Actors don’t typically get their big break at the age of 49, but don’t tell that to Frank Grillo.
After more than 20 years in show business, the New York City native is having the biggest year of his career. In April, Grillo joined the Marvel cinematic universe when he appeared as villain Brock Rumlow (a.k.a Crossbones) in the hit film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” In June, he was tapped to lead the upcoming remake of the popular Indonesian action movie “The Raid.” And, now, he stars in the sequel to last summer’s lucrative thriller “The Purge.”
In “The Purge: Anarchy,” Grillo stars as Leo Barnes, a police sergeant who hits the streets during the annual Purge – a 12-hour period in which all crime, including murder, is legal – to exact revenge on the man who killed his son. Barnes’ plans change, however, when he encounters four civilians fleeing a gang of nuts, and decides to help them survive the night.
I recently sat down with Frank at the 2014 Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, where we discussed “The Purge,” celebrity rats and why Liam Neeson had better watch his back.
David Onda: It’s fitting that we’re doing this interview here at Philadelphia Comic Con, because you’re in this world now, you’re part of the comic book universe.
Frank Grillo: I have been blown away by the level of fandom ever since “Cap.” It blows me away. It’s humbling. I understand why these stars come here, because none of them are bigger than the fans. And it’s [expletive] great. It really is.
Onda: As far as “The Purge” goes, the concept for this series is brilliant, but the first film fell flat with critics.
Grillo: They hated it!
Onda: Were you interested in doing “The Purge: Anarchy” so that you could do it justice, do right by this concept?
Grillo: Great question, but no. Honestly, I didn’t even see the film. I read the script not having any idea what “The Purge” was. I read the script and I was like, this is like from John Carpenter and Walter Hill – these are the movies I loved as a kid. This leading guy seems like, really, the anti-hero, you know? I met with [director James DeMonaco]… We referenced the same films – “Escape from New York,” “Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Death Wish,” “Warriors” – and then I saw that movie. And I understand why the fans and the critics didn’t like it and felt cheated. But they had $3 million to make a movie. The scope of “The Purge” is gigantic, which it is in this movie. It’s much bigger. When you see this movie, you see how big it looks. They didn’t expect the movie to make $85 million. They didn’t have to explain things to critics. I don’t know how they’re gonna respond to this. I think DeMonaco made a freakin’ great movie. They screened it for me at Universal. It’s intense from the beginning to the end. I don’t have to suspend disbelief. I’m in for the ride.
Onda: While you’re in the midst of making this movie, do you start thinking about whether you would participate in The Purge? Do you think about how you’d survive it in real life?
Grillo: Yeah, you know, it was such an interesting journey. It was a short shoot and my character had a very specific objective. And there was something that happened to him – my son and revenge – and I have kids, and I had to stay in this kind of weird macabre place. But I think it’s human nature. I don’t think there’s anybody out there that you’d say, “Have you ever had that feeling you wanted to…”
Onda: Kill someone?
Grillo: Yeah! Or at least beat the [expletive] out of them. Everyone will say, “If I can get away with it? Yeah!” So, there were times where you’d say, “You know what… would I kill anybody?” No, I wouldn’t kill anybody. I might steal a pair of earrings for my wife. There’s a couple people, bullies that I might knock out. But I tell you, there are some angry people in the world, obviously. And our country has a slight obsession with violence. There’s a fine line in entertainment that we have to be careful of.
Onda: It raises an interesting debate about whether something like this could work in the real world. Could a Purge-like event decrease crime, poverty and unemployment in our society? It makes you wonder.
Grillo: In parts of the world, places like Darfur, I think that the countries do Purge. When I’m in Brazil, I see how people look at the people from the favelas. When I’m in South Africa, I see how they treat the people – there’s basically shantytowns everywhere. It’s an embarrassment to the government. But that’s not a solution, to be embarrassed. You have to help these people. You have to take from this and give to this. It’s an interesting geopolitical question. You’re a lot younger than I am, but the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and whatever was a middle ground is kind of disappearing. It does raise an interesting question.
Onda: As we mentioned, Leo’s sole purpose for joining in on The Purge is revenge for his family. Why, in your mind, does he take on the task of bringing these other characters to safety?
Grillo: Because he’s not that guy. I’ll reference “Josey Wales,” because I used that movie as a template. Josey Wales’ family gets massacred, he sets out on this journey and he starts to revenge the deaths of his family by killing the people who killed them. And along the way, by accident, he comes across a group of people who are innocent, who need help, and it changes him. It changes his DNA. He became altruistic. As much as he still wants to carry out the revenge, it’s these people that open his heart. And it’s the same thing. He was a good guy to start.
Onda: There are some legitimately creepy scenes and set pieces in “The Purge: Anarchy.” Was there ever a time, while filming, where you saw something that gave you chills?
Grillo: Yeah. A couple of times, the anticipation of what I knew was gonna happen would get me. The thing that bothered me the most is there’s a scene in the movie where there’s a rat that crawls up a girl’s leg. That was a trained rat. In that alleyway, at 3:00 in the morning in downtown Los Angeles, were 500 rats that thought they were in the movie, too. We had to stop and get guys wrangling the rats so we could shoot the rat crawling up the leg. And even the rat was afraid of the rats. ’Cause downtown L.A. has a lot of rats. I was like, “Guys, I’m from New York – I’ve never seen this many rats.”
Onda: The rat has his own trailer to keep the other rats out…
Grillo: Yeah, yeah! It’s like they wanted to see the celebrity rat!
Onda: This is shaping up to be a huge year for you, with another big year ahead. To be breaking out in the business now, at age 49, is something quite special.
Grillo: I love it. A friend of mine, who’s an agent for a long time, a very powerful guy – I’ve been friends with him forever. He said to me, “You know, dude. There are no rules. Everybody in this business, specifically, expects you to be a star when you’re 25 years old. You know how many stars that there were at 25, that now, at 45, can’t get arrested? A lot more than you’d imagine. Do great work. Don’t put any rules on yourself. And if your time comes, you’ll be ready.” And I kind of lived by that. I’m so appreciative and grateful that anybody even recognizes what I do, and it just makes me work harder. I’m a blue collar guy, man. If I get a role, if somebody gives me a role – when I go do “The Raid” – I will submerse myself for months in fighting style to honor that film, but also to create something new. Where I lack talent, I think my luck has been that I’m a hard worker. And that’s gotten me to talking to you.
Onda: Did you ever think you’d be an action hero?
Grillo: Am I an action hero?
Onda: You are now! Between “The Purge,” “Captain America” and “The Raid”…
Grillo: I welcome it, because I’m a physical guy. I’m a jiu-jitsu practitionist for many years. I wrestled in high school. I am that guy. I welcome it. I’m excited. Liam Neeson better watch his ass. I spoke to him about a week ago, because he’s doing “Taken 3.” I said, “How you doin, pal?” He goes, “It’s starting to wear me down, Frank.” I said, “I’m right on your tail!”
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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.