When Talent and Friendship Come Together: Interview with BOSS LEVEL Star Frank Grillo and Writer-Director Joe Carnahan
BOSS LEVEL is the electrifying and gripping new sci-fi action film currently streaming on Hulu that will certainly keep you on the edge of your seat from the beginning until the end. Described as “Die Hard meets Groundhog Day“, the making of the film was a labour of love by two extraordinarily talented friends who kept persevering to turn their dream of making this film into a reality. Those two talented friends also happen to be the exceptionally gifted writer-director Joe Carnahan (The Grey, The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces) and leading man Frank Grillo (The Purge: Anarchy, Wheelman, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Endgame, Zero Dark Thirty) who is one of Hollywood’s most exciting, hardest-working and handsome ‘badass’ action stars of the 21st century.
With an impressive all-star cast – including Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Ken Jeong, Annabelle Wallis and Michelle Yeoh – Grillo stars as retired special forces soldier Roy Pulver who finds himself trapped in a never-ending time loop of an action-packed day that always ends in him getting killed by assassins. In order to save his love (played by Watts), he must figure a way out and take down Col. Clive Ventor (played by Gibson) who constructed his predicament.
Georgina Lara Booth interviewed Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan to discuss the film, being in the film industry in a year of social distancing, their backgrounds, friendship, how they came together to make BOSS LEVEL happen and more.
How has social distancing been for you as an actor during this pandemic?
“I am currently in quarantine for the last day and then I have to finish a couple of episodes of a TV series that I did last year called Billions – I am just in New York City right now. I have done four movies this year. One very big movie, in the beginning it was weird but now it’s kind of business as usual. You’ve got to be real careful, wash your hands and keep your distance, you know. It is kind of the holy trinity.”
You’re an extremely talented human being since you produced and acted in Boss Level – what do you prefer acting or producing?
“You know, it depends what day you ask me. Producing can be extremely rewarding and probably the most stressful thing I have ever done, but I really love it. It is putting a puzzle together and constantly looking for the right pieces. I really enjoy the process of it.”
You find producing more stressful in general than acting?
“Oh my God, yeah in every way. You are dealing with so many people, everybody is trying to get what is best for them and you have to be very diplomatic. You have to be a great listener and you have to be able to deal with problems on the go and not panic and lose your temper, which are two things I tend to do. I could never direct and I am not really much of a writer. I would certainly never do anything I ever wrote, so producing is, I guess, the one other thing I could do.”
You went to New York University, studied Business and you also worked on Wall Street. How did you end up becoming an actor?
“I worked very briefly in the financial world. It was never really a goal of mine, but like every young actor – or at least the people I knew – you never really thought you were going to make a living from acting and so there is always something else that you do. I never liked the financial world and I am not really money-oriented, so it was never anything that really spoke to me. It was something I did for a minute, but actually being a little bit business-minded has certainly helped on the producing side for Joe and I.”
I was told that you had a great ‘war story’ to tell about working with Mel Gibson on set while filming Boss Level…how is your jaw right now?
“My man Mel, you know, I just assumed Mel was really well-versed in fighting – you know film fighting – and on the first take, he elbowed me with his giant Popeye elbow, so my whole jaw went the other way. I often tell the story, you know, I didn’t want to upset Mel and I couldn’t talk, so I went back to Joe and said “I think my jaw is broken”. They had to get a doctor in and every day she had to stick her fingers between my jawbone and my skull and work it so that my jaw would eventually loosen up. It was the most painful experience of my acting life.”
Goodness, that sounds really painful! You must be a really fit person to recover so quickly from all of that. You train every day, don’t you?
“I do. I train every day. I do strength and conditioning and I am a very physical person. It helps in the movies. It is something I have always been involved with. I love fighting, not in the street, I just love fighting sports. I have a documentary called Fight World, which I produced. Like Anthony Bourdain, I travelled around the world and explored fight culture. It has always been part of what made me excited in life, so it just happens I am in shape where it is beneficial for me to be in shape.”
