Though he's instantly recognizable for his breakthrough role as Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV,” Dolph Lundgren continued to earn a steady paycheck throughout the late '80s and early '90s, racking up decent box office numbers with "Masters of the Universe,” "Universal Soldier,” "Red Scorpion,” and the highly underrated "I Come In Peace.” (He also teamed with the late Brandon Lee for "Showdown in Little Tokyo.”) Though he's mostly been riding the straight-to-video rails for the last several years, Lundgren's recently started to find his way behind the camera, most recently writing, directing, and starring in "Missionary Man.” Bullz-Eye spoke with Lundgren about his long and winding career path, touching on his work with John Woo, the struggles of filming "The Last Patrol,” his upcoming Biblical epic, and – because we had to ask – which Ivan Drago quote he hears most often.
Bullz-Eye: Hi, Mr. Lundgren, how are you doing?
Dolph Lundgren: Hey, how are you?
BE: Not bad. I'm sorry I had to cancel on you yesterday. I had gotten the movie only about an hour before we were supposed to talk.
DL: Oh, that's cool. No problem.
BE: But now I've had a chance to watch it…
DL: Okay, cool.
BE: …and I definitely enjoyed it.
BE: Very reminiscent of, like, "Walking Tall,” or maybe "Billy Jack.”
BE: Did you have a particular point of comparison when you were going in? A point of inspiration?
DL: Well, yeah, all of those old westerns; all the Clint (Eastwood) westerns and some of the Sergio Leone stuff. Yeah, the sort of lone samurai or ronin comes into town, and he helps somebody out, and then you realize there's more to it than just what meets the eye; you know, there's more depth to the story. So I'm just trying to follow in their footsteps and design a story like that, you know, and set in a contemporary world but still a little bit of a…sort of like an old western town, even though it's today. That's what I was trying to do. And to try and keep it mysterious and not to explain everything to the audience.
BE: Well, I like the way the pacing was slow and deliberate at the beginning, building into more of a traditional action movie as it went.
DL: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
BE: John Enos III has got kind of a Michael Madsen thing going on with his performance as the biker.
DL: (laughing) I know, yeah. He's good, Enos. He's a good actor and I like him. He's…yeah, he does a good job.
BE: Did you have a hand in the casting?
DL: Yeah, I did, actually. I did cast all of the main characters. I mean, I'm part of the whole casting process, being the director, but I had some constraints on how many actors I could fly from L.A and all, because we shot out south of Dallas, in this little town there. So there were some constraints, budget constraints and such, but I was pretty pleased with the local talent there and, especially, some of the Native Americans were very authentic. And it was really fun to work with them, too.
BE: Was that your idea to actually film on location in a Texas town?
DL: Yeah, yeah, it was. It was interesting to meet the Native Americans and realize that nothing much has really changed since the 1870s. I mean, it's not that long ago; it's just three, four generations ago, and a lot of their stuff is still left. You know, a lot of the energy. And, so, I was trying to get a little bit of that feeling in the movie, too.
BE: I thought your last line to John Enos – "It's me.” – was classic.
DL: (laughing) Got to keep it simple, you know.
BE: Exactly. Still, it was a great one liner. Now, the way it ends, I guess it's essentially setting it up for the possibility of a "Missionary Man 2.” Was that your intent or, at least, your hope?
DL: Well, sort of. Not totally. I mean, I wanted to end it with an open ending, where everything isn't neatly wrapped up and you don't really know what happens to all the characters. I like movies that are a little bit off-balance at the end. So, no, I didn't really think of a sequel, but, I mean, yeah, I have heard people talking about it. Some people have mentioned it, but most westerns end like that, anyway; they end with the guy leaving town, and it's a little mini-metaphor for all of our lives, I guess, to some extent.
BE: So the first film that you directed was "The Defender,” and then I guess you directed and contributed the story to "The Mechanik”…or the "The Russian Specialist,” as I guess it's called here.
BE: Have you found it gradually becoming an easier process, or is it still a challenge from picture to picture because of their differences?
