Frank Grillo’s one of the most prolific action stars working these days, so it’s certainly cool (and different!) to see him pop up on Showtime’s Billions. As artist Nico Tanner, he’s going head-to-head (literally, as of this week’s episode) with Maggie Siff’s Wendy Rhoades. Nico first surfaces as an artist commissioned by Bobby Axelrod, and he’s all kinds of worried about selling out and losing his mojo and his soul, so it’s a blast to watch Frank embody such a personality. Very clearly, this is an unusual role for him, after he’s made a career of tossing punches across screens, both big and small, for decades.
You’ve seen his work. From that adrenaline-fueled elevator scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier before his emergence as Crossbones to The Grey and The Purge movies, along with TV stints on Kingdom and The Shield, this guy can’t stop kicking people’s butts. He’s not simply a tough guy, though, and Frank was gracious enough to speak with us about this latest TV role, along with who he’d like to fight on Billions and some of the most eventful action scenes of his career.
It’s wild that you’re on Billions, not only because most of your roles are action-focused, but because you briefly worked on Wall Street a lifetime ago. How did you get involved with this show?
The guys called my agents and asked if I’d be interested in doing a role that was a little bit of a departure. So, I got on Skype with them and loved them. And they kinda just laid it out, and I thought it’d be great fun to do eight episodes. Just to play something very different than I’m used to doing.
When we first meet Nico Tanner, he’s a sharp-dressed man, other than those paint-spattered shoes. What kind of statement do you think he’s making, other than “Hello, I’m the artist!”
I think that’s exactly the statement. I have a lot of artist friends, and they believe that they’re… better than everyone else? [Laughs] They believe that they’re blessed by God somehow, and maybe some of them are, but I think that’s the statement exactly. It’s “I’m not a conventional person, I live by my own rules, and here’s the paint on my shoes to prove it.”
When Nico talks about needing to feel “special” to gather inspiration, what does that really mean? Does he have imposter syndrome, or is feeling special part of his process?
You know, I think again, having known a lot of artists — and you can consider acting part of the arts because it’s a craft — but I think there’s a lot of fear, and a lot of these guys like to just use this ideology as an excuse. It’s interesting because I’ve kind-of unveiled a lot of the nonsense with my friends who are artists. I’m like, “You’re just as afraid as everybody else. You don’t believe you’re as good as anyone says you are. And you overcompensate for that.”
Well, imposter syndrome is a real thing that plagues so many artists. Do you ever feel it at all at this stage in your career?
I’ll tell ya, I used to all the time. I used to believe that I didn’t know what I was doing. And I come across other people when I’m acting that went to Julliard or the Royal Academy or anything and would always feel that they were better than me. And as time went on, I realized that, in the arts, however you’re there and get there, you’re there. It has nothing to do with what school you went to or how much training you had or hadn’t had. It’s a matter of how honest you are, and so at this point in my life and my career, I don’t have that. I feel like the elder statesmen, and I can get on set with a Mel Gibson or a Liam Neeson or whoever it is that’s been around a long time. And I feel absolutely, 100% a peer, and it’s taken me awhile, but I don’t ever get on set thinking I don’t know what I’m doing, or people think I don’t know what I’m doing.
As an aside, you mentioned Liam Neeson, which reminds me that on Instagram the other day, you jokingly hashtagged #TheGrey2. I actually fell for it for about half a second before realizing that movie would be… not possible.
Right. Not possible! But what a great joke. [Director] Joe Carnahan is my business partner [in the War Party production company]. We get a lot of people who were profoundly moved by that film, and I think it’s Joe’s best film. So many people ask if there’s gonna be The Grey 2. [Laughs] And I say to them, “Did you watch the end of the movie? Nobody made it [out alive].”
I suppose a prequel might be doable, though.
On Billions, Nico has some obvious chemistry with Wendy. Maggie Siff’s so good here, like she was on Sons of Anarchy. What’s she like to work with?
Maggie’s a phenomenal actress, and she’s really cool. Very chill, and it’s funny because, and this was before the pandemic, the whole #MeToo movement has changed our business in many ways. So with our first scene together, it was a very simple kind-of scene, and we both had to talk to these counselors, who were making us feel like we were six-year-olds. And it was really interesting because the counselor has to be on the set, so her and I just said, “We’ll kiss when we want to kiss, and that’s fine.” So we kind-of had this mutual adversary, and it made us closer, and I fell in love with her. She was so much fun to work with, and so easy to work with. Some actresses are not that easy to work with, and we had great chemistry, we really did, and went right into it.
And Nico delivers some exposition about how buildings and empires and relationships come down. Is he an agent of chaos, or maybe full of it?
