Sylvester Stallone has been known worldwide as a true screen legend since creating the title role in the seminal 1976 Oscar-winning Best Picture Rocky, for which he also wrote the screenplay. Over the course of his long career, he’s been recognized for his work as an actor, writer and director.
A cultural phenomenon, Rocky grew into a six-film franchise, successfully spanning four decades. He wrote, directed and starred in Rocky II, III and IV, and wrote and starred in Rocky V. Stallone brought the character’s story to a close in 2006 with the critical and box office hit Rocky Balboa, which he also wrote and directed. That year, to commemorate one of the most iconic scenes in motion picture history, a bronze statue of Rocky Balboa was placed at the foot of the now-famous steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum—called the “Rocky steps”—at a dedication ceremony presided over by the mayor.
Beginning with the 1982 blockbuster First Blood, Stallone has also embodied another indelible character: John Rambo. Following that film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, he starred in Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. In 2008, he directed, wrote and starred in Rambo, which continued the saga of the scarred Vietnam vet more than 25 years after his screen introduction.
Stallone more recently wrote and directed perhaps his most ambitious project to date, the action thriller The Expendables, in which he also led an all-star cast, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren. The film opened at number one in August 2010, making Stallone the only actor to open a film at number one in five consecutive decades. In 2012, he co-wrote and starred in The Expendables 2, which reunited the cast, this time under the direction of Simon West.
Upcoming, Stallone is set to star with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action thriller The Tomb, and then stars opposite Robert De Niro in Grudge Match. In addition, he wrote and is producing Homefront, directed by Gary Fleder and starring Jason Statham and James Franco.
Born in New York City, Stallone attended school in suburban Philadelphia, where he first started acting and also became a star football player. He then spent two years instructing at the American College Of Switzerland in Geneva. Returning to the United States, he enrolled as a drama major at the University Of Miami and also began to write.
But Stallone left college to pursue an acting career in NYC, where the jobs did not come easily. During this period, he turned more and more to writing, churning out screenplays while waiting for his acting break. The opportunity came in 1974 when he was cast as one of the leads in The Lords Of Flatbush.
With the money earned from the film, Stallone moved to Hollywood, where he landed a few small roles in television and movies. He also continued to pursue writing. Fighter Rocky Balboa was born in a script Stallone wrote in longhand. Several producers offered to buy the screenplay, but wanted to cast a name star in the title role. Despite being nearly broke, he held fast in his determination to play the part, and his perseverance was finally rewarded and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the conversation below, Stallone talks with The Aquarian about his new film, Bullet To The Head, Rocky, Rambo, and much, much more.
Hey, Mr. Stallone. I’m so honored to be speaking with you.
Thank you very much.
Let me start by asking what interested you in Bullet To The Head?
Well, I liked the idea of a very simple story with a dark morality. There’s humor in that later on, but you start with the basic idea that you have two total opposites having to work together for a common cause who you know are going to have to take each other out at the very end, at least that was the original premise. I also really liked the idea of doing it with Walter Hill after the first director bowed out. That made the project especially enticing.
Was that because of his track record with unlikely-buddy flicks like Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hours?
Yes, and also because he’s kind of gone down the same path as I did. There was a period when I was pretty much untouchable for about eight or nine years until I got a big break with Joe Roth when he helped produce Rocky Balboa. That was a big, big, long shot. Everybody thought it was a joke, but it worked. [Chuckles] I think there’s a lot of music left to play in a lot of these old instruments. And I felt that Walter Hill is a pro at this genre, yet he’s not getting the opportunity. So, when I saw the opportunity present itself, I decided, “If he does the movie, I’ll do it.” And it worked out that way.
How did you develop your character, Jimmy Bobo?
I decided to approach it this way: I, Sylvester Stallone, am really not much like Rocky. Rocky is a much more ethical, moral person than I am. [Chuckles] He’s really a great guy. And Rambo is a much darker person than I am, and much more reserved and withdrawn. I thought, “Let me try something different. What if I, Sylvester Stallone, were transported into the world of hit men?” In other words, what if I were the hit man but just played myself? So that’s the way I approached this character.
I wanted to be as casual and comfortable with the character as possible. I said, “If Sylvester Stallone were a hit man, this is how he would be.” So, pretty much what you see up there is Sylvester Stallone as a hit man. Rather than trying to create a character that was different from me, I tried to make the character the same as me, and just add the story.
I don’t know if that makes sense to you. It’s like as if you were going to play a hit man and asked me, “What do I do?” And I went, “No, no, you Kam, you just have to play yourself.” It would be your personality, but you would play a hit man. That would be an interesting choice. That’s different. That’s unusual. So, this was the first time I’ve ever said, “Let me just be myself, but pretend I’m a hit man.”
How did you go about create the father-daughter dynamic with Lisa [played by Sarah Shahi]?
Having children, they tend to be very angry if you’re not there growing up. Of course, he was never there for her growing up, and she has done everything that’s rebellious. So, I tried to think how I would approach that in my own life. I decided that he would be a little remorseful, but he’d have a little resentment because she’d ask for a favor every time he came to see her. When she decided to be a tattoo artist and to cover herself in tattoos that weren’t exactly the most flattering, I realized she was doing it out of spite and for attention, and as a way of getting back at me. So there are all sorts of possible approaches to developing that kind of relationship.
