The Grey’s Frank Grillo on Cold, Wolf Puppets and His ‘Acting Hero’

Frank Grillo, right, with Liam Neeson in "The Grey"

In The Grey, the new survival thriller from director Joe Carnahan, a downed plane strands a group of oil-rig workers in the Alaskan wilderness, leaving them at the mercy of the brutal elements and ravenous wolves in an unforgiving landscape. It’s a scenario that’s not entirely foreign to actor Frank Grillo who, along with the rest of the cast and crew, endured the icy temperatures of British Columbia for the nearly 40-day shoot.

“At first when you get off the plane and it’s 20 degrees below zero you think you know what cold is, and then you realize, oh, wait, I don’t really know what cold is — this is cold!” Grillo, who plays Diaz, told Spinoff Online.

Best known for his work on such television dramas as Prison Break and The Gates, Grillo said his role in the 2011 film Warrior paved the way for him to play opposite Liam Neeson in The Grey.

“I’ve been doing a lot of television most of my career, and I got to do a movie called Warrior, which was kind of a meaty role for me,” he said. “Joe had seen that film and called me up and asked me to read the script.”

Speaking about his character in The Grey, Grillo continued, “To have a character that has such a life on screen was just a gift. So it was really a no-brainer — it was more a matter of him being able to get me in the movies rather than just me wanting to do the part.”

Playing the cynical and antagonistic Diaz, Grillo described his character as a “contrarian” who acts against the interests of the group.

“We all know guys like that who are contrarian, and no matter what the situation they’re always on the other end,” he said. “I did some research and spoke to a lot of guys who were in prison and guys who were in isolation and tried to find out why they behave the way they do.”

Elaborating on his research process, the actor said that while he didn’t have a chance to speak with many actual oil-rig workers, he did talk with men across a wide range of similar blue-collar jobs.

“I did more research about the behavior of guys who do jobs like that, who kind of remove themselves from society or are removed from society involuntarily because there’s a through line with people like that, people who are willing to go to extremes,” Grill said.

Outside of his character research, the actor thought that shooting on location in British Columbia lent urgency to the acting, something that would not have been possible to duplicate in a sound studio.

“It was a gift!” he laughed. “As an actor, you get off the plane and you don’t have to manufacture any emotions or feelings, it’s cold. … There’s not one fan blowing snow in our faces, every day it was 50- to 70-mile-per-hour winds and, like I said, 20 degrees below zero. That authenticity is what I think makes the film so impactful.”

Shortened daylight hours in the north also meant short shooting days. However, the fast-paced schedule actually provided the cast with plenty of opportunity to bond.

“For me, all the physical stuff was fun, it felt like I was in camp with a bunch of my buddies,” Grillo said. Explaining that the hardest scenes for him were those in which his character sat around talking, he added, “All the rest was like everything you imagine a little boy wants to do, play in the snow and hang out with your friends. It was kind of cool.”

Shooting the film in roughly 40 days also meant the actors spent most of their time together on location, even when not shooting.

“There weren’t a lot of us, there were only five or six of us, and the way Joe shot the film none of us ever went home, we were always together,” Grillo said. “You would think after eight, nine hours of weather we would be sick of each other, including Liam, but every night without fail we all went out to dinner together and drank wine and hung out together.”

Calling his cast mates a “band of brothers,” Grillo added, “My worst day of the movie was the day I left because it was sad to know I wasn’t going to hang out with these guys any more.”

The Grey also gave Grillo the chance to work with Neeson, whom he described as a personal “acting hero” and the man he named one of his children after.

“From the very onset of the film he came in and said, ‘Look, I need you guys to make this film work and you need me, and let’s just check our egos at the door, we’re all on the same level playing field here,’” Grillo recalled.

Explaining that he and Neeson are now close friends, the actor added with a laugh, “It’s like playing baseball with Mickey Mantle — it was really getting a chance to play with one of the people I admire most.”

In fact, Grillo compared his on-set experience to the joy of heading off to summer camp with his pals — albeit one where animatronic wolf puppets periodically attacked the campers.

“I first thought, ‘How are they going to do this, are they going to CGI this and put a tennis ball in my face and say, make believe this is a wolf?” Grillo said. “But we didn’t, we had the animatronics and puppets and some real wolves. We never had to make-believe anything was going on, it always felt like it was very organic.”

While the actor expressed admiration for the wolf puppeteers and the people who made the puppets, he readily admitted that facing off against the giant wolves made him more than a little nervous.

“I have to tell you, we were in the dark, snow, cold — these things looked real! So when this thing was on top of me it was like a real wolf, they were really jabbing it in my head! I was really fighting as much to get the wolf head off me as I would if a real wolf was on top of me,” he laughed.

Grillo revealed he has several film jobs lined up, including a part in The Gangster Squad with Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling, and another in Intersection with Brooklyn Decker. After that, the actor said, the possibilities are endless — as long as he plays his cards right.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I mean, 2012 could be a great year, or I could be back on television!”

The Grey opens Friday nationwide.

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