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There’s a 50-year-old man sitting across from me who looks like he could take my head off with one clean shot. Frank Grillo, who plays the supervillain Crossbones in this summer’s Captain America: Civil War, compared with the veins on the right side of his neck: They look like the hydraulic cylinders that help the Terminator turn his head.

SEE ALSO: Frank Grillo’s Boxing Workout

To compare Grillo to a machine, particularly a killing machine, is neither a swipe at the guy nor an embellishment. Consider that he gets up at 6 a.m. daily to travel to one of L.A.’s premier boxing gyms, where he’ll put in two hours of training, including sparring sessions with professional fighters. Then he’ll go film either his MMA-themed TV show, Kingdom, or the next installment of one of his huge movie franchises—The Purge series or Captain America—and then he’s back home at night to be a husband and dad to three kids. “My wife used to ask me, ‘Why are you always fighting?’ ” says Grillo with a smile. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but there’s a reason.’ ”

UP-AND-COMER

There are several reasons, in fact, and they started for Grillo in the second grade. “I’ll tell you what did it,” he says to me, pushing himself back a bit from the table as if bracing for impact after I ask him what got him interested in combat sports in the first place. “I had a fight with a kid named J.J. Morales. He beat me up. Then he beat me up again. So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to learn how to fight, and I’m going to beat up J.J. Morales.’ And I did.”

SEE ALSO: Train to Be in Fighting Shape

Grillo’s dad taught him to throw a single punch, and Grillo landed it on the bully’s face, ending his torment and beginning a lifelong love affair with all things martial. He wrestled in high school and began boxing in his mid-20s. In 1991, he discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu—two years before the rest of the world did when Royce Gracie effortlessly dominated the first UFC event. He trained under Rickson Gracie (widely regarded as the best jiu-jitsu fighter ever), ultimately ascending to the rank of brown belt.

Grillo was born in the Bronx (that much is evident as soon as you hear him speak) and raised an hour north in Rockland County. Apart from his blue-collar Italian roots and schoolyard fisticuffs, he says he doesn’t really know where he got the drive to push his body or his limits and that the last thing anyone expected was for him to become a movie actor.

Grillo went to New York University and landed a job on Wall Street. “I did it for about a year, but it wasn’t for me,” he says. “Wearing the suit? No.” He had dabbled in theater, performing in school and regional plays, and decided to move to L.A. to make a run at acting.

“Nobody in my family ever acted or was in the arts. It was like my dirty secret. Who would take me seriously as an actor?”

Casting agents did. They responded to his dark good looks and natural charisma, and he got cast on the long-running CBS soap opera Guiding Light. “And that’s when I didn’t have to work odd jobs any more,” he says. “They paid me $2,500 a day and guaranteed me three days a week. I figured I was rich.” The job had other perks, too: Grillo met castmate Wendy Moniz, and the two married in 2000.

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IN THIS CORNER

Grillo turns 51 this month, but his body could easily pass for 30. He carries just 5% body fat. When I remind him that imdb.com has him turning 53, he snaps, “I know! And you know they won’t change it? I have to go to them with my passport, not my license, to get them to change it. I have no idea why.” He reaches into his back pocket and produces his California driver’s license. It confirms his age will be 51 on June 8, his height is 5’10”, his weight 170, and (in case you’re wondering) he is, in fact, an organ donor.

Like his body, Grillo’s face, too, is surprisingly youthful, which he partially credits to switching his martial arts mainstay from jiu-jitsu to boxing since he became serious about acting. How exactly can getting punched in the kisser be better for your looks?

“When you get punched, you get a lump,” Grillo explains to me, mushing his cheek with his own right cross to demonstrate. “You put some ice on it, and it goes away in a couple of days. But with jiu-jitsu, they’re abrasions.” Repeated headlocks and rubbing of one’s face into an opponent’s gi, or the mat scrapes and scratches the face, he says. “Being an actor, you have to be careful with that.” I laugh, pointing out to Grillo that his job is forcing him to care about his looks far more than he ever would on his own. It’s made him a “pretty boy,” right? He replies that, most of the time, he doesn’t even wear makeup in his movies.

