Dolph Lundgren: The Action Man Who Fell to Earth
When you think of Dolph Lundgren, if in fact you do, you probably think of his most iconic role, the mostly mute villain Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. But the actor has very little in common with the character he portrayed. He’s actually extremely intelligent and well-spoken. When Movieline magazine interviewed Lundgren for the July ’95 issue, the actor was working on growing as an actor. But according to Stephen Saban, he didn’t seem overly excited about the direction his career was taking.
Dolph Lundgren, the cruelly handsome movie star whose work you may have missed, is telling me about the research he did for his most recent film, which you’ve probably heard of because that Keanu person is in it, too, “I play a crazy futuristic street preacher,” he says, “so I studied a lot of tapes of TV evangelists to learn the way they speak and gesture, the way they manipulate their audiences, I looked at biblical books to see how people dressed and wore their hair.”
This might not seem like a lot of research for a Mel Gibson or Jodie Foster film, but for a Dolph Lundgren vehicle, it approaches the level of a master’s thesis. We’re talking a whole new Dolph here.
I’m with the Swedish-born star at one of New York’s busiest spots, the public space at Sony Plaza, 55th Street and Madison Avenue. The huge atrium is teeming with lunchtime tourists. Dolph, dressed in a brown suede, fleece-lined jacket, black Levi’s, dark-blue Paul Smith socks with an electric-blue cutlery pattern, black ankle boots and Calvin Klein underwear (don’t ask), orders a double espresso from the City Bakery and we sit smack in the middle of the rabble to talk. Even here, with so much to distract, he’s quite a riveting presence.
“How’s your acting in Johnny Mnemonic?” I ask, cutting to the chase.
“Oh, I think it’s pretty good,” he says. “I’m happy with it. The part was larger when we started, but everything had to be slimmed down because the plot is so convoluted. But it shows me playing a very different character. The body language is different–I had to really practice.”
“Are you still taking acting lessons?”
“Actually, when I moved back to New York last year, I started to work with EST, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which is experimental and improvisational. We’ve done a few one-act plays, a couple of evenings of them. In between, I shot a picture in Prague, The Shooter, a post-cold war suspense thriller directed by Ted Kotcheff. It’s more character-driven than what I’ve done before. There are long, two-minute shots without a cut. I play a regular guy.”
“So you’re determined to get respect as an actor if it kills you.”
“Yes. And I think I will. I have to be positive. It’s a radical turn, but I’m seeing results. If I keep working on it I will get respect; but more importantly, I’ll get better roles and have more fun.”
Fun doesn’t seem to be the operative word today. This is a much glummer Dolph than the one I knew as Hans 10 years ago in New York. In those days, he was working at the door of the Limelight nightclub (with, ironically, the now Oscar-nominated Chazz Palminteri), dating legendary diva Grace Jones (making spectacular, shirtless public appearances with her aboard a Harley built for two), and about to debut as Rocky Balboa’s fierce Russian opponent Ivan Drago in Rocky IV (a film that Leonard Maltin would forever damn as “unnecessary” in his Movie and Video Guide). No Swedish meatball, Dolph was armed not only with the body of a young god and a history of sports championships, but also a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney, Australia, and a Fulbright scholarship to MIT. He was, at the brink of his career, a perfect union of brains and brawn.
Ten years later, he’s still that perfect union and his career is still on the verge–despite more than a dozen feature films under his black belt.
“What made you decide to study chemical engineering? What were you thinking?”
“To become a terrorist!” he says, laughing. “My father was an electrical engineer and my older brother is in offshore oil technology, so it ran in the family. I’m the only one who’s strayed. But I was always good at mathematics and physics, and it was a way for me to get scholarships and see the world. I kept doing it until I was about 25 and realized I didn’t wanna do it for a living. I didn’t wanna work in a big company and work my way up like my dad did. I really wanted to be in the arts. I didn’t know what to do in the arts, either, but I took a shot. I guess it turned out to be the right thing.”
An important question concerning genetic engineering: “Is your whole family great-looking or are there some ugly people in it?”
“Nobody’s really ugly [in my family],” he says. “But everybody’s really tall…”
Too bad. “Are you from Viking stock?”
“I guess so. Navigators, Swedes are navigators.”
“So, do you have a good sense of direction?”
“Yeah, and I can swim.”
“In case you get lost?”
Dolph is very serious today, thoughtful, almost depressed. In the decade since we last hung out, he’s become handsomer–better-looking now than I was then, if that’s any gauge. Aging suits him. The pink-and-pumped image has given way to a harder, leaner look, the rugged look of a leading man. All he lacks now is respect.
“Would you like to do dramas with-out any action at all?”
“Of course I would,” he says. “In fact, I’ve been trying to meet with New York writers and directors, and I’ve made a few contacts. It’s hard for me to do something right away that doesn’t have any action; it’s easier for me to find an action-thriller, where it’s mostly character-driven but there’s action at points. A total drama would be fine; it’s a genre I’d like to be in, but I’m not selling that as a goal.”
