Frank Grillo on Dropping 286 F-bombs in ‘Wheelman’ and Being Big in China

The ex-Marvel actor who’s made a career of playing tough guys talks his thrilling, F-bomb laden new crime film and being “the biggest American star in China” right now.


Frank Grillo has been working nonstop over the last few years, and he’s got no plans to slow down now. He’s been in a string of high-profile movies, starring in the Purge franchise and playing the heavy in the Chinese action sequel Wolf Warrior 2; he headed the MMA drama Kingdom, which wrapped this year after four seasons; and, as he tells the Daily Beast, he’s got the next five to ten years already planned out.

Wheelman, which hits Netflix this weekend, is the first film from War Party, the production company Grillo started with director Joe Carnahan. Now, they’re pushing full speed ahead with their remake of The Raid, as well as a TV series called Fight World, which will follow Grillo through Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Myanmar, and Israel in a “fight culture” version of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

Though he’s made a career out of playing tough guys—and though he wears his ambition on his sleeve—Grillo is unfailingly modest in conversation, qualifying any mention of his success with the support he’s gotten from those around him, and following any discussion of acting with self-deprecating remarks about how well he may or may not be pulling it off. But if there was ever any doubt of his leading man bona fides, Wheelman should blow them straight out of the water.

The film, helmed by first-time director Jeremy Rush, is a taut thriller, and rests entirely on Grillo’s shoulders. The whole movie takes place inside the getaway car that Grillo’s character drives, so there’s no action in the traditional sense of the word—all of the tension is generated from what he’s able to convey with his expression, his voice, and the set of his shoulders. “There were times when I was like, ‘Oh, shit, is this working, or am I failing?’” he says. “It was a scary proposition, but at the end, I think everybody so wanted to just make this great—because we had a great piece of material—that I think we pulled it off. I think it was an experiment that worked out.”

From there, we spoke about the film, as well as his career and contending with Hollywood.

Your performance in Wheelman is a lot more internal than what we’ve seen you do before. I know the script came to you from Carnahan and Rush, but besides that, was it the kind of opportunity that you’d been looking for?

I, lately, have been given great opportunities. I’ve been doing a TV show for the last 4 years, Kingdom, in which I got to be the guy. And it’s what I wanted to do. There aren’t a whole lot of great film scripts out there, and the guys who get them are usually not me. So this was an opportunity for me not only to kind of prove to the town that I could carry a film, but it was opportunity for Joe and I, who wanted to start a company together, to have a movie to produce. And we were boots on the ground. We got to show everybody what we could do on a budget. We made the movie for a little over $5 million in 19 days, we pooled our resources, and, y’know—you don’t need $50 million to make a film.

That’s a pretty short shooting schedule. Did that affect the way you worked at all?

We actually had 23 days scheduled, and we got into such a great rhythm—and now Joe and I are producing it, so we were conscious of the money—and we were like, “I think we can do this in 19 days.” So the last 2 days of the film, I shot 35 pages of dialogue. But we pulled it off, because we got into such a rhythm. We saved some money, and it all worked out for the best.

Depictions of violence are kind of impossible to avoid in action movies. Wheelman is jarring—in a good way—because the almost-voyeuristic perspective makes it so the film is not glorifying what’s going on. Is that something you thought about with regards to the project when you first saw it?

That whole thing was Jeremy Rush’s vision. The whole thing was shot from the car. And the idea was, I’m not a gun guy, I’m not a bank robber. I’ve got a very specific job and that’s to drive the car. I wore a jacket that was three sizes too small for me—I always wanted to seem small, like I didn’t belong there, and so what we wanted to do with the gunfire—you do have to be cognizant of what you’re doing. We never wanted it to be gratuitous, and we always wanted it to just enhance the story. So there’s just enough gunfire. It doesn’t overwhelm the movie. Now, if you count the F-bombs, I think I said the word or somebody else did, 286 times. So I think we’re the No. 2 action movie that uses the F-bomb. Nobody says it better than us.

You mentioned that you wore a smaller jacket to appear smaller in the role, were there any other physical visual changes that you tried to affect for your character?

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The thing about being small was very specific, because I was always in a car. And they were little cars. The BMW is little, the Porsche is tiny, and I never wanted to overpower the car, because the car was really the world. So that was probably the biggest character thing that I wanted, was to seem little. And I also agreed with Jeremy that I was only gonna get out of the car once. And that was scary. That was really scary, because I’m not George Clooney, where people say, “Oh, I’ll look at George Clooney for two hours.” I don’t know who’s looking at me for two hours.

Were there any other works that you looked to for inspiration for this movie? It reminded me a lot of the movie Locke, and there’s also a line in the movie that specifically compares your character to Clint Eastwood.

I think the only similarity to Locke is it’s in a car. I think Locke is a physical example, but I think the movie’s closer to Phone Booth. The circumstances are life or death, and I think Phone Booth, the Colin Farrell movie, is similar in tone. We used movies that we continue to love: Taxi Driver, movies like Michael Mann’s Thief, movies like early Clint Eastwood movies—it’s funny you should say that—Death Wish, Sidney Lumet movies, movies of the ’70s that really were character-driven. And it wasn’t a lot of fancy camerawork, but you know, it looks cool. Bullitt, with Steve McQueen. Things like that were the template for us, that we constantly would go back to.

To circle back to Eastwood, you’ve spoken about him as a sort of role model before. Is that something that’s solely in terms of his performances, or his career trajectory as well? Because later on, especially with Unforgiven, he started subverting the popular image of himself.

