New Series ‘Kingdom’ by Byron Balasco Takes TV Drama into the World of MMA

October 5, 2014

Premiering on Oct. 8 on DirecTV’s Audience Network will be the latest series from creator and producer Byron Balasco.

Unlike Balasco’s previous work on such series as Detroit 1-8-7, FlashForward and Without a Trace, his new series Kingdom will be centered on a family against the backdrop of MMA.

Speaking to prior to the Kingdom’s premier, Balasco discussed the series’ development, its stars, and what measures the production took to portray MMA in a realistic light not only inside the cage, but outside it as well. Firstly, Byron, can you tell us about the development of Kingdom and how the series came to be?

Byron Balasco: I’ve been a fan of MMA for a long, long time. From way back before it’s become what it is today. It was always a really fascinating world to me and so I’d always thought about writing about it for a while, but the timing never seemed to be right. And the way I would want to do the show, I think there’s a preconceived notion of what MMA was and who the people were in that world that I don’t think networks or an audience was really primed for a drama at that point. Over the years, I think things have changed and evolved.

I felt the best way was to do this show was to write it for free, so then I could show (possible networks) exactly what it could be and tell these stories in a way that’s a little bit different than you would expect from a show about MMA. I wrote the script on my own and got it to Endemol Studios, who really loved it and understood what I was trying to do – trying to make a character drama about people, family, and relationships set in a world of MMA – not just a fight a week. The studio got behind it and we set it up with DirecTV. Speaking of DirecTV, what sort of advantages does it give to the series to be on their Audience Network as opposed to another network?

Byron Balasco: It’s a big advantage dealing with DirecTV, especially with the type of show we’re doing that’s raw and gritty. There are no content restrictions; so we’re really free to tell whatever stories we want in the way that we want to. It’s not just that we can curse and show nudity and violence – there’s plenty of that – but it’s more creative freedom in terms of the way we tell stories and types of characters we write about. Let’s speak a bit about the stars of the show. Starting with Frank Grillo, who plays family patriarch Alvey Kulina; what made him the right choice for the role?

Byron Balasco: Frank was the first casting I did. It’s really just a no-brainer with him. It’s hard to cast a show because the actors have to do a lot of things like have physicality, and since it’s a drama, have acting chops, and Frank is a phenomenal actor who just happens to have been a fighter. He’s boxed his whole life and he’s done jiu-jitsu his whole life, so it was already all built-in, making him the perfect choice. Five minutes into our first meeting we were speaking the same language and it was clear we would be doing this together. One of the most notable physical transformations on the show is the shape that Johnathan Tucker got into to portray Alvey’s eldest son, Jay Kulina.

Byron Balasco: Jonathan is just an incredible actor and just got so deep into character. I’m kind of surprised he would take it on, but he put so much into it that it really frees you up as a writer to create for him. He was in good shape anyway, but once he got the part, he just attacked it. He’s a really dedicated actor who puts everything in there. He completely changed his diet, punished himself physical, and really dedicated himself to learning boxing, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, and wrestling. One of the most surprising castings was that of Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers music group to play the youngest fighting Kulina, Nate.

Byron Balasco: To be honest, I had a lot of reservations at first. I didn’t know Nick, but I knew the name, and definitely had concerns on whether he’d take to what we were doing here. Nick came in and auditioned, and I thought, “Damn, he’s really good.” Then he came back a couple more times and read with Frank (Grillo). We had read a ton of people with Frank, and it was just clear that Nick was the guy. There was no other choice. It had to be him. He came in and won the part and really dedicated himself to it. I was blown away by him and I think everybody will really see him in a different light this season. Tell us a bit about the MMA aspect of the show and getting top tier trainer Greg Jackson and UFC vet Joe “Daddy” Stevenson involved.

Byron Balasco: The big thing going into this was that I didn’t want to do it if we couldn’t make it feel as real as possible. I was lucky enough to get hooked up with Greg Jackson. He’s incredibly open and intellectually curious about our process and wanted to help us make our show authentic and true to the world, not just technically as far as the fighting, but procedurally as far as the lights and what people go through.

I spent time with Greg down in Albuquerque at his gym and got to know him and he became our consultant. I spoke to him a couple times a week and once I finished scripts, he would go through them and give me notes on what is (expletive) or what was right or cool; all that stuff.

Since Greg is in Albuquerque, we needed someone to be on set and in our gym in L.A. too, to make sure we’re doing everything right and help choreograph fights, so Greg hooked us up with Joe. He was a really amazing asset to the show. He’s a great guy; he’s enthusiastic and is a great coach. He took all our actors and went through camp with him for a couple of weeks, and he was on set every day, talking to the actors and keeping us on point. He was a big contributor. There’s more to the show than just fighting. So give us an idea about what to expect from the drama side of the series.

Byron Balasco: The way I described it is that it’s a visceral family drama set against the backdrop of MMA. Fighting is obviously a great metaphor for life, so all that drama plays out with our characters, but we don’t do a fight a week. We have enough fighting that I think it will satisfy people, but if people want to watch a fight a week, I think they’ll just watch real fighting, so we’re trying to tell the stories that go around the fights.

What the fight means leading up personally to these people and what it means afterwards whether they win or lose. And just the sorts of fine line these all these guys walk on that doesn’t have much of a safety net at all, and the sacrifice that not only they make for something that has very little financial reward, but everyone around them like brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends.

You don’t have to be a fan of MMA to love the show, and hopefully fans of MMA will respect it and see it as a worthy representation of what they love about the sport and what the people involved have dedicated their lives to. It’s not as much plot-focused as it is character-focused, and the actors have really created some pretty absorbing characters that will pull people in. Thanks for taking time out for us, Byron. Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers in closing?

Byron Balasco: I hope the fans enjoy the show and I hope we did you proud. I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody thinks. We’re really proud of it and I think we really did some justice to the world.

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