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Interview: ‘Kingdom’ Actor Jonathan Tucker Discusses His Journey Into MMA Culture

(“The great majority of people who are fighting are not doing this for money and glory. There’s something else that drives them to the cage.” / Photo via

Though mixed martial arts has inspired its share of movies — both decent and dreadfulKingdom is the first TV drama to be set in the world of MMA. The series, which premieres next Wednesday, October 8th, on DIRECTV’s Audience channel, focuses on ex-fighter Alvey Kulina (played by Frank Grillo), his two sons, and their daily battles inside and outside of the cage.

Providing some of the show’s necessary tension is Jonathan Tucker, who plays the troubled black sheep of the Kulina clan. Jonathan took some time last week to chat with about his preparations for the role, and the lengths that the cast and crew went to in order to ensure authenticity. Read our interview with Jonathan below, follow him on Twitter @jonathanmtucker, and visit Kingdom’s official site to learn more. 

CAGEPOTATO.COM: Kingdom takes place in the setting of a mixed martial arts gym and professional fighting, but it really seems to be about a father’s relationship with his sons. Tell me a little bit about the character you play, Jay Kulina.

JONATHAN TUCKER: Jay’s kind of this high-wire act, who’s part warrior, part jester. There’s a lot of characters in MMA gyms, and everybody’s being driven to fight for some different reason. Everyone’s finding a sort of healing in the training or the fighting or the camaraderie of being in a gym like that. And for Jay, there’s a sense of distance that he gets from the training and fighting that keeps him out of the other addictions in his life. And when he loses that ability to train, he succumbs to a lack of self-confidence and turns to alcohol and drugs and sex — which is certainly something that I got to see among people in different gyms around Los Angeles.

How much physical preparation was required for a role like this, where you’re portraying a fighter? What was that process like?

We did a two-week boot camp with Joe “Daddy” [Stevenson] and his team, and Greg Jackson, out in Pomona and Victorville, and I did a lot of individual coaching at different places around LA. I was already generally walking around at the weight I was on the show, but when you give a person a few months to really step it up and focus on the diet and the workouts, that extra 5% difference really shows.

I was dragging my ass to the gym every single minute I wasn’t working, and then fight training; we rolled in the morning, got in conditioning right afterwards, then we’d have time for lunch, we’d go box, and usually do some kind of kickboxing in the evening. Of course, we had the luxury of time. All we’re really trying to do on the show is honor the fighters who are trying to pay their rent, who are always working a second job, who are supporting families. The luxury that we had to just train without worrying about paying our mortgage, that was something we never took for granted.

The great majority of people who are fighting are not doing this for money and glory. There’s something else that drives them to the cage, and you see that because they are sleeping on somebody’s couch. One of the fight doubles on our show, I gave him a ride to and from sets, because he didn’t have a car. And the guy is training at an invitation-only gym in LA. It was very eye-opening.

Like any subculture, MMA fans can be unforgiving when it comes to details. Were there technical advisers on the set to make sure that everything looked right at the gym setting and during the fight sequences?

Yeah, that’s the basis of the whole show. You can only play around as an actor if the integrity of the environment is strong. Joe Daddy was basically on set every single day; there wasn’t a moment he wasn’t there. Everybody in the gym was a fighter except the four of us actors on the show. And then all the people we fight on the show are fighters. We had Damacio Page, Jay Hieron, Cub Swanson, and some of the younger guys coming up like Cody Bollinger — just some amazing, extraordinary guys. And the thing that made our production designer, wardrobe folks, and construction guys on set feel great, is when all these fighters came in, took a minute to look around, and were like, “Wow, this looks fantastic!”

The announcers are real, the refs we had are real, we had a number of California State Athletic Commissioners who were there. And it can be an intimidating thing if you’ve never been on a film set before, so we wanted to empower all these guys to speak up, and say, “Well, hold on a second, when you’re wrapping the gloves the tape goes this way, and nobody touches the fighter after he’s cleared to enter the cage.” So we wanted all those guys to be very clear about the details, because it’s important to anybody who cares about the sport — and now I do. I’m like stopping at red lights and reading about this Daniel Cormier/Jon Jones verdict. Once you get into it, you get into it, and I’m into it.

At this point, who would win a real-life MMA tournament that included your co-stars Matt Lauria, Frank Grillo, and Nick Jonas? Who was the toughest guy on the set?

Me. Dude, there’s no fucking question it’s me. Hands down. I’m an animal, I’ll take all three of them at the same time.

Wow. I respect that confidence. It sounds like you could actually sell a fight.

Hey, you gotta go with yourself. [laughs] It’s too bad you couldn’t have come out and visited us on the set, because we sparred with each other all the time. And if you train, you know it’s very hard to walk by any bag and not hit it. When you’re spending all day on a set where you’re basically in a gym, they might say “cut,” but you’re looking at that bag like a hungry dog at a chunk of meat. And when you’ve got all those fighters there, who are really thrilled — they’re not making great money as background guys on the show, but they get to have Greg Jackson come on the set, they’re getting to spend their days training with some of the best fighters and coaches in the world. Everybody’s fighting all the time whether the cameras are rolling or not. And when the cameras do come on, it just feels like an extension of what we’re doing all day.

How do you think the MMA fanbase is going to react to Kingdom?

Promoting this show is a funny thing. There’s an expression on the set: You can’t push a string. The MMA audience and the audience that is going to find this show, they can’t be forced into finding it. They have to kind of find it on their own. I know that a lot of people will be skeptical about this, but I think they’re going to be rewarded with the diligence was taken every single day, every single scene, and all the pre-production to make this show truthful to the fighters that spend their lives dedicated to this sport. But this is not a network procedural, this is not a half-hour comedy, and people will have to find this show organically. It will be rewarding whether you like fighting or you don’t.


(‘Kingdom’ official trailer, via Audience DIRECTV)

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