Tough-guy acting vet Frank Grillo finally shifts into high gear as the star of his very own frantic action thriller Wheelman
Riding shotgun with Frank Grillo in Wheelman
Every now and then, a gifted journeyman actor gets to step out from the shadows of the rogue’s gallery and into the limelight of leading-man stardom. We’ve seen it before with Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire and with Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.
Now it’s Italian-American actor Frank Grillo’s turn to put his acting mettle to the pedal in Wheelman, as a hardball getaway driver thrust into a high-stakes race to survive after a bank robbery goes terribly wrong, in this Netflix global original movie that will debut on Friday.
While Grillo’s name may not immediately ring a bell beyond his growing fan base, his chiselled face and action-movie grit have filled screens big and small, in films such as Warrior (2011), The Grey (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), as the villain Crossbones in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and more prominently as Sergeant Leo Barnes in the horror franchise The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016). He’s also been on the telly as fight trainer and family man Alvey Kulina in the mixed-martial-arts drama Kingdom (2014 to 2017). Meanwhile, he’s already huge in China, thanks to his star turn as Big Daddy in this year’s Chinese action blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, the highest-grossing non-Hollywood film of all time.
In short, for a person who spent a year on Wall Street with a business degree, and who first scratched his thespian itch by doing credit card and deodorant commercials in his mid-20s almost three decades ago, Grillo has paid his dues in full, and then some.
For first-time writer-director Jeremy Rush, it was a dream come true when producer Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces) and Grillo himself decided to make Wheelman the debut film of their newly formed production company WarParty. “The script definitely had a late 1960s and definitely 1970s feel,” says Rush. “Movies like Bullitt, The French Connection, The Driver, Vanishing Point and Taxi Driver, among others, were all major influences.”
Grillo views this new movie as the perfect project to follow on from recent career highs. “I’ve been a supporting actor, but the way I saw Wheelman was, it was as if I was the guy on the bench who’s been waiting to play. It was a ‘put me in, coach’ kind of moment,” says the 52-year-old actor. “Like I was Steve Young, waiting to be quarterback for the 49ers behind Joe Montana.”
“I thought the idea of a father-daughter story, disguised as a ‘getaway’ film, was ingenious,” adds Carnahan. “Frank has a real watershed moment [here]. It’s the first time he’s been required as an actor to hold the screen, and he does a brilliant job of it. Frank combines the visceral quality of an actor like Lee Marvin, but he has this additional gear of intelligence and thoughtfulness. That’s a helluva combination for a leading man.”
The story itself ratchets up the tension with a fresh take on the action drama, by setting the movie almost entirely inside the getaway car, with Grillo up against antagonists we only ever hear over his speakerphone, and never see.
Yet this hardcore drama has heart, with the wheelman trying not only to save his 13-year-old daughter Katie (Caitlin Carmichael, previously seen in Bag of Bones), who winds up in the car with him, but also his ex-wife.
While the father-daughter bond and their struggle anchors the tale, Carnahan is quick to add: “Sentimentality is always [story] quicksand. Wheelman does a great job of balancing the emotionally volatile stuff with pure action, so the film never really has time to get sappy or syrupy.”
Trying to derail the wheelman’s wild, desperate ride in a most shady, malevolent way are the character actors Shea Whigham, formerly of Boardwalk Empire, and Garret Dillahunt, remembered from No Country for Old Men. But Grillo’s physicality can be a wondrous thing to behold on screen, reflecting his lifelong boxing and martial arts skills.
“In boxing, jiujitsu or martial arts in general, a lot of the focus is about stillness, breath control, timing and when to relax,” says Grillo. “I apply a lot of that to how I act. For me, acting is a sport, and a lot of it is about the waiting, and the hunt. That’s there in Wheelman, too, and then there will be a burst of energy. It has to be internal, until it’s not, then you have to dial the emotion back.”
Grillo, who was raised in the Bronx, says he deeply identifies with the wheelman. “I grew up with a lot of guys like this, guys trying to go straight, [people]who couldn’t quite make ends meet, so they did what they had to do,” he says.
“Maybe they had a kid, and they wanted to do the right thing for them. I also know a lot of really bad guys, like the guys who are in the back of the car with the wheelman. I understand dealing with people who don’t value life. So I had a lot to draw from. I was a man before I became an actor. I have a different perspective.”
Wheelman is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday