Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: With his live-wire energy and meticulous preparation for roles, Jonathan Tucker is one of the most exciting actors working today. His wide-ranging tastes and commitment to making each performance distinctive mean we never really know what we’re in for. He’s embodied a soulful young man trying to hold a family together, modeled an ambitious young politician after Dan Quayle, and played a serial killer whose dedication would unnerve even the most fervent stans. Yet even as he’s ventured into genre storytelling and glossy remakes, Tucker’s retained a bruised everyman quality, the kind that made Kingdom’s Jay Kulina a knockout character in a fraught and riveting family drama.
All of this would seem to poise Tucker to lead the next generation of character actors, which would suit the Justified and Parenthood actor just fine. But with NBC’s Debris, Tucker has taken on a lead role once more as Brian Beneventi, a CIA operative trying to make sense of alien technology without losing sight of his humanity. The role marks Tucker’s return to NBC, where he once led the cast of The Black Donnellys. When The A.V. Club interviewed Tucker late in 2020, his work on Debris was as top secret as his character’s work in the CIA. But the actor did speak with us about the many lessons he’s taken from productions as varied as The Virgin Suicides and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, how he prepared for his duel with Raylan Givens, and how Bob Little drove a wedge into the Parenthood writers room.
AVC: Sleepers has some very difficult subject matter, especially for a young actor. How did you approach that role? Was it a matter of compartmentalizing?
JT: Well, I have two children now, so I’m starting to see this. But you only understand certain things with the capacity you have to do so at the time. I think of the story of my mother watching this French film when she was 14. She thought it was the most beautiful movie she’d ever seen in her life. She asked her parents to see it with her; turned out it was all about this teenage girl’s abortion. My mother knew it, factually, but it just wasn’t the highlight to her in the movie, despite the fact that that’s what the whole movie’s about. She only saw what she was capable at the time of seeing. In that respect, I understood that [Sleepers] was a story about four young boys who were sexually abused in a reform school. But you can only understand that so much as a 12-year-old boy. And the material was very responsibly handled. I had so much support; there was a wonderful acting coach on set named Mary McCusker. And my mother was there all the time.
So I have just the fondest memories of that experience on Sleepers. Brad Renfro has since passed, but the other two boys, Geoffrey Wigdor and Joey Perrino, and I were on a text thread. I just spoke to them yesterday. When I look back, I think about the real impact of fame on somebody like Brad Pitt, who, at that time, was dating Gwyneth Paltrow and was the most famous person in the world. I got to seize the whole breadth of what that looked like, getting to see somebody who really cared about their craft as passionately as Billy Crudup, getting to see somebody bringing their personal experiences into a character with Kevin Bacon getting to bring a Philadelphia accent into his work, which he later said was the only time he’d done that. Getting to ask Barry Levinson and Michael Ballhaus, two titans in cinema, about their careers. I also remember hearing from a dolly grip who never went to college and had been gripping since he was 18 years old and now has a pretty screwed-up back and can’t get out of the business because he doesn’t really have much else to fall back on. I wrote my college essay—I ended up deferring—but I wrote my essay on the classrooms we know and the classrooms that aren’t so traditional. With the right team around you, it is incredibly fulfilling and enriching.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)—“Tim Weiner”
JT: I was in Toronto doing this other movie of the week or something for Showtime, and they shared the same production office as The Virgin Suicides. I’m sure I shared an agent with somebody, and they said, “Just go downstairs and meet Sofia and her cousin, Chris. They’d love to meet you.” I read the script, and I went down and met them, and they said, “Here are the roles for the boys, and which one do you think is the right fit for you?” There was a fabulous organic quality to that project that started with the casting and it gave me also a good insight. I did not have a great time on set on that show, because Kathleen Turner and James Woods were very much in their world and in their characters. I loved the rest of the boys.
I loved many aspects of filming, but it was also a scary set to be on in some respects. I was worried I would make some sort of mistake or not hit a mark and Kathleen or James would call me out on it. It really gave me a good understanding that not every set’s a home game. Sometimes it’s an away game. It’s an important lesson for a lot of people, particularly actors who are trying to be vulnerable and open to the world around them. Not everyone’s always going to be cheering for you. Most of the time they will be.
