After years of muscling his way across the screen, Sylvester Stallone seeks a different label: serious actor.
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98
"I did ["Saturday Night Live"] because it will do more to change my image than anything else," Sylvester Stallone said after viewing his Sepetmber 27, 1997, TV appearance for the first time. "Millions of people watch this show. They'll think of me differently." Changing his public image is one of Stallone's top priorities. He no longer simply wants to be seen as Rambo, or remembered for his multiple Rocky movies. His decision to take on the part of the 40-pounds overweight Freddy Heflin in Copland last year wasn't about playing a character. It was a carefully chosen role aimed at transforming his image. He wants to shed the constraints of the sculpted, physical action heroes that he milked for 20 years. Instead, he wants to return to his roots as a serious actor. In truth, his Copland performance echoed his first major role in Rocky, the career-launching low-budget movie that turned Stallone's name into Hollywood gold.
Stallone doesn't regret the way Rocky took over his life. In fact, it's his favorite role. It doesn't hurt that it also gave him extraordinary wealth and freedom and a place in cinematic history for the successful marketing of the sequel genre. Yet there's a nostalgia that creeps into Stallone's voice today when he talks about his wishes to return to serious acting, to serious roles that don't depend on flexing his muscles and flying through the air with danger all around.
Regret is probably too strong a word for his assessment of some of the movies he has made since 1980. But there are some titles on the list that he's on record as despising in one form or another: Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Judge Dredd, Assassins, Daylight and even the last in his Rocky series. His published comments on those films alone would fill a Worst Nightmares list for most any actor working today.
What seems evident is that Stallone has reached a point in his life where he is scrutinizing almost everything about his past, not just his choices of movies, but his personal life as well. Call it a mid-life course correction, or just the onset of a more mature wisdom. On "Larry King Live," for instance, Stallone recently said that he'd "made tremendous mistakes in my private life where I'm trying to rectify things."
In his Miami mansion, a glittering array of rooms filled with almost-over-the-top baroque treasures and priceless paintings, Stallone is quick to show off one tiny person who is helping mend the past: Sophia Rose, his 18-month-old daughter. Jennifer Flavin, whom Sylvester married last May in London, is also ever-present, being mom and lady of the manor, making sure everything is running right. Even the house, however, isn't safe from the scrutiny of what is right or not right about his life. The Miami digs went on the market last fall for $27 million. Stallone isn't saying where they'll move, but he admits to wanting more time in Los Angeles, while keeping a home "somewhere on the East Coast," probably somewhere less visible than Miami, but with plenty of golf courses to serve his obsession with the little white ball.
When all is said and done, the 51-year-old Stallone knows he will never be able to totally abandon the fighting-against-the-odds character of Rocky. In truth, the challenge to overcome the obstacles is what makes him tick. He often cites the profound feelings of inadequacy that he grew up with, and thus, the glorified hero and the accolades it provides is salve for the struggles of his earlier life. At the same time, Stallone sees himself as a consummate actor, a professional who take can take on any role, be it a serious drama or a comedy. He only wants to be able to assume all sides of his on-screen characters and to be offered serious roles that stretch him as an actor. But in the end, he yearns for a place in cinematic lore beyond Rocky and Rambo.
The desire is honest. You can hear it in his words and see it in his eyes. In his den, a dark, wood-paneled room filled with leather-bound books, leather chairs and rare Bedouin rifles hanging high on the walls, there is a small, homespun knit pillow inscribed with what truly must be Stallone's words to live by: "He lived life on his own terms. He fought his wars. He lost a few. But he never quit."
In a comprehensive interview late last year with Cigar Aficionado, Stallone discussed his life, from cigars to golf to new movies to another retelling of the Rocky legend.
Cigar Aficionado: There are humidors everywhere here. You clearly love cigars. Tell me what about them attracts you.
Stallone: I smoked cigarettes for many years, probably from the time I was about 12 years old. I remember up until the time I was doing Rocky I, I had a cigarette when I was in the ring. That's how bad the addiction was. Finally, I said, "This is only going to bring an early death." There also came a point when I thought that cigarettes looked somewhat silly on adults. Yet I have always been drawn to the idea of an oral fixation, and also feeling somewhat more relaxed with something smoking in my hand.
I was doing the movie F.I.S.T. and it seemed that the character should appropriately be smoking a cigar. So I started, in 1977. I had a neophyte's approach to smoking, but I enjoyed it. It was very odd, but as soon as I had a cigar in my hand, it would catapult me much faster into the character's sensibility than without the cigar. I guess that's very odd. But it makes a cigar an unusual tool. A cigar does that because we've grown up seeing cigars as having a connotation of power or prestige, or at least the man who smokes them seems to be very glamorous and almost monolithic compared to a cigarette smoker. A guy who smokes a cigar seems to be a very confident human being. After that point, I went back to cigarettes once or twice and then I quit totally. Cleaned out my lungs for three years and then went back to smoking cigars intelligently, for lack of a better term, from a connoisseur's point of view.
CA: Have you used a cigar to help you get into character in other movies?
Stallone: No, it was primarily in F.I.S.T. I smoked it in one or two scenes, but it was eliminated because of directorial editing. I've primarily smoked in my private life. Quite often, early on, people were shocked if I was smoking a cigarette. I actually had people come up and blatantly chastise me on the street about smoking a cigarette. A cigar, however, was held in some kind of civil abeyance and people wouldn't do that. Right away there was less of a stigma.
