It was the rainiest day in Hollywood I’d ever seen. Jonathan Tucker shows up in a shirt, jeans, trucker hat and…flip-flops. “I just got back from the gym, I didn’t realize the rain was this bad!” he says, soaked to the bone.
We met up at El Coyote, one of Hollywood’s most well-known hot spots and one that’s stood the test of time alongside the likes of The Formosa Cafe or Musso & Frank’s. There’s a classic Hollywood element to Tucker as well. At 40, he’s been in the business for most of his life, from his first national commercial in a Fruit Roll-ups ad when he was 11-years-old to his breakthrough at 18 in 2001’s The Deep End to his well-known work in television shows like Justified, Westworld and Kingdom, and his newest film, Palm Trees and Power Lines, he’s carved out a niche of playing tough guys, rough guys, just don’t give a fuck guys in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman with the wiry agility of a Steve McQueen or Sean Penn.
One thing you need to know about Jonathan Tucker is that he wants to know you. The first 30m of our two-hour lunch was him asking everything he could about me, my story. We talked about my husband and son and their garage business, which led into lots of talk about cars (he has four classic Crown Victorias and a 2005 Lotus Esprit), then back to how I met my husband, then back to the journey of my son, who has an audio processing learning disability. He was just invested in our conversation. Not as an interview, this was no traditional question/answer back and forth, but developing a trust and openness in a way that was as surprising as it was welcoming.
Tucker was born in Boston, Massachusetts and caught the performance bug early. He took dance as a child after his grandmother would bring him along to watch the New York City ballet, something he credits to this day as a foundational element of his acting and being a man (“Be punctual. Be polite. Be professional. Practice, practice, practice. And plié.”) He was in a ballet production of The Nutcracker in the 3rd grade, which set in motion his desire to be a performer that has taken him across the globe, on the big screen and as one of the most recognizable, and reliable, actors on television.
In his latest film, Palm Trees and Power Lines (for which he earned a Spirit Award nomination), Tucker explores some of the darkest subject matter of his career, that of a 34-year-old man who grooms a 17-year-old girl into an intimate relationship and more. Written Jamie Dack and Audrey Findlay and directed by Dack (who won the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Directing award for the film), PTaPL explores the life of a disaffected teen girl named Lea (Lily McInerny in a stunning debut that earned her a Spirit Award nomination), who aimlessly spends her days in southern California tanning with her friend, smoking pot and having sex with high school boys in the back of cars and avoiding her mother’s inquisitive eye. When she meets Tom (Tucker), who comes to her rescue in a diner parking lot, the she is intrigued by the riskiness of a teenage girl/older man scenario and the darkness of the power balance and manipulation begins.
In talking about Dack, Tucker recalls the confidence he had after seeing the short the feature film is based on and meeting Dack for the first time via Zoom. “Jamie’s really… She’s the real deal. And I will brag. I did see it right away. The fucking moment I saw her on Zoom, I was like real dude. And my wife can back me up every time. She’s like, ‘You were locked on it.’”
With newcomer McInerny, Tucker speaks with reverence. “I’m not the star of the movie, Lily is the star of the movie,” he says. He put his faith in Dack hiring McInerny (some wanted a more high-profile name actress to secure funding) and the discovery of the 20-year old actress proved to be right as her and Tucker’s chemistry and dynamic is evident in their performances. “‘But wait until you see this girl, it’s so fresh,'” he recalls. “And I think it really speaks the bravery of Jamie, to her foresight.”
For Tucker, he deeply understood the very complicated nature and responsibility of tackling the subject of grooming maybe more than most. 2001’s The Deep End had him on the other side, as the teenager being seduced by a man twice his age and long before the conversations and inclusion of intimacy coordinators on set. But for Palm Trees and Power Lines, coming in a new age of aware filmmaking and the height of #MeToo, every aspect of the uncomfortable nature of their onscreen relationship was worked on by the trio to provide both intimacy and distance from the topic to give it the honesty it deserved but to allow the performances to have a spark, a spontaneity, that also rang true. “With Lily, I felt like I had this secret,” he says, of their trust and bond on set. “I’ve worked with some of the best actors in the world,” he continued, remarking that McInerny often had more natural instincts and knew herself as well as seasoned performers.
For Tucker, he received some the best notices of his career and a Spirit Award nomination (his first top tier awards recognition) for the film, with critics calling it “mesmerizingly disquieting” and “an unerring tightrope walk of a performance.” “The feedback’s been so gratifying,” he says.” “The platform, like your site and other critics too, it’s real. They really give you an opportunity to share the story with an audience. You don’t get that relationship with an audience unless you have these people that help serve it.”
When I asked him about the first major awards recognition of his career, his answer was quintessential Jonathan Tucker as I quickly learned him to be. “It’s really wonderful,” he said. “But I’m also more guarded against attaching any meaning to it than I ever have been in my life. Which is actually a blessing. I couldn’t value this more than I do right now. And I couldn’t be more capable of detaching it from my self-worth as an actor and as a human being than I am right now. At the same time, which is great.”
This became somewhat of a focal point of our conversation, and the actor was refreshingly honest about the industry and his place in it. He talked about the acting class he takes weekly. “I just know that Tuesday’s coming and I’m going to be on a stage under lights, in front of my peers. It’s a really small class. Everybody’s a working actor and some really successful, famous people in the class, but for the community, there are stakes. And funny enough, the actual stakes are in some ways how much can you fail.”
At 40, having spent more than half of his life in front of the camera, Tucker is more comfortable in his own skin than he ever has been (“I will say that the things I want and deserve now are probably different from what I thought or wanted earlier.”). Less concerned about stardom and money, his motivations and choice of projects are more self-actualized than ever before (“If I can figure out how to make enough money to support my family, then these are the sort of opportunities that you want to be doing for the rest of your life.”) and you see that in his choices.
If there’s something you’ve noticed, Jonathan Tucker doesn’t pick “easy” characters. Whether it’s Jay Kulina in Kingdom, Frankie Ryan in City on a Hill, Boon on Justified or Tom in Palm Trees and Power Lines, they’re really complicated, sometimes really evil. It got me thinking about the last, only, time I could recall him as a full-fledged romantic lead (2000’s 100 Girls?)… are we ever going to get a Jonathan Tucker romcom again?
“I don’t know,” he says, “in some ways you’re at the whim of other people’s perceptions of you. But I would like to play a nice doctor or something,” he says with a sly grin.
Jonathan Tucker’s latest film, Palm Trees and Power Lines, is in select theaters now and available on demand and to rent on Prime Video and iTunes.