Things you should know about Dolph Lundgren. He's tall. He turned down the lead role in Gladiator. He does the best Sylvester Stallone impression you've ever heard. And he's probably a genius.
The son of Karl, a Swedish economist and engineer, and Sigrid, a language teacher, Hans Lundgren (as it says on his birth certificate) had already won various US-based academic scholarships (including a placement at Washington State University) before graduating from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm with a degree in chemical engineering with distinction. He had earned a Masters in the same discipline from the University of Sydney, when he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. That's when Grace Jones spotted him across a nightclub. It was Jones who suggested he try out for a part as a henchman on the James Bond film A View to a Kill. MIT would have to wait.
“My father called it a disastrous decision,” recalls the 61-year-old. “I mean, to give up that scholarship and become a starving actor? It was insane when I think back. But I had this feeling that I didn’t want to be a chemical engineer. That it wasn’t going to be enough for me. That I would be bored. And then, within a month, I was in the Rocky picture.”
He pauses. “I still think about it sometimes. I’ll run into some of my old friends or I’ll visit my old school and talk to the students. I’ll wonder what my life would have been like. I would have had less physical injuries, for sure.”
Grace was a big gay icon, so we went to a lot of the clubs. We knew Andy and all the designers, and Michael Jackson and David Bowie
Instead, Lundgren found himself at the centre of one of New York’s most romanticised periods. He dabbled in modelling but was too tall and big for most gigs. He earned a basic wage alongside Chazz Palminteri as a bouncer on the door of Manhattan’s Limelight Club. By night, he hung out with Keith Haring, Iman and Steve Rubell. By morning, Jones would bring back as many as five girls for group sex, an activity he describes as “exhausting”. He was a regular at both Studio 54 and the Factory, and Andy Warhol would invite him to do a photoshoot with Jones. But not before Warhol asked him: ‘What are you famous for?’
“It was certainly a shock for this young engineering student,” he says. “I’m pleased to have been part of that scene. It was right before Aids, and the club scene was hardcore. And my girlfriend, Grace, was a big gay icon, so we went to a lot of the clubs. We knew Andy and all the designers, and Michael Jackson and David Bowie. It was simpler in those days somehow. And fun. Entertainment wasn’t corporate in the way entertainment is now. A lot of the people I met back then are not alive anymore. You know, Aids or drugs or a combination of the two. Its bittersweet looking back. Even with Andy. I thought he was an old man at the time but he died in his 50s.”
Lundgren was still very much a scenester when, by chance, he saw a notice for Rocky IV at a casting director's office. A franchise fan, he was determined to land the role, even when Sylvester Stallone deemed the six-foot, five-inch Lundgren too tall for the role as Soviet-era fighting machine Ivan Drago. Stallone finally relented and hired the Swede as Rocky's most notorious opponent.
“I took some pictures with myself in boxing gear and then I sent them off to my acting coach, who was a good friend of Burt Young who plays Paulie, Rocky’s brother-in-law. He gave it to John Herzfeld, who is one of Sly’s oldest friends. And then they flew me in to audition. I got lucky. I guess it was meant to be.”
More than 40 screen credits later, Lundgren touches on the late William Goldman's axiom that in movies, nobody knows anything. He has no explanation as to why Rocky IV has endured over and above other instalments in the franchise.
“I didn't even realise what it was going to do in the short term back then,” he recalls. “It changed my life. I was in the Bond movie for about two seconds and I remember flying out to the to the premiere of the Bond film when we were about to start shooting. And Stallone says,” (adopts drawl) “‘Forget about the Bond movie; wait until this thing opens.’ And he was right. It was a huge change for me, of course. And for some reason the movie had legs and became iconic, like some films do. It’s interesting. Some really great films come and go and don’t become part of pop culture. But that one did.”
Post-Rocky, Lundgren landed roles as He-Man in Masters of the Universe and Frank Castle in The Punisher. Dozens of cheap and cheerful actioners (Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, anyone?) followed. He has retained a working relationship with Stallone: Expendables 4 lands in 2020 and will mark their sixth film together. On balance, it's just as well he didn't kill him, laughs Lundgren. During the 1985 rehearsals for Rocky IV's final fight scene, Stallone kept goading Lundgren to hit him harder. Lundgren – a third dan black belt in Kyokushin karate and former European champion in 1980-81 – did as he was asked and hit his co-star so hard in the chest that Stallone's heart began to swell. He was flown back to America for a week in intensive care.
“If I had hit him another couple of times . . .” laughs Lundgren. “He likes to tell that story because it’s a good story, and it’s partially true, I guess. He did get hurt. Between us, I guess the studio had to collect some insurance money. And some of those punches looked pretty good on screen, so they paid up.”
When Ryan Coogler's 2015 reboot Creed revitalised the Rocky franchise and secured an Academy Award nomination for Stallone (his first Oscar nod since his two 1977 nominations for Rocky: Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor), Lundgren, like many viewers, suspected it was a one-time thing.
Rocky sent me on a path for better or worse. It was limiting and frustrating in some ways
“The Rocky films really didn’t get any better after the one I was in,” says the actor. “So I was surprised that these new writers and directors could give it legs. And I was surprised by Stallone’s performance.”
He was reluctant to get back in the ring, nonetheless. Reading over three decades of credits – Lt Rachenko in Red Scorpion, an East German Olympian in Pentathlon, Nikolai Cherenko in The Mechanik, a Soviet submarine commander in Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar! – the Soviet bloc continues to cast a shadow.
"Rocky sent me on a path for better or worse," he says. "It was limiting and frustrating in some ways. It's okay. I'm glad I've made all these films. And we're all limited in what we can do on screen. I was never going to be a Texan cowboy. It's strange that I had to revisit this guy again – Ivan Drago, the original culprit – to break out of that. This time it's a character study. I didn't want to do the Drago thing again. I didn't want to play another one-dimensional Russian villain. There were a number of different scripts but it wasn't until I read the final version and the director Steven Caple Jr came onboard that I said yes."
The unexpectedly wonderful Creed II flips Coogler's creation to imagine a life of Ukranian exile and drudgery for Drago and his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). The film establishes a gruff paternal bond between the two while they prepare furiously top get a shot at Rocky's protege, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan). The two actors spent time together at the gym and with their Russian dialect coach. (This is another new and welcome development: I've been told by more than one Russian speaker that they had to replay Drago's line "He's like a piece of iron" many times before they could decipher what the hell he was saying.)
Lundgren seems genuinely touched that he has finally been given an opportunity to act. And alongside Stallone, to boot.
"I guess it's pretty unusual to make five or six movies with someone over a 30-year period," he says. "I don't think he has worked with anybody else that many times. At the beginning, I hadn't seen a movie camera before and he was a big movie star. Now, I've made a lot of films and he's made a lot more films. I wouldn't say we're equals, but we're a little more equal. But it took until now to do dramatic scenes together. Because in The Expendables, it's more" (doing Sly again) "'Shoot that guy! Blow that guy up!' It can be fun but it's not too sophisticated."
So, more than three decades after Rocky IV gave him a total of nine lines of dialogue, Dolph Lundgren is having a moment. Weeks after Creed II hits, he'll appear in Aquaman as Nereus, king of the Atlantean tribe of Xebel.
“I know he’s not Russian,” laughs Lundgren. “I’m not sure what side of the Warsaw Pact Atlantis falls under.”
Creed II opens on November 30th