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"I wanted to pull people into a world they don't know..." How Byron Balasco created Kingdom, your new favourite show

Kingdom is a visceral gut-punch of a drama that deserves as wide an audience as possible. Don't worry if you haven't seen it – until its move to Netflix, the show was criminally overlooked. Although Dana White is a fan, along with most of the MMA community. We spoke to series creator Byron Balasco about how he wrote the ultimate sleeper hit... 

Jonathan Tucker, Nick Jonas and Frank Grillo in Kingdom

Two men are fighting in a junkyard. To be more precise: they are fighting in a cage in a junkyard, cheered on by a boisterous crowd, the type of crowd you would expect to find at a junkyard MMA brawl. The men swing and reel and pant like overexerted walrus. Prime physical condition they are not.

The round ends. The redheaded fighter staggers back to his stool, his face a thing of blood and sweat. One of his cornermen is the teen pop sensation Nick Jonas. The other is a wide-eyed young buccaneer sporting a bandanna and a T-shirt inscribed Navy Street.

“Nice first round!” he tells his fighter. “How do you feel?”

The man barely has breath to reply. “Terrible. Fucking terrible!”

The cornerman who isn’t Nick Jonas grabs the fighter’s shoulder. “I need you to look at me, I need you to understand one thing...” He speaks with urgency, knowing the next words could be the difference between victory and defeat. “Look at me, Mac, right in the fucking eyes, right now! Pussy...hates...a loser.”

“Pussy hates a loser,” agrees Nick Jonas, squirting water in the fighter’s mouth.

“Pussy hates a loser,” repeats the young buccaneer. “What does pussy hate?”

“Pussy hates a loser,” says the fighter, exhausted yet unable to dispute this immutable truth.

The screams of the crowd indicate the start of the second road. The fighter rises. The cornermen step back, the buccaneer growing increasingly psyched up – you get the sense he would happily trade places with his charge.

“We’re fighting in the junkyard for a reason!” he hollers. “Cos you a junkyard dog!

With pandemonium all around, he sends the fighter back into the fray.

Why would these guys do something that 99% of us spend our entire lives trying to avoid?

If you’ve heard of Kingdom – and many haven’t – you’ll know it as the show about MMA. If you’ve watched Kingdom – and you really should – you’ll know it’s a show about people whose lives happen to involve MMA. And if you know nothing of Kingdom, good news: all 40 episodes are currently on Netflix.

Here’s the pitch. Our protagonists are the Kulina family: the domineering Alvey (Frank Grillo), an MMA legend who now owns Navy Street gym, and his two sons, also fighters: taciturn Nate (Nick Jonas) and wild man Jay (Jonathan Tucker). Those drawn into the orbit of Navy Street include Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria), a former MMA champion fresh out of jail for assaulting his father; Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez), the gym’s manager, Alvey’s current girlfriend and Ryan’s former fiancée; and Christina Kulina (Joanna Going), Alvey’s estranged wife, Nate and Jay’s mother, whose heroin addiction is funded through sex work.

Not enough people know about Kingdom. To rectify that, we sat down with its creator Byron Balasco for a deep dive into how the show came together – from casting to soundtrack (man, the soundtrack is a killer) to characterisation to the relationship with the wider MMA community. It's a conversation for both diehard fans and the uninitiated. although there is a spoiler-section at the end. 

Read the below, then watch the show. Not necessarily in that order.  

What inspired Kingdom?

For years I'd been fascinated by MMA, way back before it was taken over by Dana White and pushed into the mainstream. I was fascinated by these guys that would get in a cage and fight, for really no money at all. They had their own styles, they came from all different walks of life: it had a very underground feel to it. Why would these guys do something that 99% of us spend our entire lives trying to avoid? Physical violence, confrontation and all that.

The sport just kept getting bigger and bigger. I'd always felt it was a great place to put a family drama. Just to write about people's lives. When I first started talking about it years ago, people would roll their eyes – I think they had an idea that it would be a lowbrow show. It was hard to get people past the hurdle of MMA. I wrote it on my own as spec because I thought that would be easier to show people what it would look like. And that's what I did.

Did you pitch the show to a network?

Not really. I just wrote the script and then we took that around. A lot of people liked the script but the content was difficult or the world wasn't quite right. Finally DirecTV decided it fit for them, and they wanted to take a chance on it.

Was there a particular show or film that served as a blueprint?

