‘Kingdom’ star Jonathan Tucker on weight loss, ‘Justified’ & defending Bob Little

Actors tend to be in good shape to begin with. Actors who play athletes tend to keep themselves in better shape. If you play an MMA fighter on “Kingdom,” at times you may have to be in absurd shape, as you can see in this photo of Jonathan Tucker, right after he dropped 30 pounds in only a few weeks as part of a storyline where his character, family black sheep Jay Kulina, has to do the same:


He took off the first 20 through extreme diet and exercise, the last 10 over a period of six days by “manipulating my water intake and engaging in a number of other physically and mentally taxing maneuvers,” he tells me.

“There’s just no way to support five episodes of weight-cutting storylines without going the distance,” he says. “Channing Tatum has to be a great dancer in ‘Magic Mike.’ Sam Rockwell has to lasso in ‘Fool for Love.’ Tom Hanks needs ‘That Thing You Do’ to be a genuinely catchy tune.”

He put nearly 20 of those pounds back on the day after he finished filming the necessary scene, but that level of commitment doesn’t seem unusual for Tucker, who’s been performing professionally in one form or another (including a stint as a young ballet dancer) since he was a kid, and who’s in the midst of a remarkable one-two punch of roles in the last year.

“Kingdom” debuted last fall (season 2 premieres tonight at 9 on DirecTV’s Audience Network), and while it features a number of interesting performances from co-stars like Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria, Tucker was the instant stand-out as Jay, who’s simultaneously the family screw-up and probably its most gifted fighter. Then he turned up for a five-episode stint at the very end of “Justified” as Boon, the hipster gunslinger from Colorado who was desperate to prove himself quicker on the draw than Raylan Givens. Despite turning up at the tail end of a beloved show already bursting with colorful characters, Tucker’s Boon made an immediate and powerful impression.

At press tour – when he was only 20 pounds into the 30-pound cut – we sat down to talk about those recent roles, why the busy actor’s never wound up in the cast of a network procedural (spoiler: he did, but got fired quickly), and how he would defend his recurring “Parenthood” role as allegedly villainous Berkeley mayor Bob Little.

When is the last time you had a carb?

Jonathan Tucker: Literally I have not had a single carbohydrate today. So it would be last night.

Okay. But you do consume carbohydrates?

Jonathan Tucker: I do. I’m under 50 a day right now. Right now, I’m doing this cut, so it’s a caloric thing. So this morning I thought, to power me through, I would do a half of a Bulletproof coffee, which is a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of Ghee, which is like an Indian clarified butter, grass fed, and a tablespoon of NCT oil or multi-chain triglyceride, which I blend. So it’s basically a fat butter coffee. And that’s what’s going to take me into lunch.

Is this the most physically demanding role you’ve had?

Jonathan Tucker: Without a question, it really is. When we wrap, I go home, take a breath, kiss my wife, rub my dog’s belly for four minutes and put my finger in his mouth so that we can really share a bit of bonding, and then I drink a big cup of coffee and I go to the gym for 90 minutes. And I’m not happy to be there. It’s not cathartic. It’s not fun. People want to socialize because it’s a gym I’ve been to for a long time, and I can’t really do that. I’m there to work. And you get injured. I had a lot of injuries last year. I’ve had a few this year. But then there’s just injuries that don’t go away unless you stop working out. I’ve got this nasty tendinitis now and I have to keep going to the gym. I just need to find the right exercises to be able to continue going without hurting myself. But I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old and I am able to see what that undulating wave looks like. And this is the best opportunity I think I’ve ever been given. It’s some of the best writing I’ve ever come across. DirecTV and Endemol are leading in so many respects, but particularly their leadership is expressed in the fact that they just give ultimate latitude to us to tell the story. Their confidence is reflected in that, so I can never, ever, not one single moment on this show, complain. I get to be in LA. I get to be at my house. I get to have a family. That’s a gift.

