I met Dolph Lundgren on the roof of Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, which features a swimming pool, bar, and bevy of women wearing bikinis and heels. Lundgren was undistracted and quite honestly just wonderful to talk to, warm, humble, funny, and utterly candid about his life both on and off screen, as both a father and a son. Fully cognizant of his peculiar career as star and occasional director of countless low-budget actioners, he’s good humoured yet remains genuinely ambitious. He has plans to make a period drama in his native Sweden, and hopes that his memorable role in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables will help him re-enter the mainstream.
One thing that became clear in our conversation was the depth of Lundgren’s affection for Stallone, an expression of long-term friendship that much more endearing when you consider that Lundgren put Stallone in intensive care for several days during the making of Rocky IV. This was back in the mid-1980s, when the multilingual black belt had abandoned a life in sciences—he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to get his PhD in chemical engineering at MIT—to get into the movies. He was dating Grace Jones and debuted alongside her in A View to a Kill before landing the part of Rocky’s Russian nemesis Ivan Drago. But thanks to the ballooning video market a niche was opening up, one tailor-made for the likes of he and Jean Claude Van Damme, with whom he co-starred in Universal Soldier. Lundgren has never been out of work since, but he hasn’t had a theatrical release in 15 years. Until now.
JB: You have an enigmatic role in The Expendables, playing this guy who’s drowning in drugs and sadism and turning on his friends. Gunner seems like a villain but proves to be something more complicated.
Dolph Lundgren: One reason I wanted to do the film—other than Stallone asking me, which is something you don’t think about twice—was the fact that Gunner is such an interesting guy. I was surprised he was so complex. In fact in the original script there was more drugs and Gunner was totally nuts. I’ve done bad guys before, but someone like Gunner is appealing because, being a kind of bridge between the bad guys and good guys, he offers something very specific to play, instead of coming on set and just trying to look tough.
JB: You’ve occupied the director’s chair several times now. Are there things you’re still able to learn from watching someone like Stallone work in that capacity?
DL: Anyone making an $80-million dollar picture with all these people, locations and big set-pieces in it at his age—there are only so many people in the world who can pull that off. So as long as I can be there next to him I’m checking out everything he does.
JB: While the action scenes are fairly cutty, there’s actually a lot of camera movement within many individual shots, which is unusual these days.
DL: That’s a good point. Stallone originally had a younger DP before hiring Jeffrey Kimball. Jeffrey’s an old-timer, he lights very old school, and wanted to shoot the character stuff as simply as possible. Even in the action, as you said, he likes to show more of what’s happening. Of course people are used to quick cutting, so you’ve got to give them some of that, otherwise they get bored. It can be funny nowadays to watch older action movies where you see a guy running and running and here comes the explosion… and still he’s running and it seems to go on forever. The funny part is that’s only 15 years ago. [Laughs] Things change.
with Grace Jones
JB: You possess a very particular kind of celebrity, one that doesn’t often promise much in the way of theatrical release yet attracts hordes of passionate fans. You even have a drink named after you! It’s a kind of celebrity that didn’t really exist before the 1980s—when you started out—and the development of this enormous specialty market for action thrillers on home video. Has this aspect of your career surprised you?
DL: I never knew what to expect from my career. When I was training for Rocky IV, I’d just done this Bond movie with Grace Jones, who was my girlfriend at the time. I remember Grace saying to me, “Forget the Bond movie. You’re going up against Rocky. This is going to be with you forever. This is huge.” I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but then your life takes it’s own turns. I became kind of famous, but I ended up doing a lot of smaller movies, some big ones, but a lot of small ones that went direct to video. I hadn’t expected that, but I never expected to direct either. You’re probably right about that difference in celebrity, because now that I’m back on the big screen, I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s like Mickey Rourke’s comeback, but you can’t help but feel there’s something similar going on when you’ve been around for so long and you get that groundswell where everybody kind of knows of you but you need to be in that big movie for people to rediscover what you’re all about. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Now when I do these premieres I’m sure there’ll be people whispering to themselves, “Shit, he’s still alive!” [Laughs]
JB: Are you actively looking for projects that fall outside the genres you’re known for?