CA: I asked because I haven't seen you associated with a cigar in the way Bill Cosby or Arnold Schwarzenegger are. They're both quite public with their cigars. But you haven't been. Any particular reason?
Stallone: I don't know whether that's conscious or not, but I feel sometimes that smoking is, believe it or not, more of a private affair. It's something that I look forward to, that I covet. Therefore I will purposely deny myself several cigars during the day so that I look forward to that evening cigar with greater relish. I could never continually smoke--I could but I wouldn't be as excited about that expectation at the end of the day or while playing golf. I know when I play golf--golf for me is equated with cigars--I look forward to smoking. Going to the golf course, I know I'm going to light up there. The smoking isn't going to bother anyone and I can have a good old time.
CA: Do you have any particular place you light up during the round? At the start or the middle?
Stallone: Usually it's right after a good hole. So it can be a long time. Sometimes it'll be like the sixteenth. Sometimes it'll be on the first.
CA: Do you have a favorite cigar?
Stallone: I'm very partial to Fuentes. I think the whole Fuentes package is wonderful, but the [Fuente Fuente] OpusX for some reason seems to push all my buttons.
CA: Any particular thing about it?
Stallone: Well aesthetically, it's beautiful. I collect art, and quite often I'll look at a cigar and if it's blemished or the color isn't quite right or I see some fraying or the lines are not architectural, I'm turned off by it. This seems to have everything. And the band is kind of like a Renaissance filigree. It has a kind of bold, what's the word I'm looking for, almost Inquisitional-type X. The band almost looks like a piece of metal; again, the band is so aesthetically pleasing. I think image has a lot to do with cigars and people don't quite understand enough that there is the aesthetic quality. Just the band says it's not just a cigar. I don't like the [Cuban] Cohiba band. I know that sounds odd, but I don't. Not a lot of thought went into the band.
CA: Why, because it's so modern?
Stallone: I don't like it. The old Partagas were fantastic. Really some great old bands. I wish they'd go back to that more often. That Art Nouveau and that kind of Gibson girl look; I guess it's Neo-Classicism.
CA: Most of the ones you describe are examples of turn-of-the-century lithographic art. Do you like that?
Stallone: It's so good. Compared to a modernizing look, which I think defeats the heritage of a cigar. I think of a cigar as old. I think of it as reaching back into antiquity; though it doesn't go that far back, I think of it as that. And I think it is one of those things like a fine wine that has moved on into the modern era but the beauty of it is ancient. I hate to see the modernization of the cigar. I think there is something very interesting about, like an old bottle of Lafite, looking at the decaying label; it is a lot more exciting than looking at something made an hour ago. I don't care how flashy the label is. I don't like a modern label on wine. I know it's odd, but that's the way I feel.
CA: Is it the tradition then?
Stallone: I'm a traditionalist.
CA: Do you have a perfect metaphor for what a cigar is?
Stallone: I guess you could say that a good cigar is a magic carpet ride. It really transports you to another realm of consciousness where, when a cigar is good and the conversation is good, you are now into a heightened sense of awareness. You are as close as you can get to an altered state without drugs as possible, I believe. I believe that a good cigar, a glass of wine and a good conversation is as close to euphoria as you can get in a legal sense.
CA: Could you elaborate on that scene?
Stallone: The perfect smoking moment? OK. I would probably open a very fine bottle of wine or an Armagnac. And, I'd want to be watching a dramatic film. Not an action film, not a comedy. But a dramatic film. In the darkness of the room, the smoke would slowly filter out in front of the screen, rise up in this very sensual manner. The low light would refract through the wine glass. It's almost like I'm on the outside looking in and I have this constant stimulation of the palate. At both levels, wine and cigars. That to me is the perfect smoking experience. Or to smoke outside at night on a windless evening. Because I think the way the smoke dances on the air is also very appealing to me. I hate for it to blow on the wind out of my lips and it's gone.
CA: That's a problem on the golf course, isn't it?
Stallone: You're right. I usually have a golf cigar. I don't bring the good stuff out there.
CA: You say you are private about your smoking, but are there friends of yours that you share cigars with?
Stallone: Absolutely. When you have another fellow who is involved with the cigar as much as you are, then it's wonderful, kind of like the old peace pipe syndrome or whatever. You seem to be bound almost philosophically and you tend to be much more simpatico with that person. Not as argumentative for some reason.
CA: How so?
Stallone: Basically, you illuminate each other. "That's a good idea. Listen to this one. Listen to that one." There's nothing more frustrating than having a guest over who asks for a cigar since I'm smoking one. You naturally bring out a rare one because you want to impress him. They take three or four drags, but the first time it goes out, they put it in the ashtray and never lift it again. Let's just say this is equivalent to pulling my tooth out with a tractor. Or removing my kidney through my nose. It is that painful. I can't take my eyes off the cigar in the ashtray for the rest of the evening. And I'm going, "Does this individual know that this is like throwing down the gauntlet?"
CA: That's true. I wouldn't want to get you in that mood. What about a film like Copland? Did DeNiro and Keitel smoke cigars with you? Did you guys share some cigar moments there, too?
