Dolph Lundgren interview: The Expendables, Ivan Drago, Stallone and Jason Bourne

From Ivan Drago to The Expendables: Dolph Lundgren talks about his career, action cinema, and working with Sylvester Stallone...

It’s been too long since we’ve seen Dolph Lundgren on the big screen, a man who kicked off his movie acting career with two major franchises.

Firstly, he appeared in the Bond movie A View To A Kill. And then? He landed what arguably remains his most iconic role, as Ivan Drago, for star/writer/director Sylvester Stallone.

Now, things have come full circle for Lundgren, as he takes his place amongst The Expendables. And he spared us some time to talk about it, and his career to date…

Let’s start in the obvious place. I really liked The Expendables, a film that’s beautifully out of its time. How was it pitched to you, though? Stallone rang you?

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Yeah. He just said that he’s got this script that he wrote. And it’s a script with a character in it for me. Of course, to me, that was just a bit like a dream. Because, for me, I was like, “Am I ever going to work with Sly again?” We stayed friends for 25 years…

You nearly killed him once?

Yeah, we almost killed each other!

The script I read a few pages and I loved it already, and my character was kinda cool and fun and he was friends with Stallone, and had this falling out. It had complexities to it. Immediately I thought I’d do it.

It’s yours more than any other character in there that’s got an element of journey to it?

I think so, thanks!

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At the point that he pitched it to you, were you aware of the rest of the cast?

I was aware of Statham, I believe. Jet Li was about to sign, I think. And then everyone else came in later. Mickey Rourke came in, they just kept piling up. I was like, “Woah!”

The casting announcements kept on coming for a while…

I know! I thought it was just me and Stallone and Statham, and then suddenly it never stopped. But it’s cool…!

From the outside looking in, when you get so many action stars in one film, we like to think that it’s very competitive, and you’re all doing the one-upmanship thing.

It is competitive, but in a good way. It’s like, if you’re in a sports team, you want to be as good as your mates. But you’re still playing the other guys. So, in our case, the film still has to be great, and you can’t be bickering over a load of stuff.

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But sure, if I know I’m going to be in a scene with Stallone, and I see him on the net in great shape, I’m gonna think, “Shit, I’d better hit the gym twice a day instead of once a day!”

As more and more of those names come in, did you find yourself checking them out?

Yeah, I did! Because I wasn’t aware of what people were doing in their careers necessarily, and yeah, a lot of the time you show up on the set and you’re seeing people. I’m like, “Hi, I’m Dolph.”  He’s like “Hi, I’m Jason.” And you’re like, “Shit”, you’re getting starstruck…

Do you stare each other out? That’s what I’d like to think you all do…

No! You kind of think, ‘shit’, when everyone’s on the set that day, and you get everybody lined up. You got Stallone, you got Jet Li, you got Mickey Rourke, you got whoever it is. You know you’d better know your lines, be in good shape and deliver.

Did you not even have an arm wrestling competition on set?

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[Laughs] No, but we did train in the gym together, so there’s a little bit of competition there!

When it actually came to the shoot itself it looked like it had none of the usual luxuries…

No! Stallone, you know, he leads from the front. He trains hard, he does his own stunts, he gets injured all the time. He’s not going to send in his double to do hardly anything.

So, obviously, everyone feels the same way, and yeah, you’re going to suffer. That’s part of the game, it was a tough shoot. 

You’ve said in the past that with your career, you became the movie star first, and then you got to explore being an actor, and here you’re coming a little full circle with this. Is there any reason why you’re doing it like that…

Backwards [laughs]! Everything is backwards!

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Because you’ve been exploring your own career as a writer and director recently, and then this high profile project comes out…

Yeah, I know. And this kind of takes me back to the beginning, with Stallone, with being an actor in a big movie.

I guess it’s a bit of a new charge in my career. I’m more of a mature man now, and people haven’t seen me so much since Rocky IV. Maybe a few times in Universal Solider. It’s kind of fun to confront that, the public, with a few more skills than before.

Is it refreshing to go back to that now, having directed films yourself and written them yourself? That it’s more relaxing?

Much more relaxing, it’s easy! Stallone’s the one sitting there checking all the trailers, checking out the art, looking at every picture. Getting copies of your interview. He’s the guy. I’ve done that on my small movies, but I’m glad I don’t have to do it with this. It’s a lot of work!

Was there not a bit of you that wanted to grab the camera at any point, and do a bit of second unit work?

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No. But I do like storytelling, so when Sly was working on the script, he likes to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, I did have a few comments on this and that, and he thought exploring our past relationship was cool. But look, he had some very good people on that crew. I focused on my job.

How’s he changed as a director in all that time?

Well, I think he takes a little more time to talk to the actors. I’ve found he’s very… well, I even heard Bruce Willis say that he wanted to work with him as a director, because he realises he’s got this wealth of knowledge. I think he’s been in more action movies than anyone else in the world, perhaps apart from Clint Eastwood.

So, he took his time to discuss the emotions, even little things like how to grip a steering wheel in a car chase. It may seem trivial, but on the other hand, it’s a visual art form, so that makes a difference. He has a lot to offer.

Did you find him much more distant then on Rocky IV, appreciating it was your second film?

Well, on Rocky IV I was more inexperienced. I was in awe of him and the whole shooting process, whereas now I’m a little more comfortable getting in front of the camera and I suppose we talk to each other a little more as equals, whereas then it was more him giving orders to me then. I was a kid. He was nice to me, but it was a little more yes sir, you know?

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You were scary in that film…

[Laughs] Thank you!

The Expendables leaves room for sequels that I’m personally very keen to see. Appreciating you’ve not been asked this question ever before, Stallone’s been fairly open about he’s looking to do further adventures. Are you?