When you took on the job, obviously getting in this kind of shape was part of it, but beyond that, you’ve really transformed your look for this. How much input did you have into the hair and the tats and everything else?

Jonathan Tucker: A hundred percent. Every single, thing I got complete and utter green light from start to finish, and of storyline too. (“Kingdom” creator) Byron (Belasco) is very interested to know where we (are), because we become experts and defenders of our characters. I think that’s also (true) in terms of guest star work for me and other work – you’re being paid to protect your character. And everybody wants to chop away at it from time to time. There’s some people who really want to help you, but a lot of times, you’ve got a day to make, and asking for a certain prop or trying to get a certain hair thing or needing an extra hour for this or an extra week before you shoot for prep, those things cost time and money and they’re always looking to take those away from you. But you ultimately have got to be the person to say hold on a second. There’s this chapter in “Kitchen Confidential” about why Mexicans cook risotto. And he’s like, “I never want an Italian to make risotto, because if I tell them on Saturday night at 8 p.m., I need this risotto right fucking now, the Italians are going to turn around and give it to me. The Mexican guy I hire I told them it takes 15 minutes to make risotto and they’re going to turn around quietly and politely continue to make that risotto for another 15 minutes. I rely on them to make that risotto, because in the heat of the moment I’m trying to cut every corner I can.” It’s this great chapter. And I feel that way sometimes. In my work, it’s critical for me to defend these characters and to make the right choices and I want to collaborate. I am willing to collaborate and I love collaborating and these have been wonderful collaborators, but they’ve given me the opportunity to really flesh out this character and it’s been a very, very gratifying experience.

So where did the hair and the mustache and everything else come from?

Jonathan Tucker: A lot of UFC stuff and gym stuff. Just the time that we get to spend in the fighting gyms. My wife was in a wedding in Hawaii, and I went primarily because I got the opportunity to go fight with some guys in Hawaii. So that was set up by Joe Stevenson and Ray Jackson and I got there and I learned stuff. They kept saying, “Sex, weights and protein shakes.” That’s their, so there’s an episode where Nate comes into this pool party and he looks at me, and I’m getting frisky with a young woman, and I’m like, “Sex, weights and protein shakes!” And it comes out of the writing, but it’s new dialogue. It’s true to the character, it’s true to the scene and I could pick it up from real life. And you find that on Instagram, on Twitter, you follow these fighters, you watch the fights, you watch the weigh-ins, and they’re really extraordinary opportunities to see people’s personality come through. You watch as much of that UFC and MMA television, and you go to the gyms, and you pick out little details.

I did this “Justified” bit, and I went to a yoga retreat and this guy had all these rings on his fingers. (He holds up his fingers like Boon showing off all his rings.) And I was like, “I’m going to steal that somewhere.” So that’s the great thing about being an actor and a writer too: you’re always observing and you always can tuck away certain little notes or lines or phrases or whatever you can incorporate into your work. And in that way I feel like we’re very similar.

You mentioned Boon. You came in with four or five episodes to go in the whole series, and you got to create this indelible character. The week leading up to the finale, everyone’s asking each other, “What do you want to see?” And the answer always seemed to be, “I don’t know about anything else, I just want to see Raylan shoot that guy.”

Jonathan Tucker: I know. They were so cool. I wish I could save all these text messages between me and some of the writers from “Justified,” when we first started out with these questions. Because I like to do a lot of dream work, and writers and television in particular are so hands-on, because they’re so integral to the telling of the story from start to finish. Which is why working in television, particularly now with the material that’s getting produced, is so exciting as an actor, as a viewer, as anybody participating. It’s so writer-driven, so story driven. But you can ask these writers questions: “What is Jay’s nourishment?” “How is Boon’s loneliness similar to my own?” And you go to bed and you write this thing – it’s like a very hippie hipster thing back from Boston – and you put it by the bed, and you wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning or whatever, you get these incredible things. They’re so helpful. So you ask these writers on “Justified” certain questions about loneliness and family and attraction and heroes and all those sort of things, and you start to build in these things and it becomes so fun. It’s just become so fun because your whole life then becomes it. This show is as exciting as it is for lots of reasons, but one of them is that it’s a full-time commitment. Well, “Justified” is a full-time commitment, because you’re always thinking about this.