Stallone: Well, we definitely shared cigars, we shared the enjoyment of them. I know Bob is a big cigar lover and a connoisseur of wine and spirits, and the same with Harvey. When he gets a good cigar he's in hog heaven. People who smoke cigars tend to be much more patient than cigarette smokers because you have to nurture a cigar along. You don't just flick it and start a new one. Sometimes a cigar does not function perfectly and it takes a little bit of coaxing. Many people don't have the perseverance and the patience. They just flick it like a cigarette. I notice that. Some of the actors I work with are in a much more hyper mood. They'll reach for a cigarette and in the evening they'll go for a cigar. I can always tell the kind of moods they're in by their smoking choice.
CA: Do you prefer different sizes of cigar at different times of the day?
Stallone: Yes. Absolutely. During the day I like a small cigar. Maybe a robusto. That would be the biggest, by far. Fifty gauge would be like top of the line. Actually that's a bit big. What was the size I showed you and you said, "That's a pretty good cigar."? It was wrapped in cedar.
CA: That's a corona. A Romeo y Julieta Cedros.
Stallone: What size is that?
CA: It's approximately a six and a half by 42.
Stallone: Six and a half by 42. That's a wonderful daytime cigar.
CA: Yes it is. It's a pretty robust cigar, too.
Stallone: It's a very robust cigar. It's a quick fix until you can smoke your nine and a half or nine and a quarter incher at night.
CA: The old two-hour cigar routine.
Stallone: Two hours. It's called the Gandhi cigar. You can watch the entire film of Gandhi and still have a bit left, so it's a Gandhi smoke.
CA: Let's go on to golf here. After all, Cigar Aficionado is about enjoying oneself. When did you first start playing golf?
Stallone: Five years ago. I was curious about the game. I wasn't excited at first. I was actually quite miffed by the fact that so many people were attracted by this odd game that had been stigmatized for years as being an old man's sport. So having played polo for years I thought I'd just try to burst this myth--what could warrant hours and hours of television every week? Who's watching this? I didn't know one golfer. So I went out there and I proceeded to make a fool of myself the first two days. I bent the hozzle on a 3-wood and a 5-wood, which is pretty hard to do. I was atrocious. But the instructor kept saying, "Oh, that's wonderful, Mr. Stallone. That's wonderful." I was literally digging elephant graves. A family of five could live in one of my divots. That's how bad it was. What happened was I became captivated by my ineptness, my inability to function properly. I was outraged by the way my body rebelled and refused to cooperate. I said, "I feed you, I clothe you, I bathe you and I ask you to do one thing--hit this stupid white sphere, and you betray me over and over." So it came to me doing battle--me against me.
CA: I can imagine. You've had a good relationship with that body. You've been athletic, this should be easy. Right?
Stallone: Exactly. I couldn't understand it. I thought I'd done sports eminently more complex: polo, downhill skiing and boxing--not even close. There is no more precise sport in the world. And I think that is the fascination. There is a psychological dependency that happens with golf. That's really why it does bear definition by so many different quarters. In other words, there are probably more books written on golf than any other sport.
CA: Thoughtful books.
Stallone: Yes. They're like philosophies. And you realize that golf is completely psychological. One hundred percent.
CA: You've been quoted as saying that it's like a window on the personality of a person. Do you see that every time with every person you play with?
Stallone: One hundred percent. I've played with the finest pros in the world and I've played with people who seriously should have their arms amputated. They are that dangerous to their fellow man. I mean they're hitting ball washers. How do you hit a driver and the ball goes behind you? I've seen them hit ducks on the course, trees. Horrifying. I mean truly dangerous. You want to lay flat on the ground every time they hit.
CA: What about their behavior, is that a window on them, too?
Stallone: The behavior. I have no tolerance for people who make a living, a very good living, in a multitude of professions and then come out on the course and absolutely have the audacity to believe they are going to bring this course to its knees, and they're shocked, angered and outraged when they miss a 20-foot, left-to-right, downhill, breaking-against-the-grain putt. I said, "Are you out of your mind? Do you really think that you're going to make that?" Or they're stuck in wet sand and they wonder why they top the ball--excuse me, a pro couldn't make that shot. So that bothers me and I tend to never play with them again. I'd rather play alone. Because the most beautiful part of the game is I don't do this for a living. Imagine if that putt was for the house. The kids' college education. Your future, your insurance, your reputation. Your card, your tour card. That's pressure. But we're doing it for nothing. We get to go home and go back to our well-paying job. So what is there to be angry about? Why should there be temper tantrums? This is a perfect time where I think people have an opportunity to learn control. Don't give in to it. Who doesn't want to go crazy and smash the club? But it's a poor carpenter who blames his tools, that's all I can say.
CA: You've started bringing a hitting net on set. Do you find that is an easy release between scenes or at the end of the day?
Stallone: It's the ultimate release, but I've had to curtail that because I've started looking forward to that more than performing in the film. After a while even my putter ended up on the set. You're sitting there between takes practicing your hip release. I thought, "I can't do this," because it's not something you just turn off. I mean, an extraordinary shot on the course can leave you in a euphoric state for hours and hours. And just the opposite is true, too. I thought, "You can't be hitting them in the net for an hour and a half and then turn off the golf head and do a dramatic scene." Cause you're thinking, "Why was I topping? Is my grip too strong? Too weak? I'll do overlap." But, excuse me--this is not what you do for a living, fool. And I thought we've only got so much of a reservoir of creative energy and I'd better not apply it to the game of golf. I have to pay the rent with the other profession.
