King Shark Sylvester Stallone: ‘I’m looking for love. It’s the loneliest apex predator’

Sylvester Stallone photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg/New York Times
Five decades as a movie star have not dimmed Sylvester Stallone’s appetite for going to work in the morning, even when he’s playing a CGI fish with a people-eating problem

Sylvester Stallone is pondering his existence as a shark: “You kind of try to attack the scene,” says the creator of Rocky and Rambo. “But if you’re playing a shark, you don’t want to act like a shark. You try to act like a big baby or a guy who feels remorse. In other words, try to add another dimension. You gotta add different spices to the sauce.” We’ll circle back to the shark and the sauce presently.

Scandalously, the major movie awards ceremonies honour neither stunt people nor casting directors, an omission that means that the casting department of The Suicide Squad – Daryl Baboulis-Gyscek, Terri Douglas, Tammy L Smith – are unlikely to receive any major gongs during Oscar season.

You start to panic when a job is coming to an end. It’s not always fun being an actor

That hardly seems fair given the wild bunch they’ve assembled. Two-time Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie will be joined by Academy Award winner Viola Davis; Idris Elba; John Cena; Jai Courtney; Firefly and Castle cult hero Nathan Fillion; Michael Rooker; Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman; Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davison; The Flash’s David Dastmalchian, and, well, it may be easier to list who isn’t in the film.

Last November, just when DC Extended Universe fans thought that the Squad’s population couldn’t get any denser, Sylvester Stallone made an announcement on social media. “I think it’s going to be a spectacular effort,” Stallone promised in an Instagram video. “I saw it and it’s unbelievable, so I’m very proud to be included and I can’t tell you anything more about it because you’re going to have to wait and see that but it’s going to be well worth the wait.”

At 75, the iconic actor, film-maker, writer and producer has improbably played football alongside Pelé, Osvaldo Ardiles and Bobby Moore (Escape to Victory), channelled Harold Lloyd (Oscar) and voiced a law-enforcing insect (Antz). He’s done action, comedy, drama, and, well, as a struggling young actor who was sleeping in a bus shelter in 1970, he once took a role in The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, a softcore adult film.

The Suicide Squad marks a new chapter in his career: Stallone is playing a CGI shark: King Shark, the people-eating, part-humanoid, occasional Aquaman nemesis created by DC Comics writer Karl Kesel in 1994.

“I’m definitely looking for love,” says Stallone of his character. “I’m looking for my special female shark. I just want to get along. I want to be part of a group because you know, a shark is the loneliest apex predator. It’s great to find a group of outsiders who want to hang out with a 9,000lb shark. I can think of other things that would be better to hang out with. Like a Labrador maybe. He’s always pursuing company. But his table manners are really bad. His timing is really bad because he keeps eating people at the wrong times. So he’s got four or five really nasty personality traits but he really has a couple of great ones.”

King Shark in The Suicide Squad, voiced by Sylvester Stallone
King Shark in The Suicide Squad, voiced by Sylvester Stallone

Stallone has done voice work before: he played Joe the Lion in the Kevin James comedy Zookeeper and has popped up as Rambo in the video game Mortal Kombat II. Suicide Squad producer Peter Safran says the entire production team was impressed by the actor’s enthusiasm for the project.

“He’ll be too modest but he went to record the session. And [director] James Gunn and I were so blown away by his energy. You know, he’s Sylvester Stallone for God’s sake. But he was in there running in places to get the King Shark voice right. It was full-on energetic. It wasn’t like working with an Oscar winner who has done all the things he has done. It was like: I’m a guy trying to break into the business and I’m going to impress these guys so they’ll give me work as an extra in their next movie.”

Stallone chuckles when he hears about that appraisal: “That’s an actor for you. We’re insecure ... Where’s my next job gonna come from? Yeah, I guess I should get over that. But I probably won’t. You start to panic when a job is coming to an end. It’s not always fun being an actor.”

The Suicide Squad is an unlikely sequel in many respects. The film sees various supervillains – Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Captain Boomerang, Ratcatcher 2, Savant, King Shark, Blackguard, Javelin and Harley Quinn – busted out of Super Prison so that shadowy government operative Amanda Waller (Davis) can send them to destroy a Nazi-era laboratory and a giant alien named Starro.

I tend to like to push myself a little too much. So playing a shark was sort of like a paid vacation. It was such a pleasure

“Now you’re gonna see some really top-notch acting,” promises Stallone. “I mean, there are moments in there where, I mean, you actually see the characters welling up. It’s not just flippant, I’m serious. Every one of these people could hold the film on their own. Every one of them gives an outstanding performance. So imagine them together.

