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Matt Lauria on His 'Kingdom' Character, and the One Role He Has yet to Play
May 31, 2017  | By David Hinckley

One of the intriguing things about Ryan Wheeler, says Matt Lauria (top), is that Ryan raises life’s big questions without thinking about them.

Lauria plays Wheeler, an ex-con who has returned to mixed martial arts fighting on Kingdom, the AT&T Audience Network drama that launches its third and final season Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

Kingdom is full of seriously flawed people, trying to sort out their lives in a world built on violence. In theory, controlled violence. In reality, not always.

Ryan was a rising star before he went up the river. He was engaged to Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez, left), who is now the girlfriend of Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo), who wants to manage Ryan’s comeback.

Alvey also has two sons, Nate (Nick Jonas), whose fighting career is temporarily derailed by an accident, and Jay (Jonathan Tucker), the kind of cocky hothead you think any minute will climb up on the bar and announce he can lick any guy in the joint.

Needless to say, the intrapersonal relationship can get volatile, even beyond the fact Ryan still carries his torch for Lisa.  

Kingdom is so intense in terms of the psychological drive of the characters,” says Lauria. “It pushes you to levels of vulnerability. Just asking the questions helps you grow and stretch as an artist.”

Ryan himself is “a very complicated and confused young guy,” says Lauria. “He makes people uncomfortable.

“But you can’t talk about him as a good guy or a bad guy. He defies any easy description. The man is who the man is, good or bad.

“He’s capable of great understanding, and he’s also capable of aggression and cruelty.

“I feel like I can keep digging deeper and deeper into him. A role like this is a real gift.”

At the same time, whether it’s for self-protection or something else, Ryan himself is not a digger.

“He doesn’t have the motivation to ask these kinds of questions,” says Lauria. “He only knows this moment and how to deal with it. He doesn’t ruminate about what he could or should do. He’s just not programmed that way.

“He hated his jail time, but what worked for him was that everything was very present.”

That makes MMA fighting a logical profession for Ryan – and a bit of a turn for Lauria from his last sports role.  

Fans will remember that he played Luke Cafferty, a star white running back on a primarily black high school football team in the wonderful NBC/DirecTV series Friday Night Lights.

“I was a fan of Luke,” he says. “I always enjoyed playing sports. But I also know there’s me, and then there are professionals.

“There’s something very uplifting about athletics. You watch an Olympic champion on the podium, and you can’t help thinking all the effort and the lifetime of commitment it took to get there.”

While MMA is a more raw athletic world, Lauria says the dedication is the same.

“You can’t get off-track,” he says. “Just for this show, I’m training most of the year. A big party is when I get to eat bread.”

And where there are athletics, even for a TV show, there are always the competitions.

“It doesn’t help,” says Lauria with a laugh, “that Tucker is an organism unto himself. The man is not human.

“You don’t want to drag down the standard. So when you see Tucker and Frank and the others so committed, you don’t want to be the one lagging behind.”

As for where this will all take Ryan in the end, Lauria says he’s not sure.

“I don’t know that there’s a place of peace for him,” Lauria says. “He doesn’t feel like he has a place in his world. I don’t think he even asks himself what would make him happy.

“He could end up with some girl and coaching high school wrestling. Or he could end up back in jail and just accept it.”

Happily, in all probability, the 34-year-old Lauria says he’s “the opposite” of Ryan in his own life.

Born in Virginia and raised in Ireland, he returned to the U.S. for high school and graduated from the University of North Carolina School for the Arts.

Besides Friday Night Lights and Kingdom, he’s been featured in Lipstick Jungle, The Chicago Code, and Parenthood.

One role he hasn’t played yet is "musician," a personal fave since his wife Michelle Armstrong is a musician, and he plays electric guitar himself.

“There’d be nothing cooler,” he says, “than to play a musician.”                                                  

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