CA: You've got to be a little careful about that. There's a note of the old Rocky theme in some of the interviews you've given about golf, the internal accomplishment against overwhelming odds. Is that part of the reason that you like the game?
Stallone: Yes, very much so. Especially getting the bug at a late age, you really have to call upon discipline and resources, and it's a constant battle with yourself. Can you withstand the loneliness of the practice range?
CA: How often do you do that?
Stallone: When I'm home I'll do that five times a week. And I'll stay on the range five hours at a time knowing that this is where the work has to be accomplished. Quite often I play with people who don't warm up and they'll play a terrible over-the-top swing and continue their three-knuckle super-strong grip and it bothers me that they don't care enough to learn the beauty of the game. That's the ongoing battle. It shows me a lot about character and discipline. I would like to be out there with them, too. But I think there is something noble when you see a blind person climb Mount Everest. You say--'My God. That is something.' That's the way I feel about approaching a perfect golf swing. I'm groping along in the dark and as long as I keep groping forward I can feel a sense of accomplishment, but I'll never reach the pinnacle. Of course not.
CA: Let's go back to the beginning. Some of my readers will be surprised you're a cigar lover and a golfer, and some of them have never heard the Sylvester Stallone story. Where did it start?
Stallone: I was born in Hell's Kitchen, New York City. We didn't have a great deal of money so we lived in a cold-water flat which was pretty dismal by most standards. It was a very dangerous neighborhood at the time; obviously--it was called Hell's Kitchen. It spawned many, many criminals. My father, who worked very hard, moved [us] down to Washington, D.C. He started out as a beautician and then he opened up a couple of beauty schools. He began to progress. My mother, who is a very forward-thinking woman, actually started opening women's gyms in 1952, called Barbellas. I had always been part of "the iron game" at a very early age. I had a very eclectic upbringing and somewhat audacious outlook on life. I think some of it had to do with aggression.
CA: Basically then, you were a street kid?
Stallone: Yes, basically. Not malicious but mischievous.
CA: Did that get you into trouble?
Stallone: I went to a multitude of schools at that time. I was somewhat distracted. I had been diagnosed with attention span deficit, so it was quite difficult for me to remain focused. I tended to be much more drawn to the arts. I enjoyed painting and drawing a lot more than dealing in absolutes such as geometry and whatever. Which didn't sit very well at that time. I was asked to leave many schools until I ended up in a special school called Devereaux. At that school, I was introduced to athletics. I had never picked up a ball until I was 16 years old, and then I went out for the football team. I was resoundingly smashed to the ground and left for dead. I was literally eating grass for weeks on end. No one wanted to play with me because I was that inept. So I would walk around day in and day out, tossing the ball to myself up and down, until finally I made the team. And the second year I was the captain of the team. And so from that point I was very attracted to athletics. I began delving into weights and I don't know what it was, but I just felt as if my idols at that time tended to be rather outgoing physical specimens. But not in the bodybuilding world. You know, guys like the old-time football players. Bronko Nagurski, very off-the-wall people like George Hackenschmidt--he was a wrestler. Boxers that were obscure but somehow I found them--like Stanley Ketchel, who was the only middleweight to knock down Jack Johnson--very odd things. But I was drawn to this. I focused on the physical aspects of my life. I did not have very good grades, but I managed to get into the American College of Switzerland, where I stayed for a year in Leysin, Switzerland.
CA: Is that near Geneva?
Stallone: It's two hours outside of Geneva and an hour outside of Lausanne.
CA: So, it's up in the hills.
Stallone: It's definitely way up in the hills. Of course, I'm the only American who went there who refused to ski. Like a fool I learned to play foosball on a professional level.
CA: It sounds like most college experiences in those years.
Stallone: I don't know why. If I'd started skiing then, I'd be wonderful. I waited until I was 45 to learn to ski. Again, I was not very good at the school overall, but that was when I was introduced to drama. Up until then I was preparing myself to go into the Army. I was going to go to Vietnam, and after Vietnam I was going to work as an equestrian because I had been drawn to horses and had an ability in that area. Then someone asked me to audition for Death of a Salesman. A college play. So I went there and auditioned and got the part. The play went on and the director happened to be a Professor Swanson, who was a Harvard graduate, and he said, "You ought to think about this as a profession," and I said, "Forget it," and he said, "Yeah, really, consider it." So lo and behold I took off for Miami, the University of Miami, and I joined the Ring Theater, where I was not exactly encouraged to continue anything other than to pick up a saw and a hammer and chisel and work in theater--behind the curtain, not in front of it. They said, "You're too physical, your voice is too deep, your mouth has a snarly look." I went home completely paranoid. I didn't want to go home and look at myself. I was the Elephant Boy. What happened? Came here feeling good and I'm leaving as the Quasimodo of the South Beach. I couldn't believe it.
CA: This is at the University of Miami?
Stallone: Yes. So finally one of the professors posted an article from a local tabloid saying: "Student leaves [school] too early and becomes a bag lady." I thought, "This is outrageous. How dare they say that if we ever dropped out of school, we were destined to end up in the gutter." I was about three credits short, but I picked up and went to New York to pursue my happiness.
CA: So you never graduated from the university?
Stallone: Three credits shy.
CA: Marvin's going to love that. Cause he's a UM graduate.
Stallone: Really? The curriculum of most schools in the United States was developed in 1870. If they just taught courses in coping--just called "Coping," starting in the first grade, how to cope with life--you would find a lot more people prepared for what they are going to have to face after they leave school.