The Deep End (2001)—“Beau Hall”
JT: Tilda [Swinton] and I became very, very close during that production and we remained very close since. She is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a remarkable person and a magical actress. It certainly was her coming-out party for a much larger audience. She’d obviously been working for a long time before that. But she’s so special, I don’t know what to say about Tilda. That project itself was kind of flash point for me, because it did so well at Sundance. It became really the independent movie of the summer. It came out in August of 2001. Tilda and I were on the cover of The Advocate. It was incredibly well-reviewed across the board, The New York Times, below the fold, art section, big reviews. So it was just a big movie. It did well financially, Tilda was up for a lot of awards. And it was a big disappointment, not for Tilda, but for Fox Searchlight which did not get nominated for an Academy Award. But it put her in all those conversations.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2003)—“Ian Tate”
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2006)—“Drew Ramsey”
AVC: So many New York or East Coast-based actors have been on Law & Order or one of its spin-offs. Denis O’Hare, who we’ve also talked to for Random Roles, describes it as a rite of passage. Did it feel that way to you?
JT: No, not at all. I didn’t even know what a procedural was. Denis O’Hare is a good friend of mine. We did a movie together and have stayed very close, I love him. But, no, I’d never seen any of those shows. That was actually really helpful because I didn’t have any idea that I was acting in a trope; these are just trope scenes. And thank fucking god because those episodes were helpful to me in my career. If you really watch them and if you’re really good in them, they can help you. I didn’t know that, for instance, the breakdown on the stand or the admitting the crime in the interrogation room are basically just stock scenes, right? So I just approached them like these were the most important work of my entire career. Every time I work I’m like, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.” But I didn’t have any context that those were scenes that everybody’s seen a million times. So it was very fresh and original to me. And I was prepared to do the greatest work of my entire life in them.
AVC: The Black Donnellys was short-lived, but it also marks a pivotal point in your career as you made your way into family dramas, which is where you’ve done some of your best work.
JT: For sure. That was really the point. When I got the offer, I reached out to friends of mine, these two producers from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, two amazing people who have gone onto extraordinary success, completely outside of the horror genre. And I was like, “Should I do this show? It’s network TV.” It was still not quite the move to do. I was just making movies at that point, and it was like a catch-22. These features I wanted to do, I was losing to people who were doing TV. But in the features roles you weren’t supposed to go and do TV. So you’re kind of stuck. But everybody’s like, “No, you go do this show. This is an incredible script, an incredible team.” You got Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco leading the show. It’s still one of the best experiences of my life. It gave me a great insight into the mechanics of these productions where sometimes the tone of the set, the quality of people’s lives on set really can be dictated by either the lead actor or the group of actors who are leading the charge.
Holding the show up on your shoulders, being on a team, was something I really liked. I liked the pressure; pressure really is a privilege. I liked the weight of the responsibility. And I was really happy with the quality of the work. It was really disappointing when it didn’t go further. But by that point, I probably had been working for almost 15 years so I was very used to disappointment. I’ve never been in a place of sorrow that something didn’t work out, but I wanted to do more of it. I had such a great time there, shooting in New York. And it’s all coming full circle because I’m going back to this NBC show now.
The head of talent at NBC is a woman named Grace Wu. I’d first met her on a general when I was interested in doing television and only a few weeks later, I came back and had meetings about Black Donnellys. And when Debris came around, I got this beautiful email from Grace Wu again saying, “Here we are, 15 years later.” It reminds you what a long game this career can be and how shortsighted people get in it. I got great advice from… I think it was Tom Hanks, who said something like, “When you look around at the competition, the people who you used to think were competition, they all go away.” There’s all these kid actors that you feel like you’re up against and then they all really go away. And it’s like that at 18 and 25 and 30. Then you start to realize the only person you’re up against is yourself. You’re not up against anybody else. You’re really just trying to be the truest, most daring version of yourself.
JT: I loved that character and I loved doing a period piece. But really, the opportunity as an actor to sit across from John Hurt for multiple scenes—that’s the invitation to the Michelin table, to sit and eat with one of the great chefs. You can’t pass that up. And now that John is gone, I feel all the more grateful for that experience. And I got to work with Patrick Stewart, who’s part of that same group of English actors. It was fun to talk about John’s life, be filled in by somebody who got to be with him when he was in his 20s and 30s.
I was actually hired as a local on that and they didn’t really pay any money. I thought it would be fun for the character to not really have a place to stay. This character lent itself to going out, staying up late. I wasn’t married and I didn’t have a girlfriend, so I was like, “I can just live my life in New York.” I would always be prepared for the work, but this would feed into it. So I couch-surfed for the three and a half weeks that we shot that movie. I had a wonderfully romantic time on that project, and getting to work with John, and Denis [O’Hare], and the director Richard Laxton, who was just fabulous.