I did some animal work for that, where you’re playing with these ideas of certain animals and the way they move, (Tucker starts pacing around, and his posture changes rapidly as he cycles through different animals, each of them looking in some way like how Boon moved) and the way their hands go or the elongation and the shoulders back and the long neck and the movement of this. It all starts to come together and then it just becomes like really fun. It’s not a job as much, it just becomes a really fun experience to go through.

You’had this phase of your career where you were playing more clean-cut, normal guys like Bob Little. And now between “Hannibal,” this, and “Justified,” you’ve done a bunch of off-kilter personalities in a row. Was that by design?

Jonathan Tucker: I don’t want to say what it is, but I got fired from this show. It was a procedural and, and look, I need to make a living. So I was like, “Send me the script, and if it’s something I can really do then I have to do it.” I went there and I had all these choices and I thought it went pretty well, they didn’t and it became for me like a line in the sand, which was, “I need to create real characters.” People are real, and everybody’s exciting to watch when they are true to themselves. The actors that I most admire, and the ones who end up working, are the ones who come to a point in their career and their life where they intertwine where they are fully comfortable and honest with all of the details and nuances of their sense of truth.

This is a good role for you, but eventually, jobs end. Are you getting a sense from your representatives that what you’ve been doing here, and in the other recent stuff like “Justified,” has made maybe changed the perception of you in town for when the next job comes along?

Jonathan Tucker: Yeah, I think you’re only as good as the last job you do, and you have to keep taking risks. I want to go do theater. I’d like to go do that. I just want to consistently be challenging and challenge myself and I have to be comfortable with the fact that that might not work out like for the audience. That I might do a “Hannibal” thing, and it just doesn’t work, and Alan Sepinwall is sitting there going, “Mmm.” I have to be okay with that, otherwise I can’t take those leaps. Like a diver in the Olympics, they’re going to go for that really great big tumble or whatever that is in their world, you have to be comfortable with the fact that there’s going to be a time when they jump off and they go for it and they belly flop. I guess I’m okay with that. I just want to continue to take big risky choices.

Byron has talked about how you guys have become better fighters this year than last. You’re an actor, but you’ve been training like an MMA guy. If they put you in the ring with an actual fighter, how do you think you would do?

Jonathan Tucker: I have no interest in finding out. I hate being injured so much. I hate like craning my neck here and it hurting when I’m driving a car, or my finger is not working. So I will train in this role for the rest of my life, and when I have kids, I’m excited to get them involved in certain aspects of this sport and this training. I have no interest in them or in me ever getting into a combative situation. I like working the mitts, I like working the bags, but I don’t want to get injured, dude. I’ve got nothing to prove.

Finally, Bob Little starts off with a relatively good look…

Jonathan Tucker: And he ended as a sympathetic character…

…but in between he was treated as like the worst human being alive. So please, defend Bob Little.

Jonathan Tucker: He was 26 years old. (Amber) was 19 or 20. She’s an amazing person. She came from a great pedigree and a great recommendation from a family and a woman that I totally admire. And I don’t see why it would be so crazy for him to have some sort of a relationship with her. History is replete with examples of successful marriages that came out of exactly those circumstances. And just because (Kristina) had breast cancer doesn’t mean that he can’t run a campaign against her. In the final episode of the show, I did shoot a scene at the high school graduation where I came in gave the commencement address, and at the end I went to Kristina’s family and I said, “Hey, I pushed the school through.” And they cut the scene, dude. Not because of character stuff, because they truly didn’t have time for it in the show.

No. I think it’s just because they ultimately hated Bob Little.

Jonathan Tucker: It was really too bad, because I thought Bob was a real good dude who had a lot of exciting opportunities to provide the good people of Berkeley, California. I had such a good time there, man.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com