CA: Does the journey of that part of your life, from Hell's Kitchen and back to New York and the creation of Rocky, seem longer than the journey from Rocky to where you are today?
Stallone: Yes, it definitely seems longer. Because from Rocky to today seems like a descent into a tornado, where everything around is churning and unpredictable and ripping structures from their foundations. Because you are in the eye of the public. I tend not to experience life like I used to because I am in a vacuum, and I'm always being scrutinized. Before that, life seemed to move along a lot slower and in a much more investigative way. I could go into stores and be anonymous. I wasn't given any privileges. I was not considered and judged by mere virtue of being a celebrity. If someone thought, "That's a stupid statement," they'd say it. That was a much more realistic lifestyle and one that moved along much, much slower. But it also had greater impact. Because that is what I took with me into the future. So I'm pretty happy that things turned out the way they did because it did not come easy. Not for me. I was not one of those people who come into town and a couple of weeks later get a soap opera, another soap opera and then a couple of commercials.
CA: Did you do the standard actor-in-waiting jobs, like waiting tables and other odd jobs, whatever?
Stallone: I cleaned lion cages. I would cut fish heads. I was a deli worker. I was, what did they call it, the head of the usher's association at the same theater where Rocky later opened up. I had all these menial jobs. Menial in the sense that I wanted to take jobs that would require zero mental facilities and also at night so that I could leave the days open to pursue my career. Four years at college to cut fish heads. I said, "Trust me. There's a method to all this."
But I really did have a code of ethics, which eventually came into being when I had written Rocky in 1975. The script itself was an act of passion because I saw a window opened in 1975, around July. The producer had read another script of mine called Paradise Alley. But unfortunately that was embroiled in litigation. I had sold the rights for $200, that was how broke I was at the time. And he said, "That's too bad, because the script was pretty good." So I said, "Let me go home and maybe I can come up with something else." And I saw the Chuck Wepner-Ali fight and I said, "Now this is interesting." They called Chuck Wepner "The Bail Leader" and he was considered this clumsy pugilist, but he had heart. And he knocked the champion down, and I said, "My God, his life is made. No matter what, we know he's going to win because he's won. This is interesting. We all consider ourselves challengers in the fight against life and quite often we're all going to lose, but we sure would like to knock life on its ass one time, [to show] that at least I existed, that I meant something." So I went home and I worked feverishly for three days and developed a script that was by no means...
CA: You wrote the script in three days?
Stallone: Um hum. It was by no means the final script. But it was workable enough for them to buy it.
CA: And it was a script, not just a treatment?
Stallone: No, no--it was 96 pages. It was a script.
CA: Wow! You didn't sleep a whole lot in those days...
Stallone: No. But in the first version of Rocky, he had already retired. He was just a street thug. A collector. And we followed him through his trials and tribulations outside the ring. And then someone suggested, "Boy, what would it be if he were still fighting a little bit? He's kind of a bum but he's a club fighter." All right--I went back and added that and it automatically added another 15 pages or so. It became much more of a metaphor and it became much more relevant because I had been heavily influenced by the films Marty and Mean Streets. But taking Rocky back into the ring meant there was great opposition at first, because every boxing film had turned out to be a financial failure. And quite often boxing films were only done for one reason--to get around the morals code. You could see your favorite actor, whether it was Robert Taylor or James Cagney or Elvis Presley, basically in their underwear.
CA: Without a shirt on.
Stallone: Sweaty. You know--acting real physical. The stories themselves always got down and dirty, with bribes, taking falls. It was a very unsavory subject. I had never dealt in that. I just used boxing as a metaphor. So everyone said, "Fine, but Sylvester, no one knows who you are." I said, "Granted, I understand that." And they said, "Well, we'd like to buy the script." I thought about it. But I had this inkling, this certain kind of ethic where I've always believed in myself. I thought that perhaps this was the opportunity. You just know that there are about three or four times in your life when you are really at the crossroads. Quite often we're oblivious to it and it's too late. But this was so blatant, so obvious. They said they wanted Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal or Jimmy Caan, and every one of those individuals were at the apex of their career. And I certainly had no career whatsoever. And they offered $20,000; I said no. They said $100,000, which was a lot of money then, and remember I was completely broke. My car had cost $40.
CA: Were you living in L.A. at this point?
Stallone: I had just arrived in L.A. Then the price went up to $175,000. And it eventually went up to $360,000, which was close to a record in those days. It was close to a record.
CA: It was a lot of money in those days.
Stallone: Absolutely, unheard of. Like millions today. So I said, "No." I had kind of mastered the art of being poor. I had made poverty an art form. I had really figured it out. So I was willing to chance it and if necessary just be a writer if that was the case. This is where providence shines down on us sometimes. The producers, in some extraordinary act of generosity and entrepreneurial insanity, said, "OK, we'll give you a shot, but if it's not good after one week, you are going to be replaced." And they put up their house as a bond.
CA: And you were willing to take that deal: after a week if it's not working, then you're out of there?
