints that Jay’s brother, Nate, is hiding something fairly major about himself from his family, something that he seems to be trying to repress. Do you think Jay has any inkling that Nate may be attracted to guys? What do you think his reaction would be?
Well, that’s a great question. I haven’t done the homework myself to really dive into how he feels. [Laughs.] I think when you get beat up in the cage, or prepare to go into that cage, when you’ve gone through emotional and physical struggle and the struggles of addiction that Jay’s gone through, it’s very hard to be judgmental. Jay’s not really a judgmental character, so in terms of Jay’s morality and his attempts at redemption… Jay is in no place to judge anybody else, and ultimately, all he wants to do is take care of his younger brother. I think it would be a little f—ing weird [for Jay], if that information comes to light. But there’s nobody that would step to defend Nate quicker than Jay.
“Kingdom” creator Byron Balasco has pointed out that these characters are unique in that they’re actively seeking out physical violence for a living, while most people would go out of their way to avoid it. What drives Jay to do that, from your perspective?
In terms of what drives these people to the cage, men and women, they all have demons. They’re all wrestling with those demons in the cage and out of the cage. They’re all different. They’re wildly unique. At the same time, one can take solace in the fact that [those demons] are universal, whether it’s money or addiction or family issues or father issues or relationship issues or kids. Everybody enters that fight for different reasons, and those different reasons are always sort of the same. I think when you have an addictive personality like Jay has, you trade one addiction for the other. So if he can’t get into the cage, if he can’t be in the gym, then he ends up with women. If he can’t get with women, he ends up with drugs. You replace one addiction for the other, and that cage ends up being a salve for many individuals, and it’s going to be a salve for Jay’s wounds.
He gets to observe the insanity of the Alvey-Lisa-Ryan love triangle from an outsider’s perspective, even though he obviously has personal ties to all of them. What’s his take on that dynamic?
I think Jay really wants to check out of that. It’s like, “these morons have got to figure this whole thing out.” I mean, there’s certainly something, as Jay would say, f—ed up about the fact that… you see a lot of mistakes in this world, a lot of these guys are recovering from mistakes or making up for mistakes, which ultimately leads to a real sense of self-realization, in the sense of integrity: when you done wrong and you know you done wrong, it brings you a little closer to yourself and to the truth and to the world, to your friends. So Ryan makes a mistake, ends up going to jail, and then my father decides to take his girl. There’s just a lot of problems there. So I’m certainly not siding with my dad, but I like Lisa. She does kind of provide, in a weird way, a lot of friendship and motherhood and support and family, and she too is really not judging. So, she’s one of the few people I can really rely on, who’s not family, to be there for me. But I’m not interested in getting myself involved. Jay’s never had a real relationship; I don’t think he really understands heartbreak, in terms of females, like an outside-of-the-family relationship, so it’s a little hard to empathize with those situations.
Talk a little bit about filming episode nine, “Cut Day,” because it was almost a bottle episode for you and Matt Lauria, locked in the gym and in the sauna and trying to cut the weight. Was it as exhausting as it looked?
We want a lot of things, but the first bar — which is actually the highest bar to pass — is, can fighters and people in the MMA world and coaches and all the families and friends that watch the sacrifices of the people that are doing this every single day, will they watch the show and say, “Yes, this is a true reflection of what our lives are”? And a cut day and weight cut is one of the most difficult things a fighter experiences, leading up to a fight. In point of fact, they often say once they’re done with the weight cut, that’s the hardest part, and then it’s like they’re bored, the fight’s easy. It’s the cut that’s awful, and a lot of these guys are dropping probably 15, 20 pounds on a day. Like, that’s just brutal. 20 pounds, that’s, like, a standard [weight to drop]. So what that does to you physically is probably not as bad as what it does to you mentally. It’s just a big mental game, and it’s about focusing on making that goal and knowing that you’re going to get out of it. Boy, Lauria — because he has a bigger cut in the show and spins out in the script — definitely was pushing it physically. I think he had a little mini-meltdown on the day, and I think it worked out really, really well. We were wearing all day, for the most part, these sweatsuits which are basically trash bags, but they’re really tight around you. You sweat your tail off, and you can’t really take them on and off during shooting, because of hair and makeup stuff and other wardrobe stuff. So you just sit in it all day, but it’s in no way as bad as a real cut.
The season finale features Jay’s big fight, as well as Ryan’s. What can you preview?
It was great fun having Damacio Page, aka “The Angel of Death,” who’s the fighter [against Jay]. Everybody who’s not an actor on the show is in the fighting world or a fighter themselves, and that’s really exciting. You’ve got background who are all the Nevada State Athletic Commissioners, and they pipe up: “You wouldn’t actually check the mouth guard right here, you wait till he comes over here,” or “you wouldn’t be allowed to stand back at this point during the fight.” Those are the sort of details that people are going to call you on. So there is a real sense of truth all the time, just when we’re fighting. When you’re fighting another professional fighter, somebody who’s been in that cage, who lives in that cage, whose life is about preparing for that war, it steps up the stakes for the scene and for the show, but also for the acting.
And you were also picked up for 20 more episodes; do you have a general idea of Jay’s arc in the next couple of seasons, or are you taking it script by script?
No, we’ve kicked around a few ideas, but absolutely nothing is firm. But it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to play this character in this world, with the quality of the writing; the quality of the filmmakers who are part of it; with a studio and network that gives us the parameters of what that sandbox or playground is and then lets us just throw elbows, lets us really play, because the restrictions are limited. The idea of getting to go back and doing two more seasons of this is one of the great rewards I’ve ever had as an actor.
The “Kingdom” season one finale airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on DirecTV’s Audience Network.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.