Dolph Lundgren, actor
If you work on your craft and hang in there, your time will come ...
He went from playing a menacing Soviet boxer that took on Sylvester Stallone and muttered that phrase that would stick with him his entire career in Rocky IV to American hero, He-man in the 1987 cult-classic Masters of the Universe, in one single year. Every year since, martial arts master and Swedish super star, Dolph Lundgren has pushed himself to greater heights and taken some heavy beatings along the way. He’s starred alongside Hollywood’s crème de la crème and will be back in Australia next month for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo that takes over the Gold Coast from April 17 to 19 as well as a screening of his latest movie SKIN TRADE at The Arts Centre Gold Coast on April 19. He had a chat with The Weekend Edition Gold Coast from his home in Los Angeles about the perils and perks of a life in show business.
You have a number of degrees including a Masters in Chemical Engineering, what originally attracted you to acting?
I think I always had something creative in me from when I was a kid. I had bad allergies so I couldn’t play outside with the other kids which meant I was at home a lot doing things, creative things. I used to paint and be involved in music. I ended up in engineering because my Dad was an engineer, my older brother was an engineer and I wanted to prove to my dad I could do well. I was good at it but really for me, it was just a way to travel. When I was in Sydney, I realised that I didn’t really want to do this for the rest of my life, it was just something about it that didn’t satisfy me 100%. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I started doing a little modelling to pay the bills and then did a little more when I got to New York and I thought I’d take an acting class. As soon as I walked into that class I found a way to express myself, a way to escape, I think. It ended up being my job, my life.
You once participated in an exchange program with the University of Sydney, what do you remember fondly from your time in Australia?
This was in the day when there was no Internet or mobile phones. I made one phone call home for Christmas and I had to stack up all the quarters and throw them in the phone in two seconds to call Europe. I have fond memories, I made a lot of good friends, because I had to. It wasn’t like I could Facebook my buds in Sweden or anything, but I made friends mostly through sports, karate and martial arts. I had a karate club at the university where I met a lot of guys and I’m still friends with some of them. I also studied hard because I wanted to get a scholarship to MIT, a school in Boston I really wanted to go to. As a matter of fact, I was in Australia last year and I went back to Sydney University and I saw my old dorm room and my old professor was there in the chemical engineering department. It was really fun and it was the first time I really ventured out from Sweden to see the world.
You’ll be returning to Australia for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo, what are you looking most forward to about being back here?
I think mostly to see the country again and meet Australians. They have always been really nice to me and really friendly people so that’s number one. Number two is to meet some fans and see Brisbane, I’ve never been up there before.
What was New York like when you first arrived?
New York was fun, it was cold! I was going out with Grace Jones who I had met in Sydney and it was really amazing. We went to all the clubs and she knew all these famous people like Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Bowie and guys like Michael Jackson. There were just these people around her that I’d known about but I’d never met and I was just this shy kid who she kind of pulled along. It opened up so many prospects for me to perhaps somehow try to make it in that world. I didn’t know perhaps how it was going to happen but it kind of took care of itself in a year or two with the Rocky movie.
You hung out with Andy Warhol, danced at Studio 54 and studied acting alongside Andie MacDowell and Tom Hulce, do you have any favourite memories from the early days?
Yes, those are some of the great memories of Andy and ’54 and some of Grace’s creative friends who worked at Interview magazine at Andy’s factory. Richard Bernstein, who used to design all of the covers, Robert Mapplethorpe, who was a great photographer, and Keith Haring, the graffiti artist, were all there. There was also the guy who owned Island Records, Chris Blackwell, he was great guy. He had a big house down in the Caribbean, he signed Grace but he also had U2 and Robert Palmer and I got to meet some of them. I remember seeing Michael Jackson at the Motown 21st anniversary, he did the moonwalk for the first time, and I was there. I mean I didn’t think I saw him do the moonwalk because I hardly knew who he was, I mean I kind of knew but I wasn’t really interested, but I was there and it was kind of cool to have been there.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
I think the fact that I wasn’t a trained actor, I had just started training and I didn’t really think about action movies, I just fell into them because I auditioned for a boxing movie. The Rocky movie was successful and I ended up in Hollywood, maybe with the wrong people involved, maybe the wrong advisors for a while and went through the whole thing of people stealing money and giving you bad advice. I was very lonely in the beginning because I didn’t know anybody in New York, I had no family or friends here so I was kind of at the mercy of the industry when I was younger, that was tough for a few years there. I was just an innocent, honest kid who had been a martial artist, and you know the thing with martial arts is that it’s something you’re not supposed to boast about, it’s an internal thing so I felt out of place for a while. Also, my dad was very tough, he was an old military officer in Sweden and he was physically very hard on me which is why I became a fighter. It’s a classic syndrome in contact sports; a lot of the guys have something with their dad. Those have been my two biggest things to overcome on a personal level.
