DirecTV’s drama series KINGDOM is one of the most intense and frankly scary to watch shows on television – not because it is all blood, guts and gore aimed to scare viewers, but because it makes you feel the anxiety and tension of those people who choose to enter into the high-stakes world of mixed martial arts (MMA). By focusing its lens on characters who are so driven and tormented by both their personal lives and their desire to win, it adds a layer of intensity to the entire show. So you would think stepping back from it even just slightly would offer some breathing room. Yet when even characters from outside the MMA world are introduced, like Laura Melvin (), that intensity is still very present, making each scene still feel combustible. Coming fresh off her former series COMPLICATIONS on USA Network, Jessica is a natural fit into KINGDOM. She radiates an energy that draws you in. It is easy to see why Jay (Jonathan Tucker) is also captivated by her.
In an exclusive interview, star Jessica Szohr talked about her attraction to the MMA world, the show and this murky new character tossed into the ring, so to speak, with the rest of the KINGDOM characters.
What attracted you to KINGDOM and the role of Laura Melvin?
JESSICA: I had heard about the show, but hadn’t seen it. So I watched the first season and then I was like, “Oh my god, I need to be a part of this show!” It is just super raw and real — and the cast is phenomenal. I have actually liked MMA and knew a little bit about the fighting world, but I had never been on a show like that. So it took me into this world that I knew a little bit about and was already super attracted to it. Laura is this character in this art world and she is a photographer, but there is something about her, like there is something sneaky going on and you wonder what she is hiding. She is super enamored with Jonathan Tucker’s character Jay and kind of flips his world upside-down. Their relationship is interesting because there is stuff that comes from their backstory that obviously attracts them to each other, but you are still trying to figure them both out about what it is. Working with Jonathan was incredible. He is so spontaneous and so in the moment, more than any other actor I have ever worked with. That was super challenging and a great learning experience too and just super fun. It was one of the coolest experiences I have had as an actor — to work with that much spontaneity.
Was it because your character had a secret that she was hiding that you initially thought, “I can play with that!” or was that like a bonus once you got the role?
JESSICA: That is what is interesting about TV — a lot of times you don’t know until a couple episodes down what is going to come out. So I always try to create a backstory that gives me something to play off of and dig into, and sometimes my instincts are right and sometimes they are not. It is not like a movie where you get a script and you know from start to finish what is going on. You are kind of learning about your character as you are playing her. It’s scary and fun. I knew there had to be something because of the house that they had given her and the world that she was in. It was kind of like, “How does she live here and have all this, when she is just a photographer?” Like, “Is she really making that much money?” So you knew that there was something kind of shady. So it was definitely fun to play with. But I was also like, “What is it?! What is she hiding? And who is paying for this?” It was fun to play with and I made up my own story. It’s the way I work as an actor to have some place to come from. TV is funny that way because all a sudden you will discover a couple of weeks later and you’ll be like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that about her.” So it’s interesting.
If you could pick out one quality, what would you say you most admire about Laura?
JESSICA: I like that she goes after what she wants. Coming from a broken upbringing, she is very strong and a survivor — and I like that. I also like the vulnerable side that Jay brings out of her. For me, as a fan of the show, it would be cool to see where their relationship could go in the long-run. I like what she brings out of him. Laura learns so much about his relationship with his parents and why he is a fighter and why he chooses that job.
You described working with Jonathan Tucker as being spontaneous. Can you describe some of the spontaneity that you enjoyed working with him on the show?
JESSICA: He’s super nice and takes himself very seriously. He gets up super early and works out – and he looks like he has a fighter’s body – and he’s very spontaneous. Each take is different. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s very organic and it came from a place that was very raw and real. That’s not to say that other actors that I worked with were not organic, but Jonathan kept me on my toes in scenes. I didn’t know what I was going to get: was he going to cry or was he going to scream? And that is super fun to play with all around. It just adds more depth to it and that was super fun. I learned a lot working with him — just not knowing what you are going to get. It’s scary, but it’s life. Like in life, when we are put in situations, you don’t know how you are going to handle a break-up or after getting a promotion at your job. So you can’t plan out how you are going to react to that. So when you’re working with an actor in scenes and each time it is different, it’s awesome. It was super fun. It was fun because they would say, “Action” and I’d be like, “Here we go — another roller coaster ride. What are we going to do?” So it was super scary and fun because he was so good at it. It just brought a lot of color and flavor to each take and scene. It was awesome.
