Meeting actor Frank Grillo in an air-conditioned RV on a warm L.A. Sunday, the actor’s calm and collected in a simple tee-and-jeans combo, wiry and yet warm. Stepping in to talk to Grillo — the star of The Purge: Anarchy, after a long string of excellent supporting roles — right after the final World Cup score, it’s abundantly clear he knows how lucky he is.
Thank you very kindly, sir. Now that Germany won, all the shouting is over …
Frank Grillo: They won?
Oh, they f**king won!
It went to OT, yeah.
Wow, the Germans f**king rule.
Well, you know, traditionally, when you say that, historically, it’s bad. But, I think they’ll let them have it this time.
(Laughs) That’s a good point.
I was reading something great by writer-director James DeMonaco, where he said that he couldn’t picture anyone but you in the part, and that’s got to be deeply touching.
Yeah. I mean, he was really very kind, coming to me with the script first. He had a vision, for which I was humble. And, obviously, we went down this road together and we’ve become such close friends and collaborated. I wouldn’t do it without him, he wouldn’t do it without me. It got to that place where you rarely get. I got that with a couple of other people; Joe Carnahan and Gavin O’Connor, they’re my guys.
They’re guys who know you and whom you know.
Because, I’m sure, at this point, because it’s amazing in the past couple of years watching you turn up in better and bigger stuff. You always deliver. I’m sure there are people who would like to work with you at this point, with whom you would prefer to not work.
Is it nice to have a full-enough dance card to make better choices?
No. It remains humbling and it’s not like I say, Hey man, I’m too big for this. At this point in my career, I’m at a certain age where I have to really be careful about what I do and who I do it with, because I don’t have a lot of room for error. It’s not like when you’re 25 or 26 and you’re starting.
You make a misstep and you recover. At this point, you make a misstep and you could blow out your knee.
Yeah, it could hurt me. So, it’s a good thing.
And the other thing is that, and this is not a slight to your talent, but they’re not hiring you to play the sexy professor with leather elbow patches. They’re hiring you to beat dudes up.
Yeah, and you know, I’m a blue-collar guy in my real life. I’m a journeyman. I am a real fighter. I do have skills. I carry myself a certain way, very self-deprecating and yet I’m a very strong authority figure with my family, with my kids. I have strong moral purposes. And, I think that somehow maybe comes across. The camera doesn’t lie.
The other great thing is that your character is pretty much The Man With No Name, in a western.
Yeah, by design.
By design, completely, but it’s so, well, “Into this lawless land rides one man …”
And that’s exactly where we start. That was our jump-off point. Let’s make it a western. The Outlaw Josey Wales was a movie that I loved, and there was other movies … There’s a jacket that we designed.
It looks like a duster.
A little bit. In fact, I wanted to make it a little bit longer. We had versions of it. They were almost too stylized, so we made it the way it was. The coat became a joke on set. It was like, Oh, here comes the coat. Anyway, you hit the nail on the head.
Having a last name that ends in a vowel, I am well aware of the indignities that can be heaped upon our people. Is it great to be called for good tough guys instead of bad tough guys?
Yeah. Another great question. I don’t know if it’s by design, but I never really had an interest to do Sopranos stuff, the kind of B-level Mafia movie. I love the movie Donnie Brasco. I thought Pacino did it really well, what really is the authentic, low-level mafioso guy. It was really good. The other stuff, I got tired of it.
“One more movie of what WASPs think the Mafia is like, I don’t need to see, maybe.”
I don’t need to see that. I don’t like Jersey Shore, for that matter. I wouldn’t like any of that crap the way Italian-Americans are depicted, and depict themselves. It’s quite embarrassing. I don’t want my kids to think that’s who we are.
There are components to every culture, every culture, where you just go, That’s not a compliment. That’s not a good thing that you’re striving for.
No, it’s not a good thing. And, you know what? When you see the movie The Godfather, which is arguably one of the five best movies ever, right? And Godfather II. Those were gentlemen. That was a time when there was still honor among thieves, you know? What I see now, it’s horrible. It’s ignorant. I would never do a role.
Somebody said “No matter how much you romanticize the Mafia, it’s a bunch of guys who would rather kill people than pay their taxes”, which seems A: Super lazy and B: A lot of work.
Lazy? They don’t work. They don’t like to work. It’s not about who Al Pacino and Marlon Brando were in The Godfather. That’s an entirely different thing. Some of that exists in Italy, and it’s still the same way as it was for 500 years, but what we see in movies today, I truly have no patience for it. That and romantic comedies, I don’t want to see them.
You just don’t feel like you have that gene for romantic comedies?
I don’t. Like, Bradley Cooper? He’s a dreamy guy. I know Brad, he’s great at that. He’s funny.
He’s mastered the trick of looking at you with his head down, from under his eyebrows, and you’re all the more charmed.
Yeah. You know what? I’m a gruff dude. In real life, I’ve done a lot of work on myself just to get this. I’m not very polished.
But, nobody wants the super-polished version of Frank Grillo because you can get that almost anywhere.
Yeah. I don’t live in Hollywood. I don’t live this life. I don’t go to parties. I don’t know a lot of people in the business. I have some close friends — Johnny Leguizamo, all New Yorkers, all people who come from the theater and are involved in many other parts of New York’s artistic work. So, the whole Hollywood of it all is just not for me. I don’t really fit in.
