This week, DirecTV premieres its latest original drama, “Kingdom,” starring Nick Jonas and Jonathan Tucker as brothers and MMA fighters. Frank Grillo plays their father Alvey, a trainer who takes on a new prospect, Ryan (Matt Lauria), who just happens to have a history with Alvey’s ex, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez).
The drama unfolds in and out of the ring. We got to sit down with Grillo to discuss the drama of “Kingdom,” airing Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. on DirecTV Ch. 239, and his preparations for the upcoming U.S. version of The Raid.
CraveOnline: Did you do “Kingdom” before The Purge: Anarchy?
Frank Grillo: No, because we’re doing it now. I did Purge: Anarchy first.
Was it just a coincidence that you and Kiele both got cast in each?
No, it wasn’t a coincidence. I was doing The Purge and I had signed on to do this show early, in January. I think I was the first person to sign on with Byron [Balasco]. While we were doing Purge: Anarchy and they were looking for this character, Kiele’s name came up. It was, like, a list of 10 or 12 women and I said, “You need to come to the set and meet Kiele. She’s great. I didn’t know her before but she’s fantastic.” She’s got this element, she’s got this grittiness. She’s somebody who can stand up to a guy. She’s beautiful, but she’s not dainty. He came down and met her, and I convinced her. She was like, “I don’t know, a show about MMA.” Then one thing led to another. She read the script, fell in love with it and she went and met [DirecTV SVP] Chris Long, and the marriage was born.
And it was for the role of Lisa you imagined her for?
Yeah. She’s phenomenal and she’s fun to work with. We have a great rapport, real natural. When I see it, I can distance myself from it and say, “Wow, these two, they have this unspoken communication with each other, like real people.” I just kind of love that.
Are you drawn to projects like “Kingdom” and Warrior because you practice MMA yourself?
Obviously, Warrior yes. When I first got Warrior and Gavin O’Conner said, “I’m going to let you run with this because I know you’re involved in the sport.” I wasn’t a coach, but when I read this, first and foremost it was a great script dramatically. The fighting aspect of it is secondary, sometimes tertiary to the story but it’s a world I love. I love the subculture. I’m in a gym all the time. I box every day. I still do jiujitsu, I take my son with me all the time so it’s a world I’m familiar with. It’s a world I’m attracted to. It’s a world that I understand more than anything else. I mean, I can make believe I’m a cop but I’m not a cop. I’m a fighter. For me this is a meeting of two of the things I love most.
You had a panel at 9AM. Were you in the gym this morning?
No, I’ll be in the gym right when I’m done. I’m going to go at 2:30 and I’m going to box. I have a trainer who will open the gym. We’ll go and spar and we’ll work out at any time, in New York too. Both New York and L.A.
What sorts of drama happens in a gym that the average viewer may not know about?
Great question. Being a fighter, being an MMA fighter specifically is tough because there’s not the big purses like there are in boxing. So A, you’re not doing it to get rich. It just doesn’t happen, or rarely does it happen. Maybe 10 guys in UFC have become wealthy. The thing that people don’t understand is that these fighters are like little children. Emotionally, most of them, their development has somewhere along the way been stymied somehow.
It creates a very interesting dichotomy. You’ve got this person who could basically kill anybody on earth, except each other, and yet when they’re outside of the cage, they’re like dealing with nine-year-old children, a lot of them. It’s an interesting duality of people. A lot of them have to live together because they don’t have any money. To try to be a fight trainer, you have to try to find somebody who can generate enough money to even make me relevant. Remember the movie Donnie Brasco? Do you remember the struggle of Al Pacino? Because he was at this lowest level really, trying, always hoping to be promoted. He was never getting promoted, but it was that low level organized crime thing, that subculture. It’s a very similar vibe in the fight world. It’s very similar.
Who are the the more naive, immature characters on “Kingdom?”
Tucker’s character, who plays my older son, Jay, he’s not naive at all. He’s probably the smartest guy on the show but he’s also the most destructive. He is. Nick plays my youngest son, Nate, I would say he’s probably the most naive. He’s the one who believes everything can still be okay. But everybody else, there’s not a lot of naivety on the show. Everybody is protecting themselves. Everybody understands the world that they’re in. That’s what makes it so different. It’s like a film. It’s like you’re going to watch something that’s finite, which a film is an hour and a half. It’s not like a TV show. We say that all the time to each other.
So who is Alvey?
Alvey is a guy who aged out. He’s a guy who was born too early to be relevant as a fighter in the UFC or in the game of mixed martial arts at this point, so he kind of falls between the cracks of someone who was very skilled and very world-renowned for his skills, in a time before MMA. He wants to be relevant in this world of mixed martial arts, so I have to coach. That’s the only other thing you can do logically. So he’s a frustrated guy. He’s a guy who’s got struggles with alcohol and he’s frustrated because he can’t really make enough money to just get past paying his bills. He’s constantly looking for fighters who can take him to the next level as a coach.