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Grillo’s preserved condition surely also owes something to his immaculate diet. He eats no grains,no dairy—“nothing that is post-agricultural revolution,” he says. “All of my meats are grass-fed or wild caught, and they can’t eat grains either.” It might seem limiting, but Grillo says he eats a lot, including lots of fat from nuts, seeds, and avocados. He’s nearly done with his order of salmon and kale at Cheebo, a low-profile organic eatery on Sunset Boulevard, and he says he’ll eat again when he’s hungry. Grillo doesn’t count calories, track his macros, or even weigh himself, and he doesn’t take supplements. “I’ve never done fucking steroids.”

As for his organic, Paleo-esque diet, Grillo says, “I’m the first one to say, ‘That’s a fad,’ but it works. For years I avoided fat, but I was fucking myself up. They tricked us into believing if you ate fat you’d get fat, and it’s the opposite. My cholesterol and blood pressure, all my vitals, have never been better.”

Grillo mentions that his brother is a vegan, and he shakes his head and furrows his brow. “I watch the Discovery Channel with my son,” he says, “and you look at these cats who eat nothing but meat—the predators. They’re all fuckin’ ripped!”

Shockingly, Grillo is having a beer with lunch, but that’s a rarity. He’s not above going out with friends and having a few drinks, as he says he did a bit excessively at an L.A. Kings game the night before our meeting, but he almost never eats crap food. Red wine, however, is a regular indulgence. “I’ll have a glass or two a night,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll do a bottle. I’m convinced they’re making bottles smaller these days,” he says with a smile.

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KING OF THE RING

Seven days a week, Grillo trains at Box ’N Burn Academy in Santa Monica or at Fortune Gym in Hollywood. He’s studied the sweet science with Justin Fortune—who handled conditioning for Manny Pacquiao—for more than 10 years and has become fast friends with many pro fighters. Grillo was recently in Las Vegas working Chris “the Heat” van Heerden’s corner, as the South African welterweight mounts a comeback. (Spoiler alert: Van Heerden won.) The two often train together, which includes sparring.

SEE ALSO: Fight Week Conditioning with Manny Pacquiao

“For his age, he can take a punch,” says van Heerden, who’s 28 with a 24–2–1 record. I watched the two of them go at it for our photo shoot at Box ’N Burn. Grillo didn’t look out of place, and van Heerden didn’t seem merciful.

“He’s got great footwork,” he says of Grillo, “and a little overhand right he loves throwing. I think he could have made it as a boxer. There are
a lot of young boys he would make pay.” I’m wondering if Grillo ever rang van Heerden’s bell, so I ask. “No comment,” he says, smiling.

“I love training more than acting,” says Grillo. “But there’s not a career there for me.” But if he were 20 years old again? “Yeah,” he says, he probably would have tried to pursue boxing. “But then I would have fucked up my life,” he says, laughing.

Outside the ring, Grillo doesn’t go looking for fights, but he’s not above using violence to settle disputes if the other side is willing. He admitted to punching out a loudmouth on the street in an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and he says there have been times when crew members on his sets were acting disrespectfully and tensions almost came to blows.

“I’m the first one to say, ‘Let’s just go outside,’ ” says Grillo. But he knows the consequences. “I could lose everything. Not that I have that much, but I could lose it. I get those speeches from my agent a lot.”

Grillo admits he doesn’t go out as often as he used to, since roles in DirecTV’s MMA drama Kingdom and the movie Warrior, in which he played another MMA trainer, have made him a target for wannabe tough guys in the same way Rocky did for Stallone and The Fast and the Furious has for Vin Diesel.

“People like to challenge you. They read stuff like this [he points to the notes I’ve taken], and they want
to see if you’re really a tough guy. Guys need to make themselves look harder than they are. But if you’ve had any kind of training, you can immediately tell if a guy’s ever had an altercation.”

Grillo’s authenticity as a badass has made him an obvious choice for violent and heroic characters, which he enjoys playing but sees as a double-edged sword. He looks for roles that let him draw on his blue-collar roots and athleticism but is wary of being typecast as a thug or bruiser. He’s particularly proud of his work in 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, wherein he played a cop who, while out to avenge his son, shifts focus to protecting innocents.

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“You saw the vulnerability and pain the character was in. If I’m doing a movie where there’s an emotional payoff at the end of the journey, then cool,” he says. “If it’s just a rote, paint-by-numbers tough guy, then I’m not interested.” Grillo acknowledges that his look, and, yes, his muscles, can be limiting in the eyes of movie directors, but he sees great potential in his niche.

