The Long-Delayed Success of Frank Grillo

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Photo Source: Matt Doyle

If you’re a director making a specific kind of guy’s-guy drama—a bruising, thoughtful examination of the complexities of modern masculinity—you need Frank Grillo in it.

Most filmgoers probably don’t know his name. Grillo has worked steadily for decades, but only recently has he generated serious attention, thanks in large part to stellar performances in supporting roles as the impassioned MMA trainer to Joel Edgerton in “Warrior,” as a hard-ass oilman fighting for his life in “The Grey,” and as Crossbones in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Add in his collaborations with filmmakers such as David Ayer, Stephen Frears, and Phillip Noyce, and it’s clear that he’s quickly evolving from “Who’s that guy?” anonymity to “I love that guy” status.

Grillo’s latest role is his biggest. He’s the lead in “The Purge: Anarchy,” a sequel to last summer’s sleeper hit, playing the stoic, heavily armed antihero who goes out the night of the annual Purge to avenge his son’s death, only to become the reluctant guardian of several helpless bystanders.

“I wanted this bigger-than-life character to emerge and pull these people on this epic journey through the city,” writer-director James DeMonaco says of his vision for “Anarchy.” “What’s great about Frank is he never overacts. What could have become a ridiculous archetype of that hero, he kept it in a world where it never goes too far or Rambo-esque. I knew Frank wasn’t just a really good actor: Frank’s actually a really tough guy. If you ever get in trouble, you want Frank Grillo next to you.”

Sitting in a Hollywood restaurant, Grillo is indeed physically imposing: He’s chiseled and solid with a broad chest. But just as in his performances, his balance of machismo and vulnerability during our talk is his secret weapon; tough he may be, but he also couldn’t be sweeter, his quiet intensity lightened by his warmth and humor.

“I was a wrestler,” he says of his childhood in New York City. “I played football, lacrosse. After high school I got into jujitsu. I boxed my whole adult life. I’m a physical person—I like to get hit. Before I was with you, I sparred at the gym. My face hurts right now, but I like that. It keeps me humble, it keeps me awake. I’m a believer in getting punched in the face. I know it sounds clichéd, but to me, fighting is a metaphor for life.”

In print, that does sound clichéd, but in person Grillo transcends easy categorization or first impressions. This shouldn’t be a surprise: He picks films that are more nuanced than their loglines suggest. “The Grey,” packaged as just another Liam Neeson action flick, was an existential drama about manhood, grief, and mortality. As for “The Purge: Anarchy,” it’s a treatise on forgiveness and the allure of violence disguised as an “Escape From New York”–style thriller.

Grillo grew up in a blue-collar family not far removed from their roots in Italy. Describing his parents’ mindset, he says, “You put your shoes on and go to work in the morning. You’re happy for whatever you have and you keep your head down.” He loved movies as a kid, immediately responding to the everyman appeal of “Rocky.” “You can relate to him,” Grillo says of the underdog boxer. “He spoke the way people in my life spoke. I wanted to be able to make people feel what I felt watching that movie.”

Attending New York University to pursue a business degree, Grillo figured he needed a proper job, saying, “There was nobody telling me, ‘You should be an artist’ or ‘You should be an actor.’ ” But after graduation he moved to Los Angeles, quickly finding commercial work before being lured home to take over the role of Hart Jessup on the daytime soap opera “Guiding Light.” He met his wife, fellow actor Wendy Moniz, on the show, and enjoyed the perks of a steady paycheck. But he was insistent he wouldn’t get stuck in soaps. “It was a great learning curve,” he admits. “Instead of taking acting classes, I was learning what not to do. There was a script a day, so I really had to learn to be disciplined. It’s melodrama, so you try to navigate not being totally bad as opposed to being good, ’cause nobody ever looks at a soap opera and goes, ‘Oh, he’s really good.’ They go, ‘Ah, he’s not as bad as that [other] guy.’ ”