So he’s a guy trying to maintain some semblance of relevance in a sport that’s moving much faster than he is. It could be sad at times. It’s tragic at times, and then he finds somebody like Ryan who Matt Lauria’s character is. Then there’s this bright light. I need just one guy. It’s like being an actor. You need one role to get you to the next place where other people are going to pay attention. This could be my guy, and he was Lisa’s fiance. There’s this great triangle.
Is the first season leading up to his first professional match?
Not professional match. He was in prison. He’s been in prison so the season is about can we get this guy to a place he was before? Because he was a great champion. To make me and the gym and everybody get to the next level.
So the next season could be the next level after that.
The relationships are so complex, there’s so many ways to go with all of these guys and people that come in and out of the show. It’s endless. We only have 10 episodes a season so we can think about five seasons off the top of our head. In that sense, it’s so much better than being on a network television show.
Having real experience in a gym, would you advise trainers against taking on a fighter that has such a personal connection to your life?
Yeah, I would.
It makes great television though.
It makes great television. Again, I say it all the time, conflict makes drama. But yeah, real coaches love fighters who don’t have girlfriends, who don’t have kids. Obviously most people do have girlfriends and kids but they like to keep their life separate because the discipline it takes to become a high level elite fighter, it’s an amazing amount of time and effort. No, I would never want that conflict in the gym.
Does Alvey ever get into the ring, at least to spar?
Always. I’m always in the ring. I’m still the best guy in the gym. Again, I don’t say this out of being narcissistic, but I’m the best fighter, Frank is the best fighter. I’m the only guy who’s lived this world. I mean, I’ve fought. I still walk through the gym looking at the other guys, Jonathan, Matt and Jonas and saying, “Hey guys, I’m the best. You’ve got to beat me.” As actors, it makes us competitive which is great for the show.
Do you get to have scenes where there’s the emotional moment, but then you snap back into fight mode?
We have a couple of scenes where we’re sparring and you think it’s about the sparring. What I’m saying is giving him advice, and it quickly turns personal. This is what’s great about the show. When I’m in the cage with Ryan or Jay or Nate, whatever’s going on, I can’t hide my frustrations. I can’t hide how bad I think they’re doing, so sparring turns into very personal things inside the cage. That cage is a metaphor for the whole show. So there’s some gorgeous scenes that start out as just simple sparring that turns into a family melee.
But does Alvey let his guard down and show love?
Always. There’s a lot of times, maybe not even in scenes with other people, but you get the sense early on, the vulnerability of this guy. Again, remembering that these men are equal parts children still and they’re looking for love. Why do people fight? There’s these big existential questions, specifically for the men. Why do you want to get punched in the face? Why are you willing to put yourself through the misery of losing weight and training? So there’s these great questions that hopefully the show addresses. It’s in those moments, it’s in those times talking to her or talking to one of the kids where you see that vulnerability. That’s how you empathize with this guy.
When you get to do The Raid, will they have you fight?
Yeah, everybody, there’s four main characters and we’re all in extensive training because it’s a very specific fight style.
Are they having you learn Indonesian Silat?
Yeah, so that’ll be fun. That’s why we moved the movie from September, because there’s a couple of actors who are also working so they smartly moved it to January to start shooting.
Are you playing a character that corresponds to one from the original Indonesian The Raid?
Yes. That’s as much as I’m allowed to say, I do.
So it’s not creating a new character.
No, and it’s a great script. They have a great script.
Is it that much different than The Raid: Redemption?
It’s a bit different because it’s American actors. In some ways, I think it’s better. I really think the story is fleshed out more and he’s working on that now. Patrick Hughes is developing the script more so we’ll see what happens but I’m excited about it.
When would you start Silat training?
I think in October, so it would give me October, November and some parts of December.
We all think Crossbones isn’t dead yet.
Well, obviously at the end of the film, it’s no secret. There I are, face charred, the things across my chest so there is the precursor. Obviously I can’t say very much.
Of course, but you’re so busy and Marvel is planned so far in advance, has that already been worked out schedule-wise?
Anything I do, The Raid included, you’ve got to clear with them. If The Raid decides they’re going to push another three months, Marvel will say you can’t do it. Because I have to train for that movie, so they can’t. We’ll see what happens. Listen, maybe Feige says, “You know what? Maybe not Crossbones.” I know the Russos are deeply involved in the script right now. Obviously everything’s under wraps. I talk to them all the time.
With everything happening for you these last few years, is “Kingdom” really your passion?
It is. Hands down, for me, best role I’ve had. Best opportunity I’ve had to be an actor, to do what I want to do, to go deep with a character, to be partners with Byron, to be partners with DirecTV and Endemol. They’re really the most generous people creatively that I’ve ever been around, so they have something that they want to do. I’ve never seen a TV network and studio want to take risks like this. This is so ballsy for them and by far the most exciting thing for me right now.
You’ve had some great roles like The Grey and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Alvey tops them?
Yeah, Alvey topes them. My favorite role to date has been The Grey. I love that movie, I love the journey that character took. I loved working against Liam Neeson but this I get to explore in a much deeper, more personal over a period of time way for me. I hope people turn out and see it and respond to it, but I know I’m really proud of the work. I think these actors are phenomenal and they’re as good as any actors I’ve worked with.