Grillo ’Em All: The Rise of a Hollywood Tough Guy
“I’m so hungover,” Frank Grillo said, sitting across from me at a Hollywood café next to the boxing gym where he trains when he’s in Los Angeles. “I’m glad that I made it here. It’s amazing I didn’t vomit.”
Grillo, the star of The Purge: Anarchy and the mixed martial arts family drama Kingdom, which debuts Wednesday on DirecTV’s Audience channel, may be Hollywood’s fastest-rising grizzled and chiseled ass-kicker, but as a 51-year-old father of three (one of his children is named after Liam Neeson), he isn’t much of a drinker. Still, Grillo was out with old friends the night before, and “once these guys get going,” he said, “they don’t stop.”
Besides, a night of hard drinking probably isn’t detrimental to the image of an actor known for playing often grim and always tough men. But Grillo’s calling card as a performer has been fighting. Why brag about how much whiskey you downed when you can list the number of movie stars you have clobbered?
Chris Evans, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier: “I beat him up. I was like, ‘Bro, we’re doing this.’ He goes, ‘Nah, man, I don’t want to.’ I said, ‘No, I’m gonna hit you, because I don’t want that [stuntman] doing it for us.”
Evans concurs. “That man can’t pull his punches,” he told the British newspaper Metro. “If you don’t block Frank Grillo’s punch, you’re going to get mashed.”
Grillo’s hit list continues: “[Captain America costar Anthony] Mackie, too. I beat that motherfucker up!”
And what about Jason Statham, whom Grillo fought in 2013’s Homefront? “Even he was like, ‘Get the stunt double,’” Grillo said. “I’m like, ‘Come on. I won’t hurt you.’”
Grillo can actually fight. He started wrestling when he was 8 years old, began practicing Japanese jujitsu not long after that, and took up boxing as a teenager. He competed at the amateur level in all three sports. He still trains almost daily and has that ex-athlete tic of feeling utterly worthless when he can’t get time in the gym. The day we met, Grillo’s hangover forced him to skip a boxing workout and he said he felt “like a fucking pig.”
Between Grillo’s combat sports background and his iconic role1 as the trainer in Warrior who coached Joel Edgerton’s character to an impossible upset over a hulking, ex-Marine wrecking ball played by Tom Hardy, Kingdom creator Byron Balasco seemed to have little choice but to cast Grillo as Alvey Kulina, the patriarch of the series’ MMA clan. But securing Grillo’s participation meant committing to a level of authenticity — in the details of the fighters’ lives and in the actual takedowns and blows landed in the cage — that forced Grillo’s costars to match his intensity.
Grillo brought Kingdom’s other male leads, Nick Jonas, Matt Lauria, and Jonathan Tucker, to former heavyweight title challenger (and current Manny Pacquiao conditioning coach) Justin Fortune’s Hollywood gym to learn basic boxing and MMA technique. Grillo also installed UFC fighter Joe “Daddy” Stevenson and veteran trainer Greg Jackson as unofficial script doctors and cage consultants to give the gym banter and fight scenes a ring of truth. “They tried to teach them, at the very least, to look natural,” Grillo said. “I would call everybody out: Don’t show up and get in the cage and hold your hands like this,” he said, curling his fists out in front of him like a 19th-century bare-knuckle fighter. “Take the time to learn just to stand like a fighter. I was a bit of a ballbuster with the guys, but they came around. They wanted to be great, and I think they pulled it off.”
I started to reply about how difficult it is to pick up boxing late, how the most fluid, skilled fighters usually start as children. At some point in the conversation, maybe a few seconds after I said something about Floyd Mayweather, I lifted my hand off the table while gesturing. Grillo reached out and smacked my hand back down. A painless tap, but firm. “You pick your hand up, my first instinct is to go like that — to check you,” he said. “It’s a boxing thing. You can’t teach somebody that in three months.”
When the opportunity to star in Kingdom came up, Grillo wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of the series. He’d been primarily a television actor for the first 15 years of his career, beginning with a 1993 episode of Silk Stalkings in which he was cast as an exotic dancer named Franco LaPuma, to a two-year stint as Hart Jessup No. 5 in Guiding Light, to various supporting roles in The Shield, Prison Break, and Law & Order: SVU, among other shows. He dismissed much of this work in a pair of terse sentences: “I did fucking stupid modeling shit. I was in a soap opera.”