Stallone: Yes. I was so broke at the time and so paranoid I wouldn't even get on an airplane. I took the train from L.A. to Philadelphia with my dog, who had a horrendous case of flatulence. He continued to fart with such lethal degree from coast to coast that finally when I got to Chicago I couldn't take any more and my wife said, "What are we going to do?" I went outside and got the dog and got him in a bear hug and tried to actually help him; but you understand, the dog, Butkus, the 125-pound bull mastiff, his anal muscles far exceeded the power of my entire body. So people were asking, "Why are you squeezing your dog?", this canine tube of toothpaste, and I said, "I'm trying to help him out." Anyway, he kept it in and we proceeded to Philadelphia--another day and a half--and I was dying, I was gassed to death. So finally we arrived in Philadelphia at the hotel and as we are stepping onto the front lawn at the hotel, he decided to relieve himself, and built what was probably the only American pyramid in the United States. It literally lifted him off the ground. You have never seen a dog unload like this. Sooo, this is my welcome. And I said, "If this is an omen, I'm dead. I'm truly dead."
Anyway, the first week I was on my good behavior and something happened. It is difficult to explain to people, but there is quite often a rapport between material, man and camera, and it cannot be choreographed. It works or it doesn't. And I'm very lucky. The movie was filmed in a very raw, rugged way and it just seemed to work. Even though the man was a loan shark, I didn't put offense into it. I didn't put it down in any preconceived notion of how to play the part--it just seemed to work. The character just had a comedic quality about him. Corny, in a way, and in his corniness, he lacked maliciousness. He wasn't really cut out for this. He was like Ferdinand the Bull. Anyway, the week passed and the film went on. It was done in 24 days. For under a million. Isn't that amazing? I am here today because of that gamble.
CA: You took another gamble in 1997: Copland. Taking on the role of a 40-pound-overweight suburban small-town cop was a risky departure. You've said many times in interviews that it was part of a design to shed some of the Rocky/Rambo images of the past 20 years. Have you accomplished your goal?
Stallone: I think so. Very much so. It was almost the exact same feeling that I had with Rocky, not the goals, but what was at stake--the prizes--were quite different. In Copland, there will be no financial remuneration. It was not about that at all. It was literally trying to be accepted in another genre where I feel more comfortable. I became an action actor by accident. I never learned a martial art. I was not raised in a boxing family. It was just something that I grew into or learned for a reason. So, it is not my normal sensibility. Copland or F.I.S.T. or Paradise Alley or even Rocky, these are all ensemble pieces. I wanted to get back, like the song, back to where you once belonged. Go on, Jojo. That's me--like the old Beatle song. So that was what was primarily at risk. I didn't realize that I was so indelibly marked as Rocky or Rambo. The reviews were really quite revealing in how much disdain many writers held for these two characters, especially Rambo. Copland was such a purging and a pleasure to actually let people vent. A lot of writers said, "Finally he is doing something that we can relate to that is not driven by musculature."
CA: Did you suspect that? Is that one of the things that you hoped that they would say?
Stallone: Yes. Very much so. There is maybe 20 percent of the world that wouldn't change. I didn't expect people, based on one film, to change 15 years of having a particular philosophy toward one actor. It is not fair to automatically assume that people will be that flexible in their judgment. But it was a beginning. When Janet Maslin made certain comments in The New York Times, I was so taken aback. I actually felt weak inside because everything was riding on it. Everything. If Copland had not worked, it would have been a devastating trip. Probably one that would have been irreparable.
CA: So, you felt you had put everything at stake?
Stallone: Everything at stake.
CA: At the Cannes Film Festival, you said that to some degree you really despised the last 10 years? Is that true?
Stallone: I don't have great relish for those years. I don't despise the people I worked with or the studios. I despise myself for not applying what I know is the best of my abilities. I just felt as though I accepted certain half-baked concepts and went with them.
CA: Because it was easy?
Stallone: It's a very delicate premise. If you accept a job, quite often you are not supposed to make waves. And in making waves quite often you are trying to make the project better. But this is where egos clash. Egos are titanic in proportion and quite often you are labeled with the reputation of being difficult. Being difficult to me is someone who does not want to come out of their trailer, who is drunk, who is a libertine. But someone who is very consumed with making a better product is not being difficult, he is being exploratory, he is being investigative. He is not doing this for money. It would be very easy for him to take the money and run. So there is a balance. I had been involved in other projects and I had gotten a terrible reputation. Many people did not want to work with me. So I thought in the future I would just accept the position and go with it; and I'm not proud of it. Copland was my first time working in unison with a director and producer that gave me pleasurable results.
CA: They weren't sold on the idea at first, right?
Stallone: No, I believe they had been looking for John Cusack, and a couple of other people had been mentioned. I wasn't sold on the idea, either. I thought I was going to play the Ray Liotta part, which is much more, the big, live, infectiously energetic outsider. I liked that idea. No, they said, we want you to be the fat, slow, dim-witted, hearing-impaired sheriff. And I said, "Thank you. Exactly what I've been looking for. A sexy role. Thank you." But once I got into it I thought, "This is fascinating." I really enjoy those kinds of parts. Like when I did "Saturday Night Live," to be able even for four and five minutes at a time to move from character to character--that fascinates me. That's the craft if we can do it. Quite often actors are chastised for stretching. They are chastised for not stretching and then they are rebuffed for stretching, like: "Why don't you go back to what you do?"
CA: But that's the public, isn't it? Joseph Campbell describes society's need for mythological characters, and you occupy one of those niches in American society. Call it Hercules or whatever, but that's who you are in people's minds. Isn't it really tough to shed that?
