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... interview ...
by Men's Perspective
Vol.1 Issue 4   August 1996

Dolph Lundgren - Actor, Athlete and Olympian

Sweden's perennial hard man is on a roll this year. He has two new movies in the can, is on the trail for gold in Atlanta, voted Team Leader for the U.S. modern pentathlon squad, and this week Dolph Lundgren became a father. Here is a man loaded with contradiction. As a sick child, he became involved in athletics, winding up as a world-class karate champion. As a young athlete, he travelled the world through various academic scholarships, winding up as a Fulbright man taking his Masters at M.I.T. Eventually, with his Masters in Chemical Engineering, he took to acting and wound up as Stallone's arch-nemesis in Rocky IV. One day Dolph Lundgren woke up and he was one of the biggest action-movie stars in the world.

Men's Perspective: How did you find the United States on your first visit?

Dolph Lundgren: Let's see. I first came over on a scholarship in 1977 when I was about eighteen. I was at Washington State University, and I liked it very much. I always wanted to come over to the States, ever since I was a kid. It had a bit of a mysterious aura in Sweden back in those days. I didn't see much of the country as a whole, but there was something about the energy, initiative and the positivism that I've always remembered.

MP: How does living in the United States compare to living in Sweden?

DL: When I came over to stay, I really didn't like Sweden that much; I thought it was kind of boring. I had all this ambition and adventurous spirit, and I thought the States were more conductive to somebody who wanted to challenge themselves in life.

MP: As a young man growing up in Sweden, did you want to be more of an athlete or an academic?

DL: Well, I guess the true answer is neither. I always wanted to be in the arts, that was my passion, either in music or theater. I did some playing in a band, some theater in school, but my father wanted me to pursue engineering, and I got involved in athletics, after being sick as a kid, and I guess to make up for that, I got involved in a lot of sports. I think there was a pretty equal balance back then, but inside, I knew that neither of those occupations were what I wanted to take up for life. At some point I stumbled upon acting.

MP: How and when did you decide to become an actor?

DL: I went to Australia for the final year of my engineering studies, and had about six months off between finishing my studies in Sydney and starting at M.I.T. in Boston. I came to New York, and I got in contact with show business there, and started studying acting. I was just drawn to it. Then, [even though] my parents were really proud that I'd gotten that far on a scholarship, and I always wanted to get there, but in the fall of '83 , I decided that it wasn't for me. I moved back to New York, took up acting, and the following year I got involved in Rocky IV.

MP: You travelled a lot as a karate champion. Do you think there's a similar discipline required in the making of action movies?

DL: I think for any actor, martial arts—or Oriental disciplines—have always been attractive, because there's a certain singleness of mind, focus, being in the moment and leaving your thoughts behind that are applicable to acting. In my case, I was so involved in the competitive side of it, you know? It makes you very physical, very used to hiding everything, and not showing any emotion, so perhaps it actually worked against me.

MP: You worked briefly in New York as a stage actor. Ho w do you fell that differs from your work as a movie actor?

DL: I started, of course, in films. I came out to L.A. and stayed about five or six years before I moved back to New York in '92. We formed this theater group—the Group of Eight. We've done a few productions, mostly one-act plays. The big difference is that on stage it's pretty much the actor's medium. The director can sit out there and watch with every body else. In film the director is the artist, has the vision. For me, the stage was great. It's almost like doing it backwards. Most actors start with training, then stage work, and then get into film, where for me it was the other way around. In film, you have to think of so many different things, the schedule, the continuity, you have to deal with a lot of politics and behind-the-scenes infighting, whereas as a stage actor your main purpose is to prepare, go out there, and just work off the other actors, work off the moment, and whatever happens happens. I think it's tremendously important, even in action movies, whatever little chance you may have, to show some spontaneity, and be in the moment, and stage acting teaches you that.

MP: How did you get the role of Ivan Drago in the the Rocky movie?

