Audiences haven’t been holding out for a hero in civilian clothes – or even patriotic active gear – for a good long time, having as a majority surrendered their taste for old school, analog narratives that rooted their modern myths in the slums of Philly instead of, say, the Marvel Universe. At 69 years of age, however, Sylvester Stallone remains as sturdy and reliable as Mount Olympus itself, the eye of the tiger still powering his every move and, quite unapologetically, devoutly old school.
In an age where the average studio film costs $200-million to produce, much of it dedicated to expensive visual effects, elaborate wardrobe, and (quite possibly) Robert Downey, Jr.’s gingko baloba supplements, Stallone’s return last fall to the scrappy, hangdog milieu of working-class pugilist (and eventual American icon) Rocky Balboa is as resolutely old-fangled as Rocky’s trademark boxing trunks are star-spangled. In 1976, the role simultaneously introduced Stallone to moviegoers and secured his place in the cinematic firmament, spawning six sequels, several Academy Awards, and some $1.2-billion at the global box office.
Made for less than $40-million, Creed – the seventh installment in the Rocky saga – has grabbed more than $150-million at the global box office, enjoyed nearly unanimous critical accolades, and earned Stallone an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his blunt, heartfelt, almost folksy performance as the legendary boxer whose battered, but burning heart is reignited when the illegitimate son of his late bromantic partner, Apollo Creed, unexpectedly appears looking to land a KO or two of his own.
While Stallone has made his share of cinematic sucker punches – uh, does anyone need to see him croon love songs with Dolly Parton again? – how many filmmakers can you name who have created not one, not two, but a trio of wildly lucrative, crowd-pleasing, Zeitgeist-thumping film franchises? (That would be the 14 films that are the Rocky, Rambo, and Expendables series, for those heading to Trivia Night at the local watering hole). More than the memories Stallone has provided generations in darkened theaters around the world, he has on the eve of septuagenarianism embraced a brand-new role in life and film that honors his old school ethos: mentor. Because, Stallone says, we all need someone in our corner of the ring. Here, here.
We first talked about 15 years ago when you were doing some work for the silver anniversary of the Rocky films. What was that like, being a man in his 50s, looking back at films he made in his early 30s?
As Bob Hope used to say, “How would you feel sitting there, watching your hairline recede?” (Laughs) I’m only kidding. It’s a very odd feeling watching yourself grow up on film. It really is. And quite often those films chronicle a part of your life, like almost autobiographically, so sometimes I’m watching those movies, going, “God, that was a great time in my life.” Or maybe I’m going, “Boy, I was involved in some very bad relationships there.” (Laughs) The truth is: watching their old movies is how a lot of actors tell time and keep track of their lives. They can’t tell you the year or the dates or any of that, but if you throw a movie title at them, something they were in, and most of them will go, “Oh, yeah, I remember making that film. Yeah, wow, jeez, that was terrible!” With the Rocky movies, I have to tell you: I was pretty surprised when I went back and watched them again at how a lot of it worked really well. Some of it is quaint. Some of it is cute. But they hold up, I think. They hold up for me. There’s a real simplicity about the Rocky movies that I wish I could maintain in every film I do.
Somehow, Rocky Balboa is celebrating his 40th anniversary in the public eye, and now you’re receiving some of the warmest notices of your career, not to mention a trophy or two. What are your thoughts on Rocky’s status as one of cinema’s most beloved characters?
Well, the character of Rocky Balboa is very biographical, kind of autobiographical, if you know what I mean. We're at the same age these days, Rocky and me, and I guess we always have been. (Laughs) I remember the first time I ever saw Burgess Meredith (who played Rocky’s trainer, Mickey Goldmill, in the franchise’s first three installments), and I thought to myself, "This guy’s so brilliant – and he’s definitely way up there in years!" So here I am. I’m the same age as Burgess was back then! (Laughs) But what Rocky has afforded me the opportunity to do – and I’m not sure this has ever been done before, or if it will ever be done again – is actually age as the character ages, while the character ages along with me. Rocky and me, we’ve always been the same age, and if you look at each one of the movies, I think you’ll see something really special: in those performances, I have literally brought along to the screen all the things that have happened to me in my private life. I think it shows up there on the screen. I’m a totally different human being than I was in (the first) Rocky. And Rocky’s a pretty different human being in Creed, I think. He’s a little more worldly. He’s kind of beaten up a little bit by life. He’s lost the love of his life. He’s lost his ability to fight. He’s figuring however many days he’s got left, he’s all alone.
A lot of your fans might be surprised to hear you say you can relate with these aspects of Rocky Balboa.
