FROM VMAN 35 SPRING 2016
PHOTOGRAPHY TERRY RICHARDSON
FASHION SIMON ROBINS
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG
FROM PARTYING WITH GRACE JONES AND ANDY WARHOL TO BECOMING ONE OF THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE ACTION SUPERSTARS ON THE PLANET, THE ICON FORMERLY KNOWN AS HE-MAN IS HITTING A BOLD NEW STRIDE WITH THE EXPENDABLES FRANCHISE AND A COEN BROTHERS ROLE TO BOOT. BUT AS HE TELLS IT, IT’S BEEN NO EASY ROAD. THESE ARE THE PAINS AND GAINS OF DOLPH LUNDGREN.
On a blackened stage painted with a red box, inside a state-of-the-art architectural landmark in Santa Monica, 6'5" actor Dolph Lundgren paces ever-so-slightly to and fro, in a white button-down and grey khakis, speaking in Dolby Digital surround sound through a headset microphone. He’s giving a TED Talk.
“I think I remember the first time my dad hit me,” Lundgren says, beginning the lecture. A look of nostalgic pain glimmers over his face. “I was around three or four, I think, and I was walking in front of the TV and he kicked me and I flew into some bookshelves. And I remember there was blood and my mom was screaming.” He goes on to describe a pattern of abuse that lasted years during his childhood. Violence wasn’t always entertaining for the imposing Swedish action star, but a fight was born into him at a young age. “He was kind of abusive,” Lundgren later tells me of his father. “It’s why I became a fighter, like some young men who end up in contact sports. That’s something called post-traumatic stress. Basically you can hide it, or you can use acting or sports, or get hit or beat people up in order to get away from it.”
Lundgren is speaking via phone from his latest film set in Mississippi, a low-budget horror movie called Don’t Kill It. “It’s about a demon that possesses people,” he explains. “The way it transfigures and moves from person to person is that if you kill the thing, it then becomes you. So that basically complicates things.” For the veteran actor who’s headlined more than 60 films (most of them action films of the B-movie variety), it’s a rare first. “I’ve never done a horror movie,” he says, “but I really liked the script.” His synopsis is succinct: “Everybody more or less gets possessed in the whole picture. Everybody kills and gets killed by each other, and it just transfers that damn demon around until I get it at the end.”
For 30 years, since his debut in the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, Lundgren has been fighting—demons, street gangs, rebel war commanders, Yakuza leaders, an android Keanu Reeves, a cyborg Jean-Claude Van Damme, Skeletor, etcetera—in films like Masters of the Universe, Johnny Mnemonic, Universal Soldier, and Red Scorpion. “That role in A View to a Kill happened just because I was on set and somebody didn’t show up for work,” Lundgren recalls. “The director, John Glen, knew that I was going out with Grace Jones. She was in the scene so he asked me if I would step in there, and I said ‘I don’t know.’ And he says, ‘All you’ve gotta do is stand here and point the gun at Christopher Walken. Mm-hmm. That should be alright.’ [Afterward] he said, ‘That was very good, my boy. Maybe you could be in the movies.’” Within the year, Lundgren would earn his big break as Drago in Rocky IV. “I had no clue whatsoever that 30 years later I would be sitting here talking about a career in the movies. No, no, no idea.”
Lundgren’s résumé has earned him a global iconography, if not critical acclaim—something he can now appreciate with age. “I kind of stand out even if people don’t know my movies,” he says. “Some actors are very famous, but in life they blend in more. I’m recognized most in Russia and Eastern Europe because I played a famous Russian character. Rocky IV was one of the first films I guess a lot of people could get their hands on over there. They didn’t have any Russian actors who were famous internationally, so they’ve kind of adopted me. In Africa and in third-world countries there is a lot of fan interaction because they like strong male characters. At any kind of valet parking in L.A., any of those guys…they’re the primary audience. I realize that I inspire a lot of people in some strange way because Hollywood is a dream factory. It makes people dream away their mundane lives and aspire to bigger things and some of those characters I’ve played are a part of that.”
He might not be curing cancer, but in an odd sidebar, Lundgren is possibly the only action film star on earth who might have a shot at trying. Originally brought to America on a Fulbright scholarship to M.I.T., the karate black belt studied chemical engineering at several universities, obtaining three degrees before meeting Jones and Andy Warhol and finding his accidental way into the movies. Today, academia is something he finds beckoning him for the first time in years. “The TED Talk I did was through TEDx and the Fulbright organization,” he explains, for one. “I also deal a little bit as a mentor at my old school, The Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. I’m getting more involved in that now that I’ve been in Hollywood for so long. I see that I am sort of a contradiction because I am a scholar and that’s how I first came to America. That’s how I saw myself and I still do, to some extent. And then I have this other side, this super physical guy who’s hurting people—he can be your hero or maybe the bad guy. But having gotten through some of the trauma that I’ve talked about, I can use some of these other layers a little bit more as an actor now.”
Six years ago, Lundgren’s repressed post-traumatic stress boiled to the surface and he reached a period in his life he now refers to as “rock bottom.”
