Interview: ‘Creed II’s Dolph Lundgren on Why Being Ivan Drago Is a Blessing and a Curse
It is very easy to envision a scenario where the premise for Creed II — Russian boxer Ivan Drago, the man who killed Apollo Creed in Rocky IV, returns to train his son for a fight against Creed’s son — goes laughably, horribly wrong. Instead, Creed II pulls it off. And a big reason why the story works is Dolph Lundgren, whose big break in Hollywood came playing Drago in Rocky IV 33 years ago.
Instead of the monosyllabic brute, Creed II’s Drago is a complicated guy with very relatable motivations. And Lundgren gives a full, rich performance; easily one of the best of his career, particularly in the scenes where he and Sylvester Stallone rekindle Rocky Balboa and Drago rivalry 35 years later.
When I interviewed Lundgren in Philadelphia earlier this month, he seemed rightfully pleased with the movie and his performance — and he seemed to enjoy dipping into his memories to compare the experience making Rocky IV to the making of Creed II. (He also does a surprisingly good Stallone impression.) Lundgren told me the backstory he gave Drago while filming Rocky IV, and described how playing the character has been both a blessing and a curse throughout his career. He also revealed how his own relationship with an abusive father helped inform how he played Drago, and why he thinks there should be a #MeToo movement for men.
Was there ever an opportunity to make another Rocky before, or was this the first time it’s come up in a serious way?
First time. They’ve asked me to use footage from the other films. And always, every time, I always said yes to Sly. I was told some of the other actors were always charging them money, but I thought “No, no, no, this was my big break.” So I just always would do it as a favor. But this was the first time I was asked to be in a picture.
I rewatched Rocky IV for the 8000th time this week, and it is interesting to compare it to the new film. In the original film, Drago is just like pure menace, pure evil, pure power.
And in this film he’s much more of a rounded character.
I was curious if during the making of Rocky IV you ever discussed a backstory for him with Stallone. Were there any things that weren’t in the film that you knew about him or decided about him at that point?
There were a few things. For the the screen test I had to do to get the part, I decided to keep him very still, because I had seen pictures of these Soviet cadets where they always stand chin up like this. [demonstrates] Drago was a uniformed officer. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to stay very still and reserved” — because I was nervous, you know? I had this acting coach in New York. He said “Don’t move, don’t do anything,” because I wouldn’t know what to do much anyway. I was totally new at this. So I kept it very internal. So that was one thing; that’s how I got the part probably. There were three guys left for the screen test: Two Russians and me. And the other two Russians were yelling like a Russian Mr. T “I must break you! I will kick your ass!” Very loud — and then I cam on, [quietly] “My name is Drago.” And of course, Sly is not stupid, he saw that was good.
So that was one of the thing. The other thing was I had this Russian coach for my Russian language and he was from Moscow. He had all this information about the athletes in the Soviet Union, how they’re being used by the system, how it’s very militaristic, they don’t have any power, they have to do what they’re told. We kind of built that into his backstory. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but there was something I had to prove to the establishment. And that’s one reason I did all of these things. I didn’t feel good about killing Apollo, for instance, they had told me to do it. It wasn’t like [Drago voice] “ I want to kill this American fighter.” No, no, no; this is what’s going to happen. And I was just a tool.
I remember I was trying to play some emotionality there, even though I came across as this kind of cold-hearted killer. I think there is something in the character that people felt a little sorry for him; like he was the monster and Dr. Frankenstein was the bad guy, and that is the Soviet system. So the reason I could move on and play leads in movies afterwards — in my next film I played He-Man, who was like a good guy — I think it was something in the backstory, even though the guy was a killer and people mostly hated him for killing Apollo. But there is another little quality there that kinda got me off the hook a little bit.
And that’s kind of what’s built on in this movie and is one of the pleasant surprises in Creed II. What did you think when you got the script and saw that you go on this emotional journey in the movie — you’re not just the Frankenstein monster, as you put it.
I met [director] Steven Caple Jr. First, I met him and I saw immediately he was an artist and a filmmaker, not a guy who wanted to make a hit movie. He was thinking of the characters, and he came from a character point of view. Then I read the script. And the script was wonderful. I thought it was great. I said whoever wrote this managed to throw it all in there, Rocky’s backstory and my life somehow in there together. And then the fact that the son of the guy I killed now is there and then he has a kid ... It was just a really great, great script.
And there was a great scene when I come into Rocky’s restaurant. I told Steven, “Look, if anybody says to change the script, give me a call because I’m sure as hell going to fight for it.” And there was just one or two things people are trying to change a little bit in that scene in Rocky’s restaurant, but we worked that out and otherwise I thought it was really good script.
Tell me about shooting that scene — and compare for me working with Stallone in 2018 versus working with him in 1985.
Big difference. He’s mellowed out quite a bit. Obviously I’ve done 60 movies since then, and he’s done a bunch. But [in 1985] he was my boss and he had done a lot. He was a big movie star, I was just a nobody. And this time I have a little more experience and I know him well from The Expendables films and stuff.
