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Actor Frank Grillo on Lights Out, Doing More with Joe Carnahan, His Advice for Nascent Actors

It might be hard to believe that actor Frank Grillo‘s career goes back over thirty years , maybe because he’s become better known in recent years from his starring roles in a number of The Purge movies, as well as his memorable role like Brock Rumlow (aka Crossbones) in a few MCU movies, going back to Captain America: Civil War. And then, of course, there’s Grillo’s long-running partnership with filmmaker Joe Carnahan, which memorably began with The Grey in 2011, which was quite a pivotal year for Grillo.

Grillo’s latest film is Lights Out, directed by Christian Sesma from a script by Chad Law and Garry Charles, in which Grillo stars as homeless veteran Michael Duffield, who meets up with ex-con Max (Mekhi Phifer) after watching “Duffy” in a bar fight, and convinces the vet to take part in underground fight clubs for money. Unbeknownst to Duffy, Max owes money to a ruthless crime boss (Dermot Mulroney), and both men travel to L.A. where Duffy gets roped further into that world. Lights Out also stars Jaime King and the seemingly ubiquitous Scott Adkins

Above the Line spoke with Grillo, not only about the movie and his ongoing work with Carnahan and their production label, War Party, but also got some advice for younger actors just starting out on how to mold their career in the fashion he has.

Grillo, Mekhi Phifer in Lights Out (Quiver Distribution)

Above the Line: I had ulterior motives in talking to you, because I’ve known Joe Carnahan for many years, and I know you two have had a production company for a few years now.

Frank Grillo: Yeah, I mean, he’s my guy. If I could just make movies with Joe Carnahan, I would be very successful.

ATL: You guys have had quite a great run as producers as well. 

Grillo: We’re back. We’re not done. We got lots of stuff coming. We took a break.

ATL: When you have a movie like Lights Out, what’s your deciding factor when a project comes your way, whether it’s the script or director…?

Grillo: I mean, ultimately, I’d love it to be script and director. That’s the first and foremost, because especially on a smaller movie, you want to be in capable hands. In this case, I didn’t know Christian at all, but I’m good friends with Dermot Mulroney and I love Mekhi Phifer. I’m friends with Jamie King and Amaury [Noralsco], and I’ve worked with all these people, and I knew what they were capable of. I knew everybody would elevate what needed to be elevated, and they did. And then, we had a producer named Brandon Burrows, who really loves the process and is creative as he is financial, and I think he did a great job in post-production, making this movie a movie.

ATL:  Where did you end up shooting it? Was that in California?

Grillo: No, it was in Palm Springs, it was California. It was great.

ATL: Lately, you’ve taken on a lot of physical roles, and I was kind of surprised, because I looked up your age, and we’re very close to the same age.

Grillo: Don’t say it! Don’t say it! You’re almost 38?

ATL: Right, exactly, and I know what my body goes through at our age, and I cannot imagine how you’re able to do all the stuff you do. 

Grillo: I’ve been living a certain lifestyle since I was nine. I can do it all day, every day, and making these movies is easy. I’m not kidding you. I don’t say that from a place of hubris, but the physical demands on these movies are easy. It’s really the creative demands that are really more taxing.

ATL: Were you very athletic before getting into acting or were you generally do both at the same time?

Grillo: Oh, yeah. I wrestled and played football and lacrosse since I”m a boy, so I’ve always been an athlete my whole life at a high level. And at some point, I think after the movie Warrior, people started to look at me in a different light, and we combined the athletic ability and fighting ability and that kind of New York Street tough guy thing, which I can pull off sometimes, and I kind of flew with it for a while.

ATL: Generally, when you come onto a project, are you involved as a producer as well? Is that something you’ve been adding to your repertoire? 

Grillo: Yeah, something like this, I just kind of come and do my thing. I stuck very close to the editorial process with Brandon Burroughs, because we had a job to do, but normally, especially when I’m making…  me and Carnahan have made a bunch of stuff now, so usually, I’m involved in a producer way, just so I can have some control over some of the aspects of the process.

ATL: Do you also have a say on who you might end up fighting in a movie like this, so you’re not fighting someone so insanely large, you could actually get hurt?

Grillo: No, I’m not gonna get hurt. I mean, it’s pretty organized. I have a stunt man, Greg Fitzpatrick, who’s with me on every film, and we are really diligent about all of the rehearsal and making sure that all of this stuff is suitable for me and what I do, so all of that is is fairly controlled.

