Veteran character actor Frank Grillo shines in the contemporary western premiering this weekend in theaters and on digital platforms.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve got quite a diverse resume, with credits ranging Captain America: Winter Solider and The Purge movies to the Chinese-produced Wolf Warrior 2, one of the highest grossing internationally released films of all time. Lately, we’ve seen you in Hell on the Border — a drama about legendary lawman Bass Reeves — and the contemporary drama No Man’s Land, premiering this weekend in theaters and on digital platforms. Should we be thinking of this as the western stage of your career?
Frank Grillo: [Laughs] My career is funny, because it’s kind of based on whatever presents itself at the time that I either need to work or want to work. You know what I mean? And it just so happened that those two films included horses. And they’re both little, tiny movies, but they’re both scripts that I really dug because they were based on either true stories or true facts. And I thought they were both interesting. So I said I’m going to do this and get on a horse. I actually bought a horse after I did Hell on the Border, because I used to ride and I thought I might start again. So I bought a quarter horse — and I never rode it. And I had to sell it like eight months later, because I'm an idiot.
C&I: Were you able to spend much time in the saddle while you were growing up in New York?
Frank: When I was a kid, I used to ride horses every weekend. And my younger brother became a champion barrel rider in New York. He was amazing. So I’ve grown up with horses, and I am pretty good. And I don’t have any fear of horses. I know a lot of actors say they can ride horses — but then you get them on set, and they really can't. So the wranglers in these films were kind of amazed that I wasn’t full of shit, and I could actually ride a horse.
C&I: In No Man’s Land, you play a farmer near the Tex-Mex border whose adult son accidentally kills a Mexican youngster while the boy makes an illegal crossing into the U.S. It’s a suspense drama, in the sense that we follow your character’s son as he flees into Mexico to escape arrest. But the movie also focuses on the real-life problems of immigration and cultural clashes.
Frank: Well, I thought it was a fascinating story, given what is happening on that border, and how it affects not just people from Mexico, but how it affects U.S. citizens who are kind of caught in the middle of it. And I just dug these two young filmmakers, Conor and Jake Allyn, who have their own company, and are trying to do things that are interesting, and that matter. I think they did a really good job, given their budget, with the subject matter. I’m impressed with them.
C&I: There’s an interesting arc to your character, who winds up appreciably more empathetic and understanding. And while the ending of the movie certainly isn’t tragic, and it’s realistic.
Frank: Yeah, I really dug that. It wasn’t wrapped up with some Hollywood ending, with his kid coming back and he gets away with it. He’s going to go pay the price, and his family’s learned a lesson from this whole thing. And hopefully they’ve become more compassionate, which is what we need in this country right now. This movie is very timely, because that is what we need. We need people to be compassionate, to feel empathy and sympathy for people who are struggling, whether they’re on our side of border or not. I’m not trying to get on my high horse — and believe me, I'm not like a bleeding heart liberal. I’m really not. But movies like this, I think, are important.
C&I: There was a time when small-scale movies like No Man’s Land and Hell on the Border might get lost in the rush during their initial releases, and never get heard about again. But nowadays, with so many digital and streaming platforms, there’s always the chance that almost anything you do will eventually find an audience, right?
Frank: Look, man, I have this series, Kingdom, that’s now playing on Netflix, which is originally a DirectTV show. For my money, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. It was four seasons of the best work. But no one had seen it. And then Netflix bought it. And guess what? It’s as if we just made the show. I have gotten more offers because of that show. And I’ve had more people — and more women, an audience that I normally don’t have — come up to me going, “Hey, I love your show on Netflix.” And it’s like three years have gone by since I made that show. Things like Hulu and Netflix and Apple TV, they’re opening up a whole new world for things that maybe we didn’t do today, but people are discovering right now because, well, a lot them have to stay at home. It’s phenomenal.
My partner Joe Carnahan and I, we made a $50-million movie with me as the lead, and Mel Gibson and Naomi Watts, and it’s kind of like an action-thriller-adventure Groundhog Day meets Die Hard. It’s called Boss Level — and Hulu bought it for a lot of money just for the United States. So, really, this is just a different time. All these movies that you do, all these things that are kind of floating in the ether, they can find life on these different platforms. This is what we’re all banking on, actually.
C&I: You and Joe Carnahan also produced Wheelman, a terrific little action-thriller for Netflix a few years back. You’re a getaway driver who signs on to take part in a bank robbery, but there are double and triple crosses, and… well, just like the driver, the movie puts the pedal to the metal, and doesn’t let up.
Frank: Yeah, I love it. It’s a good little movie, right? It was another experiment. I mean, we found an unknown writer who was a production, who wrote the script. And Carnahan had it. So he told me, “Read this.” And I said, “This is good.” So then we went out to Cannes, to sell the movie for $5 million so we could make it. And Netflix bought it for a bunch more. And we went and made it for $5 million — and it’s 88 minutes of the kind of movies me and Joe like to watch. And I’m glad you like it because that was our first movie that we made as a company. And that became the template for us. Make movies that are smart and fast — and they're below $20 million. That’s kind of like our mission statement.
And you know, Wheelman could have failed miserably. I mean, it’s just me in a car. I’m not George Clooney. It’s just me in a car. Oh my God. I mean, that could have failed miserably. I mean, that could’ve failed miserably. But we had this great director, Jeremy Rush, who now is signed with CAA. It was his vision, his script, and he directed the movie. We let him, and it was a great kind of experiment. And it taught us a valuable lesson about making movies. From the last day of shooting to the time it was on Netflix, was less than five months. So it showed us that you don’t need a year and a half to cut a movie, and you don't have to go through all that nonsense. It's silly. So everything is part of the journey. Everything is part of the learning curve.