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Actor Frank Grillo: Wrestling with career success

by Special to

Frank Grillo may be the busiest actor in Hollywood as the Pandemic moves along. He has no fewer than eight projects finished or in the works, not to mention his popular recurring role as artist Nico Tanner on “Billions.” However, the Bronx, NY native is never far from the boxing ring, or the disciplines he learned early on in life around sports, to keep him focused and grounded.

And it all started on a wrestling mat.

“I got involved in wrestling when I was in the sixth grade,” Grillo told during a promotional tour recently for his new film “Boss Level,” out next week on Hulu. “I do know that I went to my first wrestling practice and said, ‘wow this is something I can do and I don’t have to worry about the team’ in the sense that I was responsible to other teammates for a result. And it just was something that made me want to do it the next day.”

Those early days made Grillo a fan of wrestling for life and set him up for a career that has seen him take prominent “tough guy” roles in everything from “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” to “The Gray” with Liam Neeson to his latest work, where he pairs with Mel Gibson on a bit of a fun sci-fi adventure where Grillo’s lead character, keeps reliving the same day over and over again. “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray it’s not; think more “Fast and Furious” or “The Matrix” recreated over and over again. Oh, and yes, there are lots of fight and action sequences, and even a good amount of grappling, something which every action fan should like. And let’s not forget some other wrestling ties to the film, as former Michigan State star turned UFC champion Rashad Evans also has a role in the film.

But back to wrestling, and its ties to Grillo’s rising star. The Los Angeles resident rarely left the mat during his youth, and when his family moved to Rockland County, New York he continued on the club level and then at Clarkstown South High School. He looked to continue to compete after high school, and enrolled at NYU, but the school had yet to start their Division III wrestling program in the mid 1980’s so he stuck to the club side of the sport until he was 20.

“At that point wrestling had given me the base to try other forms of fight sports, from Muay Thai to boxing, so rolling around on the mat without a clear path for what would be next lost its appeal,” Grillo added. “However, wrestling gave me so much more than the competition…it showed me how to build lifelong friendships, stay in shape, bring discipline to everything I did and made me realize how much personal dedication would mean to my career.”

While Grillo’s career started on Wall Street, he quickly got the calling for acting, and soon headed to Los Angeles in the mid 1990’s. One of his breakthrough roles came again through competition and built ties to another elite wrestler who he would again eventually get back on the mat with, Olympic gold medalist turned actor Kurt Angle.

“I met Kurt during the filming of Warrior (the 2011 MMA film which helped launch the acting careers of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton). Kurt was always to me a hero, an American hero. He was probably one of the best wrestlers the United States has ever produced,” Grillo recalled. “I got to wrestle with him in Warrior and I realized that as good as you think you are, and I went to wrestling camps, it’s a whole other animal. A whole other level of athlete --10 levels -- and what kind of dedication it takes. Even at that point it reminded me of why I loved wrestling, and how much elite wrestlers need to do to be successful. That kept driving me in my acting career, and I am glad Kurt and I have stayed friends ever since.”

His work in and around the sport never really went far away either, as in most of his roles Grillo continued to do his own stunts while learning more and more about every aspect of training.

“I did the show “Kingdom” (which ran for three season on DirectTV and The Audience Network and where Grillo played the owner of a gym) and I brought on Matt Hughes in the finale to be my opponent. Like Kurt, Matt was a champion in both wrestling and MMA, and we started wrestling, and all my memories of being on the mat flooded back, you never forget the moves or the skills you are taught. However again, it can get very humbling, even when you are acting, because his strength and his skills as a professional were so superior to mine. However, it made for great sequences, and I was lucky that at least in boxing I was able to hold my own.”

Frank’s love affair with fight sports has continued throughout his rise, and also included the 2018 Netflix series “Fight World,” where he traveled the globe learning about every discipline of fighting sports that existed. All the while he continued to train, and kept the initial disciplines learned on the mat close to everything he did, disciplines which were critical for the fight scenes that make “Boss Level” the fun action film fans will be enjoying on Hulu in the coming weeks.

Will he keep finding ways to bring wrestling action into his upcoming projects?

“Because I do train in boxing, in a pretty prominent gym, I keep coming across so many guys who were elite wrestlers looking to find roles in films and TV,” Grillo said. “I have been able to train with some of wrestling’s biggest legends, people like Greg Jackson and Randy Couture, and so many look to find acting roles, so we will see how we can make opportunities happen. We all keep our eyes on what wrestlers are doing, even as we move towards the Olympics, and one thing is for sure…for action sequences they are in top shape, they are respectful and they know how to perform at a high level, and those elements really frive action scenes.”

As far as his time on the mat goes, Grillo said even in his mid-50’s he is ready to roll when the time arises.

“If there’s a mat wherever I am and there’s guys wrestling, even at my age, I’ll jump in and I can still hold my own,” Grillo added. “Wrestling is a very esoteric sport: I consider it part of my DNA and there is no way I would be where I am today without it.”
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