“Kingdom” is a new original series coming to DirecTV’s Audience Channel beginning in October. It’s a family drama set against the backdrop of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting, set at a gym in Venice, Calif.
At the 2014 TCA press tour panel, star Matt Lauria, who plays former MMA fighter Ryan Wheeler trying to get back into fighting after a stint in prison, tells the audience that while on “Friday Night Lights” they used a lot of “exceptional real football players” as doubles to make the actors “look amazing,” on “Kingdom,” they don’t exactly have that luxury all the time.
“We’re working our a**es off. … You’ve gotta make it look authentic,” says Lauria. Creator Byron Balasco adds, “That was the challenge of casting this show — finding phenomenal actors who could also carry the physicality. It’s not ‘Friday Night Lights’ with pads and helmets. These guys wear shorts and little gloves,” meaning that it’s harder to use doubles because there aren’t a lot of ways to hide that it’s not your actors.
Balasco continues, “We put all of these guys through a pretty intensive camp that was designed and organized by Greg Jackson, who is one of the top MMA trainers in the world. … Greg has been a really valuable consultant with training these guys and giving them top-level professional training to get them ready for this.”
But “Kingdom” isn’t a show only about MMA fighting. In fact, Balasco says that the fighting world is just the gritty setting, but at its core, the show is drama about these complex characters.
“It’s not a fight per episode, the fights are really there to serve character and drive the story we’re telling,” says Balasco. “We make sure that all of ours tell an emotional story and have an emotional context for our characters. It’s about the drama and not about the fight every week and we made a conscious decision to do that.”
The emotional drama is what drew the actors to the project. Nick Jonas, who plays younger son Nate of gym owner Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo), says that “we’re dealing with real-life people and real-life stories in this world we’ve created.”
And Lauria adds that this is the most demanding role he’s ever undertaken. “As an actor, to have a character that’s so complex — and really all the characters are psychologically very complex — and when it’s set against this backdrop that has an implicit energy and built-in fight to it, I think makes for compelling and challenging storytelling. That was the underlying thing for me. … I’ve never been stretched so much as an artist ever. It’s a small cast, as you can see. The responsibility is heavy on each character. It’s just requiring more of me than anything I’ve ever done, physically and emotionally.”
The male MMA fighters aren’t the only complex characters, however. The female characters are struggling with their own set of problems, plus there are female MMA fighters, which the show doesn’t get into too much in the first season, but it’s definitely a part of that world.
Joanna Going, who plays the mother to Jonas’ Nate and Jonathan Tucker’s Jay Kulina, says that while her character has a lot of problems, she also sees a lot of strength in Christina, who works as a prostitute and has a complicated relationship with her sons.
“Hopefully we’ll show why and how Christina ended up on the street doing what she does,” says Going. “Even though she’s in a certain situation, I feel very empowered because she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She’s just being where she is and doing what she has to do, whether it’s taking care of herself and addiction or taking care of herself with how she relates to her family. It’s a fractured family. She’s a mother, but she’s not a very good mother.”
“The female characters are no more victims and damaged than all the male characters,” adds Lauria. “I think every one of the characters has huge obstacles to overcome. These obstacles are things that repeatedly knock them down. It’s also worth noting that the world of MMA is also divided between men and women … we have some really talented female fighters on the show. We’re so privileged to have background actors who are real fighters, and there are women I would never disrespect because they would whoop my a**.”
“Kingdom” premieres Wednesday, Oct. 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.