Fancy a Finger Wrestle?
By John Naughton, Empire, #79, January 1996
Sometimes you have to do these things.
Dolph Lundgren is, in the words of Michael Caine in Get Carter, a big man. But he is not in bad shape. With him, it most definitely is a full-time job. It makes little sense therefore to accept his kind offer of an arm wrestle.
Sitting in the chic confines of London's Langham Hilton Hotel ground floor restaurant just across the road from Broadcasting House, we are trying to ascertain just how strong the big fellow really is when he comes up with its potentially crockery-smashing suggestion.
This could prove both painful and costly. Here, individual sandwiches -gossamer thin slices of bread garnished with the merest curlicues of cucumber which would leave stomachs rumbling at a pixie's tea party- leave no change from a Lady Godiva. Imagine the cost therefore of sundry items of Royal Doulton's finest bone china being catapulted into the air as the Scandinavian man mountain drives my fist down onto the white-starched linen tablecloth.
Noticing that I look upon his suggestion in much the same way a sheep might regard Damien Hirst, Dolph changes tack.
"How about a finger wrestle?" he suggests. "That's what we used to do when I was a kid."
We hook our middle fingers together, as if to pull a Christmas cracker and reluctantly I take the strain.
It's a fairly even contest for a short period of time, i.e. that sub-division of a second it might take a hummingbird on speed to beat its wings, before my arm shoots forward towards his chest. Dolph's acting skills may not have been sufficient to keep him in the premier league of action heroes since his breakthrough as the Russian robot in Rocky IV, but his coathanger shoulders and six foot several height make him a formidable finger wrestler. If that's what he does with your finger, you wouldn't want him to get his hands on anything more sensitive. As Withmail once remarked of the anabolically enhanced shot putter Geoff Woad, imagine getting into a fight with the fucker.
Dolph returns my finger and exclaims, "You're very strong." Whereupon one realises that this little vignette demonstrates the three key qualities which have kept this former karate champion in gainful employment in Hollywood these past ten years: he's very strong, very charming and he's an excellent liar...
Jean-Claude is the Muscles From Brussels, Arnie used to be the Austrian Oak, but Dolph remains just Dolph the Swedish man. This lack of catchy moniker (something to do with the fact that nothing much rhymes with his birthplace, Stockholm, apart from coxcomb) is indicative of the fact that Dolph has never really been granted admission to the room marked Very Successful Action Heroes.
Since permanentlt punching Apollo Creed's lights out in Rocky IV, Dolph has threatened to break through a few times, but his CV boasts a large number of straight to videoesque no-nos (Dark Angel, Cover Up) or bigger budget near-misses with the wors universe in the title, (Universal Soldier, Masters Of The Universe).
The coming months will see an upsurge in Dolphular activity on the big screen, but the depressing trend looks likely to continue. Firstly, this month sees him star in The Shooter as a CIA operative tracking down a French hitwoman (Maruschka Detmers) on the streets of Prague. The New Year finds him strutting his stuff in the bag of shit known as Johnny Mnemonic as an insane religious type very keen on ripping the head off Keanu Reeves.
All this lack of success would be very amusing if Dolph were a big hunk with an unbearable ego and hideous table manners. But the reverse is true: he is earnest, soft-spoken, thoughtful and doesn't smoke a cigar. The worst that could be said of him is that he has a tendency to drift into the arena of the uninteresting, sauntering occasionally down unpromising conversational boulevards such as the cost of telephone calls between Australia and America. But -hey!- we can't all be Dorothy Parker. But for the sharp cut of his jib, Dolph could easily pass for a middle management figure in a pharmaceutical company. Which, if his papa had had his way, is probably what he would have been.
Apart from Ingmar (and possibly Ingrid), it's doubtful whether anyone has had a more Bergmanesque upbringing than Dolph Lundgren. Raised in Stockholm by his highly academic parents who pushed him hard for success, the teenage Dolph went swiftly off the rails.
"I was rebelling," he explains, "stealing motorcycles, staying out late, getting bad grades, as a kind of way of getting attention."
Lundgren pre, a stern figure, was having none of it and packed the young scamp off to live with his grandparents in the frozen wastes of north Sweden in a little village called Kramfors.
"My grandparents had a really big house, beacuse my grandfather was a hunter," he expounds. "He was a tough guy of the woods. I had a small room in one wing, it was extremely dark at night, cold -and a little scarry."
For five years, from the age of 14 to 19, Dolph buckled down and studied, steered clear of the local ruffians and, to while away the long nights and help him with his woodchopping chores, he took up karate.
By the time he was 19, Kramfors just couldn't hold him and Dolph resolved to see what lay on the other side of the woods. Taking time off from what seemed an inevitable move to study engineering, he set off on a world tour, entering and winning karate championships, bumming around, and earning a few quid on the side ($30 a night, in fact) as a nightclub bouncer. While in Sydney, engaged in this latter pursuit, he met his soon-to-be girlfriend, who expressed an immediate interest in giving him a haircut. The name of the little lady with the scissors? Grace Jones.
"She was doing this one-man [sic] world tour and her first words to me were, 'You! Come here!' Then she said something about wanting to cut my hair."
Presumably his strict, straight, white, Anglo-Saxon parents would have been simply overjoyed that their son was dating a black, androgynous, disco diva. Did he get straight on the dog to tell dad the joyful news?