You have already achieved so much in your career and life, what is your proudest achievement?
It is my family, I have two lovely girls that are teenagers and they are very well behaved and very nice and sweet and tremendously well adjusted for two kids that grew up partially in Hollywood and with a dad who is a bit famous. I think the fact that they have come out so well is definitely my proudest achievement.
How have you managed to stay sane in Hollywood all this time?
I don’t know if I am completely sane! I think martial arts helped a lot, the fact that I can go back to Europe and I don’t have to be here all the time is a good thing. I started meditating a few years back, that’s been really good. I’ve done some therapy to help mostly with my childhood thing with my dad, that’s helped quite a bit recently. I think as you get older, you have to work on yourself more because when you’re young you just kind of glide through it and it doesn’t affect you as much.
What is the best advice you’ve received in your career or life?
I always remember when someone asked Clint Eastwood if he has any advice for acting he said, “Play your own game”. And I think to play your own game means that everyone is different, everyone has good and bad things about them and you just have to stay in there. Somebody else, I think it was Jimmy Stewart, said that it’s not how good you are, it’s how long you last and I think that’s also something I remember. Some people have these short comet careers, they come fast and go fast and in my case it’s not like that. I’m making it a long career and enjoying it more as it goes.
If you weren’t acting, what else would you be doing?
You know I’d either have a martial arts studio somewhere and live a very quiet life like my instructor in Sweden, his name is Brian Fitkin. He’s a British guy who’s done the same thing since I met him in 1973. He runs the studio and travels with his students fighting and he drinks a lot and eats well and I’m jealous of him. It’s a very healthy, quiet life and within the martial arts community he’s very well known. Either that or I’d be running an oil company as a chemical engineer somewhere with five ulcers and three and a half kids, I don’t know, One of those two.
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring actors?
You have to believe in yourself and don’t give up. You have to believe in fate a little bit too as an actor because you never know, the most talented people never get a job and people who have less talent but are at the right place at the right time do. I think if you just work on your craft and hang in there, your time will come.
What are some of the perks of show business?
I think it’s a creative art form and you always meet new people and learn about yourself. You stay young because you’re usually working with young people and you stay pretty fit in action movies because you have to be. There’s a healthy perk for my type of movies. You get to travel a lot too. Being an actor, you get paid to do something you have no choice in, it’s like that saying, you don’t choose acting, it chooses you. I think there’s something to that. There are a lot of perks and anybody in my position should be really happy, I try to remember that everyday so I don’t complain too much about my costume or my trainer or some shit like that.
Take us back to 2009, what was the first thing that ran through your head when Sylvester Stallone called asking you to co-star in THE EXPENDABLES?
The first word was yes! Well actually the first word was probably wow, because I hadn’t read a Sylvester Stallone script since I read Rocky IV 25 years earlier. I know him quite well so when I read the first page, the way he thinks and talks is quite special, he has great feeling for character and dialogue so when I read one page I said ‘wow, this is really good. It’s such a fun movie, I have to part of this.’
You’re currently starring in and producing an action-thriller about human trafficking, can you tell us about SKIN TRADE?
SKIN TRADE is a movie that I thought about seven years ago and I started working on the script never thinking it was going to get made and finally it got financed and was shot last year, mostly in Thailand and a little bit in North America. It’s basically an action-thriller based around the subject matter of human trafficking and it co-stars me, Tony Jaa and Ron Perlman’s in it, Peter Weller is in it and Michael Jai White, so it’s kind of an ensemble cast. We’re trying to illuminate the subject matter while entertaining people at the same time so we’ll see if it works.
As well as starring in more than 50 movies, you’ve also directed five feature films and are trying your hand at producing, what’s next for you?
I have one film that I’m trying to produce and act in as well; it’s sort of an underworld story where the main character’s a stripper. Sort of like The Wrestler except set in the world of strippers. The movie will see what it’s like for them in their life; it’s almost a character study. I am also trying to direct a spy-thriller that’s set in the First World War, I’ve had it for 10 years and it’s finally getting some traction. It’s something I want to do because I’ve never made a film in Sweden before.