Lisa Prince is a badass. Plain and simple. This also means Kiele Sanchez, the actress who portrays Prince, is also a badass.
“Kingdom” fans know what I’m talking about. The MMA show found a new home and long lost fame in July when it landed on Netflix, but there was a whole other part of the show that continues to go unchecked, not discussed enough for my performance-appreciating standards. That was Prince, who governed Navy Street-the fictional gym that housed a moderate portion of the show’s action-better than anyone could.
Sanchez played the shit out of the role, making dialogue sing and dig in at different ventures. We met her as the co-owner of the gym she shared with her boyfriend, Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo). The headcase of all headcases would be enough for any woman to fill her days with, but then she had to deal with Ryan Wheeler’s alpha male egomaniac tendencies. A live wire ex-con/fighter, and Lisa’s ex-fiance, who used her as a road map back to a grace that had eluded him for four years spent behind bars.
Prince also managed the troubled yet talented duo of Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) and Alicia (Natalie Martinez), which would keep any woman up to her eyeballs in drama and needs. Sanchez’s powerhouse of a business woman, “a pitbull” manager according to one client, was the one character who truly evolved in the 40 episodes that Byron Balasco gave us. She was attached to Alvey in the beginning, a woman in love with the sport and its production of bad boys as much as any single soul. But by the end, she was the boss of King Beast, a job presented to her after she took the former boss (Bryan Callen’s Garo) to the wood chipper.
Sanchez made it all land hard and with conviction. Whether it was reading a bad idea comment from Alvey on a blogger’s website in a California stoner’s voice or taking apart Garo over a messed-up fight card or the amount of money for her fighters, the actress gave one of the most overlooked performances. Like the best performers, Sanchez can do SO MUCH with SO LITTLE. It’s not that Balasco doesn’t know how to write women (he really does, actually) or didn’t feed the women in the cast lines that carried juice; it was more what Sanchez did with the dialogue. The way she could transcribe a page of dialogue with a single look or stare.
There were times where I didn’t know what she was thinking exactly, which is like an actor’s joker card. Something they can do to the audience to keep us off guard and searching, even when we think that the whole story and its construction now live in our head. She proved us wrong, dumping Alvey over the phone, or confiding in her brother from another mother in Jay, or just staring into Ryan’s sad eyes.
Perhaps the biggest moment came during the second leg of “Kingdom’s” second season, or what DirecTV called Season 2B! For the first ten episodes of the second season, Lisa was pregnant with Alvey’s kid, a late relationship mistake that she was learning to embrace just as the infant boy was growing arms and legs inside of her. At odds with a baby over a grown man, that’s Lisa Prince’s fight.
But then real life stepped in and threw a kidney shot at Sanchez, which sent a shockwave through the show. Unlike most actresses acting in a role that involved a pregnancy, Sanchez was expecting with her real life husband (and “Kingdom” guest star), Zach Gilford. When she tragically suffered a miscarriage, Balasco did the honorable thing. He put the future of Lisa’s arc in the actress’ hands. Sanchez made the gutsy choice to write the miscarriage into the storyline, walking across reality coals as she portrayed the damage onscreen. You won’t find a braver performance. Seriously, you won’t. You won’t find a braver voice than Sanchez for documenting her experience and struggles. Here’s an excerpt from her guest column on The Hollywood Reporter:
It was a few weeks after losing my pregnancy. A few weeks after giving birth to him. My son, Winter. I was in New York and was supposed to start shooting the next season of Kingdom in a few weeks. I couldn’t imagine it. The amount of pain I felt consumed me. Every day it bit at me. Chewed on me. Swallowed me. I felt heavy and hollow. I got a call from Byron Balasco, the creator of the show. He said I love you. I’m sorry. How are you? I said I’m hopeless. I’m infinitely sad. I’m on the ground. He said I haven’t written a word. I’ll do whatever you want and something inside me twisted. We had filmed the last season with my character, Lisa, pregnant so she either has the baby or she doesn’t. Both seemed merciless. I told him I’m at my lowest. I can’t imagine playing anything other than where I’m at. If I can turn this into … something. He asked if I was sure and I said let’s lean in.
While she dug into the role with each episode and subsequent season, some of Sanchez’s best work was in those final few episodes of the second season. The toe-to-toe argument with Alvey that nearly ended in blows, and the much more personal stuff that didn’t require a co-star. Sanchez found light in the darkness, opening up her real pain to viewers, choosing trial by fire in transcending true and honestly searing pain.
And it wasn’t showy or done without taste by Balasco and his writers. In most of the scenes, I would say they merely handed her a paddle and let her work down the river on her own. A bold yet righteous choice that led to some great television and powerful acting.
Powerful is a word that is thrown around a lot by critics. It’s the easy drop for a writer trying to place a meaning on a feeling he/she/they received from a performance or piece of work. We ruminate before we settle on powerful. I don’t think it can wrap its arm around the material here.
Maybe powerful is the word to use for Sanchez’s performance. Maybe there’s a better word or phrase, like a riveting head-turner. Before that story arc, I was impressed with Sanchez. Afterwards, including every minute of the show that followed, left me blown away. Every emotional outburst felt like a landmine going off, and every sharp amount of wit dispensed was delivered with the faint appearance of a teardrop that landed like stone in our stomach.
Lisa Prince went through hell to get to the top of the sport’s business side, a place that wasn’t even on her radar in the pilot. Something the audience knew she could handle, but may not have been on the character’s future plan. But it all added up-the years spent with fighters, around fighters, and in a gym-when she took over near the end of the third and final (maybe not, Netflix?) season. She was one of the show’s most fully-realized characters.
I could be making a big deal out of this for the fact that millions of sports fans refuse to take women seriously in sport, whether it’s being a teammate or a boss. 2020 has been a rough year for various reasons, but seeing Kim Ng be named general manager of the Marlins and Sarah Fuller perform in a college football game with men surrounding her is a step in the right direction.
Watching Sanchez demolish men with words (she only threw a few punches at Alvey and Jay) sure was a fun sight to take in. A woman governing a land created by men, in a world designed for every human being, no matter what color their skin is or their gender, are created equal. Maybe one day, that will transcend to equal opportunity.
I know this much. If “Kingdom” addicts need a negotiator to work out a fourth season or movie with Netflix, Lisa Prince is the person you send in. Consider it done.
Thanks for reading, and go watch “Kingdom” now on Netflix, as it streams EVERYWHERE!