DL: Well, it's certainly easier every time; you're a little more confident, and you can trust your instincts a little more, and you think the more problems you solve every time…because I don't have any formal training, as a director, I'm just kind of learning on the job, but with more jobs, the easier it becomes. Definitely, I'll start enjoying the process of writing and creating a story more than I did in the past. So that's kind of a plus, because I used to hate having to write, and as a director, you always have to write. Sooner or later, you have to write or rewrite something, so I'm glad I got through that and got over that hump.
BE: Your look…you're looking very rugged these days. (hesitates) I mean that as a compliment. It's very Clint Eastwood.
DL: Huh. (laughs) Well, it's been a hard 20 years in the business, right? A lot of tequila shots. Well, I try and stay in good shape, but…well, I just feel like in my case…maybe it's got a name here or something, I don't know what it is, but as I mature, I go slower, and everything kind of takes longer. Learning things takes longer. And I feel more comfortable now on film than I did 15 years ago, so hopefully it's going to last for another few years.
BE: Does it get frustrating that a lot of your movies…most of them, more recently…have been direct-to-video? Do they ever pitch the possibility that they could get a theatrical release, or are they honest about where they're headed from the get-go?
DL: Well, you know, it's very difficult these days to get a theatrical release because of the money involved and so forth. I mean, look, yes, I'm thinking about it, and I think for me…now that I've started directing, I think it's up to me to come up with something that's strong enough and has that kind of indie feel. It has to be very, very specific…kind of quirky story, but still commercial enough to get it financed. It's like a catch-22 to get up on the big screen. And you have to also design it that way from the beginning when you shoot it, with cinematography and so forth. But that is kind of my secret ambition to do that, so I definitely keep that in mind.
BE: With some of the more over-the-top action flicks you've done, how much of a sense of humor do you have to have when you're approaching the material?
DL: You have to have quite a bit, especially if you're not in control of the project. It's very easy to make a few wrong decisions and have the whole thing go down the toilet, or it becomes hilarious, becoming comedic without even intending to be funny. You know, some of the action stuff, I tend to have a pretty good sense of humor about it. Even when I direct and have a lot of pressure, it teaches me to laugh at stuff. I think that comes also from sports, from combat sports, where you've got to learn to laugh at it and take it in stride. Otherwise, you just can't deal with it. I'm so happy, anyway, to be working. We're lucky, and there are people out there who are not and can't get a job, you know. So I shouldn't complain, anyway.
BE: Do you have a particular favorite of the ones from more recent years?
DL: Well, let's see. Parts of the ones I did myself, of course. Well, I kind of enjoyed a recent experience that I did. It's an Italian movie, it's coming out in February, and it's called "The Final Inquiry.” It's, like, a biblical epic, about an Italian tribune in Palestine. (Writer's note: Actually, it sounds pretty damned cool. According to the Fox website, "When a solar eclipse and earthquakes simultaneously occur throughout the Roman Empire, Emperor Tiberius calls upon a prominent Roman investigator to seek out the proposed cause: an alleged resurrection of a Jewish rabbi.” The rabbi's name? Jesus of Nazareth, baby!) So I kind of enjoyed that experience; that was fun. I played a supporting role. I played this barbarian bodyguard, who had this massive hair and beard, with a big ax. That was fun, I enjoyed that. It was fun to work with the Italian crew and Italian directors; they are very passionate, and they are very different than the American crew. It's a whole lot slower, but satisfying nevertheless.
BE: And you had some pretty high profile co-stars in that, too. I saw Max von Sydow and F. Murray Abraham.
DL: You're right, yeah. Oh, and it was also great catering, by the way.
BE: Oh, well, there you go. Of the ones I was referring to, the straight-to-video ones, do you have any that were maybe ridiculous but just a whole lot of fun?
DL: Yeah. But we had a tough shoot in Israel on "The Last Patrol.” That was tough, because we were shooting in the dessert, and it's, like, 110 degrees everyday, and I'm wearing this…for some reason, I don't know why…I'm wearing this U.S. Army full dress uniform that is, like, wool. You know, a green wool uniform. And it was, like…Jesus, I think I must have lost about 50 pounds! That was tough. That was a tough shoot. I used to take it in stride. You know, the last five years before I started directing, I sort of…I really felt that, even though the directing came kind of out of left field, I think it was meant to happen, because I just felt the movies were getting a little stagnant, as far as my going anyplace as an actor or with my career. So, now, I'm a little more in control…and it feels a lot better, actually.