The real Patrick Angus had AIDS, and died shortly thereafter. I remember my last scene—I think of it all the time because I had such a visceral reaction—where I’m sitting in this gallery looking around at my paintings that have been put up. John Hurt’s character, Quentin Crisp, whose life the movie was based on, set it up. My character Patrick had never had anybody do anything nice for him and he devoted himself to painting. Now he gets to sit in this gallery in the sense of complete awe and profound appreciation. I remember accessing that emotion so easily. Part of it, I would imagine was the relationship I had with my father. I think Patrick felt desperate for a father figure, which he saw in Quentin. But another part of it was just the hope that your work is appreciated because you care so much about it. So it resonated with me very clearly.
Parenthood (2011-2014)—“Bob Little”
JT: I was in a really, really low point professionally, and having a profoundly challenging time getting employment. During that three-and-a-half-year period, I tested over 30 TV shows and didn’t get any of them. Then I got this call saying, “Hey, Jason Katims has written this role for you.” I jumped on it. Jason said, “I can’t offer you guaranteed number of episodes on paper. But I would like to write for this character for X amount of episodes. And I know I can’t get you to commit to that legally, but would you consider giving me your word on that?” I’m such a Jason Katims fan and it was a totally appropriate way in which to have a conversation between a showrunner who’s financially working within the confines of the finances, and lawyers, and an actor who wants to create something interesting. I couldn’t have been more excited about a chance to work with him.
Things happen for the right reasons at the right time. My first stint on that show, [producer] Dylan Massin came up to me and said, “We’re all big fans of yours and so excited about having you on set. And we just want to let you know that Parenthood, the character is your responsibility. We’ll turn that over to you, to the actors. We want you to feel really free to try different things and new things.” I really just needed to hear that, even if he was lying. I was at a point in my life where I really needed somebody to be my champion and to remind me that actors have power, and that we’re not doing theater so you can try different things and experiment. It was a very empowering experience. I’m sure Dylan has totally forgotten it. But it had a huge impact on me and gave me a lot of runway to get through what would end up becoming a very challenging period in life.
AVC: Your storyline is one that’s still talked about, because of Bob and Amber’s relationship.
JT: [Laughs.] I’m a very positive person and [Bob] was very positive. I really didn’t see his relationship with Amber as being inappropriate per se. She was, I think 20 or so in the show, and Bob was 26. And she was recommended by this woman who was her aunt—and I don’t know, she was really talented and wonderful. But that was my perspective as the guy representing the actors, representing the character. Apparently it really divided the writers’ room. Half the group thought this was a totally appropriate relationship and the other half was like, “No, this is totally inappropriate.”
Hannibal (2014)—“Matthew Brown”
AVC: You’re known for your preparation for roles; you’ve even studied the Alexander technique. For somebody like Matthew Brown, what was the first aspect of the character you felt you had to figure out?
JT: I actually had all these ideas and I shared them all with Bryan [Fuller]. And Bryan was like, “I love all of this. I want you to try all of this.” When I got to set, the scene was like a long walk and talk. Filming involved some challenging technical steady cam moves where it was like if you fucked it up in the middle of the scene, you had to go back to one. And I remember standing at the top of these stairs, and I could feel my heart racing. I’m like, “God, that’s so funny. I never really get nervous like this on set.” But I was coming out of this place where I kept saying things like, “You’ve got to take risks, and you’ve got to create characters. You have to build on what’s on the paper. You’ve got to try and interpret this subconsciousness of the writers. We have to be big.”
Now, I’m standing at the top of this staircase, about do this long walk and talk. And I’m going to be revealing the character I’d created to the people on set for the first time. It was very different than what I know they’re expecting. I think that’s why my heart was racing. I’ve never told this story before. I was thinking, “Am I going to do this walk, this limp thing? Am I dragging my foot and I’m going to do a lisp? And if my hand things and this keychain work, and I’m going to do this whole thing?” And I’m like, “Stick it.” Like a skier or a gymnast, you know? Just trying to stick the landing.
But if he hires you, Bryan wants you to take a leap. He operates from no place of fear whatsoever. He is a true storyteller. And he honors everybody’s position on set, wants everybody to take risks.
Kingdom (2014-2017)—“Jay Kulina”
JT: Well, it was pretty clear in the pilot, everybody’s relationship to each other. The script is a lot like a dream in that in the dream, everybody’s actually you. They’re all a reflection of you. All of the characters are experiencing a journey that has some impact on your character. One of the monumental things about Jay Kulina on Kingdom for me was simply that it’s a character that can do almost anything at almost any time. So when you get to drive around in an all-terrain vehicle, what do you do? When you can do anything, what do you do? That was the opportunity that was presented with Jay.
