"I want to die on set," declares Jonathan Tucker.
It's an extreme statement, but this actor likes roles that test his physical limits — and maybe push his luck. He lost 30 pounds and trained at Easton's gym in L.A. to play mixed-martial artist Jay Kulina for three seasons on the DirecTV boxing drama Kingdom (it's now on Netflix).
Nearly as demanding is his newest role on the NBC sci-fi series Debris, which premiered March 1. Tucker has had one on-set accident.
"I was just running, when I dropped like a sack of potatoes with a ruptured Achilles [tendon]," he says. "We were down for about a month."
In this hybrid of The Twilight Zone and The X-Files — created by Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman for Legendary Television — Tucker plays Bryan Beneventi, a CIA agent charged with recovering the fallout from a wrecked alien spacecraft. The space junk has scattered across the universe and is messing up mankind's future.
"The wreckage itself doesn't literally manifest in different week-to-week scenarios," he explains, "but the pieces of this spaceship — the debris — are reflecting our fears and our aspirations."
The new series offers Tucker a rare chance to play the hero, and he's up for the challenge. "Bryan is an unorthodox [character] with a traumatic history," he says. "I wanted to lead a production — to set a tone of collaboration and creative risk-taking — and you can't do that if you're not at the top of the call sheet."
Most recently, on Showtime's City on a Hill, he played an armored- truck robber in Charlestown, his own Boston neighborhood. Tucker had a loftier upbringing there, the only child of noted Monet scholar Paul Hayes Tucker and public relations executive Maggie Moss. (His dog is named Rothko.)
Tucker has been acting since he was 11. He evolved from youthful roles in films such as Barry Levinson's Sleepers and the Sundance hit The Deep End, where he played Tilda Swinton's teen son, to more mature roles on NBC's The Black Donnellys and Parenthood. Along the way, he worked with some of his heroes, including the late John Hurt, with whom he costarred in An Englishman in New York.
"My experience with John was one of the most beautiful I've ever had," Tucker says. "It was hard to delete his phone number from my phone. He was like, 'Anytime you come to London, please.' And I never took him up on it. It just kills me."
Another hero, Ed Harris, roughed Tucker up on HBO's Westworld in 2018 and 2020.
"We did a number of night shoots where there was a torrential downpour," Tucker recalls. "Ed's got his finger in my mouth, fish-hooking me across dirt and manure down some Western street. I might have complained about the physicality of that 10 or 15 years ago, but I'm more grateful now for the work than I have ever been."
The gratitude feels genuine. Between 2009 and 2012, Tucker says, "I tested for 30 TV shows and didn't get one." Now, he thinks he's finally coming into his own. "I'm just less concerned with pleasing anybody. Even a whiff of trying to please somebody ends up taking you away from what you ultimately want."
Which is to keep creating characters and telling stories.
"I don't want to die in a retirement home," says Tucker, whose wife, Tara, and twin toddlers joined him in Vancouver for a two-week quarantine before he reported to the Debris set. "I don't want to be living in Santa Barbara or Jackson Hole in some beautiful home that I spent all my life making money to buy and build.
"I've avoided a lot of the pitfalls that end up happening to a lot of actors. Some of it is things you know of, like drugs and alcohol, and some of it is complacency. The only person who's going to box me in is me."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2021