Dolph Lundgren was actually not interested in getting back into Ivan Drago’s shorts again after “Rocky IV,” but after Sylvester Stallone got him to read the script, his mind was changed. Lundgren saw some similar parallels that both he and Drago have travelled over the past few decades, and both critical and fan response let him know it was the right choice. Being able to play a more complex guy than the one audiences saw in “Rocky IV” was something he just couldn’t turn down.
“I went to the premiere of Creed with [Sylvester] Stallone, and the subject never came up, and, frankly, I’ve never thought of playing the character again. Then a few months later, I get this text from Sly, and it says [lapses into a note-perfect imitation of Stallone] ‘How’d you like to play that guy again?’ ” said Lundgren, who’s made movies with Stallone since his breakout in Rocky IV. “And I was like, ‘Who?’ ”
Who, of course, is Drago, the Soviet giant who kills fighter Apollo Creed in the ring and fights Rocky Balboa in a revenge match for the title. In Creed II, Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan – check out our interview with him) is now the champ, and Drago has trained his own son Viktor (boxer Florian Munteanu) to challenge for the title.
“My honest reaction was, I’m not so sure,” Lundgren said. “ I was taken aback. Am I going to have to put on those red trunks again? Get a crew cut, and all of that?”
“Rocky IV helped my career a lot, but it also hurt me a bit because it was playing somebody who was robotic and showed little emotion and killed a beloved character. So I hear about Creed II, and I think they’re going to make me play a bad guy, and another kind of cartoon character,” he said. He became a star before he had a chance to become an actor.
“I had only studied acting for a year before Rocky IV, and then, boom, I was famous. And I never really had a chance to figure out what I wanted to do. Do I want to play guys who kill people for the rest of my life?” said Lundgren, who went on to play The Punisher and also Universal Soldier in a series of movies.
He found himself having to fight for some scenes in the final cut such as when Rocky and Drago cross paths again. Lundgren fought hard for Drago to tell Rocky all that he’d been through since that memorable battle and he won that one. One that he regrets losing is the redemption of Drago.
“At the end, after the fight, Adonis and Rocky are walking back and they see Ivan taking the wraps off his son’s hands and kind of comforting him. He’s feeling bad for losing. I leave the room and Adonis walks in and talks to my son. I come back in and we have a moment, me and Adonis, and then I have a moment with Rocky after that. That was taken off. Maybe it was too much or maybe it was too emotional or too soft. Maybe redemption comes next time around.”
Being cast as the villain Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” launched Dolph Lundgren’s acting career, but he actually had an academic path as his backup if things didn’t work out.
The 61-year old actor holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering and was on a Fulbright scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when Stallone cast him as Drago for the 1985 “Rocky” sequel.
Lundgren doesn’t regret trading academia for those red boxing trunks with the gold stripes, though he wishes his character had a few more coherent lines.
“It felt really surreal, and, at the same time, it felt like a big moment for me in my career as a person, because that character started my whole career and it’s been a great thing for me. But it’s also kind of been a negative in one way because the guy was such a monosyllabic guy,” Lundgren said. “He was a robot.”
This month, Lundgren reprises the role of Drago in “Creed II,” as much a sequel to the previous film as it is to “Rocky IV.” Lundgren remains grateful to Stallone, not only for casting him in the first place, but for bringing him back in a heartier, more substantial role.
“I got a chance to play a guy who was a real person and who has real problems, especially a father-son relationship. When I see father-son relationships in movies, it always gets me emotional. And I had a chance to be part of that,” Lundgren said. “Drago was like five percent of my personality. The quiet killer. I can do that, but I can do other things. So it’s been a mixed blessing, but mostly a blessing.”
“I’m reading the script, and one of the first scenes is Ivan and his son, and it’s a really deep scene, a lot of emotion,” he said. “And I met the director, Steven [Caple Jr.] and he’s explaining to me, I want this movie to be about fathers and sons. To be Shakespearean and mythic, and Ivan is an essential part of that. And I realized this guy is a real director; this is a real movie, and, yeah, I want to be a part of that.”
Back in “Rocky IV,” Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring, only to lose to Rocky Balboa. But he loses much more than a match.
In “Creed II,” we learn he is living in squalor after the embarrassing loss. He is raising his son Viktor, played by Florian Munteanu, to be a boxer and is seeking revenge on Rocky by getting his son to fight the son of the man he killed.
Lundgren likes the way Caple invites the audience to sympathize with Ivan and Viktor, who in the early scenes (supposedly Russia and Ukraine, but shot in Philadelphia) are training in a context that recalls Rocky’s underdog environment in the original movie.
“In way, it’s exactly how Rocky started. In a [crappy] apartment, no money, no job, in the cold, just a guy with this one hope, and boxing as the means of achieving it.”
Munteanu said he felt a bond with Lundgren. “It’s an honor to play his son,” he said. “He wanted to create a father-son relationship right from the beginning.”
Lundgren had a unique trajectory that led him to the big screen. He was an engineering student in Melbourne, Australia, when he met actress Grace Jones. While dating, she took him to New York and introduced to him people like Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. It didn’t hurt that he was a karate champion when Stallone discovered him.
Since then, he’s had a busy action-movie career, which includes “The Expendables” trilogy, portraying He-Man in “Masters of the Universe,” and the upcoming “Aquaman.” Still, he admits to soul searching when it came to his career path.
″‘Why did I quit MIT? Why didn’t I continue with engineering? Why did I become an actor?’ And it took me a while,” Lundgren said.
“My father called it a disastrous decision,” recalls the 61-year-old. “I mean, to give up that scholarship and become a starving actor? It was insane when I think back. But I had this feeling that I didn’t want to be a chemical engineer. That it wasn’t going to be enough for me. That I would be bored. And then, within a month, I was in the Rocky picture.”
“I still think about it sometimes. I’ll run into some of my old friends or I’ll visit my old school and talk to the students. I’ll wonder what my life would have been like. I would have had less physical injuries, for sure.”
Now he’s at peace with his acting decision: “Whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy, it makes them feel something, and it brightens up their lives. That’s kind of what my part in this earth has been, I guess.”
This time around, there wasn’t a lot of action scenes for Lundgren, and he was fine with that. But he did get in shape to play Drago, who he describes as “one of those guys who who’s always in shape.”
“No matter how much vodka he drinks, he’s going to go to the gym,” Lundgren said.
Lundgren turned 61 a few weeks ago, had both hips replaced last year, and will star in “Aquaman” next year as Aquaman’s dad. He has no real complaints about how his own career turned out, Drago notwithstanding.
“I’m not a guy who runs on regret,” said Lundgren, who’s usually too busy — he’s made 70 movies — to complain much about the direction his career has taken.
“Stallone and I ended up making like half a dozen movies together. It’s weird. One day you wake up and you’re like, how did that happen?”