DL: I was up for a couple of different roles at the time, and on of them was this Russian fighter. I didn't know it was a Rocky picture. I went up for a “cattle call,” as they call them, and there must've been hundreds there. I later found out that there were about a thousand actors up for that role. I went in for the casting, and they turned me down because I was too tall, but I managed to get some 8-by-10s off to Stallone's office through a friend. They called, I went to L.A. and met him, and then I had to do some training to get a little more built up. I did a couple of screen tests, and met the producers… Getting the role took about six months, and finally it was down to a screen test. I thought I was alone, but at the hotel I stayed in I ran into two other big blond guys, you know, about six-five, six-six, and I realized that, perhaps it wasn't over yet. I had to do the screen test monologue. There were about thirty people behind the camera watching, including Stallone, and the next day I went back to New York, Sly called and I got the role.

MP: What was it like working with Sylvester Stallone?

DL: It was very interesting for me. It was a good introduction to the business, because Sly took me under his wing, and he, of course, directed the picture, and knew a lot, had tremendous experience. I learned about determination, ambition, and perfectionism. We obviously sparred a lot and worked out for about six months before the picture, so we got to know each other pretty well. We're still good friends.

MP: I'm trying to picture this scene for myself and for the readers. You're a karate champion, an academic, and you're in a Rocky picture. How did that change your life?

DL: It was a tremendous change. Sly told me, “You don't realize what's going to happen when this movie comes out,” and I always kind of said, “Well, yeah, I know what you mean…” I didn't realize that suddenly, almost overnight, I became known all over the world. This was during the Reagan era, East-West relations were very important, and this movie became quite prominent, at that time. It was a box-office success, so suddenly every body wanted to know how I felt about the political situation, and my views on all kinds of matters that I hadn't thought about, and I'd never really had any formal acting training or media training. It was a big change. I look back now, and I'm amazed that I could actually deal with it and survive it, because there are very few actors who rise to fame that quickly without any background. I lost my footing for a while, being by myself in L.A., but I kept working, and did back-to-back movies, and slowly but surely, I've gotten to know the business, and I've gotten back to myself, who I am.

MP: How did it feel to be suddenly so much in the public eye?

DL: Really strange. It was like my real persona was lost, obliterated by this image people had. It was tough. I guess all movie stars go through the same thing. I suppose even though many people would wish such a thing to happen to them, in my case I became, not an actor, but a movie star. I've starred in all of my movies after that, and it's taken pretty much ten years to deal with it.

MP: You've worked in a dozen or so very physical movie roles. How do you train for them?

DL: I was always an athlete, and I've always been in good shape. I've done sports since I was about fifteen, so the physical side is second nature. I would do it whether I was an actor or a chemical engineer, really. What I've been trying to learn more about is acting and how to be relaxed and be myself in front of the camera. I think a lot of these action/adventure movies are very much driven by the star, and people expect certain qualities in the star that you have to have as a person . People like Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and if you go back, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, they have some qualities, not just in their roles, but as men. I think that has to do with maturity, and that's what I'm trying to reach right now. So, it's been interesting; it's been tough. The training I do is pretty much what I did when I started: martial arts, spar, hit the bag, run, lift some weights.

MP: On the other hand you've got Dolph the movie star, who's known for these physical roles, and Dolph the man, who's schooled as an academic. How do you deal with those contradictions?

DL: It was tough when I started, but I think you have to realize that the audience will have a perception of me as a larger-than-life character, and I have to live with that. That's how I make a living, so I can't walk away from that. But I think the more I can be natural in front of the camera, doing interviews.

MP: You've worked with some of the greats of the action movie world. How did their working methods differ from yours?

DL: I worked with Sly and Jean-Claude, I worked with Brandon Lee and also with Keanu Reeves, for instance. Well, I guess all actors are different. I don't think I've really gotten into my own in the business yet, because I've been a slow developer—I guess as a Scandinavian you tend to be a little more innocent. We come from a small country, and I just think it takes more time to get into your own as a man if you come from a small place such as Stockholm. A lot of these people I work with have found their formula for success, whereas I don't really think I have. I'm working on it, and I'm just going to let it take its time, and I think every year I get closer to it.

