Matt Lauria
Matt Lauria stars as MMA fighter Ryan Wheeler in "Kingdom" on Audience Network. (Handout)

Matt Lauria: Ready to get back in ‘Kingdom’ cage

Matt Lauria doesn’t go back to work until mid-November, but he’s already counting calories to get into fighting shape for Season 3 of Kingdom.

The 34-year-old actor probably isn’t that out of shape, but to play MMA fighter Ryan “The Destroyer” Wheeler involves a bit more physical fitness than his previous roles in “Parenthood,” “The Chicago Code” or “Friday Night Lights.”

“It’s exhausting,” Lauria said, laughing. “That’s been a whole journey onto itself. It’s immensely challenging. There’s really no easy way about it; it’s just hours and hours and hours of fight training and weight lifting and the conditioning and the diet. That’s what it takes.”

But don’t think he’s complaining. He loves the show, which is currently airing Season 2 episodes at 8 p.m. CT Wednesdays on Audience Network.

I first met Lauria in Summer 2010 at a Chicago coffee shop just as he was beginning to film “The Chicago Code.” About three years out of school at the time and with “Lights” and “Lipstick Jungle” under his belt, he seemed unsullied by the trappings of Hollywood.

Six years and continued success doesn’t seem to have changed him all that much—except maybe for that fitness regimen. Married to musician Michelle Armstrong since 2006, he’s thoughtful about work, life and bumps on the road to success.

Take, for example, how Zen he feels about the early cancellation of “Code,” which filmed in Chicago—now home to four shows with “Chicago” in their titles.

“I’m so glad to see a lot of wonderfully talented Chicago actors who we were privileged to have on our show populating those shows,” he said. “And I thought man, that’s so great for Chicago and their actors and their crews.”

Lauria and I chatted more about his career, fighting real MMA fighters and Ryan’s lonely journey for the rest of Season 2 of “Kingdom.” Here’s an edited transcript (because I didn’t think you’d want to hear us reminisce about Chicago).


“The Chicago Code” cancellation is one of those things that you’ve got to think if it hadn’t happened the way it did you wouldn’t have gone on to the other projects and eventually “Kingdom.”

Matt Lauria: We all had a blast. That was an amazing experience that taught me all the things that it had to teach me that I needed to move on to the next thing. … I agree with you—it opens the door for other things.

I think it got canceled too soon but I wasn’t broken up about it. You always have to keep a certain buoyant attitude about that kind of thing. … At the time I’d only been out of school for about three years. It’s been a blessing to be involved in projects for not a terribly long time at the early stages of my career because you get such a wider breadth of experience and education on the job. …

Shooting [“Chicago Code”] was very technical and precise. And I got to work with Jason Clarke and Jen Beals and Shawn Ryan and Delroy [Lindo] and all these wonderful Chicago actors. … And then finding a whole other set of wonderful actors with “Parenthood.” That was a much more fluid type of shooting with a lot more improv. I don’t want to go on and on but I feel so privileged and blessed that I was able to have so much variety because you learn so much while you’re actually working.


Matt Lauria
Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria, left) gets advice from Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo) in “Kingdom.” (Handout)

In a recent episode of “Kingdom,” Ryan goes to the gym looking for Alicia and he’s all alone. I thought it was such a great way to explain Ryan’s current inner state of loneliness without any exposition. Later scenes in the episode did the same thing.

One hundred percent. … Ryan is so alone. His dad is out of the picture. His mom is out of the picture. … Lisa is a person who knows him more intimately and with whom Ryan has been more vulnerable than anyone in his life. She’s out of the picture. Jay is out of the picture for the moment. This is his No. 1 brother and comrade, but their relationship is momentarily suspended because of everything that’s been happening between them. Then his other major brother-in-arms would be Alvey and you see in this episode how unsure Ryan is of that relationship.

