Even though Frank Grillo has been acting professionally for over 19 years now, leave it to the media to label him an “overnight sensation.” It was just early last September that the now in-demand actor gained notice playing Frank Campana, Brendan Conlon’s (Joel Edgerton’s) trainer in WARRIOR. And it was that role that has spring boarded him into mainstream consciousness.
During the publicity tour for Grillo’s new film – a character driven survivalist tale – THE GREY, we were lucky to speak with the extremely affable actor over the phone. And word of warning to you: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
VeryAware: First of all congratulations on your “breakout” success over the past year!
Frank Grillo: “Do I have breakout success? I have to call my mother.”
VA: This is what “the media” has been labeling your career as of lately so I’m going to jump on board this train.
“Well, I’m very excited! I’m going to go out shopping after this.”
VA: So how did you prepare for your role in the movie?
“After talking with Joe about the backstory of John Diaz, I went and spent some time with some people in prison. I wanted to get the mindset of people who’ve lived on the other side of the law- outside convention. So I spent a considerable amount of time that way, talking to Joe on a daily basis, and him and I kind of whittling down who this guy was from before we see him.”
VA: Many of the characters in the story came face to face with many of our collective common fears. Were there any fears you had to overcome whilst making the film?
“My biggest fear is always fear of failure. Oddly, I was always afraid of out of every scene, the last scene – I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off and I’d let Joe down. But as far as big fears – like heights and flying and cold, and wolves – I kinda don’t have any big, big fears like that. I’m afraid of my wife when she gets mad or that my children are going to break everything in my apartment. For me, my struggle with my life is fear of failing.”
VA: Since we are touching on it now, I think you character’s death scene was so beautifully poetic and poignant that Diaz would finally just drop this macho bravado at that perfect moment – it’s beautiful out – and he was just going to take charge in how he was going to die, as most of the other guys weren’t as “lucky” to do so.
“When I read the script I bawled. I thought, ‘How beautiful. Here’s a man with really no truth to his life.’ He didn’t live an honest life and really has never honest with himself. And how beautiful are his last moments to sacrifice himself so that these two other guys can continue. Because I think he knows no way is Liam (John Ottway) gonna leave him there. I always believed that he did believe in God and that it was him believing God not believing in him, if that makes any sense. I used myself. I struggle with fait, with religion more or less. When I’m out in nature and I see a sunset or a mountain or a group of trees or whatever it is, I always say, “Wow of course there is God because this could not exist.” I don’t know how this would exist. You know you get those feelings. That coupled with one altruistic moment to find what his faith was. Not to over sentimentalize it but I thought it was gorgeous. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off. Joe Carnahan enabled me. And we wept together, we cried by the river before we did it because it evoked all kinds of feelings for us – for our families, about our faith. I came away from the film being an entirely different person.”
VA: It was really amazing as you had these scenes of intensity with Neeson and then you have to go to this place where you’re so intimate with him and you’re exposing your vulnerability to the audience as well. It was just so beautiful.
“Thanks so much. I was always concerned about women – about how women would see the movie. If it would touch women in a certain way and it seems to have hit a note with women. Again, I’ve learned so much about what women look for in men. To have that honesty and not bravado. Things my wife always tells me.”
VA: You’re probably going to be asked this a zillion times today but what was it like acting in those frigid temperatures? Did the natural elements make it harder to nail the takes?
“It was like 20 below zero at any given day with wind. It was so great because I didn’t have to manufacture any emotions or feelings. Like we were cold. So cold that if we stayed out there too long, we would die. So it just created an amazing authenticity for all of us. It was just a matter of what we were gonna do and reacting to our surroundings. It lent itself – it almost became actor proof. What kills an actor is over thinking too much and believe me, we did not get a chance to think.”
VA: The cast had such a strong rapport. How did you guys create that strong bond? Did you guys do a lot of rehearsal beforehand?
“We actually didn’t rehearse that much. I think Joe’s passion for the project – it is his baby. It took him five years to get it up and running. That coupled with Liam Neeson coming in on the first day of the table read and we were all a little intimidated. He said, ‘Let’s check our egos at the table. The only way we do this is if we do this as a band of brothers.’ That day we were so close. We ate dinner together every night. We drank wine together every night after work. We didn’t have trailers. We stayed in a little snowcat in between takes. We really – these six guys – really fell in love with each other and we remain great friends to this day.”
VA: Did you bond with one actor in particular?
“Its funny because me and Liam joke about it all the time because we both have families and busy lives. I never expected to make a friend the way Liam and I have become friends. I got to tell you he’s really become one of my closest friends today.”
VA: We’ve talked about it a little bit but, what was it like collaborating with Joe Carnahan? Had you always been a fan of his? What was it like working with him versus other directors you’ve worked with? Does he handle things differently than other directors?
“That’s a great question. I’ve begged Joe to be in his movies since he started and he wouldn’t let me. So I did a movie, PRIDE AND GLORY, that Joe co-wrote with Gavin O’Connor who directed WARRIOR. And Joe and I became friends from that. But there was never anything he felt I was right for. I thought, ‘This guy just hates me.’ I’m kind of grateful now because this was a role, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to play a great role like this one again. Joe and I constantly went back and forth. He said to me after he saw WARRIOR – it was September and this movie wasn’t going until January – he goes, ‘You got the role. I don’t care what your agents say, don’t take a job in January.’ I said, ‘Joe, that’s a big thing for you to say to me.’ He said, ‘Don’t take a job in January. It might get bumpy along the way but the job is yours.’ And you gotta love a guy who could have gotten anyone for the role. Anybody. Big names wanted to be in the movie. But that’s not what he went after. He’s an alpha male. He’s the captain of the ship and as an actor that’s what you want. You want a guy to steer the ship and you want to be able to trust that you can just go and do your job and not have to worry about anything else. He plays music between takes and keeps everything light. I would do anything for this guy until the day I stop acting.”
VA: And the other question you’ll probably get asked about today is about the wolves. You had both live wolves and the animatronic ones on set. Did any of the animatronic ones malfunction during crucial moments? Were you scared of the live ones?
“Every once in awhile the cold would effect the animatronic but for the most part they really did work. The real wolves were just used on the periphery. I did a TV Series a couple years ago with wolves and it’s amazing how shy they are. They are very, very shy and unpredictable. Joe used them for the running shots so we really weren’t in close proximity to the wolves. And there were puppets as well. There’s just flashes of wolf. It was a lot easier to deal with the way he shot it. Our big issue was how would they deal with it in post and how would they look. We wanted them to be authentic and yet a little mystical, primal, and bigger. Not so much what the literal of a wolf chasing you is as in your mind how you imagine a wolf to look as it’s chasing you. I think he pulled it off.”
VA: Absolutely! Your next big studio movie is TALES FROM THE GANGSTER SQUAD and you’re working with another powerhouse ensemble cast. What’s that like for you?
“It was great to be a part of. It’s a big cast but it’s a smaller role but a pivotal one. All my work is with Sean Penn. So again, it was a dream come true. I can check that off my bucket list. I think it’s gonna be a great film. Reuben Fleischer is fantastic. I have a movie coming out before that called LAY THE FAVORITE which is at Sundance, with Rebecca Hall and Stephen Frears – one of my favorite directors. So I’m really excited about that since it’s a comedy and it’s a chance for me to do something a little bit different.”
THE GREY opens on January 27.