“I was drinking too much, messing around, and my marriage was crumbling from me messing around too much and acting crazy,” Lundgren says. At the time, he was living in Spain with his wife and his two daughters. “It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t get a job anymore, but the films were not getting any better. On a personal level, I was really kind of lost.” It was then that he received a call from an old friend: Stallone ex Machina.
Lundgren suddenly switches on a dead-ringer impersonation of Sylvester Stallone. “He says, ‘Hey, how ya doin’, y’know? Check out this script and see what ya think.’” The script was for the film The Expendables, which would go on to become one of the biggest action franchises of all time, uniting Stallone and Lundgren with generations of the industry’s most high-octane blockbuster asskickers, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Chuck Norris, Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Liam Hemsworth, Terry Crews, Mel Gibson, and—well, the list keeps going and going. (In 2014, The Expendables 3 even marked the feature film debut of mixed-martial-arts megastar Ronda Rousey.) Combined, the three films have earned nearly $800 million at the box office. When Lundgren signed on to the first installment, he began therapy to pull himself out of the emotional crater into which he had dug himself. “I kind of knew inside that if the movie was a success, I’d be back down the path that I didn’t want to be going down again. So I ended up working on myself and getting over a lot of that pain that I had from those experiences in my childhood. That’s why ‘rock bottom’ coincided with getting this picture, on a personal level. Now I’m divorced, and so forth, but I have a much better relationship with my kids and my ex-wife.” This experience of career redemption, he says, is what inspired his TED Talk to be about healing and forgiveness.
Last year, Grace Jones released her memoir to much fanfare, in which she detailed a few of the more dramatic experiences she and Lundgren had while together. He has yet to pick it up, but speaks fondly of Jones. “It’s like all relationships where you’re in love with somebody,” he says. “They’ll always have a special place in your heart, and she does. I don’t regret any of it.”
This spring, Lundgren crosses over into another career-first when he pops up in Hail, Caesar!, an old-Hollywood caper directed by the Coen Brothers. “They were looking for a Russian character, as a matter of fact,” he says. “I guess they tried to get a Dolph Lundgren lookalike first but then they came to me and I was available. I didn’t want to do it because I thought I would be making too much fun of myself, but when I looked at the script it wasn’t like that. It’s a moment in the picture where they needed someone difficult-looking and kind of iconic to be in a situation. It was very quick, a two-day job. They have a lot of these roles in the picture. But for me, the biggest thing I walked away with was that it was so fun to work with those two guys and to meet some of the other actors like Channing Tatum. It was also shot in an interesting way: they shot it like a Hollywood picture from the ’40s or ’50s on 35 millimeter, with a lot of special lighting effects, the cameras quite static or on a dolly like in the old days. It was fun to see how they were so true to that process.”
If Lundgren comes across as savvy, it’s because he’s also a director—another profession he came into by proxy. When the acclaimed director Sidney J. Furie fell ill, Lundgren was asked to step into the director’s chair for the 2004 film The Defender. The stakes may have been low (the film co-starred Jerry Springer as the President of the United States), but that and other early Lundgren films primed the actor for a future at the helm of his own projects. “I realized that if you want to direct and star, you might as well produce, because otherwise someone will yank the picture away from you at the end and they’ll recut it,” he says. Today, Lundgren is using his recently resurged profile to get more personal projects off the ground. Skin Trade was a 2014 action film aimed at shedding light on the global crisis of human trafficking. The upcoming drama Without You I’m Nothing, written by and about a female stripper, takes a hard look at the world of exotic dancing from the female perspective (Lundgren has a supporting role). He also mentions a budding project based on his early years in New York with the Warhol crowd. “It has to do with the underside,” he says. “It has to do with transsexuals, to tell you the truth—experiences I had in New York in the ’70s that have stuck with me, and I always thought it would be interesting to illuminate that side of society a little bit in some project.” You guessed it: it’s an action comedy.
“Before, I would just flow from one thing to another: make a movie, go to Paris, hang out and party, have a good time, and then go make another movie. But that was 20 years ago. Now I’m a little more focused. When I find a project where the character is very different or I can do something I’ve never had the chance to do, then I strike while the iron is hot and try to learn something that I can use. It goes back to being an engineer. I’m a little more organized.”
If there’s any business that loves a second act, it’s Hollywood. “I used to feel a little split about it, but I see my public image as positive,” Lundgren says. “I think it’s great to feel the appreciation when someone comes up to me, and they don’t give a shit if I’m a director or a chemical engineer, they care about Masters of the Universe or Rocky IV, or something else they’ve seen that made them want to go to the gym, or whatever it is. And I think that’s wonderful! Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to bring a little more comedy and a little more depth, a little more emotion or some part of the other side of me to my characters, and hopefully people will enjoy that too.”
As in any good action movie, longevity in show business boils down to survival. At the time of our interview, Lundgren had just returned from the premiere of Creed, the Oscar-baiting descendant of the Rocky franchise. “I liked it,” he says. “There’s something in the message from those Rocky movies: it’s not how hard you get hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and get up and keep going. You don’t have to understand boxing to appreciate it.” So, I ask, does that mean Dolph will be getting back in the saddle for Expendables 4? He laughs. “I’m part of the original team and I do like working with those guys. I mean, if a guy doesn’t get his ass shot and killed in these movies, he still has to come back and get killed. So I suppose…I will be back.”