Maybe you can talk a bit about the MMA (mixed martial arts) aspect of the show? It is obviously a large part of it. What do you think you learned about working on a show about MMA?
JESSICA: The time that these fighters spend in the gym, physically and mentally, and learning the techniques of other fighters is just crazy. Each move is way more than you think. Even on KINGDOM, what they do as actors is get up a couple hours early before a 15-hour day of filming to make sure that their bodies look just like these fighters is incredible. I don’t know other shows where the entire cast is waking up and doing that. It’s really awesome.
It kind of blurs the lines a bit between acting and actually doing something like that, doesn’t it?
JESSICA: Yeah. But it’s awesome. It’s like this world in KINGDOM, everything that they are going through in their personal lives and to pick that kind of job to get in a cage and want to beat the shit out of someone to make a living, is a really crazy thing to wrap your head around. Like, getting in there and wanting to physically hurt someone and be willing to get physically hurt is a pretty gnarly profession. There’s something a little off in that. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I can’t really wrap my head around that they want to do it. There is an art to it, but it’s a crazy world.
Sounds like you were a bit awestruck by the fact that people are willing to do that stuff.
JESSICA: [Laughs] Yeah. Like when you stub your toe or something and it hurts — and this stuff is like a thousand times worse than that — and they are choosing that. But there is technique and there is a real art to it.
It seems like some might be revelry-ing in the art of pain to a certain degree or that one of the achievements that they are either trying to conquering the pain or maximize it in some way to accomplish something.
JESSICA: For sure, I think, individually for each fighter. It is different for each person as to why they are doing it or what they want from it. When I would watch matches, I noticed that some people are better on the ground and some people are better when they are boxing and some people are better at kicks. It’s also interesting to watch the different techniques and how they learn different ways to take-out other fighters. There’s a whole crazy thing to it. It’s very interesting to me. Originally, I was thinking about going for the role that Natalie Martinez is doing, which is interesting because she is like a fighter and it would have been super crazy for me to train and do that. And she killed it on the show. She is phenomenal. Again, she is really good with boxing and doing all that. But it is crazy to watch everyone from different sizes, male and female, and with different styles — to watch it, it is pretty amazing to me.
It was startling to see Natalie go from her role on SECRETS AND LIES to KINGDOM as the roles are so different, but that is what you, as actors, do — you work as chameleons and just slip into these roles.
JESSICA: Yeah, and coming from COMPLICATIONS, where I was dealing with the gang world and trying to make people better and bring them back to life and make sure they are healthy, then I go to another show that is about people getting in cages and hurting people. It could not be a more different world and the opposite of each other. But that is what is really great about our job — to do that and get to learn about another part of ourselves and another world that we didn’t know about. That is why I feel like I am very blessed to do what I do.
Are there other characters that you would like to interact with more on the show or would have like to have worked more with on the show?
JESSICA: I had so much fun working with Jonathan, but I feel like Jay’s relationship with Alvey (Frank Grillo) and Nate (Nick Jonas) are super fun, and I really like the scenes I had with Kiele [Sanchez]. So I don’t know. They are all fun and super sweet and they bring so much a different dynamic to the show, each of them in their own way. I have fun working with all of them. I feel like KINGDOM is one of those shows where it doesn’t matter what storyline is going on, when you’re watching it, you’re into each character and story. Everyone did such a good job that you feel for each character and it keeps you so involved. I haven’t found myself watching a show where you have felt like that in a really long time.
What would you like to tease about the storyline for Laura coming up?
JESSICA: I think this next episode you find out about the secret stuff that you’re wondering about for Laura and it is very interesting how Jay handles it and what he does. You find out some of her secrets and I don’t think Jay is too happy about it.
Are you working on anything else that you can share?
JESSICA: [Laughs] I’m not at the moment. I’m getting ready to travel for the holidays for a little bit. Then after the holidays, I am going to head to London and do a romantic comedy over there.
To see just what big secret Laura is hiding and how it will rock Jay’s world, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of KINGDOM on Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. on DirecTV.