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A lot of successful people are also a little crazy. Actor Jonathan Tucker epitomizes this combo as he has found crazy success by having the remarkable ability to transform his body into whatever role Hollywood throws at him. Through extensive training, Tucker, an Irish-Catholic Romanian Jew, has morphed into a lean, mean, super-shredded acting machine.
Tucker starts our conversation raving about Bulletproof Coffee—a frothy mix of coffee, grass-fed unsalted butter, and triglyceride oil—and how it has changed his life.
“I’ve learned I need it,” says Tucker. “I couldn’t have gotten through the past two years without it. It gives you so much energy to go to the gym in the morning. It gives you such a great mental clarity, and then it cuts the hunger for an extended period of time. The idea that your body needs this good, healthy fat has been a huge change for me.”
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This high-octane coffee is one of many things that Tucker says he needs to look, feel, and perform at his best. It’s all about maxing out with Tucker, who aims to push himself further into what he calls the “Red Zone,” an area of discomfort and pain—the place where most people throw in the towel.
“It sounds very meatheadish,” he admits, “but if you find the spiritual and mental ways in which to break through barriers in the gym, you can also transfer that into your life. If you approach how you lift and how you ask yourself to meet certain demands physically, it can give you a set of tools in your personal and professional life that you didn’t know existed.”
Tucker, 33, wasn’t always the poster boy for transcendental fitness but was always fairly athletic. By the third grade, he was performing in the Boston Ballet Company’s The Nutcracker, and he continued in the company for five years. He started acting in movies when he was 11 and has scored roles playing a fit dude in a handful of movies and TV shows over the years: The Black Donnellys, In the Valley of Elah, Stateside. Tucker’s big break came in 1996 when he played young Tommy in Sleepers, a well-reviewed crime drama with an A-list cast that included Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Brad Pitt.
When he was 19, Tucker left his credit card in an L.A. nightclub and retrieved it the next day from a bouncer/ part-time personal trainer named Ryan Farhoudi. They started hitting the gym together and have remained friends since. Farhoudi, who now trains Tucker’s wife, as well as actors like Matt Bomer, Kate Mara, and Dev Patel, helped Tucker stay in decent shape for years but doesn’t train him much anymore. “He’s done his 10,000 hours,” says Farhoudi of Tucker.
Two years ago Tucker auditioned for Kingdom—which is sort of like The Waltons meet The Sopranos—and that’s when everything changed. He slapped on some faux tattoos and a tank top and read for the role of Jay Kulina, the reckless, big-hearted older son of a fictional MMA legend and gym owner named Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo). Tucker nailed it.
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“We knew it was going to be a difficult show to cast for a couple of reasons,” says the show’s creator, Byron Balasco. “One, we’re depicting MMA fighters, but it couldn’t just be guys with muscles. There had to be an athleticism to the actors. Two, it’s a character drama, so we needed an actor to handle the emotional stuff. Tucker came in and was unbelievable. There was really no second choice. Jay has this wild side, but there’s also an extreme vulnerability there. Tucker has that. He can convey a depth of emotion, and there’s an inherent goodness to him.”
After booking the part, Tucker spent two months transforming his body. He knew his training and diet had to be spot on to achieve the look he desired in such a short period.
“I wanted big arms because people really notice them, and it says a lot about somebody who’s capable of defeating another human being in a cage. I wanted [abs] to show that this guy knew how to diet. I wanted you to see enough leg definition where it looked like he jumped rope and kickboxed.”
There were also things he trained to avoid. “I didn’t want a big back,” Tucker adds. “I didn’t want big shoulders or traps. The first season, I modeled the character after a fighter named Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall. The second season, I modeled him after Conor McGregor.”
Kingdom strives for authenticity, right down to the characters’ cauliflower ears. So before they started shooting, Tucker and his co-stars (including Nick Jonas and Matt Lauria) underwent a grueling month long training camp at MMA fighter Joe Daddy Stevenson’s gym. They also worked with renowned MMA coach Greg Jackson, trainer of UFC stars Jon Jones and Holly Holm. (Both Stevenson and Jackson still consult on the show.)
In addition to his MMA crash course, Tucker was jumping rope and going on five-mile runs for cardio. He was also doing semi-hot yoga, an activity he credits with dramatically improving his leg strength. He regularly worked out at Easton Gym, the oldest gym in Hollywood. Although he’s not a big guy—5’10” and 170 pounds on a good day—Tucker can still deadlift 405 pounds, leg press 1,000 pounds, and bench press with 100-pound dumbbells. During these workouts, Tucker often performs extremely slow reps to maximize the time under tension and encourage muscle growth. “He has real goofball strength,” notes Farhoudi.
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Then there’s his diet. Tucker’s daily noshes consist of about six to eight small, clean meals. He’ll eat cottage cheese with a little bit of low-sugar jelly or consume nuts and frozen blueberries. He’ll drink goat’s milk and matcha green tea powder. To curb the urge to cheat, he often attempts to fool his mind into thinking he’s eating something tastier than what’s on his plate. Instead of tortilla chips, he’ll have Mary’s Gone Crackers. Instead of regular pasta, he’ll eat brown-rice pasta, quinoa pasta, or spaghetti squash with marinara sauce. “You’ve got to find the stuff that tricks your body and mind into thinking it’s good enough,” says Tucker. “It’s not going to be the same, but [it can be] good enough.”
Between his physical appearance and his full-throttle portrayal of Jay—who makes his intro to Kingdom viewers in nothing but a Native American headdress and sunglasses, and is the lovable misfit type who instructs callers via his voice-mail greeting to “please fuck off after the beep”—Tucker earned rave reviews from critics. Playboy called his physical conversion scary and “Christian Bale-esque,” referring to Bale’s jaw-drop- ping transition into an emaciated insomniac for 2004’s The Machinist. The Boston Herald said he was “wonderfully manic.” And Entertainment Weekly gushed, “Honestly, it’s hard to find words to describe the way [Tucker] fully embraces this character. Every mannerism, every look means something, making it impossible to look away.”
For Season 2 of Kingdom, which begins its second half June 1, on DirecTV’s Audience Network, Tucker took his commitment to the role a step further. In the show, Kulina has to drop down a weight class for a title fight. So Tucker proceeded to shed more than 30 pounds in a matter of weeks, going from 170 pounds to the high 130s, reducing his body fat to around 3%. He described this process as“very, very hard. Because you’re so hungry.”
Balasco calls this metamorphosis as above and beyond what was necessary. Farhoudi bluntly calls it damn impressive. “He’d be at the gym and say, ‘Dude, I’m so tired,’ ” recalls Farhoudi. “Then I’d watch him crush a workout. Then the next morning he’d be up at 6:30 for a run. He exhibits more discipline than just about anyone I know. When he gets into that Red Zone, he feels compelled to go even harder. Some people run away from the fire. Tuck runs into it.”
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But Tucker wasn’t running into the fire alone. Around this time, he started seeing sports psychologist Roger Kirtz, who has worked with many pro athletes, including NBA All-Star Paul George and two-time Olympic volleyball silver medalist Logan Tom. Tucker says Kirtz has helped him as an actor and a gym goer. “I’ve seen it empirically, analytically change my workout,” he says. “You look at those old videos of Arnold. You talk to any of the fitness celebrities out there. They’ll all tell you, ‘You have to have your head in the game and prepare your mind for what’s about to happen.’ It’s about this idea of getting your mind ready to get ready. Nothing about the pre-workout should be a surprise. You need to prepare yourself to go to the gym.”
Through it all, Tucker’s objective hasn’t changed: strive to improve, see how good you can be, dive in head-first, and go the distance. Even with acting, he still takes classes. He uses the Alexander Technique, which involves incorporating animal movements into characters. Jay Kulina, if you’re wondering, is a hyena, which explains Tucker’s hyenalike hair in Season 2.
All the discipline and dedication and work make life more satisfying for Tucker. “Life can be more fun when you focus and when you’re the best version of yourself. You give the most and you ask the most. And you do things in a concerted way and set goals and know what your failure is, and you know who you are and what you’re capable of. That’s a more exciting way to live your life.”
If you want the body of a pro MMA fighter, you have to be willing to beat your muscles up a bit. Use a slow tempo with particular focus on the negatives of each rep and go heavy on the dumbbell bench press.