Frank Grillo has a lot to get done in what he sees as a finite amount of time. However, he’s ready to back-burner everything in his burgeoning Hollywood career to see Broch Rumlow’s transformation into Crossbones.
On the cusp of his 50s, the actor has accomplished the unlikely with a major breakthrough as an action star in films like The Purge: Anarchy, Warrior, The Grey and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And as he waits for Marvel Studios to call on him to expand his role as the deadly, and now horribly scarred, Rumlow, Grillo has made the move to dramatic leading man – but not without a healthy dose of bone-crunching action – in Kingdom, the new DirecTV series set in the lower echelons of mixed martial arts.
Kingdom, which premiered Wednesday, falls somewhere between The Sopranos’ gritty family power struggles and Warrior’s world of intensely competitive MMA up-and-comers, with Grillo playing a long-struggling patriarch hoping to push his family and protégés to a level of success he’s yet to attain.
Speaking with Spinoff Online, Grillo tore into a wide range of subjects, including his longtime love of fighting disciplines, his favorite on-screen fighters and, of course, the future of Crossbones.
Spinoff Online: How connected to this character did you feel already going in? Did you “get” him – the guy who's stuck it out and is still waiting for that break?
Frank Grillo: Yeah, that's a great question. There are some parallels to my own life, because I think at my age when you're in this business, you've either plateaued and you're definitely on the slippery slope down. And somehow, I caught a tailwind to go up. But up until that point, you're constantly fighting to be relevant as a man. I think that's what drew me to the character is that this guy was trying to stay relevant in this world, this subculture. And it's a very guttural place to exist. Mixed martial arts, like boxing at that level, if you're not at the top level, it's an interesting place to be. It's not easy. So that's what really attracted me is this drive for this guy, to still, at his age, to remain relevant to this thing.
You’ve kept your physicality in peak condition over the years, resulting in you getting the roles that you're playing now and getting great notice for. What has that meant to you to keep that commitment going? Do you ever say, “Agh! Just one day without the weights, please”?
I don't. I mean, it's been a lifestyle of mine since I was a boy. I was always an athlete. I've always wrestled and boxed. So I thought when I did a movie called Warrior – at that time, I went, “Wow – I'll never get to experience this again where I could combine the things I love most.” Because I'm an avid fighter – I am! I'm a Jujitsu practitioner and a boxer and a wrestler. And then this came along, and the role was far superior to the role in that movie. In many ways, the show is superior to what the movie is. So it's a lifestyle that I've always had and maintained, and it's never a drag to go to the gym for me. It's the one place that I probably have the least amount of anxiety.
Of your personal fighting skills, what would you say is your specialty – and what's the thing you still want to get a little better at?
Well, I'm a boxing fanatic, so I box every day. I spar three times a week. My son is 17. He’s boxed for the past four or five years. We're in the gym all the time, so as good as I am as a boxer, I'm constantly wanting to be [better] – I train like I'm a professional fighter, and I actually tell my son to do the same thing. If you're going to do it, if you love it, train like you're going to be a pro. Everything else, I'm fairly decent at. Not to come from a place of hubris, but I've wrestled my whole life – a collegiate wrestler – and I've been a Jujitsu practitioner for about 20 years. So really, the show for me is a combination of two things that I love doing most of all, which is acting and creating characters and then fighting. It's really been a gift.
You're on an amazing roll professionally lately. Tell me what it's been like for you to have this moment and to really be able to take a step back and enjoy it.
Yeah! You know, I like to believe that hard work pays off, and that there is an applied science to even this business – and I'd be lying if I didn't say I wake up every other day, and I scratch my head! And I'm grateful. I look at my wife and I go, “Man, this is something, huh?” And it's just a testament to hard work. Whatever talent is, I think, is irrelevant. It's how much time you're willing to put into something to just consistently make yourself better – a better artist, a better fighter, whatever it is – and to believe in yourself when a lot of times you get to a point where people start believing in you. Again, I have three boys. It's something I instill in them. You believe in yourself. You work hard. You be persistent, and you persevere. I know it sounds a little cliché at times, but it's kind of my ideology to life. And I am excited. I wake up like a six-year-old child every day. You know – it's fun!
