Matt Lauria knows how to play rough. Despite being one of the nicer people in Hollywood, the actor has a history of portraying dark characters haunted by their pasts. On DIRECTV’s new drama Kingdom, Lauria plays MMA fighter Ryan Wheeler, whose personal mantra “Destroyer” (tattooed in large letters across his chest) represents his approach to his life both in and out of the cage.
Those familiar with his work on Jason Katims series Friday Night Lights and Parenthood will see shades of his Parenthood character Ryan York, only this time the stakes are much higher. After serving four years in prison, Wheeler is trying to rebuild his life with very few people who will go to bat for him — save for his former mentor who is now dating his ex-fiance. This may sound like the same soapy love triangle synopsis of many a modern drama, but DIRECTV’s latest endeavor focuses on much more than scorned lovers. Lauria brings grit and vulnerability to his character, while keeping viewers conflicted about whether or not to trust him. The primetime veteran spoke to VH1 about getting into shape for the series with co-stars Jonathan Tucker and Nick Jonas (you’ve seen the selfies) and making music with the former Disney star. He swears he would never spar with his on-screen family, but if things had to come to blows he’s confident about who would emerge victorious. The true mark of a fighter.
VH1: Congratulations on the show getting picked up for 20 more episodes, that’s great.
Matt Lauria: Thank you so much. We can’t believe it, we’re very excited.
Is that a release for you all? Like, OK, we have the proper amount of time to tell this story fully, and we don’t have to worry about getting cut short?
I know that it’s encouraging. I’m enthused about being able to spend more time with this character and learning more and more about him and more about how the other characters evolve as [creator] Byron [Bolasco] continues to paint this newly expanded portrait of my guy. It’s a big bout of trust from the powers that be that you’re seldom granted. And what it translates mostly to me as is two things: One, getting to spend more time with some collaborators who I’ve grown to really adore and be inspired by and two, it gives a little sort of confidence. As an actor, we don’t have to worry about as many of the business aspects of the show’s success and we can focus wholeheartedly on the creative side of it and not worry about the rest. And that, to me, always gives an opportunity to release more into the character, to work with more confidence, to take more risks. It makes for a creative setting.
How much did you know about MMA fighting when you first heard about the project?
Not very much. I knew it was a sport. I had a kind of a judgment on the type of people who would participate in such a sport…sort of these barbaric individuals. Occasionally something would catch my eye on YouTube and then I’d spiral down that rabbit hole of one highlight reel after another. One of the great, truly extraordinary privileges of being an actor is to interact with individuals from all walks of life, you know, from avocations that you wouldn’t ordinarily interact with or people you wouldn’t ordinarily interact with. So I’d come to lay those judgments aside and I’ve met some really remarkable people. I don’t know if I would personally want to step in the cage and either have my face caved in or cave in somebody else’s, but I’ve met some really beautiful and sensitive and morally pretty stout individuals who happen to be fighters. It’s really awesome.
So did you train with fighters before shooting began to learn more about what it’s like to be in the cage?
Joe Daddy Stevenson is kind of an MMA icon and upon the request of maybe the greatest MMA coach in the world, Greg Jackson, he took us in and put [Jonathan] Tucker and [Nick] Jonas and myself through a two-week training intensive [program]. It was every day, all-day and we just crammed as much as we possibly could into it in that time. Fighters do this every day for several years, so there’s just so much information and technique and muscle memory and endurance. So we were getting a crash course. But we learned a lot of the techniques and it’s about familiarizing yourself with it, but the most valuable part of it was spending long hours in a gym with fighters and seeing how they interact with one another. Stopping and having a lunch break with them, to fully immerse ourselves in their world was a real gift.
Was it intimidating to step into the role of Ryan, who not only has this huge physical talent but also comes with a lot of emotional baggage?
The world that Byron was creating, I knew that it was going to be gritty. I knew that he wasn’t going to pull any punches, pardon the pun. And so, when you see a certain edgy or dark quality in a script, you can generally bet that it’s not going to stop there. If you have a character who’s in a TV series where you don’t know what’s coming, in future scripts you can pretty much count on if there’s a really wholesome character, or an earnest character, you can count on them taking a nosedive at some point. And then if you have a dark character from the get-go, you’re never really sure just how dark they’re going to get. So it was intimidating in all the right ways. The quality of the writing is always paramount, I think. And even from the very first episode you can see how intensely psychological these characters are, and so that was very, very attractive. Here’s the thing: If you’re taking roles that aren’t intimidating you, and I think this is a cliché that a lot of actors say, but if it’s not intimidating you, then why are you doing it?
Ryan has a lot of very noticeable tattoos, probably the biggest one being “Destroyer” on his chest. If you were to emulate those tattoos and get one word on your chest, what would it be?
[Laughs.] Let me see. The “Destroyer” thing to me was always less of my fighting name. To me it was more a taunting or a sort of welcoming of opposition. If you’re in the MMA world and you have the balls to get “Destroyer” tattooed across your chest, you’re kind of asking for people to want to hurt you. And that’s what I think is so interesting about Ryan. He’s this guy who’s so humbled in the first couple of episodes, but you know that deep down inside there’s a guy who was like, “Bring it. I want you to try because that’s how confident I am in my ability.” That’s a lot of swagger. And so that’s what always appealed to me. Let me see… the first thing that came to mind was “Cuddles,” but I don’t think that that’s really good. [Laughs.] I think that my tattoo would probably say something like “Encourager”? Like, if it was like the Matt Lauria one that sort of encapsulates me it would be something like “Encourager” or “Let’s all do our best and be friends.”
That’s great. We need more tattoos like that.
And after going through that training, who do you think would win in a fight? You, Nick, or Jonathan?
I would never fight them because I love them so much. But there is absolutely no doubt that I would completely and utterly dominate, probably both of them simultaneously.
What is it like to work with Nick Jonas? It’s kind of probably the most mature role we’ve seen him in. Did you have any preconceived notions about him?
I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that he was part of the Jonas Brothers, but all I had heard from the very beginning was that he came in and just crushed the audition.That was encouraging and we jokingly, somewhere along the line, gave him the nickname Boy King because he’s so remarkably well situated. He’s so mature and professional and experienced. I mean, the kid has lived three lifetimes already. At the time he was 21, and we were just blown away by how much of a man-child he was. And I wouldn’t even say child, he was just a man. He’s really, really committed and he works his ass off. And it’s funny, he came in outweighing me by, I don’t know, 20 pounds of muscle. He was just huge. And he’s actually really good at the grappling stuff. All joking aside, he would be a tough match for sure.
Have you guys ever played music together?
No. He overheard me singing in my trailer and he’s like, “What are you singing in there?” And I was like, “Oh shit.” And he’s like, “Not bad man, you know, not bad.” [Laughs.]