The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has long been known for its wild and unpredictable nature, which is what Jonathan Tucker, the star of the hit Audience Network drama "Kingdom," channels into his multi-layered and emotionally complex character Jay Kulina.
Training out of his father Alvey's gym Navy St. in Venice Beach, California, Kulina is a talented fighter, but he is plagued by addiction. Tucker's performance covers the entire spectrum of emotion, taking the viewer through moments of levity and triumph, before effortlessly transitioning into deep moments of despair and violent fits of rage as Kulina battles his inner demons.
Tucker is among a talented cast featuring seasoned actor Frank Grillo, Matt Lauria, Kiele Sanchez and Nick Jonas, but when he is on the screen he is a scene-stealer. Whether by raising an eyebrow, bursting into tears over his mother, or strolling around a pool party rocking a speedo and indulging in what he shouldn't be, Tucker always commands full attention.
"It’s fun to hit these extraordinary highs and lows," Tucker told MMAmania.com recently. "It’s the same reason that we love fighting. The drama is extraordinary so to be given a role of a young man who can be that high and that low, who can be extraordinarily funny at one moment and then completely beaten and despondent the next. It’s a gift to ride that journey."
Delving into a rollercoaster of a role that demands for drastic swings in mood and emotion sounds as daunting as it truly is. Tucker admits that it can be tough on him both physically and emotionally, but it's ultimately what got him into acting in the first place.
"No, it’s not (easy), but it’s the rewarding work that got me into this business," Tucker explained. "The pain, the drama, the unpredictability of this role and of acting is what ultimately enticed me to the craft. So, this is kind of the most heightened version of that drug. While it can be very painful personally and while it can be tough on my body and grade a little bit on my patience with diet, it’s worth it. It’s really worth it when you get to meet some of these fighters and their families and you get to see they are fans of the sport and they deal with their own demons. When you find out that other people see their pain and their aspirations and their struggles reflected in the work of the character you helped create, it’s kind of ties it all together."
"Kingdom" debuted in 2014 and is heading into the end of its second season (which was split into two 10-episode arcs) and it has been heralded for the accurate portrayal of the life of an MMA fighter. Greg Jackson, one of the most highly-touted and respected coaches in the sport, is one of the technical consultants and retired fighter Joe Stevenson works on the show and with the cast on a regular basis to ensure all the nuances of the sport are well represented. The result has been a rousing success, which is something Tucker takes great pride in.
"The hurdle that we were trying to get over, was to honor this subculture, and this world in a meaningful and honest way," he said. "Certainly the most rewarding thing is getting positive feedback from the fighters for sure, but it's not just the fighters and that's when you start to realize when you are working in the fight game. When we get positive feedback from a fighter that is amazing, but we also get positive feedback from the coaches and it's not just one coach.
"It's a striking coach, it's a ground coach, it's the people who are coming in that morning to build the cage and they go across the country every weekend putting up a cage in a new arena. It's the family and the friends that travel with them. It's the people who cut an employee a break so they can go train because they fight on the weekends. There are so many people that are involved who make sacrifices for these fighters and for this sport and all we are trying to do is shine a positive or at least and honest light on that and on them. "Nobody can see this world (MMA) and not appreciate the people that are in it and all the sacrifices that these people make. It's an extraordinary thing to witness."
By submerging himself in his role on the show for the last few years, Tucker revealed he is now a huge fan of the fight game.
"I have now traveled on my own dime all over the country to watch fights in casinos, high school gymnasiums and UFC cards in Vegas," Tucker said. "Now the show is beginning to pick up steam and people are really starting to pay attention that I have been able to convince my employer that going to UFC fights is good for business and that they can cover expenses. I got a smirk on my face just being here. I'll do some interviews, do some press and sell the show. It's a real thrill for me."
Tucker is a master of his craft, and for "Kingdom" he and other cast members all train extensively as if they were real mixed martial artists to fully prepare for the show. And now that he has learned quite a bit through his dedication to training for the show, it has become part of his everyday life outside of the show and when he travels too.
"We are training every day, twice a day," he explained. "We certainly have the tutelage of Greg Jackson and his whole team and Joe Daddy Stevenson, who is on set with us every day. Juan Archuleta, who I think is somebody that should definitely be on your radar as an up and coming fighter. Being on the show has opened up all these other doors. I go to Hawaii and I get to work with Ron Jhun and the 808 Top Team. I go out to Palm Springs and I get to bash with Cub Swanson and his gym. A lot of people bring their golf clubs around when they travel and I get to bring my fight bag and that’s become a personal part of my life now. I can never imagine not finding a local combat gym wherever I was going for a weekend, wedding, or for a vacation or whatever it might be. It’s become a great source of reward for me."
Tucker, 32, has been acting for well over two decades now in both film and television. The Massachusetts native has been in other hit television series like "Justified" and "Parenthood," and will be in the upcoming "American Gods" on AMC. But it's his role in "Kingdom" that allowed audiences to see what he is truly capable of, and he is truly grateful the show came into his life when it did.
"I’ve been lucky to work for a long time," he said. "I feel that Jay Kulina allows me to shine now. "Jay is the sort of dynamic, multi-faceted, wholly satisfying character one hopes to find once in a lifetime as an actor. I’m very grateful that he came to me and this show has presented itself, and Byron Balasco—the show runner—has come into my life and my career at this point."
Tucker says he and the rest of the cast "put a lot of our hearts, souls and bodies into this show," and that is also a big reason for it's success as well.
"We all are an eclectic bunch," he said. "We all bring our baggage to the table and I think the show is better because of it. Everybody defends and maintains the integrity of their work and their characters."
Acting and fighting are very similar in that sense he said.
"Same thing with fighting, the more truer you are to yourself, the more grounded an confident you are in your own work, the more you are open to seeing the flow and the movement and the dynamism of the entirety of the cage, of the other fighter, of the spectators, of your coaches," Tucker said on the similarities of acting and fighting. "And I think we operate in a similar sort of fashion so that when we come to set there is a sense of freedom that allows us to find the complexities—or at least we are open to the complexities--of the environment, which is a multi-faceted environment."
Yes, he has dedicated himself to the role of Jay Kulina, and, of course, he takes it seriously. But, since he is a fan, he definitely has his favorite moments of filming where he geeks out like any rabid fight fan would.
"Getting to do these fights is like a fan’s super dream because you get to have so much of what is rewarding about the fight without actually getting hit. Having said that, I’ve been hit a few times, but nothing like the real fighters that we see day in, day out, who are fighting for a living. We even have the walkout songs. We pick them. It feels like fight day when you wake up. It’s like a complete interactive sort of fantasy and I think any time we have an opportunity for a fight--for the most part--it’s exciting."
The Season 2 finale of "Kingdom" airs Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Audience Network, and was just green lit for a third season.