There's not really a show that I was modelling on. I really love shows that I feel are reflective of life and bring you into the world and let you feel you're experiencing it on a ground level, more of a visceral level.

That was my ethos going into it: I wanted to pull people into a world that they don't know, but it's a world where all of the themes and the struggles and the issues are what anybody goes through. It's just on a more visceral, raw level just because of the nature of the world.

In the pilot, Alvey gives Ryan a copy of CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Was that a signal to the viewer that the show would be deeper than dudes punching each other, or was it a piece of characterisation?

I thought it was true to the character because it's two guys at war with themselves. There's a religious undertone to it, which a guy like Ryan is really grappling with at that moment, and Alvey thought that might speak to him. I don't think Alvey has a particularly deep understanding of the book, but he has enough of an understanding that it helped him, and he's doing whatever he can to get through to Ryan and give him some sort of lifeline.

Later in the series, there's a great beat when Ryan thanks God after a fight, and the camera cuts to Alvey's reaction: a mixture of bemusement and disdain.

The network made you change the original title of Navy Street, right? They were worried viewers would think the show was about the navy...

Well, somebody worried. I think that's completely ridiculous. We didn't have a lot of money to make the show, and the trade off was the network got out of our way. When you're making a show, you have a ton of battles. They'd been great at giving me the cast I wanted and everything, but this was one battle where they dug their heels in, for whatever reason.

Why did you choose the title Kingdom?

It gave me the feeling that you were going into a world built by one man, in his own mind: Alvey. The word 'kingdom' to me evokes this feeling that there's going to be a fall, eventfully. It's going to crumble in some way. It's folly to build up this grand world around yourself because you don't have that much control over what life's gonna do.

Did you have certain actors in mind for certain roles or did you cast through auditions?

It was all auditions. Frank was the first person I cast because that was the crucial role to get the green light process going from the network. I didn't know Frank: he was suggested to me, he and I met over Skype. Right away it was clear he was the guy. He has a fighting background, he knows that world really well, and he's such a phenomenal natural actor, it's impossible to think of anyone else in the role.

Everybody else came in and auditioned. Tucker read for the Ryan role. He was good but I called him after and asked if he'd read for Jay. Matt Lauria was the first person I saw read, period, for any role. I knew it was him but it took a long time to get that done.

Paul Walter, who plays Keith, hadn't done much at all. He was only supposed to have two lines in the pilot. We were going to cast another person and his tape got sent at the last second. I saw him work with Matt on the first day of shooting, a scene at the halfway house, and he was so electric, their chemistry was so great, that I was like, 'this dude's in every episode.' I built that character out for him.

Jonas himself, his agency was begging me to read him. The Brothers had just broken up, and he was trying to figure out what he was going to do. I didn't want him to be involved. An MMA show with the Jonas Brothers wasn't what I was trying to do. He came back three or four times, I read him with Alvey, and he was so good that I cast him and it ended up being one of the smartest things that I lucked into. He's such a great actor. He holds so much inside – you want to open him up and see what's inside there.

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Was there any pressure from the network to make Nate the de facto lead?

They certainly realised he was a big name with a fan base but there was no pressure. If you do a piece of casting like that and it doesn't work out, you've blown the show. The success of the show rests on the authenticity and the acceptance by the fight world of the show. Otherwise you just feel like a poser. You're not honouring the people who broke bones and bled for that life.

As Alvey, Grillo is such a powerful, charismatic presence while simultaneously embodying toxic masculinity, for want of a better term...

Alvey's struggle is a very relatable struggle. He's a man searching for an identity. You've been one thing your whole life and now you're not that – so what are you? He's also getting up there in age, and starting to see the debris field he's left behind with the way he lived his life, the way he treated people. Grappling with mortality and loneliness and identity and your place in the world. That's his battle.

There are similarities to Don Draper. Not just the characters themselves but also how both Grillo and Jon Hamm are so compelling that you almost overlook how pathetic these men characters become...

Yeah, yeah. And they play it honestly. They show real vulnerability. They're not afraid to look weak on the screen. Sometimes you'll come across an actor who's afraid to look human and vulnerable and weak. Frank really embraced that. No matter what a character does, if you understand their emotional logic for why they're doing it, or their emotional confusion as to why they're doing it, then I think an audience can emphasise with that person.

With Alvey – inside the cage, things are black and white. You win or you lose, there are rules, somebody gets their hand raised. But outside in life there are no rules. There is no structure. And you can spin off the Earth and drift away, if you're not careful.