What I particularly love about … Ryan in this episode is that you see him behaving with such insecurity, especially around Alvey. This is a relationship where he wants to maintain the alpha-ness, but you see him behaving with such insecurity where he’s basically demanding of Alvey, “I want this.” And then he’s saying, “Hey coach, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have done that.” He comes back again asking, “Have you thought about it some more? Maybe we can get a drink?” He’s so out of his element and that’s the place that Ryan never likes to be as a warrior and an alpha. It is very hard for him to go into that place of insecurity and self-doubt.

Ryan’s all over the map. He has no footing. He does have Keith, but Keith is more of a pet than an actual confidante. So yeah, Ryan has nobody.


Ryan is in counseling. How is this a positive step for him to actually seek out help?

I love the idea for Ryan. But the gal wasn’t all that helpful. I think it was a combination of her being young and maybe fresh out of college and Ryan not being the most fluid with his emotions or how to communicate them. …

Ryan’s in so much pain. You see him with Alicia when she’s making fun of him for being momentarily impotent. Then they get into a fight. Going from those extremes he doesn’t know how to control his emotions. All that has to do with losing his dad and then Lisa losing the baby.

He’s really trying to figure things out but he has no idea what to do with himself. He’s even been reading the Bible all season. He feels like he’s going to explode. So I think counseling was a really healthy step but I don’t know if that’s going to be the answer for him.


He says to her that he doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. But in order to be a successful fighter he has to. So is it dangerous for him to be successful as a fighter?

You hit the nail on the head. I think a theme that we even discussed with some of the writers probably the first season was this notion that Ryan may not handle success in the most healthy way. There are two parts to that. One is he was raised to be a good boy and put his head down and embrace the grind. He knows what to do with all that energy; he knows the grind. So putting yourself through merciless physical conditioning, being down in a wrestling match or in a MMA fight and having to somehow come back and push yourself to the limit and pull out the win. That is territory that’s very familiar to Ryan that he can filter all of his emotion into.

But the actual accolades and all the trappings I think are not a place where he finds balance. That’s not a comfortable place for him, so he resorts to other things. I think out of insecurity he might try to push himself to other limits or do drugs.

The psychology of Ryan is pretty complex. … The destructive side of him comes as a result of not handling those things well. And he knows that as a result he ruins relationships. He knows that in order to be a champion and in order for him to maintain supremacy in a very dangerous arena that he becomes more of The Destroyer than the guy that people want to see.


So he’s more of the method actor. He doesn’t shut it off.

I think he’s worried that he’s going to hurt the people he loves. He has before. And he just doesn’t want to be that way. He doesn’t want to be selfish. When he came out of jail he didn’t want to fight. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But Alvey talked him back into it.


I wanted to ask about Keith. Does Ryan think Keith is sort of his penitence for past transgressions? Is that why he takes care of him?

I don’t think that Keith’s his penitence. It’s more of this charitable side than something Ryan feels like he owes or must do to make amends. Their relationship is complicated, too. Again I think that Keith is kind of like Ryan’s pet; he cares for him and he loves him.  But there’s only so much that he gets from Keith in terms of friendship and having someone around. There’s not a lot coming from the other side. He’s caring for him and protecting him. And that softens Ryan. It brings out a love in Ryan that we don’t see in other places.

His dynamic with Keith is pretty complicated because initially Ryan wanted to save this guy from the kind of weakness that would mean his demise. He was trying to protect him. Ryan was trying to protect Keith from his own weakness because he’d get eaten alive in that halfway house.

Ryan’s ulterior motive was to secure an ally. … He wants to make Keith his best friend forever, so he earns his allegiance.


Let’s talk about Alicia and Lisa. Compare his feelings for those two women.

In many ways they couldn’t be any more dissimilar. But they’re both strong women who are opinionated and aren’t afraid to make that known. And they boss you around a little bit, I think.

Lisa is the love of his life who he wanted to marry and knows that he screwed up. I think that Lisa and Ryan were together for about the first two years that he was in jail loosely until she broke up with him. In jail all Ryan was thinking about was showing her that he’s a different man. … He still thinks Lisa’s the greatest person ever and still loves her.

