Meet Frank Grillo, Hollywood's New Action Ambassador

Frank Grillo Wolf Warrior 2
Frank Grillo in "Wolf Warrior 2"

It's taken two decades for Hollywood to zero in on Bronx-born actor-producer Frank Grillo, whose latest films include the hard-boiled Netflix thriller "Wheelman" and China's blockbuster foreign-language Oscar contender "Wolf Warrior 2." Action's newest star doesn't seem to mind the wait.

"I find in L.A. that you ask people how they're doing and the immediate answer is, 'Oh, I'm very busy,' as if busy is the goal," a very busy Grillo, 52, told The Times over Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas, ahead of trips to Brazil and Israel, and a return to the States to film bare-knuckle brawl pic "Donnybrook" -- all before Christmas. "It's like I've been starving for 20 years and all of a sudden I'm in the best restaurant in the world, but you've still got to control what you eat. Because I'm a working guy, it's been tough saying no."

Saying no has, however, freed Grillo to take control of his own path. At 52, the New York native who got his start toiling in TV and soaps is finally leading action vehicles of his own with a new production shingle, a new starring film, a globetrotting docuseries about fight cultures around the world, and more on the horizon.

Dark-haired and chisel-jawed, with the leonine build of a fighter and a New York City charisma that can veer from approachable to menacing in his screen roles, he carries the appreciation of a hustler who hasn't forgotten the dues he's paid. At a time when work and real life seem to be syncing up in holistic convergence, the father of three sons who moved to Los Angeles two years ago is grateful to be on the verge of his moment.

"It's funny, because I'm 117 years old!" quipped Grillo, musing over what he describes as a surplus of good fortune. "I'm a blue-collar guy, self-educated. Something happens where the thing that you are and the thing that you do somehow align, and it's real, and it touches somebody who thinks, 'I can connect to that guy.' I don't look like Hollywood Guy. I'm a regular guy."

Actual regular guys might disagree that Grillo is one of them. On a fall afternoon at a sidewalk cafe in Texas he orders shrimp fajitas but apologetically skips the tortillas thanks to a semi-strict regimen for an upcoming role, perhaps the most actorly thing about him. "Doesn't that sound stupid?" he laughs with a self-deprecating smile.

A wrestler in his youth, Grillo started boxing at age 18 and trained in Brazilian jiujitsu under Rickson Gracie. Between movie shoots and press tours this year, he's been traveling the world filming a Netflix docuseries tentatively titled "Fight World" in which he visits with fighters from disparate cultures from Thailand to Myanmar to Mexico, trips he shares grateful glimpses of on Instagram.

"I am so curious about fighting, in a holistic sense: What makes a man or a woman [fight]?" offered Grillo, who trains locally everywhere he goes. "It's hard to be a fighter; most fighters don't make money. What's more painful than getting punched in the face is the preparation, the training. It's almost sadistic. These are some of the most beautiful people and I'm fascinated by what drives them."

In Myanmar, for example, he was introduced to lethwei -- "the art of the nine limbs," Grillo enthused. "Basically it's elbows, fists, knees, legs, head. No gloves, bare-fisted. Thousands of people go to the arenas. And what you learn is, as violent as it is, all of these fighters are searching for humility and connectedness. What I've learned about fighting and fight cultures is that it's not about the violence. It's about everything else that being in combat exposes -- especially and more so for men, I think."

Mining the emotional depths beneath the traditionally masculine terrain of combat, genre and action stories has allowed Grillo to carve out his own niche in an industry overflowing with actors waiting for their moment. Coming off of last year's action-packed "Captain America: Civil War" and "The Purge: Election Year," he concluded in August a three-season starring run on the MMA drama series "Kingdom," in which he played the patriarchal owner of a Venice, Calif., MMA gym.

He can currently be seen leading the Netflix original film "Wheelman" as a getaway driver stalking the streets of Boston with hot cargo after a heist gone awry. More star turns are on the horizon including "Beyond Skyline," a sci-fi action sequel in which he shares the screen with Indonesian actor and stunt choreographer Iko Uwais of "The Raid." Both roles add family dynamics to the drama, pitting Grillo as everyman heroes driven toward danger by deeper responsibilities.