Well, some of it I can relate to, and some of it I can simply understand it. I think about people when they face the harder parts of growing older – like when their mate passes on – and I’ve seen so many people in that position really struggling with the question of why they’re even going on any longer. What are they living for at that point? If you’re lucky, maybe they find some sense of purpose or accomplishment in helping others. That’s quite often why I do charity work. At a certain age, I think a lot of us are really looking for anything to take us out of the doldrums. When we first meet up with Rocky again in Creed, he’s at this place where he wants to see Adrienne (his departed paramour) so badly, that he’s ready. He’s not even resigned to leaving; he’s ready. He wants to be reunited with her. What else is left for him here on this Earth? And then this kid (Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) shows up and presents him with this alternative and it changes the course of a lot of things for both of them. That really speaks to me. That’s what I mean when I say these movies are biographical or autobiographical. I really believe that as an adult it’s your responsibility to leave as many useful things behind for your loved ones as you possibly can. Otherwise, what are you doing here?
I tell my sons all the time: we’re here to look after each other.
That’s right. I like that. I mean, that’s how we make the world a better place. We have to take all of the pain life gives us, all of the wisdom, all of the scars from all of the battles, and you hand it down. That’s what Rocky does in this movie: he gives everything he is to this young man. It’s basically Rocky saying, “Look, I’m giving this to you. You may end up blowing it. You may not pay much attention to it. But this is what I’ve got. This is who I am. This is my gift to you – my life.”
Is it possible that the philosophy you’ve just expressed played out during the making of Creed, with you giving it all up to a young actor, Michael B. Jordan? There’s a genuine intimacy and affection between the two of you, on and off screen.
Well, when people looked at me when the first Rocky came out, they didn’t really think, “That guy must be a boxer.” Michael’s kind of in the same situation today as I was back then. He’s got this very commanding physicality to him, but when we first met, it didn’t immediately smash me in the face, like, “This kid’s a boxer!” But when you’re as smart and talented as Michael is, learning the whole boxing thing is a piece of cake. What Michael’s got that you can’t fake and I’m not even sure you can really learn it is this tenderness, this authenticity. Behind the toughness Michael can put on, there’s a really good, really solid, really warm young man. He’s a smart kid. He’s looking for answers in the world, and that search, that yearning, that warmth, they make Michael a very likeable young man. People like him. People trust him. People embrace him. They root for him. There have been so many actors through the years who have played fighters, and some of them have done it very well, but I can’t think of one of them who has what Michael has. They’re missing that thing that Michael has. I’m not sure I know the word for it. I’m not sure I can define it for you. It’s what makes a star. You know who else has that? Denzel Washington. No matter what character he’s playing, even the guys who are pretty bad dudes, there’s something about Denzel. He just pulls me right in. His characters might have major issues, but I want to be his friend. I want to support him. If he’s doing wrong on screen, I might even want him to get away with it. Denzel has that. Michael B. Jordan has that.
Did you have those qualities as a younger man?
I don’t know. I kind of doubt it. When we were making the first Rocky, Carl Weathers (who portrayed Rocky Balboa’s alter ego, Apollo Creed, in the franchise’s earlier offerings) walked into the production office one morning, and he was talking to one of the producers, saying, “You know, I could be a much better actor – if I had someone really great to act against.” And I heard that and looked up from what I was doing – he wasn’t even talking to me – and I said, “Um, that’s me. I’m Rocky.” And Carl goes, “Oh, man, sorry.” It was bombastic, but Carl was never cruel. There was just something genuine about his energy and passion and conviction. I’ve wished a lot of times that I hadn’t “gotten rid” of Carl Weathers so early on (in the Rocky series). Carl was a huge part of why the Rocky films worked; audiences really wanted to see Rocky and Apollo Creed fight. I think that’s one reason why audiences have been so quick to embrace Creed – because they love Apollo Creed, they love Carl’s character, they love Carl, and they were ready to check in on him and see what’s happened in his world.
That may be undervaluing your own appeal with audiences. They’ve followed you through thick and thin.
Well, they haven’t always come for the “thin.” (Laughs) Hey, you know what? They haven’t always come out for the “thick”! But they have been there for me, that’s true. I’m very lucky.
What is it about Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa that continues to connect with audiences four decades later?