Alicia is—if I were going to characterize their relationship it would be in a word: athletic. And secondly, competitive. Since the very beginning there’s been a bit of a sexy power struggle between the two of them. Both are a little turned on by that. She really does bring him a lot of comfort and they do look out for each other in some sincere ways. But he’s not in love with her.


Do you think Ryan can ever be happy?

Hmm. Not until he loves himself man. Not truly. Ryan has moments of happiness, but he doesn’t have the tools yet to guide himself out of his pain and loneliness. … It takes a lot, I think, to kind of unearth what really is the problem. He didn’t have the type of supporting relationship from his parents he needed. He hasn’t had healthy relationships around him to help him work through those things. And he doesn’t have the tools. So he’s a little bit kind of handicapped that way.


Matt Lauria
Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria, left) and Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) face off before their fight in “Kingdom.” (Handout)

Can he and Jay repair their relationship?

I really hope so. There’s so much history there and at the end of the day [the fight was] just business and they both know that. It’s such a fine line with those two, you know? So we’ll see. I hope so.


Will their rematch happen this season? I’m sure you can’t answer that but I’m going to ask anyway.

Well if I say no then you’ll be disappointed. If I say yes you’ll be excited. I can’t say.


All right. Never mind. But about the fighting: Let’s talk a little bit about the physical challenge of this show. Are you staying fit in this off time?

You have to. Actually I just went back to counting calories again two days ago. You have to get a sense of where you’re at. If you want to increase weight you have to have some kind of system in place. I’ve tried a bunch of different approaches each season but it all comes down to—

Look, here’s what it’s all about, Curt. I don’t want to get too out of shape in the off season because then it’s just brutal to try to get back when you get to the fall. So right about now I’m starting to sweat a little bit and get back to it. We’ll come back in November and I don’t want to be thinking, “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.” 


You don’t want to be like Ryan was in Season 1 when he had to make weight. That looked awful.

Yeah, that’s brutal. You can see the difference in the actors. If you’re jumping on a scale and two scenes later you jump on a scale again and they say you’re six pounds lighter and you’re not, the audience sees it differently. We do what we’ve got to do.


You fight opposite real fighters, right?

I do. All of our fighters are actual fighters and that’s a huge privilege. It’s also a safety thing because they know these particular [stunt fights] better than the typical stunt men. For example, I fight with a lot of wrestlers and if I pick them up and slam them they know exactly how to do it in a way that is safe for them and safe for me. They make all the difference. They really make us look good.


Did you ever imagine you’d learn this kind of stuff in your acting career?

Never, it’s pretty wild.


Have you heard from real fighters about the drug and alcohol abuse of the show’s fictional fighters? I would imagine it would be hard to stay in top form doing all that.

We get mixed reviews about that. We have some fighters who write us and say that it’s appalling. And a lot of people say, “Oh crap, I remember those days!” We’ve heard both sides of [the accuracy question]. You can’t characterize an entire community of people in one way or another. But all the characters on our show are individuals with all their unique challenges.


How has playing this character changed you?

In more ways than I can possibly list. People sometimes ask me if this is the toughest role that I’ve ever had. You can’t ever compare writing or characters or roles, but everything you do brings you to where you are right now as an artist and as a person. All the work that I’ve done previously led me to a place where as an actor I was more willing or probably more capable to bring myself to such uncomfortable places than any other role that I’ve done. Every role I’ve done has had beautiful challenges, but for whatever reason—the cast who I’m currently working with, the demands of this writing, the demands of the fitness and the fighting technique—this has been such a hugely evolutionary project for me. …

This project has brought me to a new sense of myself as a person, as an artist. It’s just like sort of a lightning-in-a-bottle situation where everybody at this point in their lives and careers is willing to invest at this level and the roles are really unique.


What can you tease about the rest of the season?

Everybody is kind of hurdling toward the end of the season at breakneck speed. There isn’t a foundation for any of them; it’s really starting to decay and crumble. You’ll see a lot of characters who are highly off balance and just surviving. 

Oh, and you’ll see another really great fight or two and you will see Ryan making out with someone else.


Someone new or someone old?

Oh, that’s a good question. I’m just going to let you have to wonder about that.