(L-R) Scott Adkins, Frank Grillo, Mekhi Phifer in Lights Out (Quiver Distribution)

ATL: I knew Scott Adkins was in the movie, but it took me some time to figure out who he was playing. I guess because he’s becoming more of a chameleon in the roles he plays. Had you worked with him before this?

Grillo: Yeah, Scott was Scott. I mean, it wasn’t a big role, but he was critical. He’s the  guy who comes, and he gives us guns. He was a military partner of mine, and he shows up, and he brings the guns, and then he’s in the gunfight at the end.

ATL: You’ve been keeping really busy the last four years. The pandemic happened, and all this other stuff happened, but you kept busy and kept working. Are you just a workaholic?

Grillo: Carnahan, and I did  i during the pandemic, which was a big $45 million movie, but it’s funny, cause four years ago, I got divorced, so I had to work a little bit more than I would have liked to on things I didn’t necessarily want to. But in the grand scheme of things, I had no choice, and I’m on the other side of that now, but yeah, I got caught having to work more than I should have.

ATL: You’ve been doing a lot more voice work, which counterbalances all the physical stuff. Is that something you can do at the same time as making another movie, maybe stuff you can record in your trailer at night or in off-hours?

Grillo: Nah. I mean, the only voice work I really did, so far, was Creature Commandos for James Gunn, but that’s just a small part of a bigger thing for DC. But other than that, I like to just do some good stuff and go away for a while. It’s kind of dangerous to do a lot of things at a certain level, and in a certain genre over and over again. It’s just not good as an actor for you to do that, but again, you got to take care of your family  — you do what you do.

ATL: You mentioned that you and Joe took a break for a while, but I assume you guys still talk regularly and might produce more films together?

Grillo: Our company War Party is still alive. He just had an opportunity to go make a couple of movies that he really liked, that he was doing, and I was already working. He just went and did his things, and I went and did my things, and we’ve just recently come back together with a full round of things that we really like. There are three scripts, and we’re just trying to decide the timing and when would be best to make which one.

Frank Grillo in Cop Shop (STXfilms/Elevation Pictures)

ATL: Are you guys working with new directors, too, because I think that was one of the cool things I liked about War Party, producing projects with new talent.

Grillo: Yeah, I got a guy named John Swab, who I’ve done five movies with now, Ida Red and Body Brokers. We just finished one with Mekhi Phifer, actually called Land of Grace, a really cool, kind of Extraction-esque type of film. I love this kid. I think he’s dynamite. I think he needs a break from me at this point. But yeah, and Steven Miller, who did this werewolf movie [called Year 2] I got coming out, I think in March, coming out in theaters, which is nice, 2,500 theaters. But I like to find younger guys that are excited and have a voice and are making cool things.

ATL: One thing I’m trying to do at Above the Line is to create a site where younger people wanting to get into filmmaking can learn from those who have been doing it, so what is one tip you might give to a nascent actor either just starting out or having done it for a few years? You’ve had just an amazing career, especially in the last 10 years or so.

Grillo: Yeah, it’s been busy. You know what I would say? Make your own stuff. If you’re one of those guys out there – and there’s a lot of them –  I see the new graduating classes Barry Keoghan and Timothée Chalamet, and the kid who played Elvis, Austin Butler. I mean, that’s the new group of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitts, right, and you have all them, and then there are a lot of guys that have to audition. It’s the guys who go, and they create their own material, and they’re constantly doing [things]. Those are the guys who get really good at other things, and they’re acting. They’re not just so hell bent on trying to get the job, which is a hard thing to do. Create your own stuff, and that’s what Carnahan and I, even at our level, we said, “Let’s go make our own movies. We’ll put it together. We’ll get the money and we’ll make our own movie.” And that’s what young people should be thinking about. That’s what my son, he’s a director, he’s 26, directed his first movie, and that’s what he’s doing. He’s not waiting for the phone to ring.

ATL: I’ve heard that from some directors as well. I think Judd Apatow is a great case where he always tells the actors and stand-ups he knows to write their own material and a lot of times he’ll direct those movies. And writers will say that, too, to write what you know and make your projects personal, so it doesn’t just seem like a job.

Grillo: Of course, write what you know. That’s a great point. But you can make a movie on an iPhone,  and people have done i, and there are so many ways for people to see it. It’s amazing to me. My 16 year old son, he’s an incredible editor. He likes to edit videos. He got more people watching his videos then show up to a lot of theater movies. There’s a lot of opportunity, and people are watching. The powers that be are watching, so if you’re making stuff that’s constantly being watched, and it’s getting more and more and more and more views, the powers that be are watching, so make your own stuff.

Lights Out will be available in select theaters, digitally, and On Demand beginning Feb. 16.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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