Do you have any advice for those who want to be in great shape like you?
“My tip is the same for everyone. Everyone suffers from this…it is eating too much. We all eat too much. It has been bred into us that we need all this food all day long. Three square meals and meals in between and the way I stay in shape primarily is that I eat one meal a day. I don’t eat very often. I kind of monitor what I take in and the reality is that it is like money. It doesn’t really matter how much money you make. You can make $10 million a year, but if you spend $10 million, you will have no money. You can eat 5000 calories a day, burn 6000 calories a day, and you will lose weight or maintain your weight. If you eat 5000 calories a day and you don’t get off the couch, you have a problem. You just have to monitor your food intake and how many calories you think you can burn. It is kind of simple science. I have been the same weight pretty much my entire adult life.”
Since you eat once a day, do you only eat breakfast, lunch or dinner?
“I don’t eat breakfast. I wake up and I drink black coffee. I train empty with an intermittent fast every other day. If I am hungry, I will eat some almonds or a bit of fruit and then eat a meal at about 3pm, such as a piece of salmon, a big salad and maybe a sweet potato. I am kind of good after that and I start the next day. Once you get used to it, you have so much more energy. Your body is burning at such a higher frequency and it actually clears your mind.”
You have a production company with Joe. How did your working relationship and friendship with Joe begin?
“Joe and I first met through a mutual friend, Gavin O’Connor, who directed a movie called Pride and Glory and Joe co-wrote it. I met him probably 16 years ago. Then I did a movie called Warrior and Joe loved it. He brought me on to The Grey with Liam Neeson. From that movie, Joe and I became very close friends and then we wanted to always work together. Joe found this script called Wheelman about four or five years ago. We formed a company and made that with Netflix and that launched our company. We just released Cop Shop with Gerard Butler with Joe directing. I think that it is our sixth movie, and we did Fight World, together so we are off to the races!”
Tell me about your character in Boss Level. What would you like your fans to know about the film?
“My character, Roy Pulver, is kind of an ex-super hero and special forces guy who has kind of neglected his family. A bit of a boozer and kind of got through his life being that guy and then gets stuck in this time loop. Naomi Watts, who plays my wife, is a scientist and my character has to relive the same day over and over, discovers his son and all the things he has kind of missed out on, because he was a bit of a scoundrel. This is a fun film, it is 90 minutes, you sit back and watch me get killed 4000 times and it has got some heart. There is some beautiful stuff in there, but it is really “Die Hard meets Groundhog Day”. A throwback to those ’80s funny kind of action movies and its doing pretty well as a movie right now.”
If you could live one day over and over again, what day would it be?
“It would probably be a benign day when I am with my boys – probably at the beach just being really present. I could do that every day.”
That sounds really lovely. Your son, Rio, also plays your son in Boss Level. What is it like seeing him in the film?
“It’s phenomenal. That was Joe’s idea. Joe pushed for it. My son wasn’t an actor and he did a really beautiful job. He had some real dramatic scenes and he killed it. Now obviously people are interested in him and I told him “you are getting people who want to talk to you” and he is like “if Marvel or Spielberg is interested, let me know otherwise it is not for me”.
You have played a lot of these action and tough characters, but would you ever choose to play characters that are completely different? Or do you have a specific dream role in mind? Perhaps James Bond? Or a member of the British Royal family in The Crown?
“No, but I could be a version of James Bond. Boss Level is kind of like James Bond without the nice suits, but I do a lot. I have a movie out now called Body Brokers and another movie out called No Mans Land. They are both true stories – both just regular guys. One is a rancher on the border of Mexico and the US. The other is a salesman type. Those are smaller movies that don’t really get the exposure that the bigger action films do, but I go back and forth to little movies, little dramas, and there is nothing I really need to do at this point in my life. I get offered what I get offered and some of it is really great and some is not so good. I would love to do some theatre, but people think if they see you in magazines or in movies, you can pick and choose everything you do, but the reality is that I am an independent contractor.”