"Noooo, "laughs Dolph. "I really had never had a girlfriend until I had Grace, so I didn't know how to play it. I think a couple of years later he saw a video of Demolition Man, the one with all the clones marching everywhere and somebody said, 'That's your son's girlfriend'. I believe he had a mild heart attack!"
When Grace went back to America, Dolph stayed in Australia.
"We kept in touch over the phone, rather infrequently because I couldn't afford to make the phone calls. Maybe about once a month or something..."
Anyway, to cut a long telecommunication costs story short, Dolph finally took the plunge and moved to New York to be with Grace and renounced all thoughts of engineering glory. Asking only workman's wages he came looking for a job and he got an offer, namely to become a boxer.
"I was The Great White Hope for awhile," chuckles Dolph. "Stupid idea. I don't know how I came up with that one. I was at the same gym as Gerry Cooney (another habitually horizontal heavyweight) and some people were interested in getting me involved. Boxing's one of the most crooked sports, you know? It's a kind of miserable existence."
Dolph and Grace didn't have a window in their day or night for misery. Life for them was a joyful whirligig of miscegenation and mind expansion; she seven years his senior, an habitu of the New York demimonde, he a wide-eyed lad with a flat-top.
"It was just a wonderful time in New York City," enthuses Dolph. "It was 1983-84, before AIDS came and got really big, so it was still a kind of free lifestyle. It probably won't be like that ever again. But it was a good time. A big shock for a home-grown Swedish boy from the woods! It kind of opened my eyes to things I hadn't experienced before, on many levels."
Then came Rocky the Fourth. Suddenly Dolph was a big star and Grace (whose own film career was in freefall and set to conclude with Alex Cox's Straight To Hell, otherwise known as Straight To Video) was midly miffed. Success, in the words of the country song, had made a failure of their home. Grace was not a girl to take no for an answer, less still to be ignored, as Russell Harty discovered to his cost. Did they ever fight?
"Not too often physically," reflects the big fellow. " But it happened, a little bit. I don't know. I woudn't hit her. There wouldn't be too much left of her if I hit her...
"Ours was the kind of relationship," he muses, "that is almost destined not to work out, but it's wonderful when you have it."
Now 36, Dolph remains positive about his career. "I survive and I'm here now. I don't look back, I look ahead." All the same, he has more than a few regrets about the way his film roles have gone since his breakthrough.
"After Rock IV," ponders Dolph in a manner not unlike Marlon in On The Waterfront, "the people who looked after me, if they'd been smart enough, maybe they would have taken a little more care with this kid, maybe got to know him a little better, then done something a little more unexpected, something different.
"I think I could have been steered in a different direction in the beginning. I didn't know what to do, where to go. Also, I was in the States: alone by myself, with no family, no friends, just me. So you become vulnerable and if people want to take advantage beacause they see they can make money from you, then they do. And it's not that they don't like you, it's just business. Nothing personal. It's 15 per cent."
Dolph's one way to Palookaville has still seen him manage to stay in more or less full employment this past decade without having to fall back on his engineering skills. Just a thought. Had he ever been invited to hop on the casting couch and pop all his clothes off?
"Oh, no," he laughs. "In acting I'm not so sure if it goes on that much. But I've done some modelling work and in the fashion world it's more apparent. Film, if you get up to deciding the leading roles, there's so much money at stake, just because someone sleeps with you' cause you're the producer... well, if you hire the wrong person the whole operation goes down the drain. But if you're a photographer and you have three models who all look good, well maybe that's a different situation..."
It's good to know that Dolph has steered clear of the couch of casting, but still his is the classic "himbo" dilemma.
When I started studying acting in New York," he recalls wistfully, "I didn't plan to be an action hero. I just wanted to learn acting because I felt it was something I needed to try to do for myself, to express something, my inner pain, or something I couldn't get out. Then I got caught up taking my shirt off and strapping a machine gun on to shoot people. There wasn't really much acting -you couldn't have done too much whith those roles no matter how good you were."
Recently, Dolph has returned to New York from Los Angeles and is working in the theatre (no, not on the door) with a view to honing his talent.
"I have to work on my craft. I haven't really had any formal training," he reveals exclusively. "I think that my best work's still to come in the years ahead, when I get a little more mature in my face. Scandinavian looks make you appear much younger than your are. In any case, I think most male movie stars do their best work in their 40s -look at Harrison Ford and Sean Connery- because by then they're real men." (Alas, this is an argument with which we, the ageing and unsuccessful, are all too familiar, but Ford was 35 when he appeared in Star Wars, while Connery was 31 when he took his first Bond role in Dr. No.)
"I think I expected it to be easier, I didn't realise what a complicated, tough and complex business it is to star in a motion picture."
Regrets, he's had a few. For a man who tries not to look back it's to say that Dolph could give Lot's missus (she of pillar of salt fame) a run for her money. It's time to accentuate the positive. Dolph is in London with his jewellery designer wife who's doubtless very attractive. He will be ferried around in a limo and do a lot of shopping. He's still a film star and he's been in work for a decade. And he doesn't even have to pay for the sandwiches.
"That's true. In terms of keeping in work, my career has been a success. I've only had to audition for one role in my life which was for a different kind of role entirely."
So, not so bad after all, eh?
"I didn't get it by the way..."