Is there a message you want people to take away from the film?
That a tiger never really changes his stripes and that Jimmy Bobo is what he is, without regret. But he’s not an amoral person, since he only takes out, as he puts it, “The hard to get at stains.” That’s his job. He takes out the trash. In effect, he’s doing a service. He’s a people person. He removes the bad people.
Documentary director Kevin Williams says: You were sticking to your guns when you wrote and then wanted to star in Rocky. It inspired me to do the same when many told me I couldn’t make my documentary film, Fear Of A Black Republican, and I thank you for your great inspiration in my film’s credits. Do you have any idea how many filmmakers and actors you have inspired and does that experience with making Rocky still come into play for you today?
Actually I don’t, Kevin, but I’m very flattered whenever I hear stories like this, or about a student who has written a graduate thesis on Rocky or Rambo. I’m always surprised to see that the films had that kind of impact. Having that sort of faith in something that only you truly understand and believe in is still prevalent today. If I just know in my gut that a film is going to work, I’ll fight to the death over it, and I convince myself.
When a movie is purely a money job, the film doesn’t have the same sort of intensity and the audience almost senses it, at least that’s the way I perceive it. So, yeah, the idea is to do something that you truly, truly believe in. I understand that a lot of other actors don’t have a choice. They have to eat so they need to work and they’ll do films that they’re not so proud of. But I’ve been fortunate enough to be given a second wind, so I try to pick projects I know will provide the audience the kind of escapism they want from me.
Have you considered getting into the fitness industry and opening a chain of gyms?
(Laughs) I thought about that for a long time, but it’s such a competitive business. I tried a line of vitamins once, but that didn’t go over well because I didn’t realize how hard and time-consuming it was. So, I decided to leave it to the people who are truly dedicated to that 24 hours a day.
Are you still an art collector?
Yes, an avid art collector. (Chuckles) In fact, every day I’ll read a chapter of some art book. I don’t know why. It’s just a habit.
Who is your favorite director and how has he or she influenced your work?
Hmm… It’s not a modern director. To me, the greatest director ever was Elia Kazan, whom many of your readers probably never even heard of. But he did On The Waterfront with Brando, and he did East Of Eden. He made some truly epic, monumental films, when no one else was really doing it. His contemporaries were making relatively lighthearted movies. I’d say he was far and away the best. Everyone today is pretty well much derivative of Kazan. So, to me, he was the real master.
Being versatile and taking control of your career in show business surely helped you succeed and achieve longevity. What advice do you have for aspiring actors who want to follow in your footsteps?
In this day and age, if you’re aspiring to be an actor, and you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, you could be disappointed. I started out as an actor, but I forced myself to be a writer, even though I wasn’t very good at it and had never written. I don’t think I ever passed an English course in my life. My first eight to 10 scripts were pretty horrendous, but I stayed at it, stayed at it, and stayed at it, until I eventually found a voice and a subject like Rocky that people were interested in.
So I recommend that you go out and try to be as versatile as possible: writer, actor, producer and especially director. Look at Ben Affleck. He’s literally had a career reversal. I tell so many young actors that if I hadn’t written, directed and acted, I’d have been long gone. I would not have made it out of the ‘90s.
Are you interested in writing a memoir to give us more of a look into your life than Sly Moves did?
(Laughs) I don’t know. It all depends on how deeply I’d have to delve into it. I’d be willing to do it, if I only had to write about what inspires and motivates me. But I couldn’t go into the personal aspects of my family, because I’m way too private. But my career, absolutely.
Would you ever consider running for public office?
No. I talked to Arnold [Schwarzenegger] about running for office, and he said he loved it. But he is also much more of a people person. You have to have an almost boundless reservoir of energy and interest to enter politics because quite often it’s thankless and fruitless and you can’t accomplish much. But he loved it. I don’t have that. I’m much more of an introvert.
How much of an offer they couldn’t refuse did you make to assemble the cast of matinee idols, not once, but twice, for The Expendables?
(Laughs) This was an idea I got thinking about how there’s strength in numbers. I would always see these rock and roll revivals comprised of 25 different bands that had once been very famous, but weren’t anymore. However, the name value was still there. I said to myself, “Why don’t I do this with actors?” Every one of these guys had had phenomenal careers but had fallen on hard times, including myself.
I thought that together this might generate the same sort of interest that fans have when they go to see a rock and roll revival. Instead, they’d be going to see a revival of action stars. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I thought of it as an experiment. And since I had known them for years, I could call on favors, and all of them could trust me that I wasn’t going to embarrass them. And that’s how I was able to make it happen.
Thanks for a great interview, Mr. Stallone, and best of luck with the film.
Thank you, Kam. I appreciate it. Bye.
Sylvester Stallone’s new film, Bullet To The Head, is in theaters now. For more information, go to bullettothehead.warnerbros.com.