Jonathan Tucker is one of the purest actors you’ll ever watch. There’s no bullshit. It’s all raw and real. He fell in love with the process of acting at a young age and has been chasing the high of delving into characters ever since. Through the years, Tucker has played an exciting array of men on screen. Currently, he’s in the role he’s deemed his most meaningful yet: Jay on DirecTV’s Kingdom. Tucker has thrown himself completely into the life of Jay—training as a boxer is just the beginning. In this interview, Tucker explains the discipline required to give a knockout performance every single take.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
JT: I’m from Boston and we had a small, little summer house in Saratoga Springs New York. There’s a local bakery company up there called Freihofer’s. They covered the cost for senior citizens and everyone under the age of 12 to see the New York City ballet and Philadelphia Philharmonic. I fell in love with ballet. When I went back home to Boston for the fall, I told my parents that I wanted to do ballet—real ballet. That got me up on stage. The transition was from there to doing national commercials and then a film in New Mexico. We were actually there for my father’s sabbatical. He’s a professor of art history…During the film, I fell in love with the process. It felt very natural and organic, which it was.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in acting?
I really fell for the process. It was really the putting together of the story. The team effort that was required [to make a film], got me excited. As I began to “work the process,” so to speak, I really started to understand the craft. There have always been role models for me both personally and professionally. But what really inspired me were the process and the craft of storytelling.
Did you do any training to help you learn the process?
Now I do more than I ever have. I have a number of different kinds of coaches. Some are specifically for bodywork and Alexander technique, somebody just for voice, accents and breathing, somebody is just a key to your subconscious—therapy sort of work—then somebody who does more theatrical scene study. I see a sports physiatrist: performing on demand, how to be in midseason form versus preseason. The more I’m able to work as a paid actor, the more I feel like I need to work as a craftsman. So all of those people at the same time are helping in that process. On an average week I’ll see all of those people at least once.
You’ve done so much in your career so far. What role has meant the most to you?
Just by the very fact that I have been working and living in the skin of Jay for as long as I have on Kingdom, I’d say that project now has been the most meaningful. It’s a privilege—and it’s a rare privilege—to be able to work on a character and be able to live in a world for an extended period of time like this. He’s a very special person to me and I’m having a ball putting him on everyday a few months a year.
Jay is an interesting character because he’s sort of erratic but also has this pressing discipline that one needs as an athlete. Can you talk about playing that internal battle?
Yes. For a lot of fighters—certainly it’s true for Jay—there’s a sense of self-confidence they get out of training. The self-confidence they get out of training, gives them discipline. The discipline from the gym gives them more self-confidence and so on. That keeps them, for the most part, from exploring the demons—some of the very demons that drive them to the gym. Whether that’s alcohol or addiction or family issues. Jay deals with all of that. Jay does find a sense of discipline and then in turn a sense of self-confidence in the training.
There’s something that I think addicts see in fighting that parallels the more destructive issues in their lives. There’s this idea that you can’t get sober by yourself. You have to have a team. But of course it’s the loneliest road in the world. That’s the same with fighting. You can’t fight without a team. You need that team to prepare you, to set up a camp for you, to have a gym, to surround you, to have a training partner. But the minute that cage is locked and you’re in there with the other fighter, you’re the only two people in the world who know the sacrifice—the sacrifices required in order to face each other. In a way, how you face yourself.
You’re working on American Gods right now. What can you say about your character?
Brian Fuller is one of those people who is so good at his job, like Byron Balasco our showrunner on Kingdom. They both are so confident in what they do and their own talent. They are so grounded to their sense of truth, so every time they hire someone they allow them to take risks and do what they feel is right within the purview of their job. I’ve worked with Brian Fuller a number of times and we get to create a character together [on each job]. We get some bold moves. Lyesmith he’s a character who’s one of the old gods of mischief, destruction, and trickery. Our series is based on a book by Neil Gaiman called American Gods. It’s a war set today between the contemporary gods and the media and greed versus the old gods. I play one of the old gods.
Kingdom and American Gods are both very different from, for example, Parenthood. Can you talk a bit about jumping around genres and playing a variety of roles. As an actor, how do you seek out a multitude of experiences?
I’m most interested in working with people who are excited about everyone bringing something new and exciting to elevate the story. That’s that fearlessness, that courage, that I’m talking about. That’s the same thing with Parenthood: it’s about characters. It’s a character driven story. American God is going to succeed or not because of the quality of the characters: what the production designer, cinematographer, actors, writers can all bring to that world. I’m just really trying to bring to life realized, full characters who are true reflections of the people we see everyday. Because for the most part when the people we see everyday are honest with themselves, they’re pretty interesting to watch.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Acquiesce to the craft, to the process. It’s really about how hard you can work and how honest you can be with yourself. There’s a book that I read this year [that explains] what the process is. It’s called The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s from the 1970s and is kind of the bible for sports physiology. [A lot of what it talks about] is the same thing for actors, I think.
It’s interesting you were influenced by a book because acting is so visceral and trying not to intellectualize the craft.
The only way you can do that is if you’ve prepared every which way till Sunday. There’s no over preparation. You can’t prepare enough. The moment the game starts, the moment the scene starts, the moment you get to set, you’re completely free to everything that environment has to offer. From the crew to wardrobe to the people in hair and makeup, to the other actor, to the director, to the dialogue. You’re very open to the game and it’s a very liberating and free experience. When people see it, they don’t see the preparation. They see you having fun and it looks very loosey goosey. That’s a very small part of the iceberg that’s showing above the water. 98% of the iceberg is all that hard work and preparation.
So what do you do between takes on Kingdom or while on set to get in that headspace?
All that preparation is done weeks ahead of time. By the time I’m on set, I’m just malleable and fluid. In the flow, in the process, in the moment—open to any of the details as they present themselves.
What have been some of the most helpful things that you’ve learned and specific aspects of your process that you’ve picked up through the years?
You have time. It’s your time, it’s your space, it’s your character. Just be completely open to the world. If something happens, react to it. If something moves you literally, spiritually, or emotionally, it’s your responsibility to honor it. The audience will feel that it’s untrue if you ignore it. ♦
Watch Jonathan Tucker in Kingdom on DirectTV and be on the lookout for American Gods coming to Starz!