Actor Frank Grillo Brings a Lifetime of Martial Arts Experience to ‘Kingdom’

October 8, 2014
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After years building himself up as a support player in soap operas, primetime dramas and major motion pictures, actor Frank Grillo has experienced a breakthrough of late and has become a feature star.

Most recently, Grillo has taken on the starring role in Kingdom, a series running exclusively on DirecTV’s Audience Network, centered on a family amongst the backdrop of MMA.

Shortly before Kingdom’s premier on Audience Network, Grillo spoke to about his real life connections to the sport, how training in various disciplines has affected his life and what people can expect when they tune into the show. Firstly, Frank, for readers who might not know, you actually have a background in combat sports. Can you tell us about that?

Frank Grillo: Ever since I was a young boy, I was a wrestler, and then I started boxing when I was 18. When I was done with my wrestling career, I discovered Rickson Gracie while I was living in L.A. I trained with Rickson for many years and continued to box. I travelled around a little bit and did some competitions with the Gracie team. I came back to New York and trained with the Machado brothers. I’ve been training for the better part of 35 years. I actually just got back from training boxing and did about 15 rounds today. It’s a big part of my life. Has training influenced your acting career?

Frank Grillo: My life as a martial artist, as a boxer, has shaped my career. It’s who I am as a man and a father and a friend and how I carry myself. It really has been influential in the roles that I take. I think it’s also an interesting way at my age that people see me. People see me as this guy now kind of like a Liam Neeson. He’s a good friend of mine and we often laugh and say how funny it is that this stuff is happening later in life. It’s a way a man carries themselves as a fighter. There are a lot of people that manufacture that, but there are not a lot of actors that can deliver that, I don’t think. With roles in projects like Kingdom, it seems like your career has had something of a renaissance of late.

Frank Grillo: I don’t even think it’s a renaissance because I never really had a great career. I was patching together jobs; chugging along and having three kids I had to do things for money and so forth. I think what’s happened is that the floodgates opened after (the movie) Warrior. Hollywood kind of discovered who I was and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. It’s been a blessing and I’m really grateful for it. We spoke with Kingdom’s producer/creator/writer Byron Balasco recently and he said the first time the two of you spoke, you just clicked. Can you tell us about that?

Frank Grillo: After Warrior – which I felt was a wonderful movie and really put a stake in the ground for MMA – I wasn’t interested in doing another MMA project, but my agent told me that they were interested in me. I told them, “Thank you, but I’ve been down that road and I’m not interested.” After about four times, I said, “All right, I’ll talk to the guy.”

I read the script the night before and I was really intrigued because it was very different than Warrior. It was deeper in many ways and it told the story of how I know the world of MMA to be and the struggle to be a professional fighter. I got on the phone with (Balasco) and it was like I was talking to myself. He understood the characters from a different point of view. Not as heroes, not as the Rockys of the world, but what it meant to grind out a living. He’s one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with, and I don’t think he realizes it yet. We had a great time making these 10 episodes. Tell us about your role in Kingdom and what they can expect from the show.

Frank Grillo: The character’s name is Alvey Kulina, and like myself, predated the UFC. He was a big star of his generation, but once the UFC came around and became more organized and more mainstream, he had already kind of been aged out. I’ve got these two sons who are fighters, and I have this gym and train fighters, and I’m using my past experience and fame in the sport to try to break this gym and look for that one good fighter.

This is really like the Sopranos in that the Sopranos were really more about Tony’s family than the mafia, and this is the same thing. I have a girlfriend who was engaged to a fighter who was in jail and comes out and I start training him, so there’s this kind of weird triangle. I have one son who is a derelict, but a good fighter, and I’ve got to get him straight. Then I have another son who is a good fighter, but is very introverted.

Greg Jackson is a good friend of mine, so I get to spend a lot of time in New Mexico with Greg and get to be around these fighters and I really appreciate what these fighters go through and what their families go through. That’s what we’ve done (with Kingdom); it’s a very authentic slice of life for this level of MMA fighter. Byron Balasco told us that you and the other actors did a great job in creating believable characters that viewers can really invest in.

Frank Grillo: If they don’t (buy into these characters) then the show doesn’t work. This isn’t like “there’s a fight every week” and blah, blah, blah; this is about characters. Any good TV show or film is about people being interesting and the kind of stories you tell.

Joe “Daddy” Stevenson was a technical advisor on the show, and he not only had an incredible career, but he had a real kind of tragic personal life and troubled personal life until recently. I’m more interested in hearing how he’s survived his personal life than him telling me about fighting. That’s what the show is really about. Thanks for taking time out for us, Frank. Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers in conclusion?

Frank Grillo: The thing I’d like to say as an MMA fan and practitioner is that (Kingdom) really depicts the world and life in a really truly authentic way. The language is authentic, it gets abrasive at times, and it’s a slow burn. It’s not like there’s an explosion in the pilot and you follow the explosion; you’ve got to get to know these people. I say to people, give it a shot, watch it unfold and breathe a little bit like a fine wine. A fine wine made by a bunch of sweaty guys in a gym beating the crap out of each other.

Frank Grillo: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]

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