It inspires people. At least, that’s what the people who come up to me say – the movie pumps them up, lets them see the possibilities of greatness in their own lives, it inspires them. I have to be honest: when I was writing Rocky and making Rocky, I didn’t have any master plan. I wasn’t thinking along those lines when I wrote the script. I was just writing something I thought would work for me. But all these years later, there’s that statue of Rocky there in Philadelphia, and people come from all over the world to see it, take their picture with it – people from Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Australia, everywhere. Even I go there sometimes! (Laughs) When I see people there at the statue, I have to ask them, “Why are you here?” And they tell me, “Rocky makes me feel strong,” or “Rocky gives me hope,” things like that. One kid told me he watches Rocky before every game of football that he plays. I was just writing the movie I needed to see back then – a movie that reminded me I can take the other guy’s very best punch, but still come out okay. So I think the answer to your question is one word: “inspiration.”
It’s been a while since Rocky’s been on the big screen. Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker who stewarded Creed into production and directed the film just brilliantly, he’s 29-years old. He wasn’t even born until right around Rocky IV!
Yeah, he’s a young punk, you know what I mean? (Laughs) No, seriously, listen . . .Ryan brought to this character and this movie an absolutely unwavering love and passion and commitment. He worked on this movie like a man on a mission, and he kind of was a man on a mission. When Ryan was younger, his father was going through a really major dilemma – a physical dilemma – and watching the Rocky movies, Ryan says that really helped them both through that experience. So the Rocky movies – the Rocky character – it means everything in the world to this guy, and with Creed, he made up his mind he was going to pay homage. This all started – Creed, I mean – many, many, many years ago with a kid and his father and all that enthusiasm and commitment, he must’ve been saving it all up for now.
It’s really evident onscreen – the movie just crackles with energy and authenticity.
Well, I have this relentless responsibility to try to keep Rocky Balboa’s legacy in tact. I’m very attached to this guy. I’m very protective of him. I didn’t really think anyone would want or need to check in on Rocky Balboa these days, but Ryan, he really convinced me. I realized: the Rocky character is in tact. I’ve done my job. And now Ryan comes along – he came up with this story about Rocky and Apollo Creed’s son that no one was asking him for, no one was giving him money to write, it was just a story he had to tell, and he wrote it right after Fruitvale Station (Coogler’s acclaimed debut feature, also starring Jordan), when he had hundreds and hundreds of other scripts to choose from – and what he wrote is just beautiful to me. And it made me see something that matters: there’s a whole new generation now that doesn’t necessarily have a clear picture of Rocky Balboa in their hearts. Ryan came up with something that would put the whole Rocky world in their hearts, I thought. He had very personal reasons for writing it and very personal reasons for directing it. He was just driven. Relentless. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as focused as Ryan. It's not to be dismissive of any of the truly great people I’ve had the privilege of working with, but I've just never seen a more focused individual on one project. Ever.
Creed certainly feels like a new jolt of adrenaline to the Rocky franchise. What do you think? What else is there for us to experience with Rocky Balboa?
I think the Rocky story is pretty much done. His (boxing) ring story is done, and his journey with Adrian is over, and Creed is actually about this new character, Apollo Creed’s kid, and Rocky is in this position of “How do you communicate with a different generation that's kind of angry, that kind of feels as though opportunity has passed them by?” Rocky's kinder, simpler times don't automatically apply to today's world, and there’s some really interesting stuff showing how these two men – these two worlds – really start to collide and then come to this place where they really love one another and really rely upon each other. When you get right down to it, after all the points have been tallied, what really counts is love.
Michael B. Jordan has been a major talent and movie star on the rise for some time. He’s just riveting onscreen, and always has been – even as a little boy on HBO’s The Wire. What do you see in Jordan?
Michael is extraordinary. He’s the consummate professional – maybe even beyond professional. He spent over a year preparing for this part. His dedication to the training . . .he was in extraordinary shape. I mean, I’ve done a few of these Rocky movies, and I think Michael was in better shape than I ever was. To maintain that kind of physique and his energy and passion, it’s more than just the hardest work you’ve ever done. It takes a special quality. It takes a special human being. And Michael’s one of those people. He really is. And he learns things, and takes them with him, from wherever he goes. To this very day, Michael is very specific about what he eats and how he takes care of his body. He’s living the part, you know what I mean!
Just when we thought there wasn’t anything else a filmmaker could bring to capturing a bout for the big screen, Coogler comes along and shoots Creed’s fight sequences in these brilliant, long takes. It really draws the audience into not just the kinetics of the fight, but the emotions of the contest.