And, there’s also the whole thing of, how much of it really has to do with moviemaking? You are part of such a big cast here: Ms. Soul, Mr. Gilford — but, were you worried during the casting, during the filming, about that chemistry working, in terms of interpersonal relationships?
Yeah. Listen, on a movie like this where I’m the most seasoned actor, it’s a scary thing. I’m used to working in groups of people that have been around a long time and doing a level of work that is amazing, and so part of the conversation with DeMonaco early on was, okay, who else is in? And part of that was, part of that is, who’s willing to take the risk and not get paid up front, and do the job? Who’s the best?
Who is not only up for the experience, but up for the experience of how we’re making the experience?
Exactly right. Sometimes, because people will do this for the reason that you did it when you were young, they wanted to do it because they thought it was good, do something with the character, sometimes you find lightning in a bottle. People aren’t being driven by the dollar. They’re doing it because something in their heart tells them to, and you get a great product. You do. You make something that has value.
And, you also want to make a movie that does what it says on the tin. If you tell me, Oh, it’s called The Purge: Anarchy, I’m not going necessarily for classical music and long shots of people drinking tea.
Absolutely. Or, long shots, period.
Right. I had a chance to speak to Mr. Evans before the release of The Winter Soldier, for another freelance gig, and I talked about how you had taken a photograph and put, on Instagram or Twitter, you in the weight vest, your first day of training, getting ready, and I asked him how much a part of the film that whole mano-y-mano kind of posturing is. He laughed and he said “The problem with Grillo is that he doesn’t quite know how to stop.” You know how to actually fight and not fake fight. There’s a big difference.
Right. You know, I love him, and again, he’ll be a lifelong friend. I feel like, if I’m going to a movie, I want to see guys that, I believe, are fighting, and too many times, I see the double. I told Evans and I said, I’m going to hit you. Put your hands up. Like, we’re in the elevator. I said, Here’s where it’s coming. Here’s where it’s coming. (Mimes throwing punches at our interviewer.)
I’ve never been more frightened, by the way. But, yeah, you went through it.
I said, All I need you to do is put your hands up. Do this. Just touch your temple so I don’t catch it. Early on, he was like, You’re hurting me, but I think this is completely great.
Because it’s the whole thing of the short take, the too-close a cut, and you have to look mostly at things like Asian action cinema for your long cut.
Exactly right. Even with Mackie, when I fought Mackie in that movie, we went. We went at it. I said, I don’t care what you’re going to do. I’m hitting you.
Are you somebody where they say to you, Here’s all the gear. Play with it so you can look convincing racking the slide and putting a clip in, or is that stuff where, at this point, with the kind of stuff you’ve done, you pretty much know it.
It’s a little bit of both. It’s probably more because I’ve done so much. There’s not a weapon that I don’t know how to handle, but I’m a nut with homework. If I have to look like I know, like I’ve been dealing with these weapons, I want this thing for a month before I start working. I want to carry it around with me in the house. I want it to become natural. That’s what I do with every role. When I have to train to be a fight trainer, I go two months to New Mexico on my own dime, and I live with the best trainer in the world, again, on my own dime, and I learn how to be a fight trainer. When I play a guy who is supposed to be an ex-con, I got my friend to somehow to get me into Rikers Island for two days and live amongst [the inmates].
The better trick is getting you out, quite frankly.
You’re absolutely right. But, I like that. One of the fun parts of being an actor is you really become other people. Really. I’m not talking about manufacturing emotion or knowledge. I’m talking about getting a new knowledge.
And the chance to learn stuff about the world you didn’t know, which is one of the great reasons to love art.
There’s something about men that, once you turn a certain age, there’s that big existential question, or questions, about Why am I here? Am I succeeding in being a good man or good father? I try to find these characters where I can kind of explore, even if it’s just for me.
The great thing is, in The Grey, what looks like a very traditional, masculine role for you winds up having so much humanity, fallibility, sensitivity in it. That’s one of the best things in it.
To me, to this day – and I told Carnahan when he offered me the role – I said, Let me tell you, I can’t thank you enough for believing that I could do this. I don’t know that I’ll ever play a better role than this. I, to this day, think that what he did with that movie, which didn’t get the love I thought it should have, what he let me do with that character was such a personal journey. The day we shot that scene, which was the last day of the filming, we were on that river. Him and I were crying to each other, crying about our gig, about this experience we had just had, where we work, being together and all. It really did parallel a lot of what was going on in the movie. That’s why the film was shot.
Anybody with retinas can go, Oh, Frank Grillo, tough. But, Carnahan got tough enough to get at the tender, which makes you sound like a weird chicken dish.
Really quickly, in the few seconds we have: when I watched this, I was amazed by how smart it was about the social commentary. The degree to which the slogan seemed pre-packaged.,people going, “Do you want to unleash the beast.” Is it great to do an action film that also is designed to needle people a little bit about how we live now?
Yes! That’s the point of the film. If everyone was as judicious as you are, they would understand that. You can’t take all of this literally. We are poking fun at ourselves, too. When I read the script, I’m like, that’s ingenious. We do have to start taking care of each other better, and this is what the movie is saying. We’re so far apart, socio-economically, and we’re so obsessed with violence and guns. Fix it. Imagine how it could get this crazy.
Right. If we don’t fix it, it will, in fact, be worse.
Yeah. That’s exactly what it is.