In conversation: Sylvester Stallone

The actor on feuding with Arnold Schwarzenegger and what’s wrong with today’s action heroes

Thirty-five years ago at the Oscars, Rocky won Best Picture, beating All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver. The movie scored 10 nominations, including Best Actor and Original Screenplay for its creator and star, Sylvester Stallone. He’s never been nominated since, but has racked up a record number of Razzies for “worst actor.” Now 65, Stallone is still scrapping for comeback, with two movies coming out this year, Bullet to the Head and Expendables 2.

Q: When you were broke, you turned down $250,000 from a studio that wanted to make Rocky without you. Did you have any idea at the time that it would take off the way it did?

A: Not at all. I thought I was making a film for drive-in theatres. I approached it as a coming-of-age story about the frustration I felt. I thought a regular character wouldn’t work, so I put it in the body of a boxer.

Q: I watched Rocky again and was amazed how little boxing there is. A lot of the time you’re just walking and talking—showing attitude.

A: I don’t look at Rocky as a boxing movie. It was a love story. That’s why I think it worked.

Q: In the early scenes, I thought I saw a touch of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets.

A: Absolutely.You are good! When it really happened is when I go into the bar and meet Paulie, and I’m complaining his sister doesn’t want to go out with me: “What do I gotta do? I gotta get a tattoo, I gotta fix my face, I gotta get a Cadillac to connect with your sister?” That kind of body language was very reminiscent of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, yeah. Regular artists borrow, geniuses steal.

Q: Who was your biggest influence?

A: In the main pantheon of acting, Kirk Douglas. I liked his intensity. But the fantasy aspect was Steve Reeves. When I saw Hercules my mind just exploded, because I was extremely thin, I was insecure. I literally ran out of the theatre and started lifting things, anything I could think of—milk crates. I’m still lifting things. It changed my life.

Q: What about Rambo, your other iconic hero? In First Blood your performance is virtually silent—The Artist as action movie. It was based on a Canadian novel, directed by Canada’s Ted Kotcheff, and shot in B.C. Are you some kind of closet Canadian?

A: I’m a lumberjack in hiding!

Q: So how do you relate to Rocky and Rambo? Are they twin sides of your psyche?

A: Rambo is me before coffee in the morning. Rocky is me after coffee. Rambo has reverted into kind of like an id: primitive, reactive and instinctual, almost like an animal. I love this character because he hasn’t quite been fleshed out. He’s like an errant knight, looking to die in a glorious fashion. He has no desire to go into old age or have a family. Rocky is the antithesis: he cannot live without family. So you’ve got the American Frankenstein monster, then you have the American Dream. In the book, Rambo gets killed. I thought it was not the proper message. There had been close to 200,000 suicides by returning Vietnam vets. I said, “Why don’t we take him right to the edge without annihilating him?” Quentin Tarantino said, “You’re a coward, you should have killed him!” I said, “Quentin, you’re a lunatic. I want to do some sequels, brother.”

Q: Didn’t you turn down a Tarantino movie?

A: Yeah, two. The De Niro part in Jackie Brown. And Grindhouse, the part Kurt Russell did—I said, “There’s no way. I have two daughters, and this fellow, his hobby is putting teenagers in his car and smashing them into a wall. That’s not going to work.”

Q: You haven’t played a lot of villains.

A: No. I’m getting there, though. I have one coming up based on a wonderful film that was done in Spain, No Rest for the Wicked. It’s hard-core, in the Bad Lieutenant mode. Badder Lieutenant, we’re calling it.

Q: You played a good sherriff in Cop Land and had to grow a belly.What was that like?

A: It was horrible, but after a while I loved being out of shape. I really did. I get it!

Q: What kind of shape are you in now?

A: Pretty good shape. I’ve had a lot of operations. I’m kind of like Franken-actor. I just had my rotator cuff done. Someone released this picture of me and Arnold [Schwarzennegger]. We showed up at the same hospital, same doctor, same operation, same arm. He had already been operated on—and I’m following him. I’m always following him! He’s feeling good because he’s just had his drugs, and I’m going in, and we talked. A picture came out and people said, “It looks phony.” Phony? I have a hypodermic in my neck.

Q: You and Arnie used to be enemies.

A: That went on for a long time. We couldn’t stand to be in the same room. But I like a good adversary. It makes you lose sleep and want to get up in the morning and go to the gym. We started in the business almost the same day. We were at the Golden Globes and he had won for best newcomer; I lost for best actor but we had won best picture, and I took this bouquet of flowers and threw it on him like, “It’s on, pal!” From that day on it was a very competitive thing. Then you move on, have families, and you realize that this fellow’s very similar to you. Now we get along great.

