“Who’s the toughest actor in Hollywood?” Frank Grillo asks, wrapping his hands in preparation for training.
Grillo’s posing the question to Terry Southerland, his trainer of more than 20 years. Lacing up Grillo’s gloves, Southerland doesn’t hesitate before responding, “You are.”
Standing in the middle of an underground boxing gym in New York City, Grillo is just one of the guys. He walks like a fighter, he talks like a fighter, and other than having the best hair in the gym—according to his trainers—he looks like a fighter. In this moment, there’s almost nothing that points to the fact that Grillo’s been a working actor for more than 20 years.
After staying under the radar for much of his career, Grillo started making a name for himself with his breakout performance in 2011’s Warrior. Gavin O’Connor’s film told the story of two MMA fighters (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) who also happened to be brothers. Grillo took on the supporting role of Frank Campana, Edgerton’s trainer—and attacked every scene with the intensity he’s bringing to this workout. “[My character] wasn’t in the script. That role I had to create myself, and I had to scratch and claw for every screen second,” Grillo says.
Grillo’s role in Warrior directly led to a more prominent role opposite Liam Neeson in The Grey, which helped open the door to the biggest year of his career. In 2014, Grillo headlined The Purge: Anarchy, found his way into the Marvel universe as Brock Rumlow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and launched a new show, Kingdom, on DirecTV, which has been picked up for a second and third season.
Suddenly, at the age of 49, Grillo is being talked about as an actor—and not just an actor who can kick your ass in real life. After all, this is the guy who nearly ripped a phone book apart on Watch What Happens Live!, and the same guy who told Jimmy Kimmel, “I could kill you.” He wouldn’t—but he could.
At this point, the bar’s starting to get more crowded as Friday afternoon revelers trickle in. When a man with a backpack walks past Grillo and bumps him, Grillo doesn’t move. He doesn’t stop talking. He doesn’t stop having a good time. But ever so subtly, his eyes follow the offender all the way through the bar until he lands at a table in the back. With the judgment of a seasoned fighter, you get the feeling that Grillo always has a sense of what’s going on around him. But he says nothing.
In fact, the only time he appears to lose his cool comes about 20 minutes later, when he can’t remember the name of his favorite children’s book. After five minutes of frantically Googling and even calling his wife, Grillo remembers: “Where the Wild Things Are!” he shouts in the middle of the bar. “Wow. This is what happens when you’re 75 years old,” he adds, laughing. “Oh my God. Crack is whack.”
Talking about reading to his sons every night, and fatherhood in general, makes Grillo visibly emotional. “I don’t say this out of hubris: I’m not great at anything, but I’m a great father,” he says. “My goal in life is to keep them safe and secure and happy and make them successful. A lot of what I do is based on how I can take care of them. Do I want to be the fourth or fifth guy in a little movie that’s going to get a lot of attention in award season, or do I want to go and do a movie that’s going to make me a lot of money? Probably the latter.”
It’s a sentiment not many actors would express to a reporter—the idea that sometimes, money is more important than craft. But don’t mistake Grillo’s honesty for a lack of passion. When prompted, he can list off his dream projects without hesitation, beginning with a Deathwish remake and a really good gangster movie. Grillo, who met with Martin Scorsese for Wolf of Wall Street, would love nothing more than to team up with the Oscar-winning director. “If I could work with Marty Scorsese, you could shoot me. I’m done. I’m finished,” he says.
Other than that, Grillo’s Hollywood wish list includes working with Daniel Day-Lewis, Mark Rylance, and hopefully dipping his toe in the comedy pool—think a dark comedy along the lines of In Bruges. “I’m a funny guy!” Grillo says, almost as if to convince Hollywood from 2,000 miles away.
But when Grillo so much as suspects that the words “romantic comedy” are about to come up, it’s as if a security alarm goes off in his head. By the time he hears the phrase’s fourth syllable, he shuts the suggestion down. “You’ll never ever see me in a romantic comedy. Look at me,” he says, with a stare more intense than the one he gave the punching bag earlier. “Ever.”
The only other question Grillo answers with such a sense of finality is whether his sons—one of whom, Rio, is named for Grillo’s love of Brazilian jujitsu—will be fighters. “They’ll all know how to fight,” Grillo says. “But they’ll be poets before they’ll be fighters.”
Taking the last sip of his beer, Grillo checks his phone, realizing that Rio has a soccer game at 8 a.m. tomorrow—which means Grillo’s biggest opponent right now is the 17-degree weather that awaits him. That’s about as far ahead as he’s thinking. As a student of Eastern philosophy—something that helps counteract his occasional aggression—Grillo believes in living in the moment, whether that moment is head-butting some asshole (a move he does not recommend) or taking his wife of 18 years out for a date.
And in this moment, Grillo sees his career as a work in progress. “There’s still something I’m after,” he says. Surprisingly enough, it’s not mainstream fame. It’s not even clear if Grillo knows what he’s after. All he knows for certain is that he doesn’t want to be Brad Pitt.
“I don’t begrudge anybody,” he says. “I want everyone to succeed in whatever they want to succeed in and I’m not jealous of any other actor. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be Brad Pitt. I don’t need to be on magazine covers. I just want to work with some cool people, have a good time, enjoy what I’m doing, make money, take care of my kids, always be challenged and go out of this thing saying, ‘I accomplished a little something.’
“At this point,” Grillo says, “I just expect to be the guy you think you know from somewhere, which is cool. I’m that guy. That’s exactly who I am.”