LONGTIME character actor Frank Grillo has his first starring role in "The Purge: Anarchy," sequel to the 2013 sleeper hit about a heavily controlled society that permits one cathartic night of lawlessness.

For Grillo, the rise to stardom has been fitful - "I sometimes say that I've been in the business for 20 years, but I've only been acting for six" - and he credits director and Penn grad Gavin O'Connor (the two made "Pride and Glory" and "Warrior" together) for giving him the right pep talk when he needed it.

"I've done everything from soap operas to sitcoms, and I was this certain kind of actor. I don't want to say lazy, but I was getting by on physical attributes or whatever. I thought, this is what acting is, this is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life, and I was making a great living, I really was," said Grillo, who stopped by Philadelphia recently as part of Wizard World.

His attitude changed while working for O'Connor on the set of "Pride and Glory."

"I worked with Edward Norton and Jon Voight and Shea Whigham and I just discovered a different kind of actor. Guys that came with a bible of information on their characters. Guys who had studied Stanislavski and the way to approach a character, and I said, 'You know what, it's time to either go deep or go home,' " said Grillo.

He did and was able to hold his own against some of the movie's big-name stars.

"It was a small character, but there were one or two scenes where I really stood out, even among some of the great actors around me. And I remember Gavin said, 'Dude, you gotta do this all the time.' "

O'Connor gave him a chance on "Warrior," O'Connor's movie about a Philadelphia teacher (Joel Edgerton) who fights his war vet brother (Tom Hardy) in a winner-take-all MMA match in Atlantic City.

"I was doing 'Prison Break,' or one of those shows, and Gavin sends me this script and says, 'There's no third act, but there's a role for a coach here, and I know you can do something with it,' " Grillo said. "He had me live for three months with MMA guys, and basically let me create a character."

The movie was widely admired in Hollywood, and raised the profile of both Grillo and O'Connor, who at the time, Grillo said, was being considered by Robert De Niro to direct a proposed biopic about Vince Lombardi, since shelved.

"When I screened the movie, De Niro was in the room. And I know he liked it, because when we get near the ending I could hear him behind me, crying."

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