'Kingdom' Star on "Bittersweet" Win: "I've Gone Through Hell and Back"

"It was not a pleasant experience," Tucker tells THR of Jay's brutal weight loss onscreen for his big title fight.
Courtesy of DirectTV

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Kingdom, "Living Down."]

Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) lives life in the extremes on DirecTV's Kingdom, and the day of his big title fight was no different.

After brutally dropping down a full weight class, losing 30 pounds while still training for the biggest fight of his career thus far, Jay finally achieved his goal and won a belt. After the fight, his father Alvey (Frank Grillo) showed Jay more affection and pride than viewers have ever seen from the duo, and he promised Jay that he could now fight Ryan (Matt Lauria) with his full permission. Jay is finally getting everything he ever wanted.

And then in the final moments of the episode, his recovering addict mother Christina (Joanna Going) relapsed and overdosed on heroin. Jay spent all of season one helping his mother go through withdrawal, moving her into his home and watching over her like a hawk in his own form of rehab. He even shot up heroin in front of her a few episodes ago to hold up a mirror to her own actions when it became clear that she was using again. But it was all in vain, as he's going to find out in next week's season-two finale.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Tucker about Jay's looming reckoning after his big win, what it was like having to drop the weight in real life and more.

Watching Jay finally win his title fight felt so earned. He worked so hard for it, especially after that brutal 30-pound weight cut. Did you have to lose that weight in real life, too?

Oh, yes. Tom Hanks cannot have a successful That Thing You Do movie unless the song, "That Thing You Do," is catchy. Audiences are very smart. You can't fake losing weight. It's so much of my story this season. The last four or five episodes revolve around losing that weight and you have to see it. There's no other way to truthfully and respectfully put up a mirror to fighting without losing those pounds.

What was that like?

It was not a pleasant experience. (Laughs.) I am terribly glad it's over. Although I think my wife might be even more happy that it's over. There were a lot of reasons why I had to lose that weight, but the most important was for fighters to have that part of the fighting experience authentically portrayed. It's such an immersive experience taking on this role, like no other role I've ever played before. There's a diet, the physical aspect of it, and the character is so rich and deep that I never truly escape him. It's a 24-hour job. I'm living Jay's life.

As of right now, Jay doesn't know that Christina overdosed. So how's he feeling in the wake of his win?

It feels like I've gone through hell and back. It's unfortunate that the man who calls himself my father asked me to make this physical sacrifice rather than asking me to deal in a meaningful way with my addictions to the wounds that he's caused within the family. It was quite easy for him to ask for this health sacrifice but has been so reluctant to acknowledge his own demons and afflictions. But ultimately, this movement towards humility on my part, this physical step backwards and down in weight, has allowed me to take a very large step forward spiritually. That's been Jay's whole arc this season, learning humility. I hope that was reflected in my speech when I won.

It was, because if Jay had won that fight in season one, his speech would have been all ego and showboating. This time around it was to show his genuine gratitude for all the people who got him there. It was moving to see how far Jay has come since last season.

Exactly. I've learned so much about combat sports from this role. The most surprising thing is the genuine kindness, compassion and camaraderie that is in MMA between fighters and coaches. There is a sense where we have both sacrificed, you and I, before even walking into this holy space, this cage. When we go to battle, we are doing it in a sense of unity and communion that no one else can experience because they haven't gone through the preparation that is required to enter into this space. As soon as that cage closes, the ego has to be put aside because you're facing another human being who has gone through the same crucible you have. At this point, there's no more showboating, no more grandstanding, nothing new you can learn. You have been in the foxhole and now it's over before you even fight. And that was a surprise for me to learn. Jay has finally developed that sense of humility.

That is extremely relevant now that Jay finally got permission from Alvey to fight Ryan. Do you think pitting the two friends against each other is a good idea, or do you think it might damage their friendship?

I don't think it can hurt them in the long run. But you're never really fighting anyone else. The only game you're playing is against yourself and for yourself. That's what will allow the friendship to continue in spite of this fight.

It was heartbreaking to watch Christina use again after Jay did heroin in front of her. It seemed like he scared her enough to stop. Were you surprised that she kept using after that?

Yes, I was. But one of the most gratifying things about Jay is that he is oftentimes the mirror to so many other characters, and he oftentimes is the one holding the mirror in front of other characters. Addiction is a relentless, persistent beast that is stalking so many of the people on Kingdom, and for Christina, it was heroin.

It was also, honestly, pretty shocking how well Jay bounced back from using, since he has such an addictive personality when it comes to other drugs and vices. Were you ever nervous that Jay was going to get addicted to heroin like his mother?

Actually, I was. There's a scene coming up where I'm throwing away her heroin and I put a little bit in my mouth and my gums and I snort a little bit. But then I move on. It's this small little scene, but as an actor, I was wondering, did I like that? Will that come back to haunt me? Will that show up in future episodes? It's a little seed that makes you wonder if it will develop and grow later as the seasons go on. And during our hiatus, I talked with [series creator] Byron [Balasco], and I was like, "I think I really liked that snort of heroin." And he was like, "Oh yes, yes you did." So your fear is well earned.

How is Jay going to react to learning about Christina's OD?

It's that feeling of a ligament being torn, a muscle being overstretched. It's a feeling that something is not quite right. Maybe I should pay a little closer attention to what's happening in a situation that I thought I already had a good grip on. It's a smelling salt. Addicts know addicts, and often times we know that the only angels in our lives are the ones who close the doors on us. There's only so much salve that Jay has to offer the wounds that he has been trying to heal. This win will be bittersweet for him.

Kingdom airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on the DirecTV Audience Network.

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