The Total Film Interview - Sylvester Stallone

Now 60, Sylvester Stallone is clambering back into the ring with Rocky Balboa - and reviving '80s action-man Rambo, while he's at it. The knees may be cracking, but that old underdog spirit is still ticking...

Total Film cracks into a cold beer. The jovial, sexagenarian gent sitting opposite seems content with controlled slurps of mineral water. Famously, his body used to be a temple. Mini-armies of young men would file in to ogle and goggle as he laid pec-wobbling waste to pumped-up prize-fighters and drug dealers and terrorists and, erm, rival arm-wrestlers. One time (Rocky IV), they saw him single-handedly win the Cold War. First, with all-American steel (beats sinister Russki science anytime); then, with all-American diplomacy (embracing the loser and suggesting they all work together). But Sylvester Stallone was always all-American heart; the rough and ragged flipside to Arnie’s sculpted, teutonic austerity.

Still, that was then (the ’80s). And as the world surged ahead, he just kept on trundling with the ill-advised (Judge Dredd); the low-grade high-concept (Daylight) and the best-forgotten (The Good Life). Critics mocked the lazy eyes, the slur (a result of birth-related facial paralysis). They said he couldn’t act – or, worse, that he could only act action. So he showed ’em he was a drama contender, with a woozy, weary turn as a half-deaf suburban rozzer in 1997’s Cop Land. Sly was so eager to prove his acting chops, he took a huge pay-cut to secure the gig. Suddenly, those post-Rocky rumbles about him being the new Brando didn’t seem quite so daft. There were even murmurs of Oscar…

But then came Get Carter, Driven, D-Tox… A stumbling parade of half-cooked turkeys and increasingly desperate swipes at regaining profile (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over).

This is now (Beverly Hills, 2006). And what used to characterise Sylvester Stallone on-screen (wouldn’t lie down, never knew he was beaten) is serving him well in real life. Here he is: 60, black jeans, black T-shirt, dark grey suit-jacket, still buff and tough and elegantly aged… And he’s joking about how the scruffbag New Jersey slugger Rocky Balboa – the character who first gave him a shot at the big time – could possibly rise again “at his age” (read, ‘at my age’).

Sprawled, cosy and relaxed, near the window of his cavernous suite, he squints into the LA sunlight. Somewhere out there, his buddy and old adversary Arnold is nailing an emphatic second term as California governor (“He’s out campaigning for the state, and I’m campaigning for my movie!”); Stallone hasn’t directed a film since Rocky IV in 1985. “I’ll be back!” he should have said…

So, why another Rocky? You must be really insane, putting yourself through all this punishment again?

Well, the fifth one didn’t work that well and I’ve been disappointed for years. People were telling me they loved number four, but that the fifth one was… really bad. So when the time came to do it, which was years later, it’s weird… I wanted to wait until I was like 55. I wanted that kind of story. But when I turned 55, nobody wanted to do it. So it’s just been sitting there for the past four years. It’s a miracle it’s been made at all… My wife begged me not to do it, though. That’s why I wrote the line in there: “I’d rather do something I love badly than to feel bad about not doing something I love.”

What was it about the story that made you so desperate to tell it?

I really wanted to do something about a man who finally thinks his whole life is perfect but then suddenly his wife is gone and life is not as glorious as he thought it was going to be. And how he faces up to the last third of his life when his heart has been torn out and his family is gone. I think it’s something a lot of people deal with so I wanted to write it about my generation.

How do you personally compare with Rocky?

Ha. I think I’m pretty similar. I’ve had my really good moments and I’m certainly not at the top of my game, though I’ve had a nice long run. And I don’t regret any of it and I don’t expect anything to ever come back, but I thought, boy, what a great idea to do a fantasy, like one more time. How do you purge yourself of all this anger? Everybody has anger or regret in them one way or another. They all try different things to get it out. Some people go to psychiatrists. Some paint pictures. Some people talk it out. Rocky, to deal with his beefs, to deal with his frustration, had to get it out physically. For me, I write.

What did you have to get out?

Little frustrations... Could I have done more with my life? Was I as good to people as I should have been? Could I have been more loyal in relationships? Could I have worked harder? Should I have done other films, made better choices? Should I have been more responsible? Did I not give the children the kind of care I should have? I think everyone has questions in their mind. Did they do their very best?

Did you not worry about being too old for it?

Well, it’s like in the original Rocky when he says, “Am I just replacing old pain with new pain? Why do I want to do this? Is it just ego?” Like my kid says, I’m going to go out there and it’s going to be embarrassing. And the girl says, “That’s what you are, and if you are willing to take the humiliation, do it. If you are willing to stand in front of somebody and look foolish for a principle, if you are willing to be laughed at, then do it, because you are going to regret it if you don’t. I’m telling you, not doing it is worse than doing it.” Absolutely!

Would it have been different had you done it at 55 instead of now?

Completely different. The irony is that it turned out better now. The past four years have meant a lot to me. I think my writing got better, because I spent more time at home and was more relaxed.

So is 60 the new 40?

Without a doubt! You’ll see. It’s a terrible number, but society is going to have to start adjusting pretty soon. Can you imagine with science, the way it’s going in the next 10 years? Sixty year-olds are going to be playing professional sports. You think I’m joking. I think you’ll have guys that normally retire at 40 who will be playing to 51 or 47. I’m serious. They are replacing knees and joints. Once they figure out knees, we’ll have athletes going forever.

