All season long on DirecTV's MMA drama Kingdom, something has been eating away at up-and-coming fighter Nate Kulina (Nick Jonas), something that kept him at arm's length from nearly everyone in his life. Then, in the season finale, everything finally came to light: Nate is gay.
While it had been hinted in Kingdom's debut season, the Dec. 10 finale threw the doors to Nate's glass closet wide open after he was rejected from a gay bar and drunkenly found solace in the arms (well, mouth) of another man.
The reveal may have surprised viewers, but the actor has known about Nate's sexuality since Day 1. "Byron [Balasco, Kingdom creator] told me before shooting began," Jonas told BuzzFeed News exclusively during a recent phone interview. "Everyone at Kingdom was really transparent about the character and some of the things the character would go through. And in my prep work, I wanted to be aware so I could properly tell this story."
"For me, it was important to maintain the stakes for Nate," the 22-year-old actor and singer continued. "He lives in a world of fear — fear of disappointing his father, both in the cage and outside of the cage — and he carries that pressure with him in so many ways. I think it's something a lot of people can relate to."
For Balasco, having a gay character in the MMA world was particularly important. "I wanted to tell this story in an environment that would be, perhaps, extra challenging for a gay man," the Kingdom creator told BuzzFeed News. "Really show somebody who is struggling with this part of his life and reconciling it with the combination of what it takes to be an elite level athlete and how that concentration makes you to block out and ignore real questions that you have about yourself and about the life you're living."
Although, he added, Nate won't be coming out to his friends and family any time soon on Kingdom, which DirecTV picked up for 20 more episodes (the network will split them into two 10-episode runs, with the first premiering in spring 2015). "Just because we've seen a truth about Nate doesn't mean anyone else has," Balasco said. "The bigger issue for Nate is not what everybody else will think but his perception of what everybody else is going to think."
While the audience will have to wait and see how the Kulina family reacts to Nate being gay, Jonas' family was nothing but supportive of the role. "Their reaction was incredible," said Jonas, the third of four boys and the son of an ordained minister. "My family was really proud of me for getting this role and they were excited for me to tell this story — especially because it's so important."
Jonas is also keenly aware that for his fans — amassed during years of performing with The Jonas Brothers and solidified with his new solo album, Nick Jonas — Nate's coming out story could be very influential. "I've really been trying to make an effort to talk with my gay fan base and find unique opportunities to set up the next chapter of my life and my career with them in it," said Jonas, who's recently performed at gay clubs and made headlines with Marky Mark-esque photoshoots. "The attitude I take in the stories I want to share and my personal life and my view is that I think we're in a time where there's a new progression. For all people of all walks of life to accept all people … I'd be thrilled if I'm any part of that."
Jonas added that working on Kingdom, his most high-profile adult role, has been an invaluable experience, as an actor. "The biggest thing I've learned through this is that you can't have any fear when you're acting. Any ounce of fear will show," he said. "You just have to become that person and live that life. I love that process and pushing myself in that way. I found that really rewarding in the end … I'm absolutely willing to go anywhere the story needs to go."
And that openness extends to Jonas' feelings about filming a gay love scene (a likelihood given the graphic sex scenes Kingdom featured in Season 1). "I have trust in Byron and the writing team to tell these stories in a really honest and grounded way and it's my responsibility as an actor to be that person and tell those stories the best I can," Jonas said. "So, absolutely I will do all I need to do."
Balasco, who is currently working on the next handful of episodes, couldn't reveal exactly what Kingdom viewers would see next, but he did offer a hint at what's to come. "All of our characters are fighting for survival, fighting to understand who they are, fighting to understand their significance in the world," he said. "You always think everybody is thinking about you all the time, but the truth is, nobody's thinking about you — period. Your sexuality isn't as earth shattering to the other guy in the gym as you think it is, but it's scary to actually find out that answer."
Jonas is in the dark about what the next stretches of episodes have in store for Nate, but he would love to see his character find self-love. "I think it would be ideal if Nate could just live in his truth and be exactly who he needs to be and be OK with it, but the reality is that, for him specifically, it's tough," Jonas said. "There's a journey he has to go on, and I hold that with a lot of responsibility and I'm thrilled to get to tell this story."