You're under contract with Marvel, although you don't necessarily know what happens next?
Yes, six movies.
How does that make it easy or difficult to pick and choose your projects as you work around when and how Marvel might need you?
Well, they have to approve everything, based on timelines and stuff – which is fine. Good problems to have! Because at my age, listen, there's a finite amount of time. One of my good pals is Liam Neeson. We did a movie together, and I kind of look at him as a mentor, as an older brother. And he's 62 years old. He became a movie star when he was like 58. Like, a movie star. And I know there's a finite amount of time, so now with the Marvel thing, I actually look at things differently. I look at things that, how will they affect my career. Are these things that I want an audience to see me play? Whereas before, you just say “Yes.” I have kids to feed. You just say yes. So now, it's been we're navigating it a little bit more, which makes it interesting. But I'm a blue=collar guy. I mean, when this show is over, and I don't have anything in September, I'm thinking I may never get another job again. That doesn't go away.
The curse of the actor.
It does not go away. I'm talking to my agent saying, “Guys, I'm free in September!” I was going to go do The Raid -- remake of The Raid -- which is pushed to January. I'm like, “Guys!” They're like, “Dude, relax.” I'm like, “I can't relax. My kids have to eat!” [Laughs].
The Russos gave you the notion that you were getting an origin story in Winter Soldier. You've done your research. How excited are you to hopefully get that opportunity to really dig into that and see it through to the full Crossbones persona?
When I originally sat down with those guys, they laid it all out for me – and again, with Marvel, you never know. [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige's a genius. Whatever he decides is ... you know! But the Russos, I love them. We're close friends at this point, and they laid it out about who Crossbones was early on. And I got to go do the research and say, “Wow, this is a significant –“ and to the fanboys, and to the people who follow Captain America specifically, this is an integral part of the future of Captain America. And when I walk into Marvel’s [offices] – I don't think I'll get into trouble for saying this – there's a poster, there's a big poster with every Marvel character, and in the middle is a big Crossbones. There he is. And I was like, “OK, this could be interesting.” But again, I'm cautiously optimistic that what I'm hearing is the truth, and hopefully, it goes that way.
You've got some other stuff that you're putting together?
There is a project. I did a small film called Disconnect with Henry Alex Rubin, who directed Murderball, the documentary. Disconnect was a great little film. Not many people saw it. It was me and [Jason] Bateman and Hope Mavis and [Andrea] Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard. He's got a film called 15 Brothers that we're trying to put together. It's about these two brothers during wartime, West Point Rugby. It's a great script and we're in the process of putting that together. Going to go do The Raid in January. Then hopefully, I think there might be a Captain America 3 after that! So it's a good time. But I still have to get a job for September! [Laughs]
How much has this show tested you as an actor?
In many ways, more than anything else I've done because I'm the central character in the show which I've not been. It's a richly emotional show. It's very complex. So along with the physicality, it's challenged me probably more than anything I've done. And I shouldn't say probably, definitely. We also shoot two episodes at a time, so you have to track the arc of your character for two episodes as opposed to doing one episode. So it's a lot of work. It's a lot of homework. I love it.
That's why everyone was working until four in the morning last night?
That's why everyone works until four in the morning. But I love it. It's the way I like to work. I mean in Cap, you go, you work for a week, you sit in your trailer for a week. It's great, but this is like doing a play.
What haven't you gotten to do as an actor that you still think, “Give me a shot at that kind of role and I'll show you I can kill it”?
