"I'm trying to make a dollar out of 30 cents."-Frank Grillo
When it comes to surviving in the fiercely competitive world of Hollywood, versatility is an actor's best friend. The more you can do, the longer you'll last. If you can only do one thing, the doors will close and the game will end with you on the bench and some other guy with a headshot taking your spot.
No one knows that merciless truth better than the relentless Frank Grillo, who has been riding a hot streak since breaking out in Gavin O'Connor's 2011 film, "Warrior" — and isn't looking to slow down. In the next year, Grillo will appear in six films, each carrying a different flavor, with one single goal: show him in a different light than you have previously enjoyed.
If you think he's just an action hero tough guy with one speed, guess again. In last month's "Donnybrook", Grillo played the bad-to-the-bone Chainsaw Angus, who was voted the worst possible boyfriend to bring home to meet your parents. The drug kingpin's black heart tore a hole through Tim Sutton's bare-knuckle drama, taking the film to another level. More than anything, it gave Grillo a new shade of black to show fans.
Grillo has been making movies for over 25 years, but after playing the sixth lead or getting a small bite of the pie in films for nearly two decades, he has headlined movies and television shows in the past five years. What started with James DeMonaco's "Purge" series in 2014 continued on to the best television show you may not have heard of, the DirecTV's gone too soon drama, "Kingdom".
Byron Balasco, the creator and head writer of the MMA series, didn't mince words in describing the Grillo effect. "There's never a false note when he's on set," Balasco said when recounting the experience. "You don't feel like it's work; it just seems natural."
Authenticity plays well on a set, but going the extra mile doesn't hurt either. When I asked Liam O'Donnell, writer/director of 2017's sci-fi blast "Beyond Skyline", for a good Grillo story, he responded within the hour.
According to O'Donnell, there was a big temple battle in the film that took place on the 12th day of filming, and Grillo had to throw a few kicks and punches with a couple stunt aliens. "Frank really wanted to give it a go. A couple of punches with the power claw to an alien's face, then a back kick to a second one behind him," O'Donnell recalled. "On the second take, the stunt alien didn't get to his spot in time, so Frank kicked air and badly tore his hamstring."
The director freaked out, thinking he had lost his lead actor for a huge chunk of filming. Remember, this is a fast-moving action film in space, and not some period piece. While Grillo rested over the weekend, O'Donnell started brainstorming on gathering stunt doubles for a pivotal scene where Grillo was to climb up a bunker airshaft on a tiny set built on the backlot. He told the actor to take it slow, but telling Grillo to take it easy is like telling a tiger to resist going after its prey in the open field. Fuggadaboutit!
"He nods and says okay, and then on the first take, he jumps up the shaft off his good leg and zooms up from hand hold to hand hold with a grin. That's when I knew we were going to be fine," O'Donnell said. He didn't have to change the schedule due to Grillo's dedication, and while the scene didn't make it to the final cut, it perfectly documented how the actor "gives it his all from action to cut."
What happens when you pair that devout dedication to your craft with a daring need to step outside the box? Grillo's 2019 platter of films promises a little of everything. After embodying the Southern Gothic devil in Donnybrook, Grillo will re-team with DeMonaco in this summer's "Once Upon A Time In Staten Island", a coming of age drama that takes place on the night when Rocky 3 was released. The story of an earnest teenager in the summer of 1982 having the night of his life. Grillo co-stars with Naomi Watts as the boy's parents. Bobby Cannavale also stars in a film that is very personal to DeMonaco.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about War Party, a production company that Grillo formed with his filmmaker best friend, Joe Carnahan. These two entertainment junkies are taking over the land of make believe in a big way, with May's "El Chicano" carrying the torch into the summer wind. It all started with "Wheelman", a 2017 Netflix Original starring Grillo and written and directed by Jeremy Rush. The 83 minute blast featured Grillo in a car for the majority of the film, battling time, gangsters, and the need to impose his will on the streets of Boston. The War Party machine continues to churn this summer with Grillo and Carnahan, who worked on 2012's superb "The Grey" together, re-teaming for the sci-fi action thriller and comedy, "Boss Level".
In a film that gathers elements of "Edge of Tomorrow" and "Groundhog Day" without hedging its bets on either film, Grillo's Roy Pulver is a retired Special Forces operative who finds himself in a never-ending loop of death while trying to save his family. Pulver's opposition in the film is none other than Mel Gibson, who is in the midst of a cinematic comeback. Watts also co-stars with Grillo here in a film that promises a little bit of everything: fast cars, lots of action, explosions, and laughs come your way this August. "Boss Level" fills the quota of War Party in one avenging rocket blast of summer fun: a wildly unkempt mixture of thrills, laughs, and Grillo and Gibson staring each other down. Thank Carnahan for picking the right recipe.
Grillo recently wrapped "Black and Blue", a hardcore action drama starring the likes of Mike Colter (Netflix's "Luke Cage"), Naomie Harris, and Tyrese Gibson. Deon Taylor's film follows a rookie Detroit female cop who catches the ere of corrupt cops, and must outrun them, as well as a criminal gang that the sinful badges have tipped off for her involvement in a drug dealer's death. If you are thinking mayhem, aim higher and think bigger.