Stallone: You can't shed it. All you can do is have people be willing to suspend their expectations for a little while and accept you in another role. But deep down that is who you are to them. So you'll never achieve the purity of losing yourself in different characters. They'll always say, "Yeah, yeah, that's Sean Connery, that's James Bond." He's great in this and he's great in that and all these wonderful things, he's great in Russia House, but he's still James Bond. And that's not anything wrong with the actor, that's human nature.
You know the strongest impression is the primary impression. Our first blast at something just usually is the most lasting. You have to be real careful how you present yourself. Having done multiple sequels, the die has been cast. All I can hope for is to look for the versatility aspect of a career, but certainly not one that's going to make people forget where I came from. And I don't think I really want to, because I'm not ashamed by any means. You know, people never really understood Rambo. I shouldn't say that; a certain faction dismissed Rambo as a violent tool for the right wing. Whereas [although] Rambo was never anti-government, [he] worked on his own, received no financial remuneration and was always in the business of extracting prisoners at the cost of his own life. I did not understand the criticism. His was much more of a martyr position than one of being proactive; he was never proactive. He was happy to stay in the jungle. If you noticed, every time they came to him. But that is not the way it was interpreted. Through political cartoons and this interpretation, Rambo is as close as we get to Tyrannosaurus Rex, this Genghis Kahn of the Third World, but please, that's not true.
CA: At one point, wasn't Rambo labeled a part of the military-industrial complex's effort to shift public perception about Vietnam?
Stallone: Absolutely. That's what happened. Rambo really became a tool of right-wing imperialism as opposed to James Bond, who was much more liberal in his approach. When [the first Rambo film] came out, there were other films like Platoon and Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, which threw Rambo into an even further Black Knight situation, where he was the aggressor and Grim Reaper. I understand it, because Rambo was such a physical character; it's tough for us to think he's vulnerable by any means. Still, the first [Rambo film] I'm very proud of. The second one went into a whole different exploratory area--it became cartoonish. Bigger than life. That's where it went into Joseph Campbell. You know, the creation of a mythic hero because obviously what he did could never be accomplished. But the first one could. He suffered a lot worse in the first one and survived.
CA: Something tells me from your statement that you're not ashamed of those movies, and that you are going to do more films like the Rambo series.
Stallone: I would love to do films in the adventure genre, for sure. I think the public is recoiling from too much special effects and gimmickry. I agree. I've voiced that before. We have gotten into action by the numbers. It's almost this violent metronome going to and fro and every four seconds something must perish. Now, I would love to do smart adventure-action films. That definitely is something that I think is in keeping with someone my age. You know, "Hand me down my bow and headband, honey, time to go hunting. By the way, give me my bedpan while you're at it."
At this point, isn't it pretty crucial what you do next? If you go right back to Rambo, don't you lose all the effect of Copland?
Stallone: I couldn't agree with you more. The next project is just as crucial as Copland, or more. The next one is the one that delivers the most integral part of a career switch. It must truly attempt to show that the quest is not a momentary one but that you actually are following a different pattern. The fact that I accomplished it in Copland, to backslide would be even more devastating than never to have done Copland. Plus, I don't feel the need to go back. I am not driven monetarily at all. I really believe this is a point where I have to be really adventurous. It's the way I felt doing Rocky I; I feel, my God, it's 20 years later and I'm back at the same spot. With all the tons of Louis Vuitton luggage I'm bringing with me.
CA: Given that sense of adventure, which five roles, stage or screen, would you do?
Stallone: That anyone has ever done?
CA: Without regard to commercial value, what would you like to do?
Stallone: I would have liked to have done The Lion in Winter. I would like to have done Becket. I would like to have done Streetcar. I would like to have done American Buffalo. And probably--I'm definitely not going to say The King and I because that's out of the question, but probably A View from the Bridge.
CA: What about a villain?
Stallone: I would love to play a villain. I think the villain is the catalyst for making the hero what he is. So I've been looking for a clever villain or what we call a man who is a smart-ass. An arrogant bastard who has to receive his comeuppance in the end. Perhaps like Michael Douglas's character in Wall Street, which was a wonderful character. That would have been a wonderful role.
CA: Not a Hannibal Lecter?
Stallone: That's a murderer. That's different.
CA: What's your favorite role that you've done?
Stallone: Rocky will always be my sentimental favorite. I enjoyed very much Paradise Alley. That character to me was fluid and felt very comfortable and it was unrelenting. In other words, I didn't try to pull any punches. I didn't try to be manipulative and say, "At this point, I'm going to be vulnerable so the audience likes me." I just went full throttle. So I liked that very much. I'd have to say First Blood [the original Rambo film] I enjoyed a great deal. There were parts of the character in Cliffhanger, the physical part; the verbal part left me cold. I enjoyed the visual challenge of that; it was tremendous. And then Copland.
CA: We haven't touched on your personal life. But I'm sitting here in this spectacular house, knowing you've put it up for sale, and asking, why? You've clearly invested a lot of your soul here. Where and why are you moving?
Stallone: The house itself. [pause] I love the house, but now that we have Sophia Rose, there are so many levels and such an abundance of water I'm in a constant state of paranoia. And it's not really a child-friendly house. It's done in an artistic fashion. And there's nothing for a child to do except stand in the corner with baseball gloves on both hands, with feet shackled. And I don't want to do that. I also feel I've been here for four years, and though I like it I don't feel that I'm bound here by an overwhelming sense of community, so I'd like to now spend more time in California. I think it's necessary. I feel a bit isolated here. And also [elsewhere] on the East Coast. So, it's a time for me to experiment.
