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Interview: Frank Grillo on Donnybrook and Being a Fighter for Life

The actor discusses his lifelong fascination with fighting, doing his own stunts, his experiences with violence, and more.

Frank Grillo
Photo: IFC Films

Frank Grillo is absolutely relentless as a cold-hearted killer in writer-director Tim Sutton’s dystopic Donnybrook. A drug dealer, Chainsaw Angus is described—quite accurately—by one character as “the devil.” Angus dispatches anyone and everyone who gets in his way, and throughout the film, Grillo’s performance throbs like a raw nerve. His eyes may look vacant, but Angus is always calculating. He wears pitch-black clothes and stands too close to everyone, as if to make his menacing presence not just known but felt.

Donnybrook traces the path that Chainsaw takes to the Donnybrook, a bare-knuckle cage match with a $100,000 prize, alongside that of his true enemy, Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell). The film is already unyielding in its depiction of an unwelcoming land in its early half, and it’s downright suffocating by the time its main characters get inside the ring to exorcise their demons.

In a recent conversation with Slant, Grillo talked about his lifelong fascination with fighting, doing his own stunts, his Netflix documentary series Fightworld, and more.

I’m curious to know if you’ve had any off-screen experience with cage fighting.

I have been involved in combat sports from a very early age. I wrestled, boxed, did jujitsu, Muay Thai. I’ve been fascinated and drawn to combat sports all my life, and I have a great respect for the people who do them. Which is why I did Fightworld. And it’s a huge part of why I’m involved in Donnybrook. I usually do my own stunts—except something like jumping off a building—but I do all my own fighting and the fight choreography as well.

I know from watching Fightworld that you’re a lifelong boxing enthusiast. What is the appeal of the “sweet science”?

People have misconceptions about fighting. Fighting is violent, but so is football, where 300-pound guys run into each other at great speed. Being repetitively hit by a man of that strength and size, it’s like getting hit by a car. It’s all how you look at violence. What amazes me, and it comes from my own experience, is to go one on one with someone in a cage, a ring, or on a mat; it’s you and the mental toughness you must have. As a boy, growing into a man, I’ve always been enamored by what it takes to be a warrior. That’s never gone away from me, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s increased. I love it. I love being hit and hitting people in a controlled environment. It’s like playing chess with your fist and feet.

There’s a line early on in Donnybrook where a character says, “How you fight is what counts.” How would you describe how you fight? I ask this because I thought about the line in Fightworld’s episode in Mexico: “You take a punch to land a punch.”

What happens is you’re most vulnerable as a fighter when you’re striking or landing a punch. That’s when your body’s open. You have to understand that you take a punch to give a punch. It’s a matter of how you place yourself and how you deliver it. It’s a setup. It’s me trying to put you in a position where you’re vulnerable, where I can land a punch, and impose my will. I can put you where you need to be, so I can be the most accurate [hitting you].

What is your personal style, or code, and how does it compare to Angus’s?

Angus, the way we portrayed him, he’s a brawler, an experienced barroom brawler, fighting to the death. I like to fight close, take shots, and feel the strength of the guy and grapple. I put a lot of myself into Angus, who is mean. Outside of the ring or cage, fighters are sweet and childlike. But there’s something that switches—and I’m trying to figure out what that is—that when they step in the ring, they become killers, and warriors. It’s amazing.

Angus is described by a character as “the devil.” He’s relentless. Where do you think his rage and anger comes from? What made him so damned evil?

When Tim and I talked, I said this needs to be about unapologetic anger, whether it’s focused on his sister or a stranger. I don’t want to judge or second guess the anger or violence, I just want to have it available all the time. There’s a scene that reveals his past and how Angus got the scar on his face, but Tim chose not to keep it in the movie. Angus was abused beyond the breaking point as a kid and that turned him sociopathic. It’s fun to play that. You don’t worry if the audience is going to like or not like you because you know they won’t like you.

I love how Angus is so imposing. He often gets too close to folks, invading their personal space, then makes them suffer. What decisions did you make in terms of how to play him? Your body language is particularly vivid.

That again was one of the things that I tried to portray. I love watching simian behavior. I’m enamored by silverback gorillas, and how they control the other gorillas. So, I watched how Angus imposed himself which is getting close to people and being unnerving and intimidating by his closeness. When you come inside someone’s space, their behavior changes completely.

I have to ask, given your impressive physique, how much weight training do you do? Do you have a diet or regimen I should follow?

I hate when actors in beautiful condition say they don’t have a regimen. I work hard, box every day for two hours in the morning, and I do strength and conditioning with a coach. I eat only paleo: meat and fish, nuts, and vegetables. I live a monkish life with food and training. I couldn’t live any other way. I am happy to be conditioned and in shape.

What are your thoughts about Donnybrook’s ideas about life and vulnerability?

This is a testament to Tim. When you play a bad guy and you don’t find the space to be vulnerable and find levity, you’re a one-dimensional cardboard cutout of a bad guy. The audience needs to be empathetic toward Angus at some point, so you open a window to vulnerability that he’s a feeling human being. At some point, something must have happened to the guy that there’s a little life left in him. Otherwise, he’s fake. Who gives a damn about a mustache-twirling villain? There’s nothing to connect to there. I need to do justice to Angus and have you feel bad for him—even if it’s only for a minute.

What are your personal experiences with violence?

I grew up in a tough place and have been in many fights in different circumstances. I’m not proud of it, but it was who I was. I grew up in an aggressive environment, with my family and my father. I was an aggressive person. Now I’m a father with three kids and married, so I worked stuff out. It’s not hard for me to go to those places and also be vulnerable. My children haven’t experienced anything negative from me or their mother, so I’ve broken the chain.

Donnybrook is an art film. I’ve been tracking you since your early soap opera roles, modelling gigs, and episodic TV. Then you became an action film actor, making Hollywood and Chinese blockbusters. Now you’re headlining and producing indie films like Wheelman. What are your thoughts on this path?

I have kind of followed a trajectory that’s opened a lot of doors for me. I took things that I thought I could do a good job in. Now, partnering with Joe Carnahan, I’m making Boss Level with Mel Gibson. Next is Once Upon a Time in Staten Island, with Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale. In the next few years, people will see me in a new light. Six films I’ve done are departures for me. I just made a western set in Oklahoma in 1865. People are asking me to work with them because they know I have versatility.

Angus has, shall we say, a funny definition of success. How do you define your success? Has it been a fight?

It started with Warrior. More and more filmmakers wanted to work with me after that. Now I have a production company and I have three movies coming out this year. It’s all accumulation, and people trust me to come in. They called me to play this guy in 1865 in Oklahoma! I’m an Italian guy from New York who plays action roles, but they say they saw my edge. It’s all shits and giggles to me. I’m having a ball. I feel blessed every day. I’m not looking to be super-famous. I love doing this kind of work. Hopefully, it will continue.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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