Maybe I could be a poor man’s version of what Clint Eastwood was. I’m a blue-collar guy, I’m authentic in what I execute on-screen. If Kingdom was gonna come back, I was gonna direct the first two episodes; I do wanna direct something, and I’d do something small like Wheelman first, obviously. Those guys, the Lee Marvins, the Gene Hackmans, the McQueens—I mean, he was a big movie star, but—those are the guys that I like. Were they the greatest actors of their time? No. But were they the guys that if you were in a foxhole, you’d wanna be with? Yes. And that’s the kind of actor I consider myself to be. Maybe I’m crazy, I have no idea.

Speaking to that, all of those performances (Thief, Bullitt, Death Wish) fall into a similar genre; is there any work you’d like to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?

I think at the moment, there’s kind of a chasm in the sub-$20 million dollar action/thriller genre, but with great material, really great scripts. We just finished rewriting The Raid; we own it now with XYZ, Joe’s gonna direct it, I’m gonna be in it along with a bunch of other great people. We have a film called Boss Level which Joe also wrote that we’ll do. I’m about to go do a movie called Donnybrook which is based on the novel of the same name, kind of a Mad Max-ish movie. They’re all very character-driven with strong stories, whether it’s representative of where America’s going in the future, or where the family unit is going, something that says something, not mindless action. That’s what we’re looking to do.

With regards to that idea of the family, I noticed that Wheelman is a little different in that it presents what’s going on with this guy right away. You understand his relationship with his family as the movie goes on, but it’s not as much about discovering that it exists as it is about his connection to it. Was that something you focused on?

I think, in Wheelman, without my daughter in the movie, it doesn’t work. When we see him in the car, saying goodbye to her, like he’s going to sacrifice himself... I’m a father, so that’s what connects me to the movie. And even in The Purge, when I did Purge: Anarchy, this guy was driven by the fact that his son was killed. It’s a father-son story. So these themes, these father-son, father-daughter, brother themes—that’s what I look for in a script. I’m not looking to see how much action is in it, how cool I look; it’s, “what is driving this guy?” The movie Boss Level repeats itself like Groundhog Day, and basically what happens is I realize I have 14 minutes over and over again to save my son’s life. And it’s a story that’s about a man who discovers his son wrapped around this crazy thing. That’s what Carnahan and I want to do, that’s the trajectory. To find pieces that are family-driven, that anyone who goes to the movie could connect to, because everybody’s got family issues, and we all wanna have a great relationship with our kids, our parents, our friends, so that’s what we do.

I imagine that has to be a little harder regarding movies that address the direction that America is heading, what with the current political climate.

I’ve been traveling the world, literally. I was in China last year to do a movie, and I moved from China to Africa to Senegal, which is very tolerant, to Mexico City; I’ve been all over the place. Not only is this country in a shitload of problems, politically, but the world is. Globally, I think there’s something off. And I love the idea of exploring this, I really do, and I think these are themes that we shouldn’t shy away from. I think we’re in trouble, and there’s a lot of times the arts are the only way express how everybody’s feeling.

At the moment, I’m the biggest American star in China. How funny is that? I can say I’m big in China.

I assume you were in China shooting Wolf Warrior 2. What was that experience like? Because it’s a very different socio-political angle than most Hollywood movies.

The Russo brothers produced it, who also make the Marvel movies, and this came around to me through them. They were very generous. My whole stunt crew from Captain America was the stunt crew on this. Sam Hargrave, who was the coordinator, basically directed all of the action on the movie, so I knew that would be cool. And I knew it was successful in China, but didn’t know much about it. CAA said, “Look, we’d love for you to have a presence in China, because that’s where the film business is really going,” and nobody expected—this movie’s almost at $900 million dollars.

Yeah, it’s been insane.

Yeah. So I literally have become—and I’m embarrassed to say it, because it sounds like hubris, but—at the moment, I’m the biggest American star in China. How funny is that? I can say I’m big in China.

You mentioned that you're trying to break into the sub-$20 million movie category, is there any movie you've seen recently that falls into that category that you’ve liked or want to emulate?

I think what they did with John Wick is great. Things like that, where it’s franchisable, you can make two or three of them. I did it with The Purge. Purge 2 and 3, each of those movies was like $10 million bucks, and they went on to make $180 million dollars each. It’s that kind of movie. We’ll do something like that with The Raid, we’ll probably make it for about $20 million, and just have fun. Do things that we wanna see. There’s a lot of bad movies. (Laughs.) I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of money being spent on not such great movies. We wanna try to create this niche for ourselves and not let anything fall through the cracks.

In other interviews I’ve read as well as through speaking with you now, I get the sense that you’re a bit of a cinephile. Are there a handful of movies or performances that you’d count as your favorites?

There are. When I watch James Caan in Thief, I think it’s just a brilliant performance. I loved Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, I love Gene Hackman in anything he does, I love Roy Scheider in everything he does. I love Steve McQueen for everything he didn’t do. He kept it simple. I love [Paul] Newman in The Hustler, I love Newman in everything. These are the guys that I watch over and over again. Early Marlon Brando movies. On the Waterfront, Streetcar. These are guys who changed the game a bit, and continuously were anti-Hollywood actors. I have to deal with, “Yeah, but you’re not a name. He’s not a name. We love this guy, but he’s not a name.” What does that mean, “he’s a name?” I don’t get what that means, but that’s a big thing in Hollywood. “He’s got some form of value because he’s a name.” So you have to go up against that. And in the ’70s—Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. Today, they wouldn’t get jobs. They wouldn’t work. These are some of our greatest American actors, but they don’t fit that mold that we have today. So that’s kind of it. Plus, I’m old. I relate to old people.