CA: Did the murder of Gianni Versace [in 1997] in South Beach have any impact on your decision or had you already decided to go?
Stallone: It had a great deal of impact in the sense that I think it was completely avoidable. And I think that local politics and the news media did not serve justice by [creating a] "Slygate" and putting out stories about my buoys in the bay on the front page and pictures of [my security gate] for two and a half weeks. They knew for two months that a murderer had been loose in South Miami, without ever putting his picture on the Internet, on the screen, on the front page of the newspaper. My gate was more important. I believe that if they had done those other things then he would have been picked up, because Miami Beach is a very small world and he wasn't hiding. I'm very regretful about it.
CA: Does an event like Versace's murder force you to reconsider the whole aspect of celebrity, and what it's done to your life?
Stallone: I've become a bit more patient with it. I'm impatient with invasive journalism, which is only one percent of the press corps. That is something that I think even they dislike. But I feel now that with my celebrity, because I've been at this for quite a while, that I have responsibility. I don't think that me being reclusive is using the gift that has been bestowed on me in the best way. I am now functioning much more for charities. I'm much more vocal with fund-raisers and other aspects. I'm helping to alleviate problems [in ways] that can best serve the public.
CA: Versace, and now, [Rocky co-star] Burgess Meredith just died. Has that changed the way you look at life?
Stallone: Yes. I used to wake up quite often confused and dazed and a bit angered and petulant. Now, I'll lay in bed an extra 15 minutes going over all the wonderful assets of my life: good health, beautiful family, this and that and the fact that I'm given another day to pursue a goal, another day to venture forth. Not a day to wait until I die. Another day to beat death. To get one more thing done before time claims me. So when I turned 50, you start to realize, my God, I'm a third of the way gone. [Laughter] That's the optimist I'm talking about. But I try to fight all the sense of anger or competitiveness or envy or any of the kind of natural things that creep into the minds of anyone in a competitive field. Which is probably everybody, whether you're in the janitorial field or the space program. You're always competing. And that brings out the best and worst in people. So I try to focus. With my little quiver, I have only half or a third of the arrows left. Now I'm really taking aim at targets instead of flocking the world with arrows and hoping something sticks. Now I'm much more focused and investigative.
CA: Are those efforts all part of the transformation of Sylvester Stallone?
Stallone: Yes, it is. It's all part of it. I think there is no question that I have been a bit self-centered in living my life in the last 15 years. Now, there is this lead curtain lifted from in front of my eyes with the marriage and the birth of the child and I feel much more focused. I've burned all my bridges, so now it's like this brave new world and I feel much more energized. That's why I've waited all these years to do your magazine: save the best for last.
CA: Are you less of a workaholic, less of a perfectionist?
Stallone: Actually, I've become more of a perfectionist and more of a workaholic. I hadn't been. That's the big problem. No perfection. I was like a joyaholic.
CA: Does that perception of your past make you feel as if you have to polish your legacy more than what's already there?
Stallone: Yes, I do. I think that one's reputation cannot be buffed enough. It shows that you are making an effort and therefore providing an example that we're never going to rest on our laurels. What is resting on your laurels? It's like a donkey sitting on his haunches. What is that all about? I don't want to rest on my laurels because that means I've given up, raised the white flag and I've surrendered the fort. I'm not doing that. I think that life is a constant uphill grind. But if you have accepted that in a competitive way, it is fun. If you accept it as drudgery, it can be a nightmare.
I don't really know how to manage the art of eternal leisure. I wouldn't know what to do. OK, today, we do nothing. OK, folks. Line up and think of something to do. Nothing? OK. That's it. Today will be a nothing day. I don't know how to do that. But some people--and perhaps it's a gift--they can empty out all thoughts, all sense of competitiveness. All sense of lack of accomplishment. And play three rounds of golf a day and feel good about it. I tip my hat. It's not an easy thing to do. Maybe their goal in life is to do nothing. And they achieved it.
Unfortunately, some of us are strapped with this nagging fear of not doing enough. I don't know which is worse. They sleep great. I sleep a little worse than Bela Lagosi in Dracula. I'm up all night. I might as well have a part-time job as a vampire because I keep the same hours. It's horrible. It's like being guilty of something. And I don't know what I'm guilty of. It's a constant rumble. Brain chatter, I call it. There's a random word, it's bouncing off in garbled, lost language, sentences. And I say stop. Come on. And it just doesn't go away. And I think it all started in '75. Once I was put under a spotlight I never slept sound again.
CA: Is it like getting on a rocket ship?
Stallone: Yes. It really is. Some people--their nervous system is very fragile.
CA: How do you want to be remembered?
Stallone: I think I'd like to be remembered as someone who beat the odds through just plain determination. That I was just dogmatic about the whole thing, that I persevered. Because I think that being somewhat of a pest to life, constantly plaguing and pursuing, will bring results; if nothing else your voice will be heard because you have become such a pain in the ass. "Anything to get rid of him." It's that kind of thing. It's like that wonderful movie Rudy. You think of that five-foot-three guy. And I met him. He's the only person to be carried off the field at Notre Dame. And took a beating. Only because he was a pest in a positive sense. He pestered life until it gave in.
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