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Drago's Return

Dolph Lundgren is back, but this time the robotic Russian boxer from Rocky IV has dropped the cartoon villain act
By Alejandro Benes | From Top 25 Annual Cigar Of The Year, January/February 2019
Drago's Return
Photos/Jim Wright

Detective Jack Caine blasts through the door. He’s blond. He’s tall. As his right leg rises, his foot meets the face of the bad guy holding up the liquor store. The robber drops like a sack of potatoes if a sack of potatoes had just been roundhouse karate kicked by Dolph Lundgren, playing the rule-breaking vice cop in 1990’s, I Come in Peace.

“It looks perfect in the movie,” explains Lundgren, a former European karate champion who stands 6'5". “If you look at that kick, it totally looks like it hits, ’cuz it is a hit.” Lundgren says he slipped and the other actor wasn’t exactly where he was supposed to be.

“Between him missing his mark and me slipping, I clocked him right in the head.” Lundgren chuckles.

Lundgren has been in 70 movies, mostly in roles that call for him to be physical and violent. You probably know him best for his monosyllabic turn as Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV, when he was 28. That’s the one in which Drago, the Russian semi-automaton boxer who speaks only nine lines of dialogue in the whole movie, manages to kill Apollo Creed in a boxing match. Seeking revenge, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) enters the ring against the nearly expressionless giant, a product of Soviet science who punches at a preposterous 1,850 pounds per square inch. As they meet in the ring, Drago utters, “I must break you.” As fists begin to fly, it seems that he will. Drago flings Rocky around the ring like a rag doll, landing punch after punch.

“Rocky Balboa is in serious trouble!” the announcer yells. “They might have to stop this one before somebody gets killed!”

Come on, man! Haven’t you seen the other Rocky movies? In the end, Rocky has avenged Creed’s death and knocked out Drago—and by extension Communism—with the Soviet politburo looking on. Now, more than three decades later, Ivan Drago is back, this time in Creed 2 (which hit theaters in late November). Lundgren has been busy, also appearing as King Nereus in the superhero film Aquaman, which came out December 21.

“Sly [Stallone] and I stay in touch,” Lundgren, now 61, says about how Drago’s return came to be. “So, he talked to me about Drago and told me it was a sort of ‘sins of my father’ story.”

But the negotiation dragged on, and in the meantime, Stallone stepped back from directing the movie. “I met with Steven Caple [the new director] and the actor [Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu, a boxer] who was going to play my son. He’s a big Romanian guy. Caple rewrote the script and made it more interesting than even Creed, and even more so for my character. You know, I didn’t want to play a cartoon cardboard villain again. I did that and I’d rather not do it again.”

Lundgren laughs as he lapses into the comic-book Russian accent from Rocky IV to explain that Drago—“He is not human. He is machine”—is in this latest incarnation “more human. It was 180 degrees different approach from before. This is more gritty. More real. Even the boxing matches. There’s no crazy stunts.”

“I end up in fights outside the ring,” Lundgren allows. “My fight is with the Russians who kicked me out and with Rocky and his lot, who kind of destroyed my life. That’s how I look at it.”

Lundgren was eager to explore Drago’s pain.

“The character is a more tortured character,” Lundgren says. “It was fun, but it was draining. His whole life was taken away from him after he lost. Then the Soviet Union fell apart and he was living a really, really meager existence. Mentally, I prepared a guy who had struggled against the odds all these years. This was something I could relate to.”

Lundgren grew up with a father who was “sophisticated,” a man who taught him how to smoke cigars, but who also abused him both physically and verbally.

“You end up in a situation where you can’t run away. You can’t fight back,” Lundgren says. “That energy that was all caged up, I used it to become a karate champion. I had this killer instinct. I never wanted to give up.”

Lundgren used his troubled relationship with his father to prepare for his return as Drago.

“In this role, I’m playing him,” Lundgren says. “And my son is playing me in my real life.”

Dolph Lundgren

In real life Lundgren is much more complete than the violent characters he plays on screen. He’s actually downright friendly. Walking into V Cut Smoke Shop on Melrose Avenue, Lundgren is still tall and muscular, though, dressed in a casual blue jacket and jeans, not as imposing. His still very blond hair is cut short. He is greeted warmly by the V Cut guys and Lundgren erupts into a big smile. His baby face has turned a little more rugged with age, and he speaks softly with a slight Swedish lilt as he hears about some of the “special stuff” the V Cut guys “always have” for him. Lundgren likes good cigars and enjoys more of them while shooting movies.

“If I’m on a film set, I smoke more because there’s just nothing to do.” When shooting in the U.S., his go-to is a Davidoff Grand Cru from the Dominican Republic, but he has an affinity for Cuban cigars that began 25 years ago when he got married. His now ex-wife had grown up in Marbella, Spain.

“We ended up buying a house there, which I still have. There, people smoke a lot of cigars so I got into it more. I started liking the Cubans, the Cohibas, Partagás and those.”

Lundgren allows that his palate tends towards lighter cigars.

“I like them kind of mild, and when you smell them they should smell a bit sweet and honey and light. Montecristo is a little too harsh. So, Cohibas and Partagás are pretty much my favorites.”

Lundgren stays with Cubans while shooting abroad.

“I smoked a lot for a while, especially in Montreal where I did a lot of movies and you get a lot of good cigars. I think I smoked four cigars a day. Small ones.”

When at home in Los Angeles, Lundgren visits The Palm. “It’s really a guy thing. You know, the classic steak, a New York strip, with a baked potato and a really good wine. And then a brandy or a sambuca. Fernet-Branca is my favorite. It’s all part of a ritual and the cigar finishes it up quite nicely. For a while I smoked Romeo and Julieta Churchills. It’s a special occasion cigar.”

Occasionally, Lundgren smokes with Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, his costars in more recent flicks. “It’s a guys’ thing,” he emphasizes. “I think some of the younger guys on The Expendables took up smoking because Sly smokes, Arnold smokes and I smoke. It’s kind of pleasant to smoke a cigar together.”

While he still puffs plenty of cigars, Lundgren has cut out most sugar from his diet, and has been working with a trainer to help his metabolism and strength after two hip replacements. The action star now has four meals a day, but smaller ones.

“As you get older, your vices kind of go out the window. You can’t eat as much, you can’t drink as much. A cigar is one of those things you can do as you age. I usually smoke once a week in LA. I used to go to Caffé Roma in Beverly Hills with Sly and Arnold. The Montage is pretty good too.”

Lundgren’s well-documented story is one of hard work and recovery. He channeled energy from that abused childhood into karate, ice hockey and weight training. He also became a juvenile delinquent in Stockholm—drinking too much and stealing motorcycles. As a result, he was sent to northern Sweden to live with his grandparents. At 18 years of age, Lundgren came to America to study.

“I remembered something my dad had told me,” Lundgren explains, noting that people are complicated. “My dad was this pretty smart guy, he was very charming, he was a nice guy most of the time when he wasn’t going nuts. And he told me, ‘Listen kid, this socialistic country [Sweden], forget it. You can’t do anything here. If you want to be somebody, you’ve got to go to America.’ ”

Lundgren received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Washington State University. He has another bachelor’s from the University of Stockholm and a master’s in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney (Australia). While there, he worked as a bouncer, channeling his “trauma” and karate skills. He also got more scholarships, among them a Fulbright to study at MIT.

“There was just one little snag