“You could be in a movie like Pulp Fiction,” I suggest.
“Actually, I’m talking to Roger Avary about doing something he’s writing. An ensemble piece.”
“A movie like Reservoir Dogs would be perfect for you, where there’s lots of stuff going on in the midst of acting.”
“That has character and dialogue first,” he agrees.
“What kinds of scripts are you sent now?”
“A real range,” he says with a deep sigh. ”From absolutely awful, generic action movies to some that are fairly interesting. I read one the other day that’s set in 1979 in New York at Studio 54, around that whole scene. Andy’s in the script, and Truman Capote and Divine and Grace . .. it’s interesting because I was there!”
“You were actually creating some of that scene. You could play yourself. Speaking of those days, is that going-out life over for you?”
“Pretty much.” he says. “I go out occasionally. Sometimes I miss it, but I guess it’s just nostalgia. When you get older, you realize you have to do something with your life–you can’t just party every night. I think I’ve done enough damage. But I had a lotta fun.”
“And you’re married now. Your wife’s name is Anette?”
“Anette Qviberg,” he says. “But now it’s Lundgren. She’s Swedish, a fashion stylist and jewelry designer. I met her six years ago when she was living in New York. I was in Bora Bora on my way to Australia on a press tour for Universal Soldier in ’93, and I proposed to her at midnight on New Year’s Eve–I had to pick some moment. She said yes, and a year later we got married in Stockholm and honeymooned in Marrakech.”
“Where do you live?”
“In New York and Stockholm. In L.A., they look at you only as a product. You have more of a chance as an actor here.”
“Do you think of yourself as an actor, an athlete or a movie star?”
“Oh, that’s a tough question,” he says, sighing again, thinking. “I don’t know anymore. I find myself drawn to all three. If I really get into acting in New York with the theater, then it’s sort of exciting to go to L.A. and get the whole movie buzz; but at the same time, if I don’t work out and I go to meet my old athlete friends, I don’t feel good about that.”
“Well, if you had to choose between being an actor, an athlete or a movie star, which would it be?”
“Are you still athletic?
“Yeah, I’m active. I do karate, kick-boxing. I look up squash,” he says laughing, “which may sound like a sissy sport, but it’s very tough. It’s good for your legs.”
“I don’t think you can use ‘sissy’ and ‘sport’ in the same sentence,” I say.
“I know. But people think I’m kidding when I say I’m playing squash. And I’ve taken up swimming. I don’t lift weights much anymore because I wanted to lose weight. I felt very stiff and it hurt me in my acting.”
“So you’re not a buff muscle man anymore?”
“No. I’m not Drago,” he says. “I was never a bodybuilder, I was always an athlete. And most of what we work for in acting is to get rid of tension, to relax; the more you lift weights, the more tense you seem to get.”
I’m beginning to notice that we’re not alone. Groups of tourists are making discreet repeat trips past us, whispering. Maybe they recognize me. “Let’s talk about your movie,” I say to Dolph, who seems oblivious to the scrutiny of others. “Do you have all your movies on video at home?”
“No,” he says. “In my contract it says I can get a 35mm print and a video if I want, but I’ve never been interested because I look ahead. When I get kids, maybe. But maybe I don’t want them to watch them because… oh, who knows.”
Okay, sorry I brought it up. A View to a Kill.
“It was a walk-on part, two minutes; you blink, you miss me. I remember the director, John Glen, said, ‘Hey kid, you hit your marks right the first time–you’re a natural talent.’ That was it.”
“And a star was born? Showdown in Little Tokyo. You worked with Brandon Lee.”
“We worked out together. He was a really nice kid, you know. Very sensitive guy. I felt sorry for him because he had a lot of pressure from his father [to go into] the martial arts. I thought that as a person and as an actor he could have done without that. It’s a very sad story. I couldn’t believe it when I heard about his death. My memory of that movie will always be overshadowed by the fact that he’s not with us anymore.”
“I’m sure. You know, I just want to say here that there is definitely a place and an audience for martial arts films. They have a huge cult following and hip young filmmakers like Tarantino revere them and pay homage to them in their own films. Of course. I think they’re a waste of perfectly good film stock.”
“Well, I don’t do martial arts in my movies, I may throw a kick or punch some guy through a wall, whatever, but I’m not into the really clean, clear, pure moves like some other actors. I think it limits you in the long run, and if you’re my size it looks corny to throw all those high kicks. Better to do a John Wayne punch and take the guy out.”
“Are you still six-five?”
“Universal Soldier,” I soldier on. “Were you and Van Damme really feuding during the filming?”
“No,” he says. “Well, there’s always some competition, I guess, when you’re with your peer as far as being an action lead is concerned. But I played more on the character level, and he was more like a straight leading man. I think we got along well. We both came out of it in one piece.”
