BURNIN’ UP

Nick Jonas Is All Grown Up, Clutching His Penis and Everything

After nailing the “sexy photo shoot” part of leaving his Disney past behind, Nick Jonas stars as an MMA fighter in the new drama Kingdom. And he nails that, too.

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Nick Jonas is on his “I’m All Grown Up Tour.”

It’s that thing child stars do—lately and especially Disney stars—where they star in provocative, gritty movies (Selena Gomez, Spring Breakers) or pose in hyper-horny photo spreads (Miley Cyrus, every photo spread ever) to let you know that they’ve set fire to their mouse ears and plan to emerge from the blaze like some mature, sexy phoenix.

Now Nick Jonas, freshly 22 years old and leaving his days as a mommy-approved Jonas Brothers crooner behind, is following suit.

You know he’s all grown up because he is letting himself be photographed shirtless while holding his penis in his hand. You know he’s all grown up because he is breaking the number one Disney star rule and letting us know that he has a penis, and might even want to use that penis sexually. You know he’s all grown up because he is letting himself be photographed with his bare ass poking out of his low-slung jeans. You know he’s all grown up because his ass has hair on it.

These are definitely important tenets of the tour, because for us to believe that a former Disney star is all grown up we must be able to look at them as adult, sexual beings with no sense of shame or queasiness. Well, Nick, mission accomplished.

But more than that, we know Nick Jonas is on his all-grown up tour because he is starring in a very grown up piece of television, playing a very grown up character, and is actually quite excellent in it.

Kingdom, which premieres on DirecTV Wednesday night, is a gritty drama in which Jonas plays a mixed martial arts fighter named Nate who, thanks to a corrupt and ever-complicated family life, finds wrestling for his own identity to be as brutal and scarring as the physical matches he faces in the ring. Set in Los Angeles’s Venice neighborhood, it weaves in all the drugs, sex, and moral bankruptcy typical of clichéd boxing movies in with the emotional groundedness, dank atmospherics, and attention to character of the latest, greatest fighting film, 2011’s Warrior starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.

All that, and, Jonas tells me, “overall I thought it was just really badass.”

It truly is. The fight scenes are horrific. The training seems brutal. The characters are the paeans of machismo bark—buff, buck-naked, and beer-swilling—that guys’ guys tune in to these kinds of emotionally driven sports narrative to see. Nate, the brightest prospect in a family-owned gym, is the introvert, though, and Jonas nails the tricky balance between quiet sensitivity that makes him empathetic, without giving him a naiveté that would have made his presence in this coke-snorting, prostitute-banging world seem unbelievable.

“It’s a big departure for me,” Jonas concedes, “and that comes with its challenge.” Chief among them, he says, was even getting in the door to audition.

This is, after all, a Tiger Beat staple whose most significant acting credits include a Monkees-esque Disney channel series called Jonas, in which he plays a spoofed-up version of himself, and a guest episode of Smash. While his hand might now be pulling down his jeans to expose his nether regions in a come hither photo shoot, that same hand once famously sported a purity ring. Veterans of Friday Night Lights (Matt Lauria), Mad Men (Joanna Going), Warrior (Frank Grillo), and Parenthood (Jonathan Tucker) co-star with Jonas in Kingdom. It’s a pretty easy game of “which one of these seems like it doesn’t belong.”

So Jonas set out to prove that he did.

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He remembers the reservations in the room when he first auditioned. “There was definitely some bias built up there that was based on my past success and previous exposure,” he says. It took two or three more auditions to warm them up to the idea of casting him.

“Getting the role was a huge victory for me,” he says. “But then the real work started.”

There was character work to do, sure. But also have you seen his body? (That’s a trick question. Jonas has pretty much been shirtless for months at this point.) Jonas packed on 20 pounds of muscle to achieve that sculpted figure in the now-famous Instagram that caused an Internet-wide swoon. That, you might not be surprised to learn, was hard work.

Jonas cut all carbs and created a special diet to get into shape, a more complicated task than it might already seem since he suffers from Type 1 diabetes. He did two-a-day workouts mixed with fight training, a very specific regiment over the course of two months meant to recreate the body of a MMA fighter.

“There were moments when I was just really tempted to have a slice of pizza or a cheeseburger,” he says. “But I saw the end in sight. After I shot my first fight scene I chilled out a little bit. I’ve since dropped about 10 pounds of muscle I put on, which feels better for a daily, walking around weight.”

His girlfriend, former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo, apparently agreed with that latter sentiment. “[She] said that at one point I was too heavy, that I was crushing her,” Jonas says. “So once she said that, I was like, OK, I’ll chill out a little bit.”

Spoilsport.

Not that Jonas chilled out on the exhibitionism. In the weeks leading up to Kingdom premiere, there was the big Instagram debut, the stop at a New York City gay bar to lift up his shirt and show off his abs, and, of course, that whole photo shoot with the hand cupping the penis thing. But this isn’t just sexual exploitation as a way of acting out, an adherence to tired child-star-gone-wild narrative.

The Washington Post’s Caitlin Moore says it best: “Young male stars like Nick Jonas are stripping to show they’re serious.” It’s worked for Daniel Radcliffe, who began to be taken seriously as a legitimate actor after going buff in Equus. It worked for Zac Efron, who unveiled his post-High School Musical happy trail for a 2007 Rolling Stone cover, launching a career that has since seen him smoke weed with Seth Rogen and get peed on by Nicole Kidman. Following in those shrewd, shirtless footsteps, perhaps one day Jonas will be peed on by Nicole Kidman, too.

“The reaction has been a little obnoxious at times,” Jonas says, when asked about the web’s giddiness at the sight of his abs. But he also says it’s been undeniably flattering—that’s the part he’s enjoying. “It also comes with a bit of pressure to uphold that look,” he laughs.

Coverage of Jonas’s part in Kingdom, much like this piece, has focused on the surprise that the star pulls off the role so well. It’s a lived-in, nuanced performance, but one that most critics are having a hard time viewing isolated from a suspicion that it’s part of this mission to “un-Disney-fy” himself and his image. There’s an unshakable fascination with the fact that this is Nick Jonas as you’ve never seen before.

“I’m definitely aware of that,” Jonas says. But he also has lived through his maturity on a day-to-day basis, whereas the media and the public has been bombarded with it recently, so they’re not as comfortable with it.

“It’s happened over time,” he says. “The last thing I did with Disney was probably three or four years ago, although I think most people still associate me with that because they all feel the leaving that behind happened more quickly.”

And he’s OK with that.

“I know it will be an education,” he says. “People will need to get used to who I am today and the projects I’m working on and the difference now from years ago. So I’m aware of it and it doesn’t stress me out, the way that I think it can for some people.”

Well. What a grown up thing to say.