"I don't think I'm going to be doing the 'math teacher who wants to become a woman in Idaho' stories," he smiled, sipping a Dos Equis in the warm Texas midday sun. "I think this is my trajectory, these action movies."

He began his career with a two-year stint on "Guiding Light," where he met his wife, the actress Wendy Moniz. But the heightened melodrama of soap acting wasn't for him, he remembered, a glint of amusement in his eyes.

"Soaps taught me discipline, because every day is shooting 60 pages," he said. "But you have to be able to put yourself in the circumstances. In soap operas it's like we're sitting here having lunch one day, and the next we're married and all of a sudden you're telling me you're my sister and you've just killed my father and I'm like, wait, what?"

He smiled, sure to note his respect for his former brethren who grind it out daily on soaps. "I think everything you do you can take something good away from, and I learned discipline from that ... but I knew the week that I started that I had to get off of that show."

When he did leave, a run of television gigs followed on crime shows such as "The Shield," "Blind Justice," and "Prison Break," but it wasn't until Grillo developed a reputation as Hollywood's favorite tough-guy character actor in film that one standout supporting turn led to another.

It was his work as a dirty NYPD cop in Gavin O'Connor's 2008's "Pride and Glory" that first sparked his friendship with filmmaker Joe Carnahan, who would later cast him as an oil worker facing down his mortality and toxic masculinity opposite Liam Neeson in 2012's "The Grey."

A memorable performance in O'Connor's 2011 MMA film "Warrior" also made Hollywood start to take notice: Those roles landed Grillo on the radar of filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo, who brought him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing the villainous Crossbones in their "Captain America" movies.

"We were looking for an [actor] who had a charm that made the audience like him and feel like he'd potentially be an asset to Captain America, but who could also make a real turn, where you shock the audience: It turns out he's a villain," said Joe Russo, taking a moment to wax fondly over Grillo while working on "Avengers: Infinity War."

"It's hard to find actors with that level of charm who feel relatable and real," he added. "Frank is an incredibly unique actor with a very gifted naturalism; he can convey a skewed morality that makes him relatable, even on the smallest level."

And, Russo added: "He's a great guy."

"Wheelman," written and directed by Jeremy Rush, marks a notable reteam for Grillo and Carnahan -- this time as producing partners, guiding the contained $6-million genre-thriller from start to finish under the banner of their newly launched production company, WarParty. Among their upcoming projects is a remake of "The Raid," set in Caracas, Venezuela, with Grillo set to star as an ex-Special Forces soldier fighting his way through a building full of hostiles to get to his brother.

"Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, those kinds of icons -- they looked like guys that were your dad's friends, guys that didn't have the traditional perfectly manicured, hair-gel pixie vibe of today," said Carnahan. "I think what's wonderful about him is that he's not an overnight sensation; it's been a long time coming for him."

Grillo unexpectedly found himself big in China this year, where summer audiences made a record-breaking hit out of homegrown Chinese action epic "Wolf Warrior 2." Introduced to filmmaker-star Jing Wu by the Russo brothers, who consulted on the military action film, Grillo plays a merciless American supervillain dubbed Big Daddy who faces off against Wu's patriotic hero.

"What's crazy is that I did this movie by accident and it makes all this money, and now I have a little bit of juice in China and all these people come out of the woodwork -- I must have gotten calls from every studio, every producer, because everybody wants in on that market," he marveled, acknowledging that the film, about a Chinese soldier battling Western mercenaries amid an African civil war, has been criticized by some as propagandist.

The film earned a whopping $851 million at the Chinese box office, becoming the country's highest-grossing film of all time. In October China made it the country's official best foreign film Oscar selection.

Grillo is tickled by his newfound fame in China and how all roads, personal and professional, seem to have led to this current Grillo-ssance.

"There is something about my life -- there is a symbiosis," said Grillo. "I'm not looking to become anything more than I am. I'm way past an age of thinking, 'Maybe the next thing is going to get me the next thing....' All the things that I'm doing now I truly enjoy doing, and the people that I get to do them with have made me a 10,000 times better person, father, husband, and friend."

jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato ___

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