Masters of the Universe? “I froze my ass off in Los Angeles. It was 45 degrees and I was wearing nothing but a pair of trunks,” he says, beginning to laugh, “and some sort of cape, standing on this camera vehicle going 40 miles an hour for hours! It was a tough shoot.
“You know, I was green back then,” he says, almost wistfully. “I’d just made Rocky IV, and went from working at the door of Limelight and studying acting in the afternoon to doing a [Masters] world tour and starring in my own motion picture! I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.”
And Red Scorpion was no picnic either. “That was the hardest shoot of all my movies,” says Dolph, who is becoming almost animated now. “Five months in Namibia in South-West Africa. There was nothing to do at all. There was only a bar. Fortunately, I was training–I think some of the other actors became alcoholics! Every afternoon there were heavy tropical rains, and if you didn’t make it off the set in time you’d get stranded because the water filled up the road and your car would get swept away and you’d have to stay there until 11 or 12 at night to get back to the hotel and then you’d have to get up again at five in the morning.”
“Was it really a nightmare, or do you look back on it as an adventure?”
“Both. It was a nightmare at the time.”
“Um,” thinks Dolph. “What can I say about The Punisher?”
“I don’t know what to say. I had a special Harley built for me?”
Naturally, just at this moment, a motley group of kids with cameras swoops over to get Dolph’s autograph because of The Punisher. “Howya doon?” says one. “I loved you in The Punisher, man, that was a great movie! I can take your pitcha?” Dolph poses and signs politely, but is not as effusive or appreciative as I’d like him to be.
“Do you like when that happens?” I ask him when the fans have gone.
“Yeah, it’s fun, because the U.S. is my weakest market theatrically. I’m pretty strong in Japan and Europe. So it’s fun when some of these guys come up, because it makes me realize that there are people out there who watch my movies.”
“Army of One,” I continue.
“That, of course, was the big one, my first film. I didn’t know anything, and Sly kinda coached me through it. We became friends and we’ve been friends ever since. There was something special in the fact that we sparred every day. That relationship has held together for 10 years; I think that’s pretty good. A lot of other guys I’ve worked with I hardly ever see.”
“I became a celebrity overnight because of Rocky IV. It was almost like I was picked off the street and sent flying around in planes, having people ask me questions about politics and stuff I’d never even thought about before. It was tough. I guess I’ve done OK, since I’m still around, still have a career after 10 years. I suppose I should be proud of that.”
“It’s a job like any other.” I say. “Except it’s one that gets reviewed in the Times. Do you read your reviews?”
“Sometimes. But action movies are made for the general audience, and they go to see them anyway–they don’t have the same taste as the guy who reviews the movies for the newspaper. But if you have aspirations to be an actor, you can’t help feeling disappointed or glad with the review.”
I’m feeling really bad for Dolph. “Do your movies make a lot of money?”
“They all make money,” he says cheerlessly. “The way I look at it… coming back to New York and getting a handle on my career is almost like a new beginning. When I look at the actors I work with in the theater group, who are my age or younger, I feel lucky that I’ve been able to make a living learning on the job. Instead of waiting tables, I made movies.”
“Did you ever wait tables?”
“No. Just the door at Limelight. But. anyway, as an actor you can work into your 50s and longer. A lot of actors do their best work when they’re older. And with Scandinavian genetics, you tend to mature late. I mean, people still think I’m young!”
“You’re only 37.”
“I have another 10 years.”
“At least,” I say. “And now you’re producing.”
“I co-produced one picture, Pentathlon, about the Olympic sport where you shoot, swim, fence, horseback ride and run. I’m actually involved with the U.S. team for the Olympics, to help the sport.”
“You know,” I say, “I have to say that you seem really depressed.”
“I seem depressed?” he says flatly. “Negative about my career?”
“Yeah, you seem so down on it. What the hell’s the matter with you? Lighten up. You’re making movies constantly, they make money, people recognize you in public places and tell you they love your work, you’re married to a beautiful woman, you have houses in two countries, you’re tall and handsome, you can buy anything you want…”
“Thanks. Stephen. I’ll have to talk to you more often,” he says, big smile. “But I’m Swedish! I saw too many [Ingmar] Bergman movies as a kid. It’s the Bergmanesque gene! ‘The winter, the cold winds will come soon, don’t have too much fun,'” he says, capsulizing the Great Swede’s dark philosophy. “But somebody once said that the best thing to have is a simple ambition; if you have that, you’re fine–do the job, make the money, never worry. But, unfortunately, I guess part of me is an artist and I’d like to be more satisfied with my work as an actor. If I don’t get that I don’t care how much money the movie makes. Well, I do, but it doesn’t make me totally happy.”
“So, we’ve established that your big driving force is to get respect as an actor.”
Dolph smiles a Dolphin’ smile. “But I still wanna be a movie star and an athlete!” he says.
Stephen Saban interviewed Aidan Quinn for the October ’94 Movieline.