Hmm, I don’t see him as an agent of chaos. I see him as, as fighters would say, “punching above his weight.” And you’ll see, as this progresses, that he exposes himself a little bit. You’ll see that he’s not quite as confident in exactly what he’s presenting himself to be. As far as the crumbling of empires goes, he’s talking about this world that he’s become part of and how it’s run and who’s in it. And once the rapids start moving, he gets taken away swiftly.
I gotta see that happen. And I realize that you are not just a tough guy, but you’re very much known for fight scenes. If you were to have a Billions fight scene, who would you want to fight?
Would that be a fair battle, though?
We’ve been friends a long time, and believe it or not, Paul Giamatti is a pretty decent boxer. We used to go to the same gym in New York, and I adore him. He’s one of the most talented guys working, and I’d love to fight him.
Out of all your fight scenes on movies and TV, do you have a favorite?
I do. On Kingdom, I had a fight scene at the end after my son [Nick Jonas] was murdered, with Matt Hughes, who was a big-time world champion of the UFC, and we choreographed half of it, and the rest of it, we improvised. It was the most exhausting, amazing thing, and he said it was the most exhausting fight he’d ever had. So it was a lot of fun.
You and Chris Evans got all bruised up during Winter Solder. Are most of these action projects truly grueling to you?
Oh my goodness, always. I still train every day with a boxing trainer and do strength training, but when you’re making a movie where you have a lot of things going on and have a lot of choreography to remember, you do it over and over and over. Your mind gets worn down as well as your body, and you’re exhausted all the time.
You’ve done a lot of variety with these scenes. You threw down in the mud in Beyond Skyline and got grubby with Jason Statham in Homefront. You fought while wearing a suit in one of The Purge movies, so which is the most difficult of those scenarios?
Being out in the elements, I think, is a little bit easier because you have more freedom of movement, but when you’re in a confined space, and the dance is really specific, it’s gotta be that way, because otherwise, somebody’s gonna get hurt. And that’s where the great stunt guys come in and help out on different sides of the camera. But when you’re confined like that, you have to be very specific on how you’re throwing punches. Mel Gibson and I have a movie coming out called Boss Level, and he and I have a fight at the end. It was a simple matter of an elbow to the face, and instead of turning one way, we turned the other way, and my jaw gets dislocated.
Yeah, and it was my fault because I didn’t turn the right way, but it’s times like that where it gets dangerous, and guys like Mel are strong, big men, so it hurts.
And that movie got pushed back for the pandemic, I take it?
It did, and actually, there will be an announcement very, very soon. It’s gonna be coming out in a different way, and we’re very excited about it. It’s beneficial for the movie, but it’s a great movie. Naomi Watts is in it, and she’s fantastic.
You’ve been nerding out a little in quarantine, building Venom and Spider-Man on Instagram. How else have you been spending your time?
I ride my dirt bikes in the mountains a lot to free my mind. We [at War Party] have two movies that we’re getting to go in Puerto Rico, so we’re on the phone all day, dealing with Doctors Without Borders, creating protocols. I’m with my kids a lot, so I’m busy all day long, it’s just a different way of being busy.
Do you know when production will start up for you guys?
We’re working really hard. Everybody is opening up as far as stages are concerned. The one big thing that seems to be an issue is getting COVID insurance, and you can’t get the movies bonded unless they’re insured, so we’re working really closely with everyone else in town to create the protocol, and it looks like the federal government is gonna pass something that will help backstop any lawsuits that insurance companies won’t cover. So it’s all happening on the daily.
Gathering will be tough. There won’t even be Comic-Con this year, which reminds me of how you once wanted to portray The Punisher. Is that still in your sights, now that Disney+ might start those shows back up one day?
That’s not in my trajectory now. It’s not where my life is taking me anymore, and my friend Jonny Bernthal did an amazing job. My life and what I want to do is much different now, and I think I’m outgrowing that whole kind-of Marvel and superhero thing. Joe and I have a really good little company in War Party, and we’re concentrating on action thrillers that are responsibly budgeted, and we’re very busy, knock wood, and we’ll go down the path of creating our own material and content and having a good time.
You once told Larry King that you wanted to be on a vineyard somewhere in about a decade. Is that still the case?
Yeah, it is. It’s interesting, you know, I’m looking more toward the future and what I want to be doing and how much time I want to spend with my kids. I’m unfortunately a single dad once again, so my time with my kids is not as frequent as it used to be, and I wanna make it count. And I really love producing and I love drinking wine, so I wanna put it all together.
2020 is a really good time to drink a lot of wine.
Oh, I know, I know.
Showtime’s ‘Billions’ airs on Sundays at 9:00pm EST.