MP: You worked on the movie Pentathlon, and some of the guys on the Olympic team trained with you. At that point, did you feel you might ever end up the modern pentathlon Olympic Team Leader?

DL: To tell you the truth, I didn't. They told me about it back then, but I was too busy working on the picture and thinking about the deals. I was about to get engaged, I didn't have the peace of mind and the focus to carry out the task, but as a couple of years passed and I got a little more centered as a person, and they kept asking if I wanted to try out for this job, I thought about it and realized it was a hell of a challenge. It wasn't being an actor and playing a role, it was a job. It reminded me not just of my background in amateur athletics, being with these athletes at a very tough time in their careers—probably the toughest time—but it also reminded me of engineering and just trying to structure something and take some responsibility. I had to go through a lot of interviews and there were other people involved who were politician types, people in the organization. I actually pulled it off and was nominated by the association. Only afterwards I realized that this was something special. It's going to give me a lot. It already has, but I think it's something that's going to make me grow, as a man, not just as an actor, but something I can remember for the rest of my life, being part of the Olympic games.

MP: What will your role consist of in the run up to the Games?

DL: A Team Leader is an official member of the team. I'm the official liaison between the USOC and the pentathlon team. So I'm the person who organizes the team's travel, equipment, accreditation, everything from meals to transportation during the games, to the housing in the Olympic village, and the myriad of regulations from the USOC that the team has to adhere to. Also in my case, because I'm a bit of a public figure, to helping the pentathlon sport.

MP: What does the training of a pentathlon athlete involve?

DL: The sports in a modern pentathlon are pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and running. It's based more or less on a Napoleonic courier in the 19th century. It was created by the founder of the Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin. You've got five events, five disciplines, and they're all carried out over one day, so it's physically gruelling. The training involves these five sports, and they're pretty much in the gym and the horse ring about six to eight hours a day. It's a very tough sport. It's been called the ultimate, and it's one of the oldest sports in the Games.

MP: Tell me about your last couple of projects, Silent Trigger?

DL: That was a picture we shot last year, in Montreal, and it's an action- thriller in the film noir genre. It's pretty much a four-character piece, set in a confined environment of a modern high-tech building. It's about assassins working for the government, and it's a very visual movie. It gave me a chance to play a character who, even though he's the lead, the hero, still has a dark side and is mysterious. A little bit in the Sergio Leone, early Clint Eastwood vein, which I quite enjoy.

MP: Your wife's just had a child. It's only been a few days now, I know, but do you think your mindset has changed?

DL: Yeah, I'm sure it has, I don't really know how yet [laughs] but I just think it's strength, and the base that I'm working from as an actor and a person in show business, which means being a businessman, you have to have some security and confidence when you make deals and negotiate with people, and having a family definitely gives you more security and more of a base to stand on. This year is the first year I've really taken some time off. I've worked more of less solidly from 1985, and I decided to take time off and be with my wife during her pregnancy, and I have done that, and I've had much more time to read scripts and watch director's tapes, and turned a lot of things down that maybe five years ago I would have taken. Also, on a more day-to-day basis, just walking into the bedroom and looking at my daughter sleeping there and feeling how much I love her, makes me not give a shit about a lot of things I would have worried about before.

MP: Where do you see yourself professionally and personally in ten years?

DL: Ten years is a long time. I have ideas for projects, a couple of films I'd like to do here in Sweden. There's a period piece that I very much like and will probably produce and star in, in Swedish, which is something I haven't done before. As far as my American and international career, I'm trying to find directors who are interesting and have an edge, who show that they have a certain vision. I suppose in ten years I would like to feel that I have my integrity and my choices, and go back and do some more stage. I'd love to have done something in Sweden, I love Swedish history and I would love to do a period piece. As a person, in ten years I'd like to have maybe a few more kids, and I'd like to have an even more stable family situation, and financial situation, so I don't have to work if I don't want to, and enjoy time with my family. For me, my family is the most important thing in my life.


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