When Jonathan Tucker thinks about skipping a set during the workout regimen that carves him into Kingdom‘s Jay Kulina, a text from castmate Matt Lauria will be just the thing to taunt him into toughing out those impossible reps.
Lauria himself regrets returning from hiatus 15 pounds above his fighting weight (thanks to an off-season affinity for pad thai!), while Kiele Sanchez reported for duty in May at what was the start of her second trimester of a pregnancy.*
In other words, there’s no stopping the members of DirecTV’s dysfunctional family/MMA fighting drama, which opens Season 2 this Wednesday at 9/8c.
“The mantra this year is ‘unreasonable commitment.’ And I think that’s what it takes,” says Lauria, who plays MMA champ Ryan Wheeler. “One of the greatest treasures of this show is how demanding it is. The writing demands so much of you, because the characters are these intense psychological creatures. And the physical demands are obvious, too. So yeah, it’s a full-time job. Except for the maybe six hours that you’re sleeping or whatever!”
The series’ sophomore run finds Lauria’s character defending his title and Tucker’s Jay finding a new obsession (in Gossip Girl grad Jessica Szohr; more on her in a bit). Alvey (played by Frank Grillo) has developed a bigger appetite for risk in the wake of recent success, while his girlfriend Lisa (Sanchez) is juggling the management of Navy St. with her own new pregnancy and her shepherding of a female fighter, Alicia (Under the Dome‘s Natalie Martinez).
Elsewhere, Nate’s (Nick Jonas) determination to get back in the cage causes riffs with his family and complicates his self-identity, while the boys’ mother Christina (Joanna Going) gets a taste of the sober life, though that itself is not without its struggles.
If it sounds like enough drama to fill an MMA ring, it very much is — but this cast is as prepared to step up to that mat as they are to grapple with the physicality of it all.
“I’d say the No. 1 lesson I learned [from Season 1] was just exactly what this cast can do, which, for me, is anything. And that really opened up my ability to tell stories and explore relationships deeper,” says show boss Byron Balasco. “We don’t have to rely so much on plot and mechanisms to move the story forward. We can [do it] through the characters.”
That said, professional fighting is the gents’ bread-and-butter (and makes for visceral TV moments), so Kingdom will keep that coming as well.
“These guys were good with all the training when we started,” Balasco raves, “but over the course of having another year under their belt, they’ve even gotten that much better. So we have a few more fights this year, and we can tell better stories with our fights.
“It’s not a ‘fight-a-week’ show,” the EP makes clear. “It’s really about the characters, and each one of these fights has to tell an emotional story for these guys.”
Lisa meanwhile has a very different kind of fight on her hands, coming to terms with what her pregnancy means for her fractured relationship with Alvey.
“There was no question [about writing in Sanchez’s pregnancy*],” says Balasco. “We’re all hand-held [cameras], we’re always moving and capturing the actors as they move around, so to try to hide somebody behind a counter wouldn’t really work for us. But it also played beautifully into the storylines we wanted to tell. It was a blessing for everyone.”
Surveying her Season 2 storyline, Sanchez says, “Certainly there are a lot of cracks and a lot of difficulties between [Lisa and Alvey]. They’re two characters that love each other deeply, but, you know, Alvey is a difficult guy. And Lisa, with the pregnancy, her priorities and identity are shifting a bit. So you really start to look at the other person and try to figure out, ‘What am I doing here?'”
Things are a bit more promising on the romantic front for Jay, who finds himself rather fixated on an artist/photographer named Laura, played by Jessica Szohr.
Like Jay, “She definitely has some demons. I think she needs the validation from men,” Szohr says. “I do think she sees something in Jay and really does like him, but I think she gets scared away after she meets his mom, who let’s Laura know a few things that raise her eyebrow.”
As the troubled Kulina matriarch, Christina, Joanna Going says she braves her own kind of workout, getting into — yet staying out of — the head of the reforming drug addict.
“She has this kind of turmoil going on inside, this fight within her, as she tries to figure out who she is,” says Going. “[She wonders], Is there anything worthwhile in her life, as her identity keeps getting stripped away from her? So I find that a lot of that is rolling around in my mind throughout the day, and I miss exits as I’m driving down the highway thinking about it.”
But as her on-screen sons do with their intense physical training, when each season wraps Going does her best to decompress from the months gone by. “I am entrenched in it for, you know, 10 episodes — and then I’ll take a breath for six weeks and not think about her.”
* Sanchez suffered a late-term miscarriage two months after announcing her pregnancy.