Yes, an actor’s life is definitely tough. I studied acting at RADA in London and at Lee Strasberg in New York City myself, so I know the struggle of many actors to make a living from acting and finding work…but it is a life that you choose and you do it because you love it.
“That is the truth. I do love it, and I also hate it, but when it’s really good there is nothing better.”
How are you, Joe? How has the whole social distancing thing been going for you during this pandemic as someone who works in the film industry?
“I am doing well, the movie is doing well, so I am very happy about that. Life is good. I wish this plague was over. Hopefully we are seeing the end of days of this whole thing, but no, I am good I can’t complain. We shot a film, Cop Shop, with Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo and it worked out really well. You know, it was a giant build and a big set, so we had to follow COVID-19 protocol. I will be honest with you, I had issues with the protocol, because it wasn’t film friendly. It was just this really hardcore authoritarian take on protocol, which I get, but you can’t treat adults like children for a length of time and think that behaviour is going to fly. I think that is what we kind of ran into. I wore a N95 mask, face shield and eyewear and it’s difficult to direct actors when you can’t be expressive. That was tough and it was a challenge. You really have to radically adjust the way that you work, but I understood the importance of following these guidelines otherwise we are all sitting at home jobless or sick.”
As the writer-director of Boss Level, could you tell me more about this amazing film?
“That was a script that was around for over a decade. I got it when I was with Ridley Scott and Tony Scott’s company. Tony, God rest his soul, had just done Déjà Vu which I thought was a pretty great take in a very brick and mortar way. I thought that how Tony handled time travel, or time displacement, in such a cool way and that it was very non-sci-fi, so I tried to kind of plug that same idea into Boss Level. I just rewrote it, because I am not a science fiction guy at all, but it is more ‘science fantasy’ like Star Wars, Blade Runner and those types of movies. I wrote it and I always wanted work on something with Frank Grillo. I thought he had all of the classic accoutrements of a movie – you know very good-looking, very good shape, very funny, very drole, dry and very smart, so we endeavoured to do that. It took us literally the better part of a decade to finally complete. There was a lot of financial chicanery on this movie and we had the schedule cut from 42 days to 27 days. We had to really be sharp and on point, but we made it. It was one of those situations where everything came out well in the end but it was one of those great struggles with roadblocks. You name it, we dealt with everything, so I guess in the end I am very, very pleased with the way it turned out.”
You said you are not really a science fiction kind of guy, so what kind of genre do you usually like gravitate towards? What is your favourite genre in general?
“Probably action movies as I am an action movie fan. I like that genre, because there is a lot you can do with it. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the movie for me that just changed my entire outlook and perception of what you could and couldn’t do. It changed the way I thought about everything. It was one of those movies like Die Hard. I have always gravitated towards those types of movies. You know, the other night I watched Sunset Boulevard, Bridge on the River Kwai and an Ingmar Bergman movie. I get this weird kind of kick out of watching old films. I love movies in general but I think action is probably the genre I would gravitate to the most. My wife said to me “I like your dramas a lot more” – she’s Scottish so she is very cut and dry with my work, but I like to laugh. I think of action more than any other genre.”
You are a really talented guy. You wrote, directed and produced Boss Level. What do you prefer? Writing, directing or producing?
“I think I still consider myself a writer first and foremost, because that is how I broke into the industry. I think the directorial thing came about, because I didn’t want to make a sacrifice. I remember when I wrote Narc, I got offered quite a bit of money and I didn’t want to step aside to let another director come in. The first film I had done was this tiny little movie that got into Sundance. Narc was a radical departure from that film, but yes I prefer writing. The producing part is exhausting. People ask “what does a producer do?” and I say “I do everything that you are not doing”. If you are doing hair and makeup, I do everything else – the endless barrage of calls like “we have no money”. The producer part, which I don’t mind, is just a different set of legs to stretch. I really love writing first and foremost.”