“Believe me, I know what it’s like to work with ‘not outstanding’. You lower your expectations. You know you are going to give an actor something and it’s not coming back the same way, though. Jesus, you know, you have to lower your expectations. It’s not often you get great acting in a movie. So this is unusual.”

The Suicide Squad is not a sequel to the underperforming 2016 movie, nor does it feature the earlier instalment’s stars, Will Smith and Jared Leto. In the ensuing five years, director David Ayer departed the sequence to develop Gotham City Sirens. His replacement, Gavin O’Connor, briefly took the reins before the job fell to James Gunn, writer and director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, just after his much-publicised sacking by Disney.

Stallone and Gunn had already worked together on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, and the Rocky creator is full of praise for the younger director. Gunn remained persona non grata in certain quarters at the moment when he called in Sly. The latter didn’t care. “I knew they were doing the film and then I got the call from James. Will I be interested in it? I don’t even hesitate? Of course I would. Whatever you need, I’ll put on my shark attitude. Here we go. And it just happened. As usual, because the studio and the organisation are so well oiled, we went right through it.”

He laughs: “In the old days, you’d have like a month of rehearsals, and you can imagine, by the time you got there, you had all these different layers that no one understands. But you, as an actor, understood them. You got into it. That’s what kind of makes the job interesting, rather than just showing up. Usually, we don’t have that time any more. It’s very difficult to do that. But here, it was all laid on for me like a buffet. So credit to everyone.”

Sylvester Stallone: ‘I’m trying to learn how to master the art of leisure time. It’s not easy’

I wonder if “laid on like a buffet” doesn’t make Stallone yearn for the brute force of an action hero. He continues to power through that genre with the best of them. The Suicide Squad falls between roles in Rambo: Last Blood and Samaritan, a superhero movie scheduled for release new year.

“It’s good news and bad news,” he says. “It’s nice not hurting for a while, but I know what you mean. You miss the physical. I tend to like to push myself a little too much. So playing a shark was sort of like a paid vacation. It was such a pleasure. But if I had to do it over again, I would have used a stunt double.”

It’s fitting that Stallone finds himself in the DC Extended Universe and the Escape Plan films. No other writer-director has done more to codify our modern notion of a franchise. He continues to shape the medium.

“I’m working on a couple of prequels. Then I have an original film. I’m always looking for another franchise. I’m always looking for a story that could continue. I like to find those rather than just a one-off film. To me, the challenge is finding something that you can work with and think: I want to do another three of these films.

Quite often, you’ll find that most actors won’t hang out with each other. They’re tight during the film, but they go their separate ways

“I always try to say: is this character worthy of a trilogy? To go on beyond one movie? That’s what I strive for. So I’m working on a few of those projects right now with MGM/Amazon. I’m staying very busy. I wish I wasn’t. I’m trying to learn how to master the art of leisure time. It’s not easy.”

Stallone is a famously affable guy. (Many years ago, this writer watched him painstakingly copy out her children’s names so none of them would feel left out of his autograph.) His some-time professional rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger has long mellowed into joshing around about the time Arnie pretended to be interested in Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! in order to trick Sly into pursuing it. (The film earned poor reviews and $70.6 million at the box office in 1992.)

There was something of a bust-up with Richard Gere while filming 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush. Gere complained that Stallone was too physical during rehearsals before getting mustard on Stallone during a lunch break. Gere was subsequently replaced by Perry King.

Friendship between actors is a tricky prospect, says Stallone. “It’s hard for artists, writers, actors, directors, whatever, to develop a broad variety of friends, because they’re so consumed with their art and, quite often, with themselves. And because what they’re doing for a living is putting their flesh, their words, their reputations on the line, it isn’t as though they are selling a product.

“The product is you. So when I read about an actor or writer or I hear: they’re crazy? Yeah, they’re crazy. They’re crazy in a good way. They live in a different world. They don’t live in a world of mathematics and pragmatism. They live in an abstract world.

“So quite often, you’ll find that most actors won’t hang out with each other. They’re tight during the film, but they go their separate ways ... Because they live in a different sort of environment. They’ll have a couple of buddies maybe from high school or a long time back. It takes a long time to build relationships. Not everyone’s going to be a friend. And actors and performers are also suspicious. They know that some people are just there because they’re celebrities.

“That’s why it takes a long time to build a relationship. That’s why performers have unique friends that are very, very important.”

The Suicide Squad opens July 31st