When he and his wife left “Guiding Light,” Grillo bet on himself, believing he’d find something that would make him happier. He landed promising projects—Gary David Goldberg’s short-lived show “Battery Park,” Steven Bochco’s “Blind Justice”—but he became concerned that he was getting too old and that his window was closing. Then came advice from Grillo’s friend, the agent Kevin Huvane. “He said to me, ‘Stop thinking about how old you are,’ ” Grillo recalls. “ ‘There are no rules. Don’t think of it like that. You can be successful at any stage in your life.’ It stuck with me: Just keep going.” Grillo points to actors like John Hawkes, whose significant dramatic chops weren’t immediately recognized. “I’m not really enamored by movie stars,” Grillo confesses. “I love the guys that come out of left field and you’re like, ‘Whoa, this guy knows what he’s doing.’ ”

Grillo’s own left-field ascension started with his scene-stealing turn in “Warrior.” He had appeared in director Gavin O’Connor’s previous film, “Pride and Glory,” which transformed Grillo’s approach to his craft. “Working with Nick Nolte, who eventually left the film, and Edward Norton really changed my idea about what I wanted to be as an actor,” he recalls. “It’s not that I didn’t take it seriously before, but what I learned from them is how much I didn’t know. So I dove into it headfirst: ‘How am I gonna be great?’ ”

That increased work ethic drove him to find seemingly minor parts that he could make his own, like the cop in 2012’s “End of Watch,” or the trainer in “Warrior.” “I train as if I’m fighting for the world championship every day when I go to the gym,” he says. “Acting is the same thing. With ‘Warrior,’ on the page [the character Frank Campana was] a small role. But because of how much time, work, preparation, and importance I put on the character, Gavin O’Connor let that character blossom, and it showed on the screen. That movie changed my life: People in the industry saw it and said, ‘Who’s that guy?’ ”

Despite Grillo’s tough-guy physique and penchant for macho roles, his characters often reveal a rare vulnerability. “What I look for in a role is the physical,” he says. “But what’s the journey emotionally? Can I take this person who is this archetypal tough guy and find the beauty?”

Soon, Grillo has to dash to record some ADR for the forthcoming series “Kingdom” he’s doing for DirecTV. It’s a heady time: Long just another hard-working actor, he’s now about to see what it’s like to be the star of a major summer sequel. (He’s also signed on for more Marvel movies, should his Crossbones character return for future installments.) Still, he knows he’s not the hot young prodigy. He doesn’t mind.

“In Hollywood articles, the age is [always] next to [the actor’s] name,” he says. “Why do we do that? They don’t in Europe—it’s not important. Here, we are concerned with age. At this point in my life, I’m not going to movies to see the problems that 25-year-olds have. I don’t care. I wanna see men: mature, grown men with serious gravitas who you believe can handle a certain situation. If you look at [Steve] McQueen, if you look at [Gene] Hackman, if you look at Charlie Bronson, if you look at the guys from ’70s movies, they would never be movie stars today. They’re my favorite movie stars, you know?”

Stop Staring

Frank Grillo’s first lead role in a major studio tentpole is “The Purge: Anarchy,” a break from his focus on mostly supporting performances in films like “The Grey.” The actor doesn’t find most starring roles to his liking. “A lot of times, especially with TV, I would get these scripts and I’m like, ‘Oh, they want me to be the good-looking guy who’s a little bit of a rascal,’ ” he says. “It’s just boring. I like the third guy: He doesn’t say very much, but there’s something about him. You can create a character.”

But in his earlier days, that commitment to seeking out interesting supporting turns proved difficult when producers and casting agents zeroed in on his movie-star handsomeness. “My agents would say, ‘OK, here’s your problem, Frank: You look this way. They want a quirky guy for that [supporting] role, and they don’t see you as a quirky guy.’ That was my dilemma.”

Grillo also had to learn that not all supporting roles are created equal. Encouraged by his representation at the time, he came on board “Minority Report” to appear in “three big scenes where I was talking,” in part because Steven Spielberg had requested him specifically. “Steven was great, and Tom Cruise was great, and everybody was nice,” Grillo recalls. “But [the role] had nothing to do with acting. There was nothing actable about it.” Later, he went to the premiere only to discover, to his disappointment, that his scenes had all been cut. “I was like, ‘OK, I never wanna feel this again,’ ” Grillo says. “It took me a while to understand when I need to say no.”

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