He was the embodiment of cold war villainy as the stone-faced killing machine Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. What few knew back then: The unknown actor from Sweden had a bio that would make his one of the most astonishing Wiki entries in movie history
IT'S BEEN 30 years since moviegoers first laid eyes on Dolph Lundgren. Back then the cold war was still raging, Reagan had christened the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire and, in Hollywood, a heavyweight battle of ideologies was playing out onscreen: the Italian Stallion versus a 6'4" Communist killing machine named Ivan Drago. Never mind that the 27-year-old playing the robotically lethal, hammer-and-sickle villain of Rocky IV was actually Swedish. Or that, betraying a physique seemingly carved from granite, he'd recently earned a Fulbright scholarship to get his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT. When Lundgren croaked "I must break you" (that after, you know, killing Apollo Creed) he became the most despised athlete in the free world.
If you're not a fan of red-meat action films and shoddy straight-to-video thrillers, you probably assumed that Lundgren's big-screen career ended right there. His car, after all, is tricked out today with a dashboard plaque bearing that famous Rocky IV catchphrase. But before you interpret this as the sad affectation of a faded star clinging to past box-office glories, you should know this: That car is a $300,000 custom-made Ferrari 612 Scaglietti GT. Since moving back to Los Angeles in 2010 after divorcing his wife of 17 years (the couple has two daughters: Ida, 19, and Greta, 13), Lundgren, 57, has seen his career take off again. He starred in three movies in '14 alone, bringing his IMDB tally to 53, and he has another eight films in the can, slated for release, including the Coen brothers comedy Hail, Caesar! alongside George Clooney. Whether at home or on a far-flung movie set, he still punishes himself with a brutal weights-and-martial-arts regimen five days a week. And it shows.
On a recent afternoon, with a white-knuckled passenger riding shotgun, the man once known as Mother Russia's Great White Hope raced through the winding streets of Beverly Hills, having fully surrendered to the temptations of Tinseltown—a blond-haired, blue-eyed blur behind aviator sunglasses tearing west on Sunset, toward the Pacific. Dolph Lundgren is doing just fine.
So, how does a Swedish engineering student wind up in a Rocky movie?
DL: I'd met this singer, Grace Jones, and we became a couple. I moved to New York City [from Nyland, Sweden, after a stop in Washington] to be with her. I was a black belt in karate and had won the [British and Australian Opens], and I had a Fulbright scholarship. I had six months off before I started school, and Grace took me into her life, which was basically Studio 54 and Andy Warhol's Factory. The gates of hell sort of opened up, and Dolph Lundgren walked right through. Come September, I went up to MIT on my big black motorcycle, all dressed in leather, and I was very much an oddity. The professors were expecting this brilliant, nerdy Swedish kid. They didn't know what to make of me. After a week I went back to New York and studied acting, and after a few months I was sent to an audition for a boxing movie.
You didn't know it was Rocky IV?
DL: No. And the woman running the audition said, "Next! ... Name? ... Height?" When I said 6'4", she said, "Too tall ... next!" Then I saw the poster behind her for Rocky IV. I couldn't believe I was blowing this chance. So I went home and took some pictures in boxing gear and sent them to someone who knew someone who had maybe met Sly Stallone once. Six months later they flew me to L.A.
Is that when you first met your screenmate?
DL: Yeah. I took a cab to the Paramount lot and [Stallone] came out—very tan, long Rambo hair, shorter than I thought [laughs], but he still looked tough. He said there were 5,000 guys up for the part. He told me to go back to New York and put on 10 more pounds of muscle. So I trained for six months, even though I still didn't have the part. Then I had to go back and do the monologue where I say, "My name is Drago." The next day I got the call from Sly.
Did the two of you train in the ring together?
DL: Yeah, for five months! Six days a week: an hour and a half of weights every morning, and boxing for two hours in the afternoon. There were no stunt doubles; it's all real.
It's such a rah-rah, flag-waving cold war movie.
DL: It's a very patriotic movie, and I was obviously the bad guy. Afterward I realized that people actually think that stuff is real. Suddenly I was the guy who killed Apollo Creed! But look: It started me on a career tangent I hadn't planned. To get a black belt takes seven years. To get an MIT Ph.D. takes like 10 years. But in Hollywood, all of a sudden I was in this huge picture. I walked into the premiere as an unknown. And when I walked out, two hours later, everything had changed. I was famous. It takes years to recover from something like that.
DL: It's totally unnatural for people you've never met to feel as though they know you. It's very seductive. I was in my 20s, and if you want to meet a lot of chicks, that helps a lot. But on a deeper level, you end up not knowing who you are anymore.
Is it true that you put Stallone in the hospital while filming?
DL: Even though we choreographed the fight scenes, you still get hit. And Sly, he's a bit of a perfectionist. He wants everything to look brutal and real. And he was asking for it. He has a masochistic part of his personality, like Mel Gibson. Maybe it's a Catholic thing. He had me hit him quite hard—then I got a call saying that we had to take two weeks off because he was in the hospital. I guess he bruised his heart muscle pretty badly.