Grillo was born into a working-class, Italian family in New York City in 1963. “My parents got married when they were 16 and they never had any money,” he said. Grillo said he knew he didn’t have the talent to go pro as a fighter, and even though he had a feeling he could make it as an actor, he had no clue how to pursue the career. “There’s nobody in the arts in my family,” he told me. “It was kind of embarrassing to even say that I wanted to be an actor.” So he let his looks carry him at first (remove Grillo’s hard-boiled persona and he’s kinda a dead ringer for Derek Zoolander). He’d heard that “you could be a good-looking kid and be on a TV series,” and that’s more or less what Grillo did until he decided that “getting these TV shows and not really having a good time — but making good money — is a trap.”
He signed on to Kingdom because it felt like more of a boutique project: perhaps not quite on par with the most prestigious series of recent years, but with more in common with Breaking Bad than, say, The Gates, the Desperate Housewives–meets–True Blood–meets-Twilight mash-up that Grillo starred in until it was canceled. “I’m not chasing vampires and there’s no bomb that I have to dismantle before the end of the episode,” Grillo said of Kingdom. “The language is authentic — I must say ‘fuck’ 800 times on the show.” (He’s not far off. I counted 67 F-bombs spread over 46 minutes in one episode of Kingdom.) “There’s a sense of reality,” Grillo continued, “like you’re going through the lives of these blue-collar, everyday people in the fight business.”
And Kingdom does contain plenty of stabs at verisimilitude that will remind MMA and boxing fans of the sports they obsess over. There are references to “smokers,” illegal underground fight cards thrown by deadbeat promoters. The show’s subplots explore in fairly impressive detail the process of Jonas’s character cutting 17 pounds in three days to make weight and Lauria’s character’s attempts to shake off ring rust after serving a multiyear prison term. Grillo’s Kulina, a retired fighter, struggles with the transition to life outside the cage. He opens a gym but studiously avoids the business side of his operation, focusing instead on training and sparring with his sons and other fighters. Even though Kulina has no fights on the horizon, he gets shot up with HGH and trains so hard that he injures himself.
But for all the effort that Kingdom’s writers, directors, and stars have put into achieving authenticity, the pilot episode veers into caricature when introducing many of the primary characters. The series opens with Grillo jogging around Venice Beach until he puts a hurting on two villains ordered off the Chicano gangster assembly line. (Even Grillo called it over the top: “I lived in Venice for 15 years. That stuff doesn’t exist there anymore.”) Lauria’s fighter bona fides are established when a fellow ex-con — who inexplicably brought a set of new boxing gloves to a halfway house — challenges Lauria to see who can punch harder. And Tucker, who plays Grillo’s oldest son, is set up as Kingdom’s loose cannon when Jonas’s character walks in on him having sex while wearing nothing but bug-eyed, white-framed sunglasses and a Native American headdress. It’s not funny, just kind of dickish.
In later episodes, thankfully, the actors are given time to settle into and fill out their characters with more believable and appealing human touches. And Kingdom, as a somewhat lofty sports drama, seems good enough to live up to Grillo’s artistic and professional goals. “My job as no. 1 on the call sheet,” he told me, “is to make sure I don’t fuck up whatever my career trajectory has been [over] the last six years, which has been my sweet spot.”
That sweet spot arrived late for Grillo, who was already in his mid-forties when he started to break into serious — well, respectable — films. “The last six years have been kind of an enigma,” he told me, “because I’m at the age where guys either start to fall down and do lesser work or disappear.” The turning point — when Grillo went from an actor with a Bronx accent who could fill out a policeman’s uniform on network procedurals to what he calls a real, “dedicated and disciplined” performer — came in 2008. That’s when director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Joe Carnahan cast Grillo as a sadistic, corrupt New York cop in Pride and Glory, alongside stars Ed Norton, Colin Farrell, and Jon Voight.
“I saw the preparation that these guys do, and I started to understand how deep they go to create other people,” Grillo recalled. “I watched them work and decided then what kind of actor I wanted to be.” He got there with a nudge from O’Connor, who was friends with Grillo and knew how Grillo had grown up with an alcoholic father, shuttling between apartments in the Bronx and upstate Rockland County. Grillo’s breakout scene came when the officer he was playing brutalized a convenience store clerk in a torturous interrogation concerning the whereabouts of a local drug dealer.
“We were in this bodega up in Harlem somewhere,” Grillo told me. “And Gavin O’Connor called me over. He understood all the stuff [I’d been through]. He goes, ‘I need you to show that pain. You’re great. I want you to fucking be great. Let go of what you think you’re doing and show me something.’”