The movie involves some real world heat with the rookie's body cam catching the corrupt in action, as well as some legit "Heat", with the cinematographer of Michael Mann's 1995 film, Dante Spinotti, choreographing the action. That's like seasoning a steak with special sauce that is limited in supply.
Grillo then reunites with his "Donnybrook" co-star, James Badge Dale, in Aaron Harvey's "Into the Ashes", where his character's motivations are unknown, but judging from some footage the actor provided on Instagram, it doesn't bode well for co-star Luke Grimes.
You can expect both of those hard-boiled delights later this year, as well as a return to Netflix glory with "Point Blank". A remake of a French film, "A bout Portant", Grillo plays a wounded criminal who gets some help from a nurse in order to save his kidnapped wife. Grillo's Marvel Universe teammate and real life pal, Anthony Mackie, co-stars in the film along with the esteemed Marcia Gay Harden. Point Black screenwriter Adam G. Simon took Fred Cavaye's characters and splashed them with a little cinematic kerosene, creating a unique thriller that features a knockdown drag-out brawl in a car wash.
Grillo breaks bad again in Wes Miller's "Hell On The Border", playing the outlaw Bob Dozier, who is tracked by the lawful Bass Reeves (David Gyasi). The film co-stars Ron Perlman and Jaqueline Fleming, and represents Grillo's first foray into the Western genre.
This past week, Grillo joined the cast of "The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard" sequel with Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, and Salma Hayek. Another big studio picture with a big cast added to the list of Grillo delights coming your way.
A drug dealing mad man. A time-traveling soldier. A corrupt cop. An outlaw. A family man devoted to his son. A criminal with a good heart. Versatility doesn't always mean throwing latex on your face and sitting in a makeup chair for three hours; sometimes it's just mixing things up a little, playing people from all walks of life while retaining the soulful touch that makes you special.
This past October, Grillo got to play himself in "Fightworld", a docu-series about the vivid fight cultures around the world. Traveling to exotic and chaotic locales such as Israel and Myanmar, the fighter for life got to indulge in his lifelong hobby of understanding and appreciating the psychology behind ring-centered and real world combat. Paired up with his "Kingdom" directing pal, Paddy McKinley, Grillo made friends for life while discovering universal truths that connected a punch to a culture. It also allowed for fans to see the secret ingredient that makes him unique: a rugged vulnerability.
According to McKinely, it is that vulnerability that Grillo never lets too many people see yet definitely contains and protects that makes him incredible to watch, especially in an encounter with an Israeli officer named Eitan. "Frank is an extremely complex guy. He's a very smart and well-educated dude who also happens to be a great athlete," McKinley said. "He's got so many layers to him, but the one he projects the most is that he's the harder guy. When he met Eitan, here was a guy who all those things multiplied by ten. It was really cool to see Frank among these guys, seeing Eitan call Frank a brother."
Ten years ago, Grillo wouldn't have been able to make a five episode documentary series about something that is near and dear to his heart, but "Fightworld" shows you how far Grillo has come. After several years of hard work and keeping his head down and deep in work, Grillo has achieved something every actor strives for: choice. He gets to pick and choose what he does these days, acquiring a freedom at the ripe old age of 53.
Don't let the number fool you though: Grillo is turning 50 into the new 30 with his rigorous gym habits that involve training with Justin Fortune and professional boxer, Chris Van Heerden. When you are sleeping, Frank is training. I can neither confirm nor deny that he lifts weights in his sleep.
As I watch him ascend, I am constantly reminded of something Grillo told me during our first chat back years ago. The son of middle class parents and carrying blue collar roots out of New York, Grillo handles adversity like a boxer slipping a jab in the ring. When I asked him about how a film set operates and if there are levels of hierarchy among the cast, Grillo was quick to point out that it didn't exist to him. "It's not a meritocracy. I don't put anyone in an ivory tower on a film set. Everybody is on par." Humbled at an early age and a firm believer in loyalty, Grillo was prepared for big success long before it found him. As he told Entertainment Weekly a few years ago, when the coach calls you off the bench, you must be ready to play.
Ask him today, and he's still gotta earn the time. Producer or not, Grillo rightfully carries a chip on his shoulder. It's guided him throughout his resurgence. Back in 2011, it helped him steal scenes in supporting roles like David Ayer's "End of Watch" (the wedding speech!) From 2014-17, it was leading the pack. These days, Grillo is doing a little of everything on film, inching closer to happiness while challenging himself in every role. There are times where he will slip into the darkness of a role, and others where his character will simply consume the screen, sucking all the energy out of a room.
There will always be fighting, because let's face it, no one throws a punch better in Hollywood than Grillo. With him, it's acting and real life merging at a street corner of desire and hard work. There's a reason he works with the same crew frequently and makes friends wherever he goes and works: what you see is what you get. There's nothing fake or half-measure about Grillo's work ethic.
The epitome of any career in Hollywood is built off hard work and a dedication to knowing what you are and what you can do. For Frank Grillo, 2019 is about taking those preconceived expectations and flipping them on their back. He wants to entertain you at all times, but with more challenging measures.
Are you ready? Let's hope, because the Grillo train is moving full steam ahead.
"There are no rules. There are only things in your head. The only rule is: don't stop and don't quit."