Frank Grillo is a real tough guy. He isn’t the tough guy you see on movie screens but a man who has fought for every role he has played in this world of make believe.
When you see Frank Grillo fight on screen, keep in mind that isn’t a stunt double and those men he is punching better be glad its only a movie. Grillo trains like a fighter year round and his hard work is paying off with bigger roles. In the past 9 months, you have seen him fight Captain America and British action star, Jason Statham. He turned 51 last month, but don’t think for a second he is slowing down. Grillo is signed up for more Captain America action as Crossbones, has a Direct TV series this winter and more mayhem on the docket. On Friday, he headlines The Purge: Anarchy, a sequel to last year’s surprise hit about a 12 hour period where Americans are allowed to do whatever they like. Talking to Grillo, you get the feeling this guy is doing exactly what he grew up wanting to do. Kick ass, take names and make a little money doing it. I talked to Frank last week and let’s just say it was a no holds barred conversation.
Dan Buffa-You are a New Yorker. What brings you to Los Angeles at the moment?
Frank Grillo-I’m filming this ten episode series for Direct TV. It’s like Warrior Meets Friday Night Lights. It’s MMA at the mid level. It’s a family drama. It’s called Kingdom.
DB-You have busted your ass in movies for a long time in supporting roles. How does it feel to be the star of Purge: Anarchy?
Grillo-It’s funny because before the Purge, I had a few independent films where I was the lead guy. It’s been a progression. As far as being in a studio film and being the lead guy, it’s great. You finally get to be the guy and have this whole story arc and carry the film on your shoulders. Its equal parts scary and exciting. I’m not a kid. Some actors get their shot early. I’m older and I think I am more well equipped to handle the responsibility.
DB-My first impression of you came in Warrior and I thought you stole that movie from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.
Grillo-It’s interesting, brother. Those two guys had full characters and the movie was about them. The director was like, “I got this thing and its right up your alley and I think you could crush it. I don’t have a third act. If you want to go to New Mexico and find out who this guy is and bring it to me, I’m game.” In my position, you have to work twice as hard as the guy with the lead role or else you fall by the wayside. It’s about working hard. It doesn’t have to do with talent. It’s about working harder than the other guy. Warrior was it and that movie was the thing that popped in my career.
The biggest compliment for me is when I get phone calls or emails from people saying, “Hey man, I wrestled in Arizona, and I know you are a coach.” And while I have to turn them down, they are paying me the highest compliment when they do that. That movie, and The Grey, will always be very close and dear to my heart.
DB-That would be like someone calling Liam Neeson when they are stranded out in the cold to come and help..
Grillo-(laughs) Yes. Exactly.
DB-What was your earliest inspiration that made you want to be an actor? A movie or particular actor?
Grillo-I come from an immigrant family in Italy so nobody was really involved in the arts. It’s what somebody else did and not what we did. I remember going to the movies and seeing Burt Reynolds in the Longest Yard and The Rocky films. I identified with The Stallones and The Burt Reynolds. The guys who looked like they were having a great time and they were physical. The guys that the men wanted to hang out with and the women wanted to sleep with. It’s an old cliché but for me it was true. I thought to myself, That guy is having a fucking ball! It was never about the Shakespeare of it all or the fear of it all. It was about playing these cool characters. Oddly enough, as I have gotten older, I have gotten to do just that. I don’t know how long it is going to last, but I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to do this.
DB-You have fought some of the biggest bad ass heroes on film. Liam Neeson, Jason Statham, Mel Gibson and Chris Evans aka Captain America. Any particular one stand out as being actually tough in person?
Grillo-None of them are really tough. They are actors and very good ones. They are very physical and athletes. Statham is a former Olympic diver. Evans is a good old boy from Boston and he is an athlete. None of them are tough. I have been fighting my whole life and training in Ju-Jitsu, wrestling, and boxing. I just boxed 14 rounds today. As far as being fighters, none of them are fighters. They are actors and that’s what they should be. They are great athletes. When we were rehearsing to when we were fighting, I was beating them up and they were black and blue. I told them, if we are going to do this, we are going to go all the way. I knew Statham could fight but I never let up on anyone. When I tell you that the only place in life where I don’t have anxiety is in the gym when I box or when I grapple, I’m not lying. I don’t go out on the streets and start fights but I love combat. I love fighting as an art.
DB -Speaking of mixing it up, are you and Joe Carnahan ever going to do Frank Castle and The Punisher?
Grillo-It’s funny because I do have this grass roots following of people who want me to play Castle. If I ever got that phone call, the answer would be YES. I don’t see that happening. It’s Marvel property. It’s a difficult thing.
DB-You are playing Crossbones in the Captain America films right now, though, so maybe you can edge over in the other building on the lot and start punching people.
Grillo-Maybe. I am committed to Marvel for a multi-contract deal. So, you never know.
DB-The one thing fans are waiting for is the ideal man to play Castle and not just a movie star. Get the right guy and the right director.
Grillo-Right. I am not a movie star. I am a blue collar guy. The reason people like me are because I am the guy they can go out and have a beer with. There’s a value in that. It’s not for everyone. I am not a romantic lead. I have no interest in doing that. I am a guy who likes to live and work on the edge. Characters that are fucked up and struggling to make their way through the world because that’s what I am. That is what I am attracted to. Damaged guys. I know what I can do and what I can’t do. Agents will ask me about a role and I will say, I don’t want to do that. I am not the actor who gets a role and has to do it different. I don’t need to stretch my muscles.
DB-I will say a movie you stretched your muscles a bit in HBO’s Mary and Martha, a brutally powerful tale about parents dealing with the loss of their children to malaria. You were great in that.