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There's not a bad performance in the cast, but Jonathan Tucker as Jay is something special. He took the character to places you wouldn't have got from another actor...

Oh, for sure. Tucker went full immersion into this role. He poured so much into it, found so many levels, wanted to go deeper and deeper.

As a character, Jay is an exposed, raw nerve. Sometimes that manifests in aggression, sometimes it manifests in childlike fear. He played all of it. He really embraced this idea of Jay as protector. The guy who wants to protect his mother, wants to protect his brother, but at times can't get out of his own way. Tucker is such a kind, wonderful man, I think that essence comes through and brings you onto Jay's side a bit, despite all the dumb ass shit he does.

Nobody on the show is a bad person, quite, but everyone is flawed...

There's nobody evil. There's just people struggling.

It's a very masculine show but there are two major female characters in Christina and Lisa – both of whom have far more agency than is typical for your standard combat sports drama...

Women are more and more in that world, but this wasn't a show just about MMA, this was about people's lives. Nobody lives just among men. I wanted to make sure everybody had their own path, their own story, and their own different relationship with each character so you could really be in their point of view – as opposed to only seeing Lisa, say, as it relates to Alvey.

Lisa's trying to manage a houseful of animals. In a lot of ways, she had the best head on her shoulders, but she had her own problems, her own damage. There's a reason she was drawn into this world.

Joanna playing Christina was just a revelation. She made that character so deep and complex and heartbreaking and infuriating... I loved getting to write for both of them.

And in season two, we follow the aspiring female fighter Alicia Mendez. There's so much in that storyline – not just the fights but also the seedy photoshoot, the gift from exploitative sponsors...

Any pursuit that's on that razor's edge of success or catastrophic failure, there's always that line of opportunity and exploitation. Alicia was a great example of that. Natalie Martinez was awesome in the role. She does a lot fighting herself, she's from Miami, and she just felt like a fighter. She was huge for the show. If we'd kept going, there would have been a lot more of her.

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There are so many great supporting characters: Mac the nurse / drug dealer, Garo the promoter, Mario the blogger, Shelby the gym receptionist, who I believe is also your wife...?

My wife and mother of my two kids!

How many of those characters evolved due to the actors portraying them?

The great thing about making a show is it's alive and it's moving and it can change as you're making it. Movie, you shoot it, it's done. A show you can constantly make adjustments. I would always be watching actors and stories, and if it felt like they were hitting and the chemistry was good, why would I let go of it? I would always make a lot of changes over the course of the season as I was writing. Anytime an actor came in and was great, or added something unexpected, I would exploit the hell out of it.

When you shoot in LA, you have such a talented pool of actors for the smaller roles. You can get somebody great to come in for a couple of days and they elevate it.

Mac Brandt – the actor who plays Mac in the show – used to be a bartender, right?

I've known Mac 15 years now. He and I got really close in the writers' strike of 2007. I'd have to go picket in front of Warner Brothers, and then it was like three o'clock and I had nothing to do so I'd go to this bar down the street and have some drinks. Mac was the bartender / kinda ran the place and we became buds. As I was writing the script, I was like, 'I've got a role for you.' So Mac was written for Mac!

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One of the most engaging relationships in Kingdom is between Ryan and Keith. The pair meet at a halfway house. Ryan is an ultra-macho MMA fighter. Keith is a mentally unstable social pariah who's on probation for rubbing his testicles on a supermarket avocado.

The Keith-Ryan dynamic is unlike anything on TV. How did that develop? Why is Ryan so protective over him?

Keith had such devotion to Ryan, and such unconditional love for him, that I think it caught Ryan by surprise. Ryan's the type of guy who's always felt that his love was predicated on him accomplishing something. At first Keith's devotion is repellent to Ryan, and he's a little bit freaked out, but then he really comes to love Keith and feels like Keith is something he has to protect and take care of. Which is a departure for Ryan, because Ryan has mostly lived his life in the terms of 'I'm an alpha, I must destroy whatever's in my path to succeed.'

Keith disarms him in that way and they form this kind of strange love. Keith brings out something in his character that would be harder to access any other way. Probably something he didn't know he had the capacity for.

The show offers a very even-handed depiction of MMA. There are so many positives: the community, the work ethic, the sense of purpose. But these are damaged people prone to violence. The sport is their saviour yet also fuels their more destructive tendencies...