AVC: Your work on Kingdom really seems to have marked you as a character actor. Is that something you aspire to be?
JT: Yeah, I take that as a compliment. I can recognize my father from 100 yards away in the morning mist, just by the way he walks. My wife eats pasta very differently than my kids do. You have to honor the fact that everybody experiences the world differently. To put your experience in every character where it’s almost the same result or effect can be lazy. You’re not going to get outside of yourself enough to provide your characters with the unique tools that they deserve. I just think that work ends up not having the diversity that it could have or the specificity. And again, I’m going to do an NBC show right now, and I have got this fabulous character, but not every character’s going to be limping, or have a lisp, or have a Mohawk and tattoos. So you have to know the context of the world in which you’re playing as well. That takes a lot of courage.
AVC: Justified was full of unique and memorable characters. What did you do to try to set Boon apart from everyone else?
JT: Well, again, the Alexander technique was really helpful for that. I work with this coach in L.A. named Jean-Louis Rodrigue who comes out of Alexander and dance, but also does animal work [in which actors improvise their characters as animals—Ed.] When you do animal work with actors you go a hundred percent in rehearsals and then you just have to dial it back by percentages. And there was a lot of animal in Boon, particularly because in the way animals get excited or protective. It’s a very visceral response and it manifests itself physically. So that is where a lot of that came from. I got to work with a guy named Thell Reed, that was one of the great quick-draw guys in the business. That really gave me a comfort with the weapon, which was another part of the character for me.
But really it comes down to, again, people like Graham Yost and Bryan Fuller and Byron Balasco—these are showrunners who are so comfortable in themselves and their own talents that they want actors to take risks and to come with ideas and to try new things. That’s what makes them great. They’re not trying push their own words or their own ideas of what the character is. I’ve worked with showrunners who don’t operate from a place of being confident in their own talent. That’s the sort of away game that we were talking about; those away games don’t create great work, they create a contentious environment.
City On A Hill (2019)—“Frankie Ryan”
AVC: City On A Hill is of a piece with films and shows like Sleepers and Kingdom, because they tell these insular stories about certain neighborhoods.
JT: Yeah, it’s really about how we define who our neighbors are or what that neighborhood looks like. I’m interested in distinct places and people. I think everywhere is a neighborhood. What’s the town in Justified? That’s a neighborhood. I wouldn’t see that as dissimilar from the few blocks of Hell’s Kitchen for Sleepers. But I was excited about that role because it was a quiet role. There was a heavier physicality to him; it was just a very different character and I wanted to see how little I could really talk. I wanted to feel how the broadness of the weight I was holding up as the character.
Charlie’s Angels (2019)—“Hodak”
JT: The animal stuff was really helpful there. I had an animal in mind for that and I wanted to cut all the lines, which Elizabeth Banks thought was exactly the right idea—something she’d, strangely enough, been thinking about as well. Visually, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted for the hair, makeup, and wardrobe. I put together a little mood board for the initial conversation with Banks, and there was a model on my mood board and it was also a model on her mood board for the character. We were very closely tied on what we thought was going to work. I think when you took the lines away and you kind leaned into the predator, feline, animal side of the character, the rest of the dominoes fell into place.
Westworld (2018-2020)—Major Craddock
AVC: What was it like being on a show with the scale of Westworld?
JT: No assholes and no phones is the stipulation. [Laughs.] Jonathan Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy, are just two of the most wonderful people I’ve ever gotten to work with. And the cast could actually have conversations. Part of it is literally like, do you have any idea what is happening in this other world or that other script, or are you able to piece together something that I was unable to piece together? Even though most of those actors have done really big shows, everybody’s always talking about how impressed they are with the quality of the production design, of the scale of the show itself, of just what they’re putting together and how much care and thought goes into it. And then, again, all of those are actors who trying to take a big leap too. Part of what makes taking a leap on that show maybe not easier, but maybe it’s more conducive, is that it’s outside of reality in some respect. So you feel like almost anything is possible and that allows you to take some pretty bold risks.
The director and the creator of the show, Mary Laws, and I were kind of figuring this thing out as we were shooting it, and I’m really thrilled with it. I always welcome a process like that because we’re trying to figure things out and we should be excited about people trying to cook at different temperatures and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. That’s when you realize that we’re all in this leaky boat together, and you have to be working to the editing room and not to the day. If you’re working to make people happy on the day, you’re going to get mediocre performances. If you’re working for the editor, you’re going to be providing the material for very dynamic work. And I got to work with Kaitlyn Dever again. She and I are very good friends and I am just always blown away by her work. To get paid to sit in the closest seat to her performance is a unique and welcomed privilege.