BE: Okay, flashback time: which Ivan Drago quote do you most hear repeated back at you?
DL: (instantly goes into his Ivan Drago voice) "I must break you.”
BE: (bursts into laughter)
DL: Or… (still doing Drago) "You will lose.”
BE: See, I wasn't even going to ask you to do it in the actual voice, but I appreciate it.
DL: (laughing) So, yeah, definitely one of those two.
BE: When you went from "Rocky IV” to "Masters of the Universe” did you have a moment where you were, like, "I am so going to rule Hollywood?”
DL: Um…no. (laughs) You know what happened? I was this Swedish kid who came over here to study engineering, but I got into movies, and suddenly I'm in this "Rocky” picture with Sylvester Stallone. And then the movie comes out, and it's a big hit, and I'm famous. Like, world famous. It was just…it was a whirlwind. It took me five years at least just to even deal with that. I wasn't thinking of ruling Hollywood; I was thinking of just trying to make it to the next day, trying to figure out what the hell happened. It's a strange experience. You hear other actors talking about getting famous, and it's not easy for anybody, but especially not if you're from a small Swedish town, you know?
BE: Do you still have people asking you about "Masters of the Universe?” I know it's kind of a cult film, but it's been out on DVD.
DL: Yeah, I do. That's one of peoples' favorites. "Rocky IV,” "Universal Soldier,” " I Come in Peace,” "The Punisher” sometimes. I know they're remaking all of these movies now; it's a big trend in Hollywood. They're redoing all of the…what do you call them? comic book characters. Any superhero that can be found is being put on the screen now. I mean, there's a big trend going on right now. I don't think it will go on forever, but that's why I think these things are kind of more current right now.
BE: What's the status of "Icarus?” I was reading about that film a little bit.
DL: Well, thanks, that's the script that I'm working on. That's actually sort of an attempt to play a heavy again. I like to play the bad guy; I haven't done it for 15 years, but it's time to get back out there and be mean and play somebody people love to hate. That's actually a script that I'm working on right now, and I play an assassin in that one. Yeah, if things work out, I may shoot that this year; I may direct that film later this year.
BE: You worked with John Woo on a TV pilot some years ago.
DL: Yeah, "Blackjack.” That was fun. Good to work with John Woo; a nice guy, and it's very interesting the way he shoots stuff. Yeah, that was a good experience. You know, I've worked with some interesting directors, like him and Roland Emmerich and Stallone, too, who did a good job. And a few other people that I can pick up stuff from. Otherwise, you kind of just learn on the job.
BE: Of the early films like…well, I'm a particular fan of "I Come in Peace,” for one.
DL: Yeah that was a funny one.
BE: I also like "Universal Soldier” as well. But did you have a whole lot of say in what you were picking at the time, or was it a…
DL: Yeah, I mean, I did to some extent, but I was very immature and not really…sort of, like I said, just dealing with being famous. I've been a hard worker, but I've never really been that ambitious or much of a planner, really. Not until the last couple of years. I was just kind of going with the flow and seeing what happened and taking scripts sometimes without maybe thinking about it as much as I should have. But, you know, look: I've been fortunate enough to work for 20 years for some reason, and I've been doing okay, so…yeah, everybody has their own method, you know. Some people take a long time and really pick their projects. I just haven't been that serious about it; I've looked at the fun part of filmmaking instead.
BE: Well, I was just going to close by mentioning that you've actually become quite a staple of YouTube. They've got a lot of clips from your exercise video up there, plus one of you karate chopping through five blocks of ice.
DL: I've seen some of them. I saw that they had an old clip from my fight in Russia with Oleg Taktarov.
BE: Right, yeah.
DL: Have you seen it?
BE: Yeah. Actually, I saw one of the clips on there earlier.
DL: Well, I guess I'm developing…what do you call it…a cult? God, I'm getting up there, huh? (laughing)
BE: You could be the next Van Damme.
DL: If I'm lucky. (laughs) Although I'd need to shrink about two feet!
BE: Well, there you go. Alright, well, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I'm glad we were actually able to connect after all.
DL: Okay, buddy, thanks.
BE: Good luck in the future.
DL: I appreciate it!