Me too – I do screenwriting myself and I am in love with being able to create a story and everything that is happening in a film…it is just magical to me.
“Yes, it is the best job in the world. I am not suited to doing anything else. God forbid we stop making movies. Yes, writing and watching movies is fantastic. You forget the joy of just sitting down, watching a film and experiencing it without the phone always readily available within a short distance. The ubiquity of phones and technology has cut us off from the experience – especially of going to the theatre. That wonderful communal experience and a great movie with a crowd, but again I am happy to watch movies all alone and experience them that way too – that and music. Without those things I wouldn’t know what to do, it wouldn’t be worth it at that point if I didn’t have movies and music. I would be like “I’m good, I have done my thing”.
What is your screenwriting process? Do you write on your own or as part of a team?
“I prefer writing my own stuff. I did Bad Boys for Life and that was a pre-existing thing. Then there was Death Wish, which bore very little resemblance to the script that I wrote. I have been asked “do you want to do a Marvel film or Star Wars film?”, but I am content to be on this side. I don’t want to risk screwing up my childhood. That stuff belongs to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I am a massive fan Kevin Feige. What those guys have done is as brilliant as a Pixar-like take on the mass market. I approach every script differently like the Bad Boys script. I will outline it, because I want to structure it and show this is what I am going to do – we have to please a lot of different people like Jerry Bruckheimer or Will Smith – and so for that I get pretty detailed. Other times I will write more free-form and wind up doing a lot of rewriting. There are different things that kind of unveil themselves through the process. I have been doing this for 30 plus years. At some point, you believe in the Gladwell 10000 hour rule. If you do it long enough, you master certain aspects of it. Not necessarily master it, but have an in-depth understanding of the craft. I hope that I have arrived at that place, but you learn every time you start at that place and I think that is exciting.”
So, are there other screenwriters in your family?
“My brother (Matthew Michael Carnahan) is a brilliant writer. He just made a film on Netflix called Mosul, which is a Western in Morocco and it is about the hunting of ISIS. It is all in Pan-Arabic and just one line in English. My brother doesn’t know a word of Pan-Arabic, but he is an exceptional short story writer. When I was writing Narc, he wrote a short story about the armies of Northern Virginia about the suburbanisation of these old battlefields and I thought it was excellent elevated writing after 911. He was doing a lot of public speaking, but he didn’t want to do that, and I said “give me six months and I will get you a job writing a screenplay”. He just exploded from there and he has become a very in-demand guy. He is the single best screenwriter I know.”
What inspired you to start your film company, WarParty Films, with Frank Grillo?
“I think I got tired of the idea of queueing up with the same five people to get your movie made – Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, etc. – and that process is tedium defined. If you want to get stuff done, you have to develop a more efficient way of working. Our sensibilities are almost identical. We have been friends for 20 years. It was the shortest distance between two points to make movies on our own, so that is where it sparked. I am proud of what we have put out thus far and proud of what we are going to do. It’s like working with your brother, your best friend, it is a seamless understanding and I am very lucky to have him.”
In Boss Level, there is a quantum device capable of rewriting history. If there was anything you could rewrite in history, what would it be?
“I would eliminate Adolf Hitler and Fascism. I would stop that one right there. When you see human suffering, that is the first place to go. These things that befall us, these horrible tragedies, they shape us. In Boss Level, the past is designed to be left behind. We live it, we learn from it and that’s all we can do, but that would be one I would go back to and rewrite right away. Do away with that unbelievable tragedy, loss of human life, senselessness bigotry and hatred and get rid of that once and for and all.”
What would you want your fans to know about Boss Level do you have a specific message
“I think you are going to be surprised. I think it is the best action comedy in the last 10 years. Frank is not run-of-the-mill.. You have seen this guy in many other movies like this, but I think it is fresh and it does things within the genre and also within the genre of time travel/time loop. That is interesting and cool and I think it is funny as hell.”
BOSS LEVEL is currently streaming on Hulu and will be released worldwide on various dates this year.