DL: Always. What it is John Lennon said? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Things seem to run away from you sometimes, but then you arrive at these turning points in your career. I do feel like maybe this is one of those times when all these hours I’ve put in to making these weird movies all over the world might add up to something. For instance, I’d like to direct this period piece in Sweden. If I can pull it off it would be a transition from action to drama. Not an easy transition but there are those who’ve done it, like Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner or Clint Eastwood. I’m not in their league but I’m trying to do something similar.
JB: Have you tried to work in Sweden?
DL: I’ve been offered things but they’ve been very stereotypical. I figured if I was going to run around with a gun and shoot people I’d do it in Hollywood. But two years ago I did an episode of this summer radio show where you sit down and talk about your life and play music for 90 minutes. I talked about my dad and my childhood, because all the Swedes just saw me as this big, dumb blonde guy who lives in Hollywood and loves violence and doesn’t give a shit about Sweden. That went over pretty big, and then last year they approached me to host the Eurovision Song Contest. I had to do some singing and dancing, and it was quite well received. So I hope I might be a position now to do something different because they’ve glimpsed another side of me.
Masters of the Universe
JB: Did you watch a lot of Swedish cinema growing up? I confess that virtually the only Swedish films I know from the period of your youth are probably all Bergman.
DL: Sure, we all did. Bergman included, of course. It was very artsy in those days, but all of that’s in me somewhere. I still love Fanny and Alexander.
JB: Last year your home in Spain was broken into. I understand they tied up your wife, which must have been terrifying. Is it true they fled after seeing a photo of you and realized they were robbing Dolph Lundgren’s house?
DL: They didn’t really flee. They were there, stealing stuff. They were probably Eastern Europeans because they spoke bad Spanish. My wife and eldest daughter were there—my little one was asleep—and my daughter says to them, “If my dad were here you’d be in trouble!” Right at that moment they saw the picture of me and said, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re big fans of his movies.” [Laughs] My daughter asked them how they could be doing this if they like my movies and one of the robbers said, “Well, I suppose you can have a few things back.” The whole thing was like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Bizarre. Anyway, I was filming The Expendables at the time and couldn’t leave the set, so I really went nuts. I called some people I know in Bulgaria and asked them to go find these guys and have a word with them. Of course nothing came of that. The good thing is that my kids now know there are bad people in the world. I have a good security system and armed guards now, so I hope it never happens again. I suppose there was a slight advantage to being famous in that situation, but then I started to think these guys might come back and try to grab one of my kids or something. That’s why I beefed up the security. You never know with these people.
in the karate pants
JB: You’ve devoted a large part of your life to martial arts. Have you found yourself in situations outside of the movies where you’ve had to use those skills?
DL: Very few times. I rarely get in a fight because I’m quite big, so most people don’t want to mess with me. But when you do martial arts you’re not typically an aggressive person. You learn to brush things off. I think the only times I’ve had to use those skills outside of movies was when I worked as a doorman in Sweden or Sidney or someplace when I was 25. I’ve fought a lot of people in a dojo, but that’s completely different.
JB: Was a part of your original motivation to learn martial arts to defend yourself?
DL: I think part of the motivation was that my dad was physically abusive. It was very tough, you know, him beating up on my mom and me. Dealing with that is very difficult for a child. It makes you feel inadequate, so you look for something to help you feel confident. I played ice hockey for a while, did some boxing, but it was only when I took up karate that I felt stronger, like I could defend myself, and I found some of that inner harmony you get from studying martial arts. Of course, I also become a good fighter. Something kicks in and you get that killer instinct. That’s something that happens when a person’s been hurt when they’re very young. I think all great fighters have something like that in them, some kind of scar. You need a little bit of an evil part to your character to be able to knock somebody out. It all happens very quickly. You don’t even know what you’re doing until it’s over.
A review of The Expendables will be posted this Friday.