Q&A: Star Frank Grillo and Writer/Director James DeMonaco Talk “THE PURGE: ANARCHY” and Future Purges
In THE PURGE: ANARCHY, opening today from Universal, writer/director James DeMonaco expands the scope of his previous hit and takes the murderous action to the streets of LA. Leading the group trying to survive the night when all crime is legal is Leo, played by Frank Grillo, who joined DeMonaco to discuss the sequel with FANGORIA.
Leo is a lone wolf on an initially unexplained personal mission during the Purge, when the streets are overtaken by wanton, rampant violence. It’s a rare lead role for Grillo, who has built up an impressive résumé of supporting parts in films like CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, END OF WATCH and especially THE GREY, and as intense as the character and his situation are, it was apparently a very happy collaboration between him and DeMonaco.
FANGORIA: What was it about Leo that appealed to you?
FRANK GRILLO: The character appealed to me because my favorite movie is THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES with Clint Eastwood, who’s a good guy whose family is violently taken from him, and goes on this journey to avenge them and turns into something else. When I read the script—and I know James, we had worked on something before—and went in to talk to him, we both said “THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES” at the same time. And I said, “We’re doing this, we’re doing this.”
FANG: Once you had been cast, did you work with DeMonaco to bring even more to the character than was on the page?
GRILLO: Oh yeah. We talked for a while and knew we wanted to do this together, and then I’m a little bit of a maniac, as he is, with character stuff, so the e-mails started immediately—the referencing, the backstory, the motivations, the behaviors and all of it. We would e-mail each other 500 times a day.
JAMES DeMONACO: Which was great, because once we got to set, we had done all the homework and had the shorthand. If you were to look at Frank’s script, it’s marked up in the greatest of ways. “This line means this,” and I remember seeing, “This is a bad beat…” [Laughs] I loved seeing that.
GRILLO: It was nothing personal! Not that the words didn’t make sense, but based on cause and effect, this line, it wasn’t necessary.
DeMONACO: As the writer and director, you have moments where you may go down a little path, and he pulls me out. He makes me check my words.
GRILLO: What’s also great—not that that this is gonna become a lovefest, but the quality of my favorite directors is, nothing’s precious. It’s like, if it doesn’t work, we make it work. We fix it, and that’s why we were simpatico at every level.
FANG: Was there a lot of room to experiment like that, considering you were on a fairly low budget and tight schedule?
DeMONACO: We tried to do a lot of it up front, but at the same time, when you put something on its feet—and we had a great DP, who was very malleable, with us—I never want to put the actors in a place where it’s like, “You have to walk from here to here.” My thing is, make it your own, make it feel real and organic, and we’ll find a camera placement after you guys get there.
GRILLO: It was like doing a play, and by the time we shot, the shooting script was pretty much what you see on the screen.
DeMONACO: There was no real fat on the script, but we would make adjustments on the set. I always feel that the difference between a B scene and an A scene is, you have to make the proper adjustments, and all the actors were open to, like, “OK, let’s fix it, let’s not let anything slide through that feels weird.”
GRILLO: There’s not a pedestrian moment in the movie.
DeMONACO: We made everything matter. Whether the audience feels that or not, we took pride in every moment.
FANG: How was the experience filming down and dirty on the LA streets at night?
GRILLO: Well, for the most part, when you’re in downtown LA at night, there’s an eeriness about it. It’s empty, except for these strange people that are there. A lot of them seem like they could be in the Purge! And there are rats everywhere. In fact, in the scene where the rat runs up the girl’s leg, there were actually like 800 rats trying to run at us. So it was really crazy.
FANG: Did you enjoy the fact that you had the take-charge character leading everyone through this insane experience?
GRILLO: Yeah; having been the number-two or number-three guy in most of the films I’ve done—and being happy with that, I gotta tell you, I’m a good number two—this was the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done to date, because I was that guy with that responsibility, and I didn’t take it lightly.
FANG: THE GREY was another film about survival in a hostile environment; how would you compare the two experiences?
GRILLO: You know, they were very similar. They were both shot largely at night, in a limited time frame under difficult circumstances. Obviously it wasn’t as cold on THE PURGE, but there was still no rest time; it was just five people on a journey, you know? For me as an actor, that part was similar to this one in that this guy really goes on an existential trip and ends up in a different place than where he started. Which is a gift to have as an actor.
FANG: How do you feel about the political side of the story? Is it something you respond to, and do you think it’s a place society could go in the future?
GRILLO: Yeah—I mean, I don’t think it would be as organized as the Purge is, but I do believe the Purge takes place around the world in different forms and aspects. It is a political question, with the economic differences that we have in this country, the religious differences. Is there a solution that would be similar to something like this? Hopefully the answer is no. This is a movie, this is entertainment, but it certainly does make you think. It’s a little provocative in the sense that all of us, I believe, innately have someone they want to do something to, you know what I mean? Maybe it’s just the guy at the grocery store who doesn’t talk to you nicely, and you wanna push him. I think it’s part of human nature to want to reach out and redress an injustice.
FANG: James, do you think at this point that there’s going to be a third PURGE?
DeMONACO: I dunno… [Laughs]
GRILLO: I’m gonna turn that around and ask, after seeing the second one, do you think it warrants a third one?
FANG: Well, I was talking to someone about that, and we agreed that next time, we’d like to see a film told from the point of view of a purger—not someone like Leo, who has a very specific target, but someone who’s really letting the beast out. Is that something you’ve thought about?
DeMONACO: I love that angle, actually; we’re gonna have to talk… There are so many ideas are kicking around right now, but until the movie opens, I don’t know; I feel like I’ll jinx myself if I start thinking ahead. But I tried to plant some seeds in the movie with the Carmelo character [played by Michael K. Williams] with Frank and Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul’s characters, and there are other avenues we could go down and so many places to Purge in; it’s a nationwide event. Nothing’s solid, but it’s all there, it’s all kicking around.
FANG: Do you think a future film might go to another country and look at the Purge in a different culture?
DeMONACO: That has come up, believe me; Universal has been talking to me about it.
GRILLO: Is that true? Will I have to learn a different language?
DeMONACO: I think that’s PURGE 4 or 5, though. But it’s interesting you mention that; a very high-ranking official at Universal brought that up to me.
FANG: Universal’s has been trying to go multicultural, especially with the FAST AND FURIOUS films…
DeMONACO: Exactly: Go global, see how another country develops the Purge.
GRILLO: Oh my God, I am gonna have to learn a language.
FANG: Frank, could you say a couple of words about working with Liam Neeson on THE GREY?
GRILLO: That was a dream come true for me. My son’s name is Liam, because I was always a Liam Neeson fan. It has come full circle to get to work with him, and he’s one of my best friends now. It changed my life as an actor, and it gave me a great new friend and mentor. It was a terrific experience.