Back in 2008, Frank Grillo was still best known for his three-year stint on “Guiding Light” when he found himself on the set of “Pride and Glory” sharing scenes with such heavy hitters as Edward Norton, Nick Nolte, Colin Farrell and Jon Voight.
Realizing how talented his co-stars were, Grillo knew he’d have to step up his game.
“They were really going deep with this thing, and I saw the potential,” the actor recalls. “It changed the way I looked at acting and made me take it really seriously.”
For about a year afterward, Grillo turned down TV work to concentrate on movies. He had few offers until he nabbed a key role in “Warrior” opposite Nolte, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. Instantly, his career received a boost.
“The movie wasn’t a big hit, but it changed the way people in the industry thought of me,” Grillo says. “I’m glad I waited. It was scary at first, turning stuff down. But it worked out for me in the end.”
Indeed, in the past few years, Grillo has co-starred in one high-profile movie after another, including “Gangster Squad” with Sean Penn, “Homefront” with Jason Statham, “The Grey” with Liam Neeson, “End of Watch” with Jake Gyllenhaal, and “Zero Dark Thirty” with Jessica Chastain.
This year has been particularly busy. He played Crossbones in “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” the second-highest grossing film of 2014, and he toplines “The Purge: Anarchy,” a sequel to the surprise 2012 horror movie hit.
Grillo didn’t deliberately wait until he passed age 40 to hit the big time, but he’s happy to be patron saint of late bloomers.
“I don’t know how I would have handled success at a younger age,” the 51-year-old says. “I can honestly say that it doesn’t affect me now. I have a wife and kids. I have my priorities straight. I still live in New York.
A perk for Grillo is sharing his success with his children, ages 17, 10 and 6.
“I have three sons, so when they see me in something like ‘Captain America,’ it’s great,” says Grillo, who’s been married to his second wife, actress Wendy Moniz, since 2000. “I get to relive it again through their eyes.”
Grillo primarily has played supporting roles in movies, but “The Purge: Anarchy” gives him a shot at leading man. He followed it up with a similarly demanding role on “Kingdom,” a soon-to-be broadcast series for DirectTV.
As with the original “Purge,” the futuristic “Anarchy” is set on a day when, for 12 hours, any crime is legal. Emergency services are suspended as Americans are encouraged to purge their demons by any means necessary.
The first film followed a couple (Ethan Hawke, Lena Hedley) who were victims of a home invasion. The follow-up takes place on the streets, where chaos reigns. Grillo’s character ventures into the mayhem to exact revenge on the man who killed his son.
“For budgetary reasons, they needed to be contained on the first film,” the actor notes. “You really didn’t get a sense of the (enormity of) the ‘Purge.’ but I think you do with the sequel.”
Grillo spent more than a month preparing for the role.
“I felt like I needed to be alone because my guy had lived the past year of his life in isolation, not just physically but emotionally. So a month before I started shooting I left my house in New York, and my wife and kids, and I lived by myself. I went out to California early, and I’d just spend days not talking to anybody.”
The preparation allowed Grillo to channel his character’s feelings. As a result, the movie includes a surprising amount of drama alongside the gunplay.
Grillo, a native of New York City, became hooked on acting in high school when he appeared in school plays. At the urging of his folks, he pursued a degree in business from New York University. He wasn’t suited for a 9-to-5 job, though, and soon began trying out for TV commercials. A role on “Guiding Light” helped him pay the bills and introduced him to the most loyal fan base in the world.
After leaving “Guiding Light,” Grillo nabbed roles on “Prison Break,” “Blind Justice” and “Battery Park” before “Pride and Glory” and “Warrior” transformed his career.
Grillo already has signed on to appear in the third “Captain America” movie and recently finished up the thriller “Big Sky” co-starring Kyra Sedgwick, but the movie that has him most jazzed is “The Raid,” an English-language remake of a 2012 Thai film about police officers who must clear an apartment building of a vicious crime lord.
“I love doing all of the martial-arts training,” he says. “When I was younger, all of my friends either played the piano or they wrote poetry. And I wrestled. I remember thinking, ‘What’s that going to do for me, ever?’ But the funny thing is, later in life, as my career goes down this action path, all that stuff has served me really well. Who knew?”