“I’m certainly not going to be in The Danish Girl,” he says, “but I don’t mind that. I had this discussion with CAA [Creative Artists Agency] recently. I have a certain look, and we don’t need to be afraid of it. We need to lean into it. Let’s find great scripts, work with great people, and elevate the genre.”

What Grillo aspires to do is fill the void left behind by his heroes: 1970s action stars like Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson—men who were physical and undeniably tough but not larger than life. Not comical. “Those movies were about real people, no gimmicks. Look at The French Connection, Death Wish, and Escape from New York. They were unapologetically unsentimental. I think The Purge: Anarchy showed Hollywood that people still like movies like that, and I’m in a small pool of guys who can sell that. A lot of times movies get made, and I don’t really believe that the guy who’s doing the action is really ‘the guy.’ I think that maybe all the stuff that I do makes me the guy.”

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THE LAST ROUND

While Grillo is still leading on the scorecards in his bout with Father Time, age is a factor for everyone who makes his living with his body. And Grillo’s love of a good fight may be accelerating it in some respects.

“I took a shot a couple of days ago,” he says, pointing to his forehead. “My eyes crossed. And one thing you don’t ever do when you’re fighting is stop. You just don’t quit. So I’m trying to get my head straight, and my eyes suddenly popped back into place and I was OK. Then I took another three rounds of punishment.”

However, Grillo still sees spots in his peripheral vision. He saw an eye doctor, who told him some of the gel around his retinas had detached. “So now I have to be careful. Some of it looks like little hairs. There are little dots. One looks like a seahorse that’s right here,” he says, pointing to the upper righthand corner of his field of vision. As a result, Grillo plans to reduce his sparring going forward and spend more time lifting weights.

SEE ALSO: Fighting Fit Workout

But as long as the flesh is strong enough, Grillo’s spirit will be willing. He recently had a conversation with fellow pugilist-turned-performer Liam Neeson, his co-star in 2011’s The Grey. Neeson, of course, has had his own challenges playing heroes of substance and avoiding repetition of the I-will-find-you-and-I-will-kill-you variety.

“I called him up and said, ‘I’m getting offered all these action movies. What do I do?’ He said, ‘Frankie, how’s the money?’ I said, ‘The money’s good.’ He said, ‘How are the roles?’ I said, ‘Some of them are good.’ He said, ‘I have one piece of advice for you: Keep your knees healthy. That’s all you need to know.’ ”

Grillo also needs to think about longevity for the sake of his wife and three sons. I ask him if he has any advice for his kids, or anyone, on building the kind of toughness that makes for success. “ Grit…is a word that I love.” He describes how his sons come with him to the boxing gym, and he recently enrolled his youngest son in a kids’ boxing class.

“About halfway through, he was being a pain in the ass. So I pulled him aside and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t care if you don’t like doing this. You don’t have to. But it’s an hour once a week. You can make this fun, or you can sit over there and watch the other kids, but you are never going to quit.’ He went back in reinvigorated. Does he love it? No. But did he understand what I was saying? Yes. And that’s the important thing. Whether you’re in the ring or you’re auditioning over and over again, don’t fucking quit. I know that sounds clichéd, but when you think about it, only good things can happen.”

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FRANK GRILLO’S BOXING WORKOUT

JUMP ROPE: 6-10 minutes; Grillo varies his speed and steps

SHADOW BOXING: rounds: 3; holding 3-pound weights

SPARRING: rounds: 5; wearing 16 oz gloves

MITT WORK: rounds: 5; wearing 10 oz gloves

HEAVY BAG: rounds: 5; 3 minutes each*

SWISS BALL BENCH PRESS: sets: 3; reps: 10

SWISS BALL FLYE: sets: 3; reps: 10

GOBLET SQUAT: sets: 3; reps: 10

PULLUP: sets: 3; reps: 10

SWISS BALL PLANK: sets: 1; reps: hold for time

CRUNCH: sets: 1; reps: 100

*Rounds last three minutes, and Grillo rests only 30 seconds between them. After hitting the heavy bag, Grillo rests five minutes before strength training. Sometimes he’ll perform a set of battling ropes between sets of strength exercises for a more active recovery. Grillo changes his workouts constantly, opting for whatever exercises he feels up to on a given day. He performs weight-training exercises for the entire body over the course of a week. Despite having impressive arms, Grillo does no direct arm training and credits his development to boxing.