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The Underdog

Sylvester Stallone returns to the big screen in The Expendables, where the action hero fights against all odds to overcome the bad guys.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010

(continued from page 1)

For The Expendables, Stallone envisioned a scenario in which several of the stars with the most distinctive fighting styles would be pitted against each other. So there are a pair of Jet Li-Dolph Lundgren encounters (Lundgren, a third-degree black belt, is a former captain of the Swedish National Karate Team); the showdown between Stallone and Austin; and a final flesh-pounding battle between Austin and mixed martial arts ace Couture (a five-time UFC champion).

"It's like ancient Rome with the gladiators, where you might have a guy with a short sword fighting a guy with a trident," Stallone says. "It's brutal."

Austin wasn't quite sure what he was getting into when he faced off with Couture for their fight scene.

"In wrestling, we try to make it look violent but we take care of our opponent," Austin says. "That's the opposite of UFC. I was glad to fight with him-but I was glad it was a movie fight."

Says Stallone, "What Randy does-well, the stunt coordinator said it was one of the few times he was frightened. When Randy pulls you in, it feels like you're about to be crushed by an anaconda. We had to tell him to go easy on the stuntmen."

And then there was Stallone's own bout with Austin. As they rehearsed it, Austin recalls, Stallone kept urging Austin to hit him harder.

"He kept telling me to turn it up," Austin says. "He's always about intensity and focus. Still, when you roll with Sly, you don't want to be the one who gives the boss a black eye."

Stallone, having just watched Austin hit him again on the DVD, turns the TV off and shrugs.

"Me doing those scenes helps the other guys in the movie," he says. "They want to top me so they push even harder. I know I shouldn't be doing this stuff at my age. I guess I'd love for my kids to say that it's amazing, at 63, that I'm still able to do it. But it comes with a really serious price.

"I couldn't do this again. This is it, there's nothing left. I have had four operations since the film. The doctor says that if I hurt my neck again, that's it-paralysis or worse. I don't want to hear that but it's a fact. I guess I've got to get some look-alikes, but I don't like doing that. What made all the Rockys special is that, in 32 years, I never used a double."

He leans back in his chair and considers his situation, then puffs his OpusX. These days, it's his favorite brand: "I like a stronger cigar than I used to," he says. "The only time I don't smoke them is when I play golf. They make me a little dizzy-and I have a hard enough time hitting the ball anyway.

"I like a rich cigar. I like to let the smoke settle in my mouth, like brandy. Before, I was into cigars as a status thing-now I like to savor them."

A one-time cigarette smoker ("Hey, doctors used to endorse them on TV like they were children's cereal"), Stallone began smoking cigars while playing a rising labor-union figure in 1978's F.I.S.T.: "I was always looking for a replacement for cigarettes. At one point, I went on to a pipe-but that didn't look right on me. But cigars-there's like a tribal effect when you smoke them, a kinship almost.

"It's like a secret code. Oh, you smoke cigars? You're OK, then. Smoking cigars is like being an unregistered member in a world-wide club."

The walls of his office are a mix of decorations: photos of wife Jennifer Flavin and their three daughters, memorabilia from his various films (including a display case full of Rocky and Rambo action figures), small but solid-looking pieces of sculpture and several paintings-some with full frames, some only half-framed-which, Stallone allows, he painted himself.

The paintings mostly have black backgrounds, out of which dashes of bright color-reds, oranges, yellows, sometimes as images of eyes or mouths, sometimes as words floating in the black background-seem to spring.

"My second life," Stallone says with a smile. "I sold a few to Steve Wynn, the casino owner who has a large collection, and I was quite humbled by that. They were shown at Art Basel Miami. It's just my style; for some reason, they look at it in Art Basel Miami as very personal. I don't have a lot of concrete skills. Instead of painting a flower, I paint what a flower is thinking."

His own art collection runs to about 100 pieces, mostly modern, his favorite being a large painting by Cuban artist Tomas Sanchez. The collection has been scaled back from a one-time high of 400-500 paintings, which included works by Magritte, Monet and Chagall.

"Now when I go to Art Basel, I'm looking for modern work-contemporary pieces so removed from realism that they're almost graphic design," he says. "I like interpretations of human figures in a postmodern setting. I'm not big on pure graphics. Like the early Mondrian-it's brilliant for what it is, but they're more pragmatic than I like, more mathematical."

Stallone, who has made a career out of playing men's men-identified with boxing, guns and action-finds himself living in a house full of women, a father to three young daughters (13, 11, 7).

"Every entity in my life is female, including the dogs," he says with a grin. "It's difficult. With boys, you kick 'em in the ass, like Mickey did to Rocky, and tell 'em, ‘You take a punch and you kick ass.' But you can't do that with a daughter. You push boys out of the nest to take on the world-but you keep girls close. Daughters are less competitive and more embracing."