Well, if he likes me to be part of it then, yeah, why not. I think so!

Going back to you directing yourself, who are your influences when you’re sat behind the camera?

I worked with some of them, like John Woo, Roland Emmerich. You have certain images of them and things that they did. Stallone is one.

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But then a lot of it you do it on instinct. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to direct. I just said yes when I got offered the job, because the director got sick. But it came naturally to me, making these creative decisions about music, and about colours, angles, cameras, lenses. Whatever it is. It’s an all round interest.

Also, of course, I’m influenced by Clint Eastwood. He’s a guy who started as an actor, a television cowboy, one regarded lightweight. He’s now a super heavyweight, and he’s worked his way there by hard work. [He’s directed] 29, 30 movies, you know. I’m at five. Stallone is at 15-20.

You’ve got plans for plenty more, then?

Yeah! I think so. I do, why not?

Absolutely. I admire anyone who can get a film made…

Thank you. It’s more difficult than people think. And if you’re an actor-director, you’re a producer’s nightmare. Because you can’t fire the star, you can’t fire the director.

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If you’re an asshole, if you don’t take care of the budget, if you’re not responsible, then they’re in the shit. They’ll watch you and it’ll take about five movies before they can relax, maybe ten. Then they can say maybe let this guy go and do his thing.

The Expendables itself is a film that feels out of its time, and happily leaves behind a lot of the stuff that’s been thrown at the screen over the last 20 years. What’s your feeling on the current state of big Hollywood cinema, as you’ve seen all angles of it?

I look back and what I suppose happened is that Hong Kong cinema hit big in the US. That means wires, backflips, kung fu types, and not too realistic action, where someone gets kicked in the head 40 times and they’re still running around.

When you see [real] fights, every kid can see what happens when you get hit in the head once. That’s it, it’s over. So, that’s why I think things are reverting back a little bit.

Also CGI came in, and it could make anyone an action star. You didn’t have to know karate, you didn’t have to know kung fu, you didn’t even have to have muscles, because they can enhance everything with a computer.

Filmmakers fell in love with that, and then they didn’t need the tough guy, the Steve Austin, the Stallone. So, you bring in somebody who’s just a good actor. That’s commendable too, but you lose that special aura of an action star, where the person is closer to the character.

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I suppose things come round in circles, and the audience got tired of that. And now they’re into old-school action again. We call it old-school…

It’s scary, isn’t it?  It’s not that old.

[Laughs] No, it isn’t!

From where I sit, where action cinema, in particular, has lost its way is in the editing, which has gone a bit nuts…

That’s true, too.

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The thing about The Expendables, it struck me that 95% of everything you did was in front of the camera. And I could see what was happening too…

Yeah, you’re right. It came a little bit with the Bourne series, that took a really good actor who wasn’t really a fighter, but the story was perfect because it said how can he be such a lethal fighter, you know? How can Matt Damon be so lethal? He doesn’t know who he is, you were wondering who he is, and how he can fight like that?

And in order to accomplish that it had to use a special editing job. Because you couldn’t really see what was going on. Then everybody copied that style, like what you were saying, where you can’t see what’s going on.

Whereas in the old days, when me and Stallone were fighting in the ring, everything was real. It was all us. There was nobody else in there. Stallone, with no shirt on, getting hit while he was directing the movie. That doesn’t happen much anymore. [laughs]

You could take Jason Bourne out, couldn’t you?

[Laughs] I think a lot of people could take him! Maybe not in the Jason Bourne movie, but in real life. [laughs harder]

You’ve done lots of films that we’ve enjoyed over the years, many of which we never got another one of. Certainly when I put out to a few people that I was talking to you, Masters Of The Universe kept coming up. The Punisher

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They didn’t do sequels in those days, though. Only Rocky and Bond. The only two that kept doing sequels.

It’s just recently where Hollywood has gone it’s so expensive to release a movie, we better have something that people have seen before so we’re not going to lose everything. They’ll grasp at anything that has a bit of a market.

Are you having fun yourself with that, though? Because you’ve gone back to Universal Soldier now.

Well, that was… I’m not much into sequels. I did that as a favour, actually. I was going to direct a film, and the same producer was doing that. I did it as a favour. So, that was just to get my own directorial thing done.

You know, sequels are great. But I’m not a great fan of doing them. I’m not pulling the old Ivan Drago shorts on again…! It doesn’t attract me any more…

Apart from obviously making three of four more Expendables movies, you’re writing a book, I understand…

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Yeah, a fitness book…

And you’ve got more movies?

Yeah. I want to direct a film with some kind of Swedish story, where Sweden figures. Something taking place there, about Sweden.

That’s my home country, and I’ve never done anything to do with Sweden as an artist, as an actor or director. I think that if I did something to do with Sweden, that would be better or more interesting for the audience, because I have a very strong point of view.

If you just do an action movie about this guy beating up these guys, to me it’s like Eastwood does a Western. He was born in America, he can put something else behind it, whereas I couldn’t, perhaps.

But if it’s about Europe, about history, particularly the history of war, which I’m very interested in, then that’s what I’m looking into.

But those three or four Expendables movies? We’ll see. [laughs]

You need to get on with them! I’ll give Stallone a ring and tell him…

Okay. [laughs]

Finally, Gunnar or Drago? Who would win the fight? I’d think Drago.

I’d think Gunnar. He’d take that big anti-tank gun and blow Drago’s head off!

Dolph Lundgren, thank you very much…!

You can see The Expendables this weekend, with preview screenings at UK cinemas ahead of its official release on 19th August.

Our review of The Expendables is here.