It has been over three years since seasoned actor Frank Grillo played coach Frank Campagna in the 2011 movie "Warrior" alongside Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte (nominated for a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar). His character was a deep and philosophical man who found interesting ways to teach and motivate his fighters.
A very similar style and approach to that of Greg Jackson. The highly-touted MMA coach, not coincidentally, served as a technical adviser for "Warrior" and the two are now friends.
Since the movie, his career has hit a major upswing and he has gone on to play roles in "The Grey" with Liam Neeson, "Homefront" with Jason Statham, and land the lead in "Purge 2: Anarchy." So when the script for the DirecTV project entitled "Kingdom" (trailer here) came down the pipeline, Grillo was a fan, but he held a great deal of trepidation upon first view, since it was territory he had already covered.
To him, "Warrior" had defined MMA as far as film or TV was concerned.
The question he asked himself was could he make a TV series that Jackson and others in the MMA world would sit down and watch? So he sat down with series writer Bryan Balasco and after talking to him, he knew he wanted to play the role of Alvey Kulina, the owner of an MMA gym called Navy St. in California, and father to two fighters.
"I knew right away that this guy wanted to really tell the story of what it's like," Grillo told MMAmania.com right before heading to Cannes for more show obligations. "Not to be Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre, but what it takes for fighters who are doing smokers and fighters who are trying to get into the UFC. How interesting it is. Their lives are fascinating."
Have no fear about "Kingdom" not looking the part, as Jackson has signed on to be a technical director after meeting with Balasco. UFC lightweight Joe "Daddy" Stevenson, who hasn't fought in over three years, has also been brought on to help with the nuances and realism on the show.
"Every script had to go through Greg to be authenticated," said Grillo. "Joe 'Daddy' Stevenson was on set with us everyday, so everything to how the gym looked, to how the fighters fought, to how my character's sons fought, everything had to go through Greg and Joe and it had to be authentic. That is where all the fun came in. We made it so a guy like you can sit down and go 'Oh my God.' We made Joe cry and say 'Oh my God this is my life.'"
Grillo, 51, says "at the core of the show it's a family drama," so you don't have to be an aficionado to appreciate it. He gave an example of an episode that is devoted entirely to a fighter's weight cut. The MMA fans will instantly know what is going on, but the casual ones will also be swept in by the intensity of episode.
"You don't need to know what it is to actually lose a pound," explained Grillo. "You watch the episode and you just connect with the emotionality of it all. There's something in it for everybody. We couldn't just make a show for MMA fans. It's a family drama."
The show has a visceral storyline with a feel that is "not so dissimilar" from "Warrior," Grillo says. The backdrop is the world of MMA, but it is ultimately about his character Kuliny, and his life with his two boys (Nick Jonas and Matt Lauria) and his girlfriend (Kiele Sanchez).
"If you can imagine Nick Nolte's character and the two brothers and how their life must've been," he explains. "You get a small look into that world. That is really the show. I have got a gym. I"m trying to get a fighter to the next level so that I can be relevant as a fighter. I have a crazy girlfriend. It's like Tony Soprano. What made that show so interesting was not the mafia so much, but how he dealt with his life while being in the mafia. It's a similar kind of vibe to that."
One of Grillo's sons on the show is played by Nick Jonas. The pop star's casting on "Kingdom" has drawn a great deal of criticism from MMA fans and purists. Before you rush to judgement, however, the New York native says Jonas is the real deal and revealed that not only does UFC featherweight Cub Swanson think he could train Jonas, but after you watch the first episode, any reserved judgement or trepidation you may have will immediately go out the window.
"We have the same agent and when his name came up I said 'No way. It's never going to happen. No way is he ever going to be on the show,'" Grillo said about Jonas. "They said 'Let him come in and read.' He came in and read with 30 other guys. By the way, the kid was ripped, okay, really serious and he was by far the best actor of the 30. He won the job and he absolutely had to work twice as hard as everybody else."
"Then they get him in the cage and Greg and Joe did a three-week camp for the guys and he is probably the best athlete. This kid threw a standing triangle on Cub Swanson and everybody opened their eyes. I would put him in the cage with any amateur. The kid is amazing. I would put him in the cage with any amateur that thinks he is tougher than a Jonas brother."
So far "Kingdom" has gotten some stellar reviews and Grillo is "optimistic" there will be a second season of the MMA series. As far as current projects, his name is attached to the American remake of "The Raid," but before that can begin he is involved in a Sci-Fi project that will begin shooting in Singapore shortly, and a couple of others he is not yet allowed to discuss.
"It's going to be a good 2015 for sure," he said, before mentioning some of his favorite roles that he has played recently.
"The Purge was great," he said. "It was my first kind of big lead role in a studio role. That was fun. It was my kind of character. They set me as the hero. I really enjoyed it. I think my favorite character to date, if it's not the role I'm playing in this TV series -- which I really dig -- it's probably 'The Grey,' that I did with Liam Neeson. It's an underrated film and I just love that journey that all those guys went on. It's one of my favorite things that I've done."
Grillo has come a long way over the past two decades of his career. He has paid his dues, made the best out of his opportunities and more and more doors are now opening for major leading roles. The actor is modest and humble and he appreciates the journey and has never once taken it for granted.
"I gotta tell you. I'm a blue-collar dude and there is not a day that goes by where I am not in a state of gratitude," he said proudly. "I'm in a little bit of amazement at my age, where guys are kind of winding down or really kind of hustling for jobs, I've gotten an opportunity to do some really cool stuff. You never know how long it lasts. The ride is equally as fun and important as doing the job itself."