Do you remember how much you got paid?
DL: I think I made 25 grand. And I was happy. That seemed like a lot of money at the time.
What sort of opportunities did you get right after that?
DL: The next year ABC hired me as a commentator for the Sugar Ray Leonard--Marvin Hagler fight. I interviewed both of them; I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I sat ringside and got hit with a little blood. The thing I remember most is that Sugar Ray was taking a lot of punishment, and his cornerman told him not to look into the spit bucket because there was so much blood in there.
Did you ever feel like a fraud, becoming famous so quickly?
DL: The Impostor Complex? Sure, I felt that a lot. And if you want to get deeper into it, I can tell you the main reason I got into [martial arts] fighting was because I had a conflict with my father. If you talk to boxers, a lot of them have issues with their dads, and it takes physical expression because you're trying to protect yourself or assert yourself, or there's something you have to get out of your system. I had that with my dad. He had a lot of violence in him. And I took some of that as a kid.
At what age?
DL: It started when I was five or six and went on until 13 or 14. Martial arts was a response to that. It's why I was good at it. If I got hit hard, something would kick in and I would become very hard to beat. I didn't give a s--- because I'd already been hit.
You seem like a pussycat in person, but people have a scary impression of you. There's a story about some guys trying to rob your home....
DL: About six years ago, I was shooting a movie and I got a call that three Eastern European guys showed up with ski masks and guns at our house in Marbella, Spain. They'd tied up my wife and two daughters. They wanted my wife to open the safes, and they threatened to hurt my kids. And my older daughter said to them, "If my dad was here, it would be different." And then they saw a picture of me in the house and must have gotten scared. They split. Afterward, I called some old KGB assassins I know, but they never found them. It could have gotten ugly.
You co-starred with Jean-Claude Van Damme in three Universal Soldier movies. What would happen if you two fought in real life?
DL: Look, he was never a fighter. I was. He's a nice guy and he's a great film fighter, but I have at least 30 pounds on him. Let's put it this way: I don't think it would last that long. That's just being honest.
You once flirted with going pro as a fighter. Are you still a boxing fan?
DL: To some extent. I just feel that recently it's been a little dull, especially on the heavyweight front, which I'm more interested in. I liked Mike Tyson, Ali, the big hitters. Boxing has lost some of the thrill and danger it used to have, when you thought, That guy will be lucky to walk out of there on his own. It seems more like a marketing game now: Try to make as much money and take the least amount of damage as possible. It's not as exciting to watch.
It sounds like you might be more interested then in MMA....
DL: I am. It's more dangerous, more of a show, more real, guys are going after each other a little more. I'm a big fan of Lyoto Machida. But I'm still a little uneasy about mixing money and martial arts. It takes away some of the respect, self-control; it becomes a blood sport. I always think that if these two guys—or women—entered the Octagon as a samurai would, knowing that only one is going to walk out of there alive, the attitude would be very different.
What about your old Rocky foe: Have you and Stallone kept in touch?
DL: After Rocky IV we saw each other here and there. Then, when he did Rocky Balboa, in 2006, I went to the premiere and we caught up. A week later I got back to my hotel room, and he'd delivered this huge poster from Africa: the two of our faces [from Rocky IV] hand-painted on a burlap sack. A couple of years later Sly wanted to talk to me about The Expendables. I remember reading the description of my character: a drunk, murderous Swede. I was like [sarcastically], Thanks a lot, man!
He's doing another Rocky movie, Creed, about Apollo's grandson. If he asked you to be in it, would you?
DL: I don't think I'd play Ivan Drago again. I want to let that character rest. People have good memories of that film, and I'd hate to mess that up.... [For Hail, Caesar!] they wanted me to play a Russian submarine commander. I'm careful about playing Russian characters because I played one that was very iconic. But I said O.K. On the first day, I was in the makeup trailer with Channing Tatum. He was like, "I can't believe I'm meeting you; when I was a kid, I saw all your movies!" I haven't done Academy Award--level movies, but that felt nice.
Do you ever think what your life would be like if you'd never left MIT?
DL: My goal was to get my Ph.D., then study business at Harvard and then work at an oil company or something. Knowing what I know now, I don't think that would have made me very happy. It sounds weird, but show business kind of saved my life. It was a way to find out who I really was. Now I'm just going to try and stay around for another 30 years.
"Jean-Claude Van Damme was never a fighter," says Lundgren. "I was. I have 30 pounds on him. I don't think a fight would last that long."
Photograph by Brian Lowe For Sports Illustrated
ENTER THE DRAGO Lundgren's career was hardly a wrap after his boxing breakout: He's since portrayed He-Man and a cyborg, and in 2015 he'll play a sub commander alongside George Clooney.
PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN AT CLASSIC KICKBOXING, PASADENA
OFF TO A ROCKY START Lundgren still enjoys a little punchy-punchy, but he does it without his original red-and-yellow trunks: One year after filming, he says, "my manager put [my wardrobe] into storage and someone forgot to pay the fee, so they took everything. Someone somewhere has that."
[See caption above]