Viewers used to recognize AJ Buckley for his nerdy television roles. Among his credits, Buckley portrayed Adam in “CSI: NY” and Ed on “Supernatural,” not to mention Evan on “Justified,” Marty on “Murder in the First” and Bronco on “Pure”. However, these days, people stop and do a double take whenever they see him. Buckley, 43, hired a nutritionist, packed on 35 pounds of muscle and now hits the gym almost obsessively. He attributes the physical transformation to a healthier lifestyle and his latest gig on the TV series, “SEAL Team”.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Buckley tells ET Canada. “I had gone up to Canada to do this series, ‘Pure’. Prior to doing the show, I wanted to get fat for the character. Over the course of the series, Bronco finds his way and stops drinking and gets into shape. Over the four months I was up there, I wanted to show this bloated, fat guy lost in his way. Then, I worked with this amazing trainer, Adrian Veinot, in New Brunswick where we shot this. I just treated it like a fight camp. I dialled in on my nutrition. I was training. When I finished the show, I was in the best shape of my life.

“I came back to Los Angeles and Ben Cavell, who I had worked with on ‘Justified’, had sent me a message saying, ‘Hey, I have this character that I thought of you when I was writing him for ‘SEAL Team’. They are going to bring you in for it,’” says Buckley. “I went in and ended up getting the part. Then, what I thought was good shape, was completely laughed at when I started the show. These guys are in such amazing shape.

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“For the show, we are still training two times a day,” he continues. “Or, we are training at 4 and 5 a.m. in the morning before we go to work. We actually now have a fitness trailer on set with us, that travels with us wherever we go. If we are at lunch, we can get a workout in. Max Thieriot, who plays Clay on the show, we are workout buddies. We live in the same area and our wives have become really close. Usually, we carpool into work and get a workout in. We constantly push each other.”   

“SEAL Team” follows the exploits of an elite squad of United States Navy SEALS. Buckley plays Special Warfare Operator First Class Sonny Quinn, a fiercely loyal and dedicated soldier, who also happens to be a little rough around the edges. Buckley notes that “Sonny is the knuckle dragger of the team, so I carry all the big guns, the M249 and the Mark 48, which is all the ‘Rambo’ stuff that I saw when I was a kid and that I wanted to do.” The part serves as a complete departure from anything else on Buckley’s resume so far. 

“John McClane in ‘Die Hard’ is my favourite character of all time,” Buckley explains. “He’s the blue-collar guy that does everything. ‘Die Hard’ was a pinnacle movie when I was growing up. Those were characters I wanted to play, the sort of dry sense of humour, action guy. Just your average guy asked to do the impossible.

Erik Voake/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Erik Voake/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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“And I had never really shot a gun before I showed up on ‘SEAL Team’,” he adds. “My first day, when I was shooting a gun on a moving boat, at different target, we had done some drills, but from where I started on the pilot and how nervous I was, those nerves are still there. When we do these scenes, and I know it’s fake and we are on a set, it is amazing for any man or woman to decide that they are going to go to war and defend their country.”

No actor’s handbook covers flying in Blackhawks, firing at the enemy or embarking on dangerous missions. Buckley notes “essentially the SEAL boot camp is every day on set.” He further credits those surrounding the cast for providing inspirational tales and experiences.

“There is always a new technique to learn,” Buckley says. “You are always refining your skills. ‘How can you move faster? How can you do it cleaner?’ There’s all the different phrases that they have. The biggest thing I learned from bootcamp day one to season three bootcamp is the bond and the brotherhood that is formed through this.

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“What is great about the show is it’s a workplace drama,” he continues. “Executive producers Chris Chulack and Spencer Hudnut made a promise to a group of guys who were part of SEAL Team Six. Our show has employed more veterans than any other television in the history of television. Over half our crew are veterans, whether they are in front of the camera, behind the camera or in the writers’ room. But everything we do goes through a chain of command, so to speak. If something isn’t being done right, they have the ability to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is not how we move.’

“There’s a real reverence that we pay to these guys and women, as well, that have served our country,” Buckley adds. “I’ve been on set where guys, who were in special operations, play stunt doubles. They start talking to other Team guys and they’ve never physically met before, but they realize they have spoken over coms during a battle, and that one of them had saved their asses. The got choked up and gave each other a hug.”      

On the series, Sonny recently lost his temper with a soldier, who was running off at the mouth. He was consequently slapped on the hand and suspended from the team. As a result, Sonny must grapple with that separation in the following weeks.   

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“Tonight’s episode, ‘Drawdown,’ was directed by my boy, Max,” Buckley beams. “I’m so proud of him because he’s the youngest guy in the cast, but he’s been at this for so long and is such a pro. He’s so good at telling a story. I know Max directed on ‘Bates Motel’, but it’s a really special episode. It deals with a lot of character.

“It was cool to sit down with Max and go through the beats of Sonny leaving the team for the first time in his career and having to go back to Texas and be demoted to this armoury school,” states Buckley. “During that time, he decides to go check up on his dad. Our showrunner, Spencer, said ‘You know, we’ve never seen behind Sonny’s bravado.’ You get to see where he came from, why he is the way he is and what masks the pain that is there. Bring your tissues.

“There are so many layers and stories that still haven’t been told,” he adds. “I know there is a storyline they are going to introduce next season that is really cool for my character. I’m so excited. They were going to introduce it into the last episode, and they decided not to. They said they were going to save it for the next season. It’s a whole other layer to Sonny that we haven’t seen before that will allow a lot of questions about mortality and life.”   

Besides acting, Buckley is a successful entrepreneur. He launched Paperclip [], a company that offers high-end, innovative and stylish diaper bags that easily coverts into a changing station. The product consists of 100-per-cent recycled plastic. Their motto: Clean baby. Clean ocean. Clean planet. Buckley admits with a chuckle that “If you told me 10 years ago that I’d be playing a Navy SEAL on TV and selling diaper bags, I would have laughed at you.”

Erik Voake/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Erik Voake/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“It started when my daughter was born,” Buckley explains about Paperclip’s genesis. “She was seven months and I brought her into a bathroom. There was no changing table in the men’s bathroom. I had forgotten the changing pad that was in the diaper bag. I had to take my shirt off and change it on this dirty floor. The way that I laid the bag down and the t-shirt, I had this epiphany. ‘What if you had a diaper bag that folded out and had a changing table?’ One of my best friends, and the godfather of my twin boys, Artie Baxter, he and I started brainstorming.”

“I had never started anything in the baby industry,” Buckley concludes. “If I had known how hard it was back then, I probably wouldn’t have done it because it’s been crazy just with how it gets made, shipping, the marketplace and what makes a person buy a baby product? I’m glad, though, we didn’t know because we went on our gut instincts. We were new dads designing diaper bags, not for dads, but that were fashionable and functional. We saw this gap in the marketplace… and filled it.”

“SEAL Team” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Global.

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This Week On TV: April 6-12