Interview: Jonathan Tucker Talks Jay Kulina, Kingdom, and American Gods
If you aren’t familiar with the Audience Networks’ mixed martial arts drama Kingdom, I can’t say I blame you. The show is a difficult one to get a hold of if you don’t have access to the network, but since discovering the show over a year ago, I’ve been obsessed. I first came across the show searching out Frank Grillo’s filmography and body of work and found Kingdom to be the sort of show that married family life and drama with the exuberant and caustic life of an MMA fighter.
Creator Byron Balasco has crafted an elaborate world that is fraught with opposing personalities. Grillo’s Alvey Kulina is the patriarch and MMA gym owner of Navy St. gym in Venice Beach with his two fighter sons, Jay played by Jonathan Tucker and Nate played by Nick Jonas. The show does a fantastic job of mixing the dynamic excitement of watching a fight in the cage with the emotional depth of a drama about a complex and broken family.
Since the premiere and airing of its final ten episodes, Kingdom has taken their characters to new places we haven’t seen before. The most notable change is Tucker’s Jay, who has had a taste of family life in the form of a daughter and a steady girlfriend. But, as we all know, Jay’s self-destruction has pushed him down a different path and we’ll have to see where he’ll end up by the end of the show with so much still at stake.
I got to catch up with Jonathan Tucker to talk to him a little bit about Jay and Kingdom, what we would see coming up and where Jay is now. We also discussed some of his other work, where we’d be seeing him in the future, and specifically, his time working with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Check out our interview below.
Therese: I’ve been really excited for this season of Kingdom, but I’m sad that it’s the last one. You have a really interesting storyline for Jay this season, so I’m excited to talk to you.
Jonathan: It’s been this well-worn ground of a young man who has so much potential, so much talent, so much beauty, putting himself on the pathway to success because he fears being his best self. It’s such a hard thing to be a part of, in many ways. As a person, as an audience member, I’m rooting for Jay too, and it’s very painful to watch the inevitable souring he does when success is dangled in front of him.
T: So how do you think you left this final season? What are your feelings about where the story went by the end of the show?
J: Well, so much of the show and so much of Jay’s journey has been one of redemption. I’m trying to find that and often through self-flagellation. It’s an addict’s story. We end this season in a very visceral way, like when you get the wind knocked out of you when you’re in a playground when you’re ten-years-old. But also in this spiritual way where maybe in that loss of breath, in that place of deep and profound pain, he is unable to do anything other than to have his feet grounded to the floor to feel the vibrations of the earth, to maybe find a real sense of comity with the world around him. And then our show is done and I don’t know where that presence of mind, heart, and spirit would end up guiding him, in what would be a season 4.
T: So would you say there is room to expand past season 3? I went to your Vulture panel back in New York and it seemed like there was room to grow but there is a tone of finality. Would you say that?
J: There’s a tone of finality in that it’s actually done. So I will allow the practical sign of this to lead into the storyline. The way in which I have had to operate in the world and the way in which Jay has operated, the way that I think the world works is that the subconscious has the way of finding itself. I felt there’s a sense of finality in the end. The wonderful opportunity of doing television as a medium is that with these very
But, the wonderful opportunity about doing television as a medium is that, with these very deep-rooted characters, these authentic characters, we are able, as an audience, and I am, as an actor, able to drive that car through so much new scenery, respond to new roads, and dangers on those roads. It’s exciting to do that in television because you can’t do that in a movie and don’t do that on stage. So it’s hard for me to look at what Jay touches in the final season and not think, “Oh well, where could that go moving forward?” But there is a sense of finality in that it is done.
T: So Jay was trying to keep clean and trying to be a good dad, was part of his inspiration for this the fear that he’ll become Alvey?
J: Well, I mean, his biggest fear from episode one has been becoming Alvey. They’re mirrors of each other. And one of the most cogent lines in that pilot is in the first season when Jay tries to bring the family together, and he comes out and he goes, “You a fuck up and I’m a fuck up, but at least I know it. I can admit it. I know who I am, I know I’m an addict.” It’s an overarching fear and having the child brings all that into a trenchant focus.
