Frank Grillo: From MMA to "Billions" and Back Again
The veteran actor and amateur mixed martial artist really can do it all
Frank Grillo recently joined InsideHook readers for an intimate live conversation hosted by contributor Charles Thorp. The hard-working actor went in-depth on his experience joining the cast of the Showtime hit Billions as artist Nico Tanner, his work in Marvel’s Avengers franchise as Crossbones, and Netflix’s recent acquisition of his MMA-based series Kingdom.
You can read their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, below.
InsideHook: How familiar were you with Billions before you joined?
Frank Grillo: I had no idea this show was this big. I did it because I had some down time, and I swear to God I have never been more bombarded by people on a project that I have done. I have to say I agree that it is one of the better shows on television, and no question one of the greatest casts on television. So to step in during their fifth season was a huge pleasure.
What did the writers tell you about the character of Nico Tanner?
I spoke to the writers, and they just wanted me to play the “cool reluctant famous painter guy.” They wanted a little bit of a departure from what they had seen me play in the past, someone who isn’t some big badass. I was immediately down. I flew into New York for a few days each episode. I didn’t really have an idea of how much I might matter in the plot, because it is hard to get a read on that when you are just on the set for a few days here and there.
You are usually playing the lead in your projects. What did it feel like to come in here in a supporting role?
I am there to help move the story along, and get to add what I can to this amazing ensemble. I have to say I had a ball. I really enjoyed playing him too, because coming from living in New York, I know people like him. These painters who say that they don’t care if they ever sell a piece of work and that they don’t want to be famous. There are actors like that too, and honestly, some of them are so full of shit. So I got to play that guy.
What was it like working with this cast?
Maggie Siff is a badasss, and Damian Lewis is a great guy. I have known Paul Giamatti for a long time, so we already had a relationship, and it was nice to work with him. Right off the bat Maggie and I had a great vibe. She has done a lot of great work, like on Sons Of Anarchy with my buddy Charlie Hunnam. She is plenty used to being around high-testosterone guys, which I think lends itself to the character well. She knows how to handle herself and is an amazing professional.
What is it like squaring off with Damian Lewis when he is in Axelrod mode?
I enjoyed the stare-downs with Damian. My character isn’t immediately cowering at him like others do on the show, because he is the one who has what Axelrod wants, in his art. And so because he has a position of strength, he doesn’t want to fall prey to Axe’s power. As the show goes on, you find out that he is susceptible to that power. Because you know what? It is nice eating the best sushi in the world and drinking the best wine. My character starts to fall down that rabbit hole, he starts to become that thing he said he despised. I don’t think people have seen the end yet, so I won’t say where he ends up.
No spoilers, but how does the vibe between Nico and Axe evolve?
I think as people have seen in previous seasons, Axe can only be nice for so long. That is his nature. And then he has to be The Guy. So there is a bit of a struggle that takes place. There are things that go off between Axe and Wendy, and Nico is there for some of that. I think Axe has shown that his feelings to Wendy are a bit of that, “I don’t want her but I don’t want anyone else to have her either.” I will have to say that this role challenged me in new ways, because in most of my roles, when I am challenged, it usually leads to getting physical. But this character wasn’t about that. So I had to find ways to act a different kind of response. I had to intellectualize what was going on, and that was far more gratifying.
I have to ask, when he’s trying to woo Nico he brings him some artisan New York pizza. It looked pretty good, how did it taste?
Funny story, before filming they ask me if I have any allergies. I ask why, and the explanation is that there is a scene where I eat pizza with Axelrod. But I am paleo. I love pizza, I would eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I can’t eat the gluten because it will make me sick. So I asked if they could get me pizza with either almond flour or any flour that isn’t regular flour. They had to chase down an artisan pizza maker who makes his pies paleo. I think they were a little pissed off about the extra work. I just hoped they don’t think I was just trying to be a pain in the ass. I will say the pizza that they did eventually end up getting was amazing.
Did you do any of the painting that we see onscreen?
I did a lot of it. The majority of what you see me doing on camera, and the work that they show after, is a lot of me. That was fun. I had worked with an artist to brush up on my painting skills. I wanted it to look as natural as possible when I was mixing the paints and around the paints. The pieces that I did on the show came out with a very Jackson Pollock kind of vibe. They let me be a part of all of that, which I think is why the show is so great, that they let the actors really be a part of as much of the process as possible.
Did you keep any of them?
I have a few of the pieces here at my home, they are somewhere rolled up. I think I will eventually get them framed because they came out kind of cool.
You probably got recognized most often before for the Avengers movies. How do you feel about being a part of that epic franchise?
I really loved it and I love the fans that came to me from that role. I am mostly in the movies as Brock Rumlow. You know it’s funny, I am hesitant to say anything about the Avengers movies, because every time I do stories are written that make it seem like I’m waiting by the phone, but I am really not. That being said, people have asked me if I would be interested in an off-shoot that follows Crossbones as a character. He was supposed to be in the movies more, but the producers just decided to go another way, and that’s alright. Of course, I’m going to say yes to telling more of that story if the script and the people I’m working with are right. I have a few of the Crossbones figurines kicking around the apartment, because that is probably the project I’ve done that my kids actually enjoy. He is definitely one of the cooler toys.
Netflix recently came in and bought all the episodes to your MMA-based series Kingdom, which originally aired on DirecTV. How did that come about?
I have to shout out my buddy and agent Charlie Jennings at CAA, because he saw a tweet that my friend James Gunn did about Kingdom being one of the better shows to stream now, and he took a little initiative to get it more out into the world. The tweet went viral, and he took that information to Netflix, where I have a long relationship, having done multiple movies and my doc series Fightworld. The deal was done in a few weeks, and now it is on Netflix.
How does it feel that a lot more people are going to see it soon?
The fact is we worked so hard on this show, and really did everything we could to try to portray what life is like inside the world of MMA. So it getting to be seen by so many new people is a really exciting prospect. I am so pumped. I felt that this show was the opportunity of lifetime for me, because of my personal attachment to the world of MMA, having trained and practiced since I was young. Byron Balasco wrote a great show, and when he brought in training legend Greg Jackson, the scripts got even better.
You guys went through a lot of effort to involve real MMA fighters and coaches.
Once the show got picked up, we made a mission statement that we wanted at the very least to make the people involved with the sport proud. Just the fighters themselves, but also their families, their friends, their parents, and anyone else in their lives. Every day going to work was challenging, but in the very best way. Joe “Daddy” Stephenson came on as an advisor via Greg Jackson, who couldn’t be there because was training a few dozen world champions. Joe was filling up our gym on set with real MMA fighters. Every single element of the background was authentic. And eventually Joe came into the show himself, and he was such a great addition. Juan Archuleta, who has quite a few belts to his name, got in there as well. The great Matt Hughes and I filmed a fight at the end of the last season. There were so many of the real guys who helped make the show what it was.
If the show takes off on Netflix, do you think you guys would be interested in coming back for another season?
We have already discussed it, and if asked we would certainly jump back in to do another season. I know there are still stories to tell there. The entire cast got together recently in a video conference and there is still a true bond between all of us. There is something tragic that happens at the end of the last episode, to my family and I go through this cathartic experience. I would love for the series to pick back up right there.