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Jonathan Tucker might have a broken neck. He’s not really sure. All he knows is that after spending 12 hours filming a fight scene for Kingdom, DirecTV’s hit show about mixed martial artists, something felt off.

But where did Tucker go when he wrapped? To eat a half-pound turkey burger. And considering Tucker starved himself only months ago in an effort to drop 30 pounds for the same role, the meal is a big deal. A maybe-broken neck is just the latest thing he’s done to his body in the name of his art.

It’s that commitment that makes Tucker worth watching. Justified‘s Boon. Kingdom‘s Jay Kulina. Parenthood‘s Bob Little. Hannibal‘s Matthew Brown. They’re all Tucker — and yet those four characters feel nothing alike. A true acting chameleon, Tucker throws himself into every role in a way that results in very little repetition.

“I hope that will always be the case,” Tucker says about his shape-shifter status. “It’s really fun, and it’s exciting to be able to reflect different part of the world in a truthful way.”

Tucker found his way into acting at a young age. After joining the Boston Ballet Company when he was about 7 years old, he danced for a few years before making the transition to commercials. He then quickly fell in love with the camera, leading to his first big role in a European Spaghetti Western with stars Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. After that, he was hooked.

Now with more than 20 years in the Screen Actors Guild under his belt, Tucker views his career as a marathon more than a sprint. It’s a strategy that’s paid off as multiple high-profile roles have been added to his resume in recent years alone. From Parenthood‘s Bob, a character whom Tucker will happily spend five minutes defending — “I was a good dude trying to do good things!” — to Hannibal‘s Matthew, a not-so-good dude, Tucker has built a varied portfolio, due in large part to the full-throttle dedication and amount of detail he brings to each role.

Credit: NBC

This rang true for his turn as Bob, for whom Tucker started with one specific detail: the hair. Aiming for that perfect coif, Tucker remembers doing a Google search for a young Dan Quayle … but only for the hair.

For Bob’s mannerisms and persona, he moved on to a Midwestern Republican congressman whom he can no longer name. And that’s because he wasn’t channeling the individual, but the passion. “I wanted to find that sense of enthusiasm for all things politics,” Tucker says. “I was trying to think, ‘How can I make this character ambitious without being conniving?’ What I was trying to do was make him so excited about politics and so transparent about his affinity for the political process in its entirety that then I could use ambition as a driving force without it being sneaky.”

From potentially sneaky to downright dangerous, he then joined Hannibal as Matthew Brown. For that role, Tucker spent a lot of time talking to showrunner Bryan Fuller, who’d previously worked with the actor on a pilot that didn’t get picked up. Tucker crafted a new character for the show, and it’s one that surprised many people behind the camera. After his first take, Tucker remembers being asked if he was putting on a lisp. “I was like, ‘I hope you think I am because if you don’t, there’s a real problem,'” he recalls with a laugh.

Tucker’s walk as Matthew Brown also came into question, but those raising concern about the gait behind the scenes quickly came around to his interpretation. “You try to make more of what’s on the page,” he says. “Bryan’s so great. He really gives you these seeds and then you try out different soil and water and light to get that plant to grow, and that’s on you in some respects. That’s why I think so much of the work he’s done has been successful creatively because he has actors who are excited about the freedom to create a character.”

Credit: NBC

Said freedom is something that carried over into Tucker’s standout guest-starring role on the final season of Justified, in which he appeared as Boon, a character Tucker describes as “somebody who didn’t have a father figure” and furthermore, “had almost no guilt, no thought of heaven and hell.” Boon was “a guy who’s really just looking to be loved and finds it in all the wrong places,” according to Tucker.

To take on the role of Boon, Tucker used the Alexander Technique, which puts a premium on the physical aspects of a character. “It puts you into a physical place from which the rest of your choices are informed,” he says. “Everybody walks differently and talks differently. It’s important to incorporate that. Teaching actors how to find their neutral spine allows them to make choices from there.”

“We had this idea of making him like a big, bushy-tailed fox,” he continues of Boon. “How does that fox or big bushy-tailed cat move? How do they hear and smell and how do they react to noise?”

Once those decisions were made, Tucker worked on the precise details, everything from naming Boon’s weapon — Jenny — to giving him a “generic Southern accent,” which he developed based on the character’s background as a “kind of orphan,” down to the way Boon approached life. “He was somebody who was always trying to reflect his environment as a means to fill the emotional gaps that were prevalent in this life,” Tucker says.

But the star didn’t stop there. Boon’s finishing touch was something Tucker picked up while on a yoga retreat six months earlier. “I saw this guy wearing all these rings and I thought that was so cool. [I decided] to incorporate that into the character. We put all the rings on my left hand so that my right hand was free to pull the gun from the holster,” he says, adding, “These characters start to find themselves.”

Tucker is now giving the same treatment to Jay Kulina, his character on Kingdom, which is in the midst of its second season. Jay’s a son, a brother, an addict, a fighter, a lover, and one of the most enthralling characters currently on the small screen. It’s a role Tucker was drawn to instantly, despite the fact he was first asked to read for the part of Ryan Wheeler (now played by Matt Lauria).

But it was Jay who caught Tucker’s eye, and it was Jay whom he’d eventually bring to life. For Tucker, crafting Jay was about channeling what it means to be a real townie. “It was a lot of growing up in Charlestown [Massachusetts], where I grew up. I was the first person that left,” he says. Tucker went from being a local in his own life to reflecting it in his character. “A townie in one city or rural area is the same as a townie anywhere else,” Tucker says. “You can find other similarities.”

Add in a bit of Sam Rockwell, and Jay Kulina was born. “I went to Mr. Sam Rockwell for his screen test for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind where he’s singing and dancing. The freedom, spontaneity, and character that he puts into that screen test, I thought that was the perfect jumping-off point for Jay.”

Despite their many intricacies and noticeable differences, these characters all do have one thing in common: Tucker’s innovation — his willingness to try different, potentially unorthodox things. And with each character, Tucker learns something new. Whether it’s Bob teaching him that “taking care of others is more important than taking care of yourself,” Matthew showing him that maybe you don’t want to meet your heroes, Boon demonstrating that “lack of love can lead you to a very lonely place,” or Jay’s guidance that pure motives don’t always lead to the best decisions, Tucker is constantly growing.

The underlying lesson of all of this, however, is one Tucker learned early in his career, and it’s why he goes to such lengths to become his characters: “You can’t act what you don’t understand,” Tucker says. It’s a rule that can lead to some dark thoughts. “As an actor, you have to think graphically, because life is graphic. You can’t just think about a car accident. You have to really get into what that looks like and feels like and smells like. If you’re running down the street to save somebody’s life who’s been hit by a car, [it’s] the actual tactile feeling of putting your hand on somebody’s body that’s been ripped apart or whatever it might be.”

It’s that sort of hyper-preparation that then allows Tucker to take risks, or, as he puts it, “have fun” on set. “You do these big deep dives that allow you to come to set with a fully realized character and you’re completely open to experience the world as that character. You’re free to play, and it’s just so fun.”

But with that freedom comes the possibility of failure. “I’m totally prepared for when it doesn’t work,” he continued. “I don’t think you can make those interesting choices, I don’t think you can lift material off the ground or let it fly unless you’re willing to accept the fact that it might not work. I have to go with that approach rather than playing it safe. Playing it safe doesn’t work.”

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