Ultimately, that fear of becoming Alvey is the impetus behind “Headhunters”, which is, “I need to push this family out. I need to kill this idea of me being a father and me having this child and being in her life. I have to end this now because I know it’s not going to end well. In order to protect my baby, from what I had to deal with, and to protect Amy from what my mother had to deal with, I need to just get them out. And I’m willing to be the monster and take that responsibility if it means that they can be safe.”
T: Can you give me three words that you would use to describe the rest of the season for Jay moving forward?
J: Inevitability. Union. Pain.
T: Those are three very contrasting feelings.
T: I also have some questions about your future projects and some of the projects that you’ve worked on. Mostly, I’m interested in hearing your perspective on working with Bryan Fuller and your experience with the Fannibal community.
J: You know, Byron [Balasco], Bryan, and Michael Green, they are storytellers who are collaborators. We understand as a species that stories, telling stories and sharing stories, is what separates us from all these other animals. It’s what really unites us. We’re always looking for a sense of authenticity and we are desperate to find a sense of truth with our characters and with our stories. So, we gravitate towards these people who are conduits to that. Those three are in that vein. It’s not just collaborators between writer and actor, or writer and wardrobe, but it’s also between the guy just pushing the dolly grip. We’re all connected here. We’re all pulling and pushing and our energies are all affecting each other. When you ask about getting to work with Michael, Bryan, and Neil Gaiman, they’re not operating from a place of fear but rather from a place of gut and instinct.
We all kind of do the sweat equity trench digging that is required to get a show to air but so much of that blue-collar, laying-the-foundation work is done in the pre-production and then production just becomes this place where you can invite an architect to build something dynamic and magical and fun. That’s getting to be on set and to shoot and allow all the work you’ve done to find itself organically. That doesn’t happen when you’re working with showrunners who want to micromanage everything and everybody.
And Fannibals, it’s such an honor to have [them]. It goes back to who we are as a species. These people have really supported a narrative and have continued to support the people involved in it, and it’s just so gratifying. You know, to see the impact and to see the relationship that you’re having with an audience, it is unique. You’re making stuff and it goes out into the world and you don’t know where it goes or how it’s received.
T: Totally. I agree. I think it’s a really great experience both as a fan to have. I feel like Bryan has a really close connection to his fans, and, in conjunction, many of the actors and actresses that he casts also have close connections with his fans. It’s a great thing. It’s nice to have an open dialogue with them.
J: Yeah, completely. Bryan’s been so wonderful about being on social media and offering himself up. It shows the kind of perspective that he and Michael have for the audience.
T: Agreed. So, since Kingdom is done, you’ve been on American Gods for one episode as a character who will be vital later on in the story, how soon will we be able to see you again on the show, and is there anything you can tell us about it?
J: We have not gotten all the dates worked out yet, but I’m really excited to be back and be doing something fun. And, I’ve spoken with Bryan and Michael about it, and I’m excited to jump back into that world. I love working with them, and you don’t often have the opportunity as an actor to have the natural laws of our earth suspended but to also be grounded in a human form. I can tell you it’s just a fabulous place to play. To be a god on earth, it opens up so many opportunities as an actor.
T: Well, I’m really excited to see you take on that role a little bit more in the coming seasons. I was really excited to see you cast as Low-Key Lyesmith, because I was a big fan of you on Kingdom. I actually forgot that you were a part of Hannibal until later because you embody Jay very clearly in my head.
J: Thank you, that’s such a compliment, and thank you for coming to the panel, that’s so nice of you.
T: It was a pleasure to see the show get some kind of promotion even though it is the last season. It was gratifying to hear Joanna [Going] and Kiele [Sanchez] talk, I’m a big fan of both of their characters as well.
J: Thank you for saying that. I’m really very grateful.
Catch the final episodes of Kingdom now, airing Wednesdays on the Audience network!