The Purge is a taste of it. And it's a genre movie, but it's a taste of – I look at Bourne. I look at [Jeremy] Renner and what he did with Bourne. And I said, “Man, give me a shot at that!” or “Give me a shot at the Punisher!” or something like that. Joe Carnahan, who wrote The Grey -- we did The Grey together – he wrote a script. He wrote a remake of Death Wish. It's a two-hander. It is one of the best scripts I've ever read in my life. Now, it's hung up at Fox right now, but that's something that I would love to be able to go and do with a director like Carnahan. So there are things out there that – if things continue to go the way they're going, then I might be in a position where I could be a guy who they'll say, “You're a little bit bankable now.” Or not. So this is just such a fickle business. You're just at the mercy of who goes to see your movies or who watches your show.
Give me your list of your favorite people to watch fight on screen, from influences when you were kid to people now.
Yeah, yeah, that's a great question. When I was a kid, it was Bronson. It was Charlie Bronson. I just loved Charles Bronson. I kind of always imagined that that's the kind of actor I would be. Not the best actor in the world, but there was something interesting to watch about Charlie Bronson. And then, of course, growing up, I was a big Bruce Lee fan. I loved all the Bruce Lee movies. And I also loved Steve McQueen. I'm a big fan of the films from the ‘70s where the anti-heroes, they took care of business. Even Clint Eastwood to a degree. Nowadays, I've got to tell you, I think there's a void. I think there's a bit of a hole. I mean, The Rock is a big, strong guy, but it's all very rehearsed to me.
A lot of today’s action and fight sequences can be more about the editing then actual fighting stuntwork.
Yeah. It's not raw and visceral and dirty. So I still like to watch the old movies, and that's the kind of thing I'm interested in doing. I'm interested in doing films like that. Because I can kind of sell my wares at this point, at a time where I think there's not a lot of that.
We've talked about the business side of your success. Tell me about having fans now and meeting people who know your work.
Crazy! Usually, it used to be I'd have people come up and say, “Hey, man, you're the guy from Warrior. I saw you in this.” Now, people come up, and I'm still shocked by it. Again, I'm old. So I'll be sitting down. Someone will say, “Frank Grillo.” I'll be like, “Do I owe you money?” And they're like, “No, man – I love The Grey”” or “I love Warrior.” “I love Cap!” I'm like, “Oh, thank you! Thanks so much! Thanks for watching!” Still, I don't take any of it for granted, and it's humbling and it's exciting. Again, it's a testament. You work hard. People recognize it. They like it. They respond to it. The thing about acting is, as an actor, you want to affect people. And so what I'm getting back now is people are affected by what you're doing. And that's the payoff.
Coming full circle back to Kingdom, tell me about your history with MMA. What sparked your interest in this style of fighting, and have you followed it as a sport pretty continuously over the years?
Yeah, yes, I have. I started training with Rickson Gracie, who is the best Jujitsu guy in the world. He's the head of the Gracie family, before there was a UFC. His brother, Royce, was the first guy to win the UFC – this is how old I am! His brother, Royce came to our academy to prepare for UFC 1. We were laughing at him ,like, “You're going to do what? What is this? This sounds ridiculous.” Because before that, there was something called a Vale Tudo, where you traveled around the world, and you fight guys from all different forms of martial arts. But this was something very specific. So I've been involved with it since it began. When I did Warrior, I trained with Greg Jackson, the best trainer in the world. That's how Greg came to the show. So I even delved deeper into the world on a different level. So it's a big part of my life. I watch lots of fights. Lots of fighters are my friends. I train like an MMA fighter, so I'm around them all the time. So it's a huge part of my life. I think bringing that to the show and kind of letting the guys see that you need to go deep on this, because you'll be found out quickly. You can't lie in a ring, so if you want to be a fighter on TV, you’ve got to be a fighter – and they took the bait.
Also starring Nick Jonas, Jonathan Tucker, Kiele Sanchez and Matt Lauria, Kingdom airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on DirecTV’s Audience Network.