To Ryan's credit, he took the “blueprint” I gave him, the other Rocky movies, and he analyzed that “blueprint,” and he took that to heart, and then he chose to choreograph the fights himself. He didn’t want to build something from old blueprints; he wanted to be a man who makes the blueprint himself. I like that. A lot. He’s a new breed of director that is a real auteur. One of those guys. That’s a hard thing to be these days. See, a lot of people see the Rocky movies and think they’ve maybe figured out it must be kind of easy to make them, but there’s really two movies going on in a movie like Creed: you have your drama and then you have your fights. They’re two completely different kinds of films, at least to a good director they are. You shoot basically the same amount of footage for both parts, but with a fight, you have to cram all the narrative stuff – everything the fight is doing to move the story and the characters forward – into nine minutes with very little dialogue. It's all choreography and performance. It’s very complicated. This is the first time in six Rocky movies I haven’t done the fight choreography, so I couldn’t help myself sometimes. I kept telling Ryan, “Remember: you’re making two movies here!” He didn’t need me nagging at him. (Laughs) He did it. No problem.
It can’t be lost on you that the story of Creed – both the story on screen and the narrative of the film’s making – are really parallel pieces. Either way, Rocky Balboa – or Sylvester Stallone – is rejuvenated by a young Turk, right?
(Laughs) I guess that makes me an old Turk, right? (Laughs) Ryan and Michael are so very, very impassioned and energetic. They don’t see problems; they see opportunities. They aren’t afraid of the hard work; they love it. They’re out there doing their thing to find their own personal best every single day. They keep challenging themselves. They keep raising the bar on themselves. They’re two people that really get it: the real battle in life isn’t with the other guys in the ring; it’s with the man in the mirror. And these guys are world-class at winning that battle. They’re really amazing guys. They’re the kinds of guys I hope I was back then, you know what I mean.
Over the last 15 years or so, with the notable exception of The Expendables franchise, you’ve focused more on smaller roles – character work – and you’ve reminded audiences and critics alike just how good you can be. Even in Creed, good ol’ Rocky Balboa slides over from leading man to mentor. Tell me about shifting from leading man to character actor.
Well, I think: a) I’ve done the other thing — you know, the one-man band thing, the leading role thing, and there’s only so much you can really do with that, the redemption story. I’ve done it in Rambo and I’ve done it in Copland, you know? And a lot of other times. Where I’m at in my career now, I’m finding myself surrounded by some really interesting, young, new talent, and they’ve caught me at a moment when I’m feeling very reflective of my own life. I feel like I’ve solved a lot of mysteries in my own life, and I like explaining what I can to the young guys. They’re always so fascinated by it. So I kind of made a choice: why don’t I be the kind of guy that I always wish I’d met when I was starting out, the guy that says, “Hey, listen, there’s a giant pothole over there. And, um, you really don’t want to go into that room with those people. And let me answer whatever questions that I can for you and maybe I can help you avoid a problem or two that nearly killed me.” You know, instructive. I wish I had had that kind of upbringing, but I didn’t. So I made a choice to be that person as best as I can.
If Sylvester Stallone today could toss young Sylvester Stallone a map of the biggest potholes, what would that look like?
Well, I’d say first of all, never let anyone see you frown. Ever. You know why? Because you can’t read a smile, but you can definitely read a frown, and people do not want to see other people who are young, handsome, beautiful, talented, and making good money acting like they’ve got gigantic problems. Frowning. I mean, you want problems? Go out there into the world; there’s billions of problems. So I’d probably tell myself: never, ever, ever publicly feel sorry about yourself, talk about your terrible upbringing, mope, frown, or complain. I don’t want to hear about it. Start to get involved in other people’s lives. Be supportive of them. Be charitable. That’s the first thing. Serving other people, that’s not only the right thing to do for the world, but it’s the best thing you can do for yourself. I really believe that.
Going back to Creed and the Rocky franchise specifically, what do you take from the series personally, and what would you hope audiences take from these films?
Well, the message or the feeling of these movies, I think it’s really timeless. I think that’s why people continue to love these movies. I think we all have a desire to enjoy a little slice of life, but maybe we don’t succeed all the time. Maybe we’re not winners all the time. Maybe we’re never winners. But we all want the opportunity to go out there and at least try to prove ourselves. For me personally, I love the idea of a character going into a situation he knows he can’t win. “I’m going to get beaten. I’m going to get hammered. I’m going to lose, lose, lose.” At my age, I know for sure, you’re definitely going to lose. Guaranteed. It’s how you lose in life that matters. When losing is all you can do in life, you can still try to choose how you go down.
And then just maybe sometimes, you actually win.
Yeah, me and Rocky, we’ve won a little bit too. (Smiles) Sometimes I think I’ve won more than any man deserves, but it is definitely nice to look back at all the losses and see a couple of gold medals too.