Q: When did it change?

A: When he started to run for governor. He started inviting me to events. I said no, then my wife says, “Come on, he’s extending the olive branch,” and next thing I know is I’m on the campaign trail, then we just hit it off. He did some great things, like, to be in Expendables when he was governor, for free.

Q: Next he’s your co-star in the sequel and The Tomb. Cage match, you and Arnie—who wins?

A: I do. Sorry Arnold, but it’s true! You can bench more than me, but I’d out-cage you.

Q: Let’s look at roads not taken. You turned down Coming Home, a very different Vietnam vet movie from Rambo. Why?

A: I was very foolish. I didn’t have the guts to do it, and at that time I really wasn’t a fleshed-out actor. I don’t know even if I am now. It just seemed so—what is the word?—naked, and it was a much more liberal point of view. Now I think I should have done it. Usually whenever you’re scared of something, do it. If you’re not afraid of it, don’t do it.

Q: Did you really turn down American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Womanthree Richard Gere films?

A: Yeah. He’s prettier. I’m not a romantic lead. I look in the mirror—“Jesus! This is crooked, that’s drooping, the voice sounds like a pallbearer.”

Q: You and Gere had a tiff.

A: All the time. He was supposed to be in Lords of Flatbush. We were auditioning and would do improvs. He was always grabbing me and twisting my skin. I’d say, “Hey, stop! Seriously.” He keeps going on, then we’re sitting in the back of a car and he’s eating chicken covered in mustard. I said, “Richard, the mustard’s going to drip off and go on my leg and I’m going to belt you. I’m warning you right now.” He went, “Oh, yeah?” Sure enough he bites it, it goes on my leg. Boom! He goes, “Let me out of this car.” It’s like, “Either him or me.” I stayed and he went.

Q: What do you think of today’s action heroes?

A: The action film is pretty much a thing of the past, the kind Arnold and I did, or Chuck Norris, which is self-generated. Today’s action hero, his skills are through technology. He can fly, he can throw a bolt of lightning, he can freeze people. It’s not in-the-trench action. And I don’t know if that’s ever going to come back. That’s why Expendables worked. It was a walk down memory lane with 11 of the ugliest action dudes I’ve ever seen in my life on one poster. It was thug village.

Q: You made F.I.S.T. with Canada’s Norman Jewison, a leftie. How did you get along?

A: I had no idea what Norman’s political affiliations were. I was extremely naive in politics. People assume, “Okay, you’re a staunch Republican.” I’m not, I’m just very pro those guys in the military. But by no means am I some jingoistic, full-on Hannibal. When [Ronald] Reagan came out and said, “After seeing Rambo I know what to do in Libya,” I went, “Oh, no!” Rambo is neutral. But my character became the ultimate right-wing machine.

Q: You lost control of him. And Rocky?

A: There’s a disconnect between me and Rocky. People look at that statue [in Philadelphia] as a real character. I go there sometimes and stand way in the background. I see people getting married in front of the statue. People pull up at three in the morning, drunk, out of a cab, pat Rocky on the butt, then get back in the cab. It has nothing to do with me!

Q: In Rocky, when asked why you fight, you say, “I don’t know how to sing or dance.” But there’s a lot of dance in that performance. Do you feel you don’t get respect as an artist?

A: Well, yeah. But I brought a lot of it on myself. I tried to diversify and do some of these silly comedies that I hated. I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. It just blew up in my face.

Q: You came back with Rocky Balboa.

A: My career was over, dead with a fork in it. Ten years past prime. I said let me do one more thing and end Rocky on the proper note. Every door was closed. The studio said, “Even if you got financing we wouldn’t do it. You’re a joke. No one wants to see a broken-down fighter following a sequel that was a disaster 16 years earlier.” I was down in Mexico all depressed. This producer walked in. I said, “I wrote another Rocky.” I think he took the script as a courtesy. His wife read it and she cried. He said if you can do this thing for $20 million … [Rocky Balboa would gross $150 million worldwide.] I’m dying to do another Rambo. He’s in Arizona on the border. It will involve him going into Mexico. I don’t think Rambo likes Mexicans.

Q: So will you kill him off?

A: Yeah.

Sylvester Stallone was interviewed at Carmen’s in Hamilton, Ontario at a fundraising evening for the Canadian Diabetes Association.

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson

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