No actor has sucked on a candy cane with greater malice than Grillo does in that scene when he approaches the counter. And within seconds, he’s punched the cashier in the nose, bloodied his face, and is squeezing off shots on an empty revolver pressed to the guy’s head while cackling and calling him a “greasy fuck.” When Grillo gloms the cash from the bodega register along with a pack of AA batteries and he asks, “Hey, we’re still friends, right?” the menace is real.
That work led to more work. O’Connor hired Grillo to play the trainer in Warrior, and Carnahan cast Grillo as the physical and philosophical foil to Neeson in The Grey. There were small but visible roles in End of Watch and Zero Dark Thirty. Then, this year, top billing in The Purge sequel (with a possible return in the third Purge movie, which was announced this week) and a “multipicture commitment to Marvel” that began with the second Captain America.
“I had this revelation [while shooting Pride and Glory] and it changed my life,” Grillo told me. “I owe my career to Gavin O’Connor. Him and Carnahan. They gave me what nobody else gave me — opportunity and camaraderie and belief.”
Grillo likes to credit the uptick in his career to the deep preparation he has put into roles since 2008. “I have a good work ethic,” he told me. “I’m not talented. I know Daniel Day-Lewis is fucking talented. He freaks me out — I don’t have that. But I work harder than anybody else. My agent sends me a script, I read it six, seven times before I meet the director. A lot of actors don’t read the script; they’ll just say, ‘What’s it about?’”
He points to his brief role in End of Watch, which amounted to just a couple of roll call scenes in a police precinct and a drunken one-minute speech that Grillo gives to a group of cadets. In that minute, Grillo goes from gregarious stories of how his former partner “yoked assholes” once upon a time to a glassy-eyed “He took a bullet for me … It should have been me. ’Cause he was a good guy. I was shit.” Sure, these are cop movie clichés, but Grillo’s intensity sells them. He has a knack for taking hammy tropes — whether it’s instructing his fighters to “feel the Beethoven” in Warrior or delivering a monologue about how “fighting’s a mindfuck” in Kingdom — and making them sound more real than they seem on the page.
“It was a supporting role, a secondary or tertiary character,” Grillo said about End of Watch. “But you have to create as much of a life for the person as you would if you were the lead. To me, the movie’s not about Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. It’s about my guy … I was only in the movie for fucking 12 minutes, but people go, ‘Wow, that’s a great job,’ because I took the time to make the character real.”
And for all of Grillo’s proselytizing about preparation and hard work, he seems to bring something more elemental than Method acting to his roles. Part of it is the black stubble he wears on his face like smudged suffering. Part of it is Grillo’s nasal, gravelly voice and an accent that tells you he came from an older, edgier, scarier New York than the one you’ve visited. Part of it is the web of sinew that flexes in Grillo’s neck when he speaks, and the little vein that pops underneath his left eye, in the same spot where tough guys a generation younger than him like to have teardrops tattooed.
Grillo’s got presence. Even when the films he’s starring in aren’t half as high-minded or deep as they seem to think they are, they seem to reach their high points when Grillo is onscreen. Many of The Grey’s lunges at creating existential doubt fall short, but you feel it a little when Grillo’s sneering Diaz stares out at the expansive Alaskan wilderness and accepts his fate. The Purge: Anarchy doesn’t really sell anyone on the need for class warfare or a Michael K. Williams–led revolution, but Grillo’s somber quest to avenge his son’s death strikes a chord.
He explained his appeal to me as a common man’s appeal: “I don’t know why, but there’s not a lot of guys in Hollywood who are just regular dudes. And that’s all I am — a regular fucking guy.” But he’s more like the regular fucking guy a lot of men wish they could be: better at throwing and taking a punch; cooler under fire; someone who’s felt real pain, but who might not admit how much it hurt them. He’s peddling a masculine ideal that some might call outdated and fraught, but it’s still something a lot of men and a lot of moviegoers relate to.
Grillo likens the success that he and Neeson and Denzel Washington (the latter two on a larger scale, of course) have found playing emotionally scarred cage fighters and killing machines to a quality he saw in the stars of 1970s thrillers. “It’s gravitas,” he told me. “It’s connectability. When you think about Clint Eastwood, [Steve] McQueen, [Charles] Bronson, Lee Marvin — guys that in those days, they’d lived lives. They were beaten down a little bit. They were men.
“Now it’s coming back,” Grillo said. “Neeson paved the way, and it’s a good time for guys my age.”