Grillo-It’s funny you say that. Phillip Noyce(the director) called me up and said he had this part for me. The husband. I read it and told him, I am not sure you want me for this. Hilary Swank is a powerful woman, brother. Patrick Wilson could do this. He said he wanted me, and I did it and it was great. Three months in South Africa.
DB-There is a scene where you look into the laptop at a video your son made for your character, and in a few expressions you break down. Its so good because its done with minimal dialogue.
Grillo-Thank you. My favorite actor growing up was Spencer Tracy and he was able to do that. If you can do without a lot of dialogue, that’s the way to go.
DB-That’s refreshing to hear because so many actors take a paycheck to play these cardboard characters and it’s boring to watch. You go against that.
Grillo-My agents are constantly saying, “Hey, they are looking at you for the main villain” and I tell them to stop with the villain talk. They aren’t villains. The Nazi’s were bad but they weren’t villains. They were horrible, but they were on one side of an ideology. Its two sides of a different idea. I don’t mind that and I can find humanity in that. That is what the art is all about. The craft.
DB-As bad as it sounds, people label Hitler as the ultimate villain and I don’t think that’s the entire story.
Grillo-Hitler is obviously one of the worst human beings to ever walk the planet. Before he did all that and before he was exposed for that, he got a nation that was going through three or four depressions in a row and he got them to take pride in themselves. He eventually seduced these people and became a demi god, but again I don’t think he saw himself as a villain. He saw himself as a guy who was going to fix everything and take over.
DB-Bad guys can steal the movie from the good guys all the time. My favorite performance of all time is Heath Ledger as the Joker.
Grillo-Did you not feel empathy for that character? At the end. What a beautiful performance. That guy was a fucking genius. When he’s looking at all the things blowing up in the end and feeling alone, that’s it. I didn’t care about Batman. I cared about this guy.
DB-Scenario: Your agent calls you today and says, “Whatever role you want, I can get it.” Which role do you tell him to snag?
Grillo-That’s a great question. Joe Carnahan wrote a version of Death Wish that is killer. That is the role I want. I want me and Joe Carnahan to go make Death Wish. When I tell you bro that this guy wrote a script that could knock your socks off, I am not lying. Scripts for guys like us who like a certain kind of movie. It could be better than The Grey. That’s how good it is. It’s about two brothers. I would love to go and do that. Joe and I are in the process of seeing how we can make that work. If I could get a bump off this Purge movie, I could be in a position with more juice to make this happen. It’s all up to the movie gods. It may do nothing.
DB-I will make them see it. Trust me. In my line of work on the side writing about film, there aren’t a lot of actors who will grant me an interview via Twitter. There aren’t many who will say call me 930 at night and say let’s talk. I appreciate that.
Grillo-I’m humbled that you want to do it. You have a lot going on before you can hit the phone and the fact that you appreciate what I do makes me want to do it. You have a family and are doing this on your own time so I am up for it any time. I love talking film and your passion invigorates me.
DB-I like that you know what you are good at and keep plowing away at that genre while quietly challenging yourself. Statham is the same way. He knows what he is.
Grillo-He’s brilliant. He’s a stud. He knows what he is doing. He knows where to kick himself. He never makes himself look silly. He is always interesting and fun to watch. That is a smart guy. He understands who he is. I love him. He can also drink vodka as good as anybody else. He’s the real deal. Again, we aren’t doing brain surgery. You don’t have to go to drama school to be a movie star and this guy proves that. He was a diver and a hustler. Now he’s a movie star. These are the true genius’.
DB-The one scene of yours I will never forget came in End of Watch when you give this speech at the wedding of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character to a group of marines. So quick and fleeting but so powerful. How was that?
Grillo-They were real marines. There’s a story behind it. David Ayer came up to me with two pages and told me that he needed something to make audiences understand this guy(Frank played a hard nosed Sergeant in the film) is an actual person. He handed me these pages and told me to read this. He wanted to shoot it in 12 minutes. I read it and I read it again. I said, David, let me move things around and digest this. Let me go to my trailer and digest it. Give me 30 minutes. I am going to come out and we will shoot it three times and we will be golden. And that’s exactly what we did. That was it. Sometimes if you don’t overthink stuff, good things can happen. To his credit, he kept it in the movie.
I got lucky in the last few years in landing myself in some great movies. Warrior, The Grey, End of Watch. I am most proud of that. That is what changed my life.
DB-You have a hands on approach to your training and do a lot of it for your movies. Is that the directors/producers idea or your own?
Grillo-I train regardless. That’s completely separate. I am always trained to be a week out of shooting shape. I am always fight ready. It’s my lifestyle. I fight every day. To the day I die. There’s nothing like taking a punch. It makes me feel alive.
DB-Frank, you are an inspiration to all young actors because you fought hard to get to where you got to be. What advice would you give to the up and comers doing readings and scrapping for roles as we speak?
Grillo-Great question. The one thing I would tell them that my mentor told me is that there are no rules. There are no rules when it comes to anything. What roles you are able to get. As soon as you put limitations on yourself, you are going to have those limitations. If you just listen to conventional wisdom, you are fucked. You go out there and you believe in yourself and you work hard. I am a testament to that.
Frank Grillo has been fighting since the day he was born. He hasn’t been handed roles. He earns them. Every time. He is the rare actor on screen who you can trust that things he is doing in front of your eyes could be done in real life. He is conviction personified. He is tough as nails but also passionate, caring and in it for the long haul. He doesn’t wish to crack the complexities of Macbeth unless someone by that name steps into a boxing ring. He is an action star but a man capable of stealing a dramatic film from the stars. This Friday in The Purge: Anarchy, he is headlining a mainstream studio film for the first time and there couldn’t be a better guy at the front of a film about letting your wild side out on the streets.