A Breakout Film Star, Still Living the Life of His Character

James “Primo” Grant, left, in the film Five Star
James “Primo” Grant, left, is a star of the film Five Star. Five Star

When I ask James "Primo" Grant when he left the Bloods street gang, a defiant smile creeps across his mouth, toward the fulsome beard that covers his chin.

"I'm still active 100 percent," he says. "I will never denounce who I am."

We are sitting in a conference room in the offices of a publicity firm in midtown Manhattan, about eight miles and seven universes from the Brooklyn streets where Primo once roamed and raised hell. Behind Primo are two posters for Five Star, the movie that, without him, could have become just another indie effort destined for Netflix anonymity (our review of Five Star). Next to Primo is the film's director, Keith Miller. Miller, who is diminutive and white and bearded, breaks in to explain that Primo no longer does the illegal things Five Star depicts him as doing: namely, dealing drugs and meting out violence.

But this conversation, like Five Star itself, belongs to Primo, who joined the Bloods when he was 12, which was 17 years ago. And so he continues: "I am not color beefing. I am not wearing beads, I am not wearing rags. I don't need to. I know who I am.... I am comfy with who I am, the level of respect, the level of power that I have." That a man can use the word "comfy" to describe his status in the Bloods is just one of many striking things about Primo.

We are in the midst of the Tribeca Film Festival, which daily features actors, directors and producers talking about artistic choices and personal sacrifices, creativity and inspiration—all that jazz. But the orgy of publicity that is, essentially, the TFF can't quite compete with what Primo has: his own story.

"If I have to get physical, I will," he says as Miller squirms beside him.

Five Star, which is Miller's second film, has Primo playing a paternal role toward a Brooklyn teenager who isn't sure if the drug game is for him. The film is a pleasant surprise, a graceful mansion on a derelict block. That's largely due to Primo, who has said elsewhere that "every scene in the film I have actually lived."

This is not the first collaboration between Miller and Primo. He appears in a 2011 two-minute video called "Gang Banging 101," in which he boasts, "I'm like f***kin' Donald Trump." Miller says that he did not intend Five Star to be a gang movie, but once Primo was on board, his own story simply eclipsed the original script.

The Primo I meet is somewhat less ebullient about his gang past, or maybe he is just ground down by a long day. He now lives in New Jersey with his family and works in what he describes as sales. At night, he doubles as a security guard.

"I came home," he says of joining the Bloods as a middle-schooler. Primo grew up in a slice of Brooklyn jammed between Crown Heights and Brownsville, a part of the borough so far removed from the "Is this turkey free range?" concerns of Park Slope, it might as well be in a different state. His father was from Costa Rica, and strict. His mother, a teacher. Though it's hard to believe that someone of Primo's immense size could ever be picked on, he says that was the case, in part because of uneven pigmentation in his skin.

His neighborhood was Crips territory, and so Primo promptly joined the Bloods. "I always liked a challenge." (That smile again.) "I didn't care. I didn't give a s**t." He says that his parents didn't know that he was in a gang until he was 17, even though there were plenty of fights in the interim ("I am good with my fists.").

Though Primo talks about gang affiliation as something like a corporate boardship—"five star" refers to his own high ranking within the Bloods organization—that's a somewhat sanitized version of history. He has been behind bars twice in the past decade, both times involving assault and either robbery or breaking and entering.

Everything apparently changed after his release in the spring of 2008, as he says at the opening of Five Star, with the camera focused on his oval, hirsute face, which seems flecked with just the last traces of boyish mischief. He had missed his son's birth; free again, he held him and wept "like a baby." He recalls, "I swore to my son, and I swore to my daughter, 'I'll never leave you again.'"

And yet he remains a contradiction, which makes Primo immensely intriguing as both an actor and human being. While admitting freely to having been a "monster," he also says, "I've always been a stand-up dude." He says his children, of whom there are four, will not know what he does until they are older, and yet he has not renounced his Bloods affiliation.

He wears a Durer print baseball shirt (didn't know that was a thing; apparently, it is), which seems fitting for a man so intimately familiar with both violence and penance. He says his cinematic role models are Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, those masters of treading the line between good and evil. His favorite film is Dog Day Afternoon, in which Pacino plays a Brooklyn bank robber of surprisingly tender heart.

When he asks about my favorite scene in Five Star, I answer honestly: a long domestic take that shows Primo at home with his real-life kids and fiancée. This is yet another contradiction, the drug dealer as dutiful dad, but it is supremely superior to most depictions of black men on film.

He asks if I am a father; as his publicist comes it to wrap up the interview, she finds us sharing iPhone pictures of our children. Primo has gone a little further than I, though, tattooing the four names of his kids on his left forearm. Above that is another tattoo. It says, "No More Pain."