So, that scene. I knew it was a crucial scene for me and I of course it gets delayed and delayed until the last week of shooting and I’m a bit nervous about it, because I know it’s a very emotional scene and I wanted to really do well. And then of course they called me one day, “Sly wants to shoot the scene a day earlier.” So I go “F—!” I was ready to go to the gym or something. I have to go right in to the set, right on location, get ready, and then we come in and of course the scene has been rewritten five times. Sly rewrote it a couple of times himself and I liked the original. So now I’ve got to get in there and hash it out with Stallone about my character. Some of the stuff was taken out I didn’t like, I think it should come back in there.
He was kind of cool about it, but I did think as I’m sitting there — because Steven Caple stayed away, he didn’t want to get into some kind of argument between me and Stallone. I was really hard with Stallone, because I really felt like this was a great scene and I don’t want to mess it up. And he was tired but I think maybe for the first time since we’ve worked together where he was more respectful, and kind of realized “Dolph’s not going to take no for an answer here.” He wasn't just ordering me around, like in ’85. We actually decided how to put it together. We argued for about an hour I think. Finally he just says [does Stallone impression] “Hey can we shoot this f—ing scene? Can we stop talking?”
[Laughs] That’s pretty good!
So then we shot it all night from about from about five until about two in the morning or something like that. And it was exhausting. But I think it was interesting because there’s this thing between me and Stallone. We made all these films together, and he’s always been the boss. This is the first time in this film that I have a real role, a real character and I had to prove that to him. And when Ivan Drago opens his mouth, it’s a bit of Dolph speaking to Sly as well. I felt that, and he did too.
It was good because I know at the end Stallone’s not going to walk around giving out praise to everybody on set. He’s not the kind of guy. But he did come up after that scene and kind of slapped me, gave me a little hug and said “Well done.” He’d never ever done that before.
How often would you say someone says “I must break you” to you? Is it a daily basis?
It can be daily if I’m out and about. If I’m like walking the streets of Manhattan or whatever, then it would be daily. If I’m in L.A., and I’m in my car, it can be once a week or something like that. Yeah.
I’m interested to hear your perspective on that — on being associated for so many years with that line, that character and what he represents, for so many years. What’s it like living with Drago and now playing him again and inviting even more focus on him?
I just had to stick it out for 35 years.
This is the reward?
Yeah, I had to do six movies with Sly to get the reward. [laughs]
That’s what it’s like. It’s been a great blessing, because I obviously got into the business, but it’s been kind of a curse as well because people hated me for many years. Then they thought “Oh he can’t talk” or “He’s a robot” or something. But then, with time, it sort of mellowed into something that people really appreciate. People got to know me a little bit, that I’m not Drago. But that part’s become iconic and you’re right — it’s weird. It’s like somebody else said in an interview with me, if you say “I must break you” anywhere in the world to anybody — whether they're in South America and the jungle or Indonesia — most of them know what that is. It’s like playing the Rocky music. You play one bar and people know what the hell a movie is. It’s weird.
You mentioned working with a Sly and I think you said he’s he’s mellowed since since Rocky IV. And there’s a famous story of the fight in that movie between you two where you apparently hurt his heart with a punch and he had to get airlifted to a hospital or something. I’ve heard the story from Stallone’s side — he tells it in interviews and Q&As — but I would love to hear your side of this legend and hear what really happened.
Well, he’s like a masochist, you know.He loves to talk about about all these injuries. And it’s true! I mean, he’s amazing. He’s been operated on worse than me.
But yeah, I was this Swedish kid who was a real fighter, and he was my boss and he told me to hit him a few times in the movie for it to look good. And for shots to the body you have to kind of lay it in there. And he was overworked and ... I don’t know, I didn’t see anything. He wasn’t carried off on a stretcher from the ring, but what happened was we came back from Vancouver to L.A. and the producer says “Dolph, you’ve got two weeks off.” And I’m like “Oh great. What’s going on?” He says “Sly’s in the hospital.” It was like “Oh s—!” Then I heard the story.
My side of it is that I was very powerful. I was a very dangerous individual, as Mickey once said to Rocky. But I think he was overworked and that was part of the problem.
I read a few interviews where you talked about your relationship with your father. And Creed II is all about fathers and sons with very complicated connections. The whole Drago storyline is about that. Is that something that you drew on when you were making the film?
Yeah, for sure. Steven wrote that in the script. It was just perfect timing, because I’ve been in therapy and I meditate and try to get rid of some trauma from my childhood. My dad was a genius in some ways and he was crazy in other ways. He was very abusive. I loved him and I hated him at times. I’ve forgiven him — he grew up during the Depression, where people were starving to death. He grew up in a different time.
That relationship was something I drew on. It kind of gave me a chance to be him; to be the other side, to see from his point of view. And it made me understand him a little bit, and it made me very emotional. A lot of times Steven, he’d go up to the set and talk to the actors. With me, he just had to come over and say “Okay, remember that place?” He would just say something like that. And I could work it out.
And I think a lot of men — speaking of things like #MeToo. Women are being mistreated, yes, I agree. They have been, and they should be be well-treated. But hey: A lot of guys are also mistreated and they can’t say anything. In our culture, you’re not supposed to say anything, you’re not supposed to complain. Look at a lot of men. They are treated badly as kids and then in many countries they have to go out and to join the army, get blown to pieces, and kill other men. And then they can’t complain about it. So yeah, hopefully this film, a lot of people are going to see it and a lot of guys who have problems with their dads are going to get something out of it.
Creed II opens in theaters on November 21.