Frank Grillo Has One Rule for Playing a Bad Guy: “You Can Never Judge Yourself”
The One Day as a Lion actor talks crime thrillers, growing up in the Bronx, and the potential end of The Purge saga.
For as long as Hollywood has made movies, audiences have been fascinated by the seedy underbelly of crime and the desperate people drawn into its orbit. Films like Dog Day Afternoon, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, and even the early works of the Coen Brothers center around the all-too-human characters at the center of larger-than-life criminal escapades. That kind of down-to-Earth storytelling was a surefire way to reach critical and commercial success, but in the age of superheroes, those sorts of releases getting mainstream attention is much less likely than it used to be. Action star Frank Grillo, who’s played more than his fair share of on-screen criminals, knows this all too well.
“It’s ballsy to write scripts like that,” the star tells Inverse while promoting the release of his new film, One Day as a Lion, directed by John Swab and written by lead actor Scott Caan. “It’s almost impossible to get them made.”
And yet, after reading the script and falling in love with its bleak sense of humor and flawed cast of assholes, Grillo knew he couldn’t turn it down.
“Approaching a character, the #1 rule is you can never judge yourself, because then you’re just playing the bad guy.”
In the film, the star plays Pauly Russo, a mafioso-style gang boss with delusions of grandeur that are crushed by the bumbling ineptitude of his operation in Oklahoma. In another movie, Russo would be an intimidating and terrifying force of nature, but when he’s surrounded by so much stupid, he can’t help but bring a hilarious level of aggravation to every scene he’s in. “Pauly is what many people in life are: frustrated.” That frustration, which Grillo brings to life with a magnetic presence, is just one of the many ways that One Day as a Lion injects some pitch-black comedy into its story of a kidnapping gone wrong in a small town.
Inverse sat down with Grillo to talk about crafting a wiseguy like Pauly, working with industry titan J.K. Simmons, and of course, his brushes with both Marvel Studios and The Purge franchise.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and/or brevity.
Inverse: One Day as a Lion is a crime thriller with a darkly comedic streak. As someone who has been in quite a few of them over the years, is there anything in particular that draws you back to that atmosphere?
Well I know Scottie Caan, love Scottie. And John Swab I’ve done five movies with now. So this is when your friends pick up the phone and call you. And I read the script and was blown away by how ‘70s cool it was. It’s ballsy to write scripts like that, and it’s almost impossible to get them made. People aren’t interested, there’s not a lot of money to be made in them, and yet Scottie Caan wrote a really cool movie that everyone had a good time making. I think it’s evident when you watch the film.
Do you have a favorite crime thriller that you find yourself always circling back to?
As far as me watching them, probably Heat. That is at the top of the mountain for many people, especially actors. It’s Michael Mann, who is the top of the food chain. You’ve got Robert De Niro, you’ve got Al Pacino, you’ve got Val Kilmer at their best. And what you love about it is you’ve got Pacino and De Niro, two of arguably the greatest … and they’re barely in the movie together. He didn’t smush them together to see what happens, he gave you a little taste, and it made the movie great. To this day, those are the kinds of movies that influence me.
What was it like coming back to collaborate with John Swab a fifth time?
Oh John and I were just in Puerto Rico working on another movie, which we have to finish in Colombia. John is, y’know … I’m the left hand, he’s the right hand. We talk to each other all the time. We have the same taste in film, we like and dislike the same people. He’s almost like a younger version of me. That guy’s gonna be a superstar.
What kind of inspiration did you and John pull from to create your character of Pauly?
At this point, John leaves me alone. He knows I’m prepared and just wants me to show up. But I spent part of my youth in the Bronx, in New York City. And my father is an Italian guy straight from Italy, who had lots of Italian guy friends from the Bronx. So it’s an easy pool to draw from to go and be Pauly. It’s like every imbecile I was introduced to was that guy.
Despite only spending a few scenes with him, you give that character such a memorable presence. How do you find the root in someone who we see so sparingly on-screen?
You gotta know exactly when to use a character like that. If he was there all the time, you’d get exhausted and start to hate him. So when he comes in, Pauly is what many people in life are: frustrated. He wants to be the big boss of New York City, he doesn’t wanna be stuck in Oklahoma dealing with this nonsense. He’s making bets with people and lending them money and they’re not paying him. That doesn’t happen to a real-world mafiosa guy. So whenever Pauly comes in, it’s always at the peak of his frustration.
The majority of your scenes are shared with J.K. Simmons as Walter. How did you build that unspoken shared history between you two?
Those two guys completely need each other. Walter needed Pauly to make a bet, and Pauly needs Walter to make a bet so he can make money. They need each other, and yet they’re kinda the same emotionally stunted, bravado and ego-driven guys. From great conflict comes great drama. There’s almost a moment where guys like that who are constantly butting heads could almost be friends.
I loved hanging out and working with JK. He’s not that much older than I am, so we’re kind of peers, but sharing stories with a guy like that who’s at the top of his food chain … talking about everything from winning an Oscar to doing TV commercials and everything in-between. It was great getting to know him, and now I consider him a pal.
In a movie where so many of the characters are unrepentant assholes, what was the energy like on-set in contrast?
Oh they were all assholes, of course. The atmosphere was great, because you’re doing something out of a labor of love. John’s a great director and he’s so easygoing, but it was Scotty’s passion project, and since everyone there knows him, you really wanna make it great for Scott.
Speaking of villains, another one of the villains that you’ve played — Crossbones — is such a volatile ball of anger. What was it like getting into his head?
Well, it’s controllable anger, he’s gotta be controlled. Brock Rumlow is just a guy on one side of an ideology. To him, it’s not bad or good, it’s just his side. Of course it turns out to be the dark side, but if you look at human history, I’m sure at some point, Hitler and the horrific people who followed him were convinced they were going to make the world a better place. So the way I played guys like Rumlow is that he’s fighting for what he believes in. He believes he’s right. Approaching a character, the #1 rule is you can never judge yourself, because then you’re just playing the bad guy.
“Who knows, if I don’t get too old … it’d be cool to do a last one with him.”
Pauly’s quite capable with a gun and his fists, but who would come out on top if he ran into your character from The Purge, Leo Barnes?
Oh, Leo. He’s such a badass. And y’know, James DeMonaco wrote a true final script that focuses on Leo Barnes and that character, but Universal hasn’t pulled the trigger yet. I don’t know if they think they’ve shown too many Purge movies, but James did write a great script with Leo leading the charge. Who knows, if I don’t get too old … it’d be cool to do a last one with him.
That whole world of The Purge, it’d be interesting to see if humanity devours itself after all of it, or if we get back to another way of life without the Purge. To see how that would even be possible. It’s kind of an interesting sociological experiment. But who knows?
What exactly do you think Pauly would get up to on Purge Night?
Oh, are you kidding? First of all, every night’s Purge Night for Pauly. I think he would lose his mind. He would commit every possible crime you could — he is without moral. He’s moral-less.