That was very important. On set, the extras in the gym would all be real fighters. Then we had Joe Stevenson and Juan Archuleta – Joe was the Ultimate Fighter champion and Juan's the current Bellator champion.

The greatest compliment we'd have was when we'd be watching back a scene Joe would whisper in my ear, "this is like my life! I have goosebumps!" The only way to honour the sport is to show the good and the bad. If you whitewash it, make it a fun commercial, it's doing a disservice to the people who really sacrifice.

The UFC really embraced us, Dana White really embraced us when he found out about the show. Dana found the show on his own and reached out. He was a huge fan.

Did you ever try and secure a cameo?

We could have! Dana's taken us out to dinner, he'd bring us cage side to all these UFC fights. The Dana cameo never happened because it broke some kind of fourth wall thing for me, I don't know why. Dana was too big, for some reason.

The show rarely mentions PEDs directly but there are several fairly clear indications that the fighters take them. Did you get in trouble with the MMA community?

No. Not at all. People have opinions about it. Nobody likes a cheater, but you can't act like it doesn't happen.

Jay does a lot of recreational drugs. Is it possible for someone with his lifestyle to compete in MMA? Have you heard of real-life equivalents? 

There's just different levels of it. How many times has Jon Jones been in trouble for DUIs, cocaine and stuff like that? He's arguably the greatest fighter that's ever been. Certain people treat their body as a temple; then there are other people, between matches, it's like, 'fuck it, let's roll.' But it's held Jay back. He's a talented enough fighter, he should be a lot further along than he is.

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Over the course of the series, it's interesting that both Alvey and Jay get played, so to speak, by men in the financial world…

I wanted both of them to have to confront the realities of the real world. Their skill set really doesn't have much use in the bigger picture of the world, so they're constantly running up against that wall. It's extremely frustrating for them.

Did actors get injured filming the fights?

Oh, there were injuries. In the first fight Jay has back, Tucker to an elbow to the eye, it split open, blood gushing everywhere. But Tucker wanted to keep filming and it looked great. Afterwards we took him to the hospital and he got plastic surgery in his eye. Constant ankle sprains, ribs, muscle pulls, bruises: these guys put their body through a hell of a lot.

I love how the fighting styles of Jay, Ryan and Nate reflect their personalities... 

We were very cognisant of designing a style for each guy. Plus, what the actor could do well!

 

I have to talk about the music, which is brilliant. How did you compile the soundtrack? 

That was me and my buddy Padraic Mckinley who edited every episode. We had a tiny music budget, which was great because we don't really like big pop song, needle drops so let's go find the coolest shit we can find that feels of this world. Pat knows a ton about music and he found all these cool bands. We listen to them, cut them in, try them out and pick them. It really helped the tone of the show.

A pet peeve of mine on shows is when you feel immersed in a world and a song comes on that you've just heard in a bathroom at a restaurant. It crashed your real world into this fictional world. We did no score on the show, really. We'd always make it source music: so everytime we were playing music we wanted it to tie back to some source inside the scene – be it radio, the room next door, a PA system, or whatever. We really wanted to find great bands that were maybe a bit lesser known that we could use.

My favourite scene of the entire show is Jay doing a fashion shoot juxtaposed with Ryan training, and David Vandervelde on the soundtrack. That 30 seconds is Kingdom, for me – cool, sexy, very Venice Beach, yet also bruised and broken...

For sure. When you first start making a show, you're really trying to find the tone: the visual language and the audio and the way the whole show feels and looks. In the first episode, there's a montage of Nate cutting weight, Jay shooting up, and there's a song by a band called Deer Tick playing over it. When we laid that song over that montage, I really clicked into, 'OK, now I have my arms around this world.' I know what it sounds like and feels like and looks like.

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There's also the opening to season two with Mac fighting in the junkyard. There’s such a swagger about that scene...

I loved giving Mac a fight scene! It was great.

Do you have a favourite episode or moment?

I can't say I have a favourite episode. I do think the final shot of the whole series... I don't know if I could have picked a better image to go off. We thought we were coming back, but when we shot that, I said to Pat, "wow, we might have ended the series on that shot." 

To the immense frustration of cast, crew and fans, Kingdom wasn't renewed for a fourth season. However the show has picked up a new audience and plenty of word-of-mouth since being picked up by Netflix...

Is it frustrating watching season three, which you filmed before the cancellation? Presumably you’d make different choices if you knew?