Back in the day, you were a serious bodybuilder. What’s your fitness regime now?

Well, I take care of myself but I try not to overdo it. I eat pretty normally. I eat my biggest meals early in the day and I eat pretty well Monday through Friday. I’m not a big chicken breast guy. I eat beef, lamb, pork and filet of soul. For lunch I eat a huge meal and then a medium dinner. Lunch is the big meal. Come Saturday night and Sunday I just eat every piece of junk on the planet, cheesecake, pizza, pancakes, French toast, and I sometimes gain 8 or 9 pounds on the weekend. On Friday night I get on the scale and it’s 202 and Sunday night it’s 211. But I know where it came from. So on Monday I’ll have my omelette and start eating normal portions again of mostly protein with vegetables and then believe it or not by Friday it’s gone.

Do you have any regrets? Your relationship with Brigitte Nielsen was high-profile but brief...

Yeah, I’m sorry that didn’t work out. It’s just… so difficult to maintain that kind of relationship.

Is it true you got together after she pushed a picture under your hotel room door?

Yeah. But it wasn’t a nude photo, I swear! Later, I was at a restaurant and at first, I didn’t like her at all. But then… the rest is history. It is a regret, yeah. But the personalities, the egos, both those energies clashing, being out on the road at the same time, both wanting to be in the public eye… It was doomed. Her parents are great, though. Very tall!

How do you look back at your glory years?

I made a few bad decisions, there’s no question about that.

Like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot?

Yeah! And Rhinestone [Dreadful Country & Western musical]. There are certain things you think are going to work, at the time. I thought Judge Dredd was a fantastic concept! Somebody has to take the fall when things don’t work – and because I was the most recognisable, highest-profile... Movies are a whole different ball-game, now. It’s much more of a business – very scientific. I was at a meeting last night and it was extraordinary. It was like a war – everything planned and charted out. There’s very little room for luck or gut feeling. I do get it, but I prefer to write and try to do something emotional and let those other guys handle the business. The best way to survive in this town is to do what’s really in your heart and what you feel you’re sort of born to do. The problem is, your ego sometimes tells you that you can do many things. But sometimes it’s best to stay focused and be honest with yourself. I enjoy comedy very much but it just wasn’t right for me.

Are you nostalgic for your most successful era? The ‘80s...

I guess. But we’re in a different world, now. I think it’s maybe that CGI has peaked and people want to do more handmade films. I don’t know…

Why do you think your stuff was so successful?

After Vietnam, there was an opportunity for escapism, but there wasn’t a lot of escapism being done. There were so-called action films, but they really weren’t action films – like The French Connection, which was a drama with some action. Then something happened: the birth of the action film, the real uber action movie, like First Blood. Something like that hadn’t been seen before. Then here comes Arnold and Bruce and Van Damme – the whole one-man army thing. I was a big part of that, but now it’s gone. It really has gone. They are doing different things, like The Bourne Supremacy, very smart, very clever, very beautifully done. I have nothing but respect for that. So it’s a different thing. A different outfit. The action is still there, it just looks different.

How hard was it to train for Rocky Balboa at 60?

It was pretty hard. There were a lot of injuries. Problems with ribs and hands... It was bad. My training partner broke his knuckles – on my head. I broke my foot. I was stretching and I hit a bar-bell and broke two toes. Weirdly, it turned out to be a positive thing, because it made the fights more spontaneous and less rehearsed. I would keep the camera locked off and you’d see the exchanges as opposed to cutaways. There are no cutaways. None.

How has boxing changed over the years?

It’s like movies. It’s become a big business, exactly like movies. The stars are not as defined. They are there, but nobody knows who the champion is. It’s a whole different thing. You have some very good actors today, but time is the test. Who’s going to be around in 15 years? Longevity is the test.

How did Mike Tyson’s role come about?

He called! He called and asked if he could play the other guy, and I said no. [Rocky has] a premature death? I don’t think so! He said he’d like to be in the film and I said, “Why don’t you be a heckler?” He was up for that. So he showed up that morning and was really going for it. The crew were worried that he was going to get in the ring. But I knew he’d be fine. He’s very mellow.

What’s the story with the new Rambo movie?

It’s still a work way down the line. We’re still talking about it. I want it to be about this simple man who’s been living in the jungle but life finally catches up with him. He’s suddenly pulled into a very realistic situation in Burma. Hopefully, it’ll be a story that will be entertaining but will also shed some light on a serious, real situation. But I really have to think, where does Rambo fit in today? I think Rocky does fit, but I’m not sure about Rambo, or at least me as Rambo. Rocky is the bright side and Rambo is the dark side. He’s an interesting character, but he’s not the kind you can hand over to a new actor. Y’know: “Here son, watch this tape and be just like him…” You could do that with Rocky, though…

Any plans for another Rocky?

No! Definitely not! When he says, “Yo, Adrian, we did it!” He means, we’re done. We lived the life. I’m a big believer that, in life, we can’t succeed in everything. Most times, we lose. But the few times we do win, we have to make sure they were the important battles. Lose the little ones along the way, sure, but make sure you win the ones that relate to love and relationships and major personal passions. I just want Rocky to be remembered – for the legacy he leaves behind. For running up the steps and the music. People really do run up those steps, y’know. For inspiration…