Stallone, who has two grown sons from a former marriage, says the difference between being a parent in his 60s and doing it in his 30s "is nothing complicated. Just wisdom. When you're young, you make mistakes because you're in uncharted waters. Back then, I was gone 80 percent of the time. I never appreciated the emotional side of raising a family, because I was still evolving. But when life takes you to task, when you get beat up, when you win and lose a few, then you realize what's precious."

A son of Hell's Kitchen by way of the American College of Switzerland and the University of Miami, Stallone has had 40 years in the spotlight to cultivate his tastes and to ponder the peculiar curves his career has taken. No particular fan of action films when he started, he helped create the modern action-thriller (with 1982's First Blood, in which the Rambo character was introduced). A fan of actors ranging from Kirk Douglas to Marlon Brando to Steve Reeves, Stallone found himself building a career playing characters who settled problems with fists or guns.

"It's a strange phenomenon-I thought I'd be an ensemble actor," he says. "I never saw myself as the hero. When I was starting, there were no such thing as ‘action' movies. Even the so-called action-adventures were about 90 percent exposition. I mean, Rocky isn't an action movie-there's only about six minutes of boxing in it.

"Action movies really started with First Blood. That was the first one that was wall-to-wall. And we thought it was horrible when we saw the first cut. But as it was whittled down, it turned into something else. And from that, I became identified with that kind of film-I became an action actor.

"At the time, I felt I was abandoning the call to be an actor who could play diverse roles. I wanted to do more movies like F.I.S.T or Cop Land. I chose a hard path. But it's a path I've been happy in because I'm making modern mythology."

As Stallone talks about his career, the distance between who he thought he would be and what he became seems to gape. Rocky, after all, earned him not only an Oscar nomination for screenwriting but for acting as well. At one point early on, critic Roger Ebert predicted that Stallone could have the same power on screen as Marlon Brando.

But to Stallone's chagrin, once the trail had been blazed-with multiple Rocky and Rambo films-it was hard to find the off-ramp. Whenever he would try something different-whether it was a romantic comedy (Rhinestone) opposite Dolly Parton (in which Stallone actually sang) or a slapstick comedy (Stop or My Mom Will Shoot), audiences avoided his films. When he'd strap on a gun and give a serious beatdown to some vicious bad guy, the crowds would flock-worldwide. And when he put on the gloves as Rocky or put on the headband as Rambo, the box office would explode.

"I've made films I'm not proud of," Stallone says. "I knew going in they weren't right for me. There's a school of thought that an actor should be as diverse and facile as possible. So you get that mindset: ‘I've got to do something different.' Or certain representation will say, ‘Hey, let's give something different a chance.' The money is good and you go in with honorable intentions.

"But the audience expects certain kinds of films out of certain actors. I made the mistake of going too far off the beaten path. John Wayne knew what his audience wanted; he never would have made Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. People underestimate the relationship certain actors have with their audience. When you mock that by doing something so far off-center, they let you know. Someone once said that if you give an audience what it wants, you'll be around for a long time. And if you give them what you want, you'll wind up broke."

Given his choice, Stallone says, "I would like to have done a few more dramas." He had opportunities: The list of titles he turned down-Coming Home, Witness, Romancing the Stone, to name a few-might have altered his direction.

Stallone expected a career course-correction when he made James Mangold's 1998 Cop Land, as part of an ensemble that included Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel and Michael Rapaport. The film, a drama about police corruption, cast Stallone as a deaf, small-town sheriff in a New Jersey suburb that was home to some of New York's most corrupt cops. But despite laudatory reviews-which made note of Stallone's subtle performance and the fact that he gained 40 pounds to look less buff for the role-the film disappeared without leaving much of a ripple.

Since then, his output has been steady but spotty: a couple of films that didn't do well in release (Get Carter, Driven), a couple more that went straight to video (D-Tox and Avenging Angelo), a voice-acting role in a computer-animated cartoon (Antz) and one as a villain in a kids' 3-D movie (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over). And he cohosted a short-lived reality-TV series, "The Contender," a boxing tournament that was marred by the suicide of one of the competitors.

The bright spots of the past decade have come from old friends: Rocky Balboa in 2006, and Rambo, an international hit in 2008. Even then, Stallone had to do a significant sell-job to convince financiers to give him money to put himself both in front of the camera and in the director's chair.

"Even with the naïveté and youth that went into getting the first Rocky made, it was a lot harder to get someone to let me do Rocky Balboa at 60," he says. "No one was willing to take a gamble on that sequel."


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Comments   1 comment(s)

stantine972 October 9, 2010 9:01pm ET

Mr Stallone, I have enjoyed you through your whole career and still look forward to your next project. Thank you. Keep the movies coming and thanks for actually smoking a cigar for the cover of "Cigar Aficionado" magazine. Cigar Aficionado, thank you for interviewing a cigar smoker.


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