No, it's not frustrating. I really approached every season as its own thing. The way we made the show, it wasn't this massive plot point we had to resolve, it's more of a character-driven show so you can feel like the end of the chapter was the end of the chapter. I think we left people wanting more of these characters and their lives but I don't know if there's a major unresolved point.

Has the Netflix deal produced any talk of another season? Or maybe a one-off TV film such as Deadwood?

Getting on Netflix has been huge. Of course there's been talk of it. Never say never. But it's hard. We're all doing different things right now; a lot of things are gonna have to come together. Right now there's not a plan to do that.

I'm of two minds. We loved making it; making it was just a fucking blast. We were all very close, it was a family with the cast and crew – we essentially had the same crew for the whole run of the show, which is rare. We all got excited about the idea of getting the band back together; we have great stories to tell and if we had another season, we'd make it as good as the other ones.

And then there's another part of me that thinks let's just leave it as it is. We have 40 great episodes, I don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. It's its own little weird thing so maybe just let it lie.

What projects are you currently working on? 

Well, we're getting our ass kicked by Covid here so everybody's a little bit frozen in amber, waiting for production to really open up. I have three TV projects that are at various stages of development and I'm writing a movie right now. So hopefully when production opens up we'll crank a few of those out and bring the Kingdom fans over to that.

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The Spoiler Section 

The interview now goes into spoiler territory. Only keep reading if you’ve seen the show. If you haven’t, go binge watch. See you in a week.

You wrote Kiele Sanchez’s real-life miscarriage into the show. She wrote a beautiful essay on Hollywood Reporter about the experience...

It was just an unimaginable tragedy. Thankfully she has two beautiful kids now. Kiele and I are very close, she's one of my dearest friends. We wanted to figure out, how do we do this in a way that's good for her: Kiele the person? We're just making a show – this a real-life thing she went through. We decided let's face it, let's take it on.

It was such stunning work and courage to go through what she went through. It was also raw at the moment – who knows how much of it she'd actually processed as we were filming? She did extraordinary stuff. She's a great actress, she's a great person, she's a really great writer, too. In the essay she expressed herself perfectly. [You can read Kiele's essay here.

Why didn't Alicia appear in season three?

That's just where the story went. That's the thing about the show: it wasn't very plot heavy. You're coming in for a chapter in these people's lives, leaving for a while, then we'll pick it up again somewhere else. That was just the flow of it.

Talk us through the decision to kill off Nate...

Everybody in this show has gone through a lot of shit, but there's still ultimate consequences to life that hasn't been visited upon them. The nature of the show is you're not spared from it, you don't know when life's gonna cut you down. There's an unfairness to it, there's an unfairness to life, there's an unfairness to the fight game, and it's unfair that Nate was the one that went. But life often takes the best of us. It just had to be. The universe pulled it that way.

You don't always get five more minutes. You don't always get to sober up

Was it ever a decision between him and Jay?

I feel like Nate's loss was the most unfair. Again, life is that way. I feel like it had the most impact on the other characters because it was the least expected. You wouldn't be shocked if Jay OD'd. You certainly wouldn't be shocked if we lost Christina, or Alvey to be honest. But you just didn't think Nate. Not to repeat myself but that's just the kind of bullshit life pulls.

He's killed immediately after coming out to Alvey – which is almost what the whole show has been building up to...

I wanted that moment to happen fast and all at once and feel out of control. It's a momentum building that all of a sudden you realise couldn't stop. If Alvey had more minutes to process this, it could have been OK. But you don't always get five more minutes. You don't always get to sober up and say, 'OK, I reacted terribly to that, I'm sorry, it caught me by surprise. I love you no matter what.' Which is probably where Alvey would've gotten to. But life doesn't always give you that chance.

If there'd been a fourth season, would we have seen Wheeler vs Kulina III?

I mean, probably! You feel like there needed to be a rubber match, you know? It seems like a trilogy would be in order.

What else goes down if you had a final ten-episode run?

I would like for these guys to have some peace at some point. Guys and girls. Hopefully if you're lucky in life, maybe you don't get everything you want but you can settle into your life and find a way to, if not be content, be calm. And have some peace. I would've liked to have given them a bit of that. Probably.

Maybe I'd have gotten into it and said, 'no, it doesn't feel right. No peace for anyone.' I don't know. I haven't allowed myself to go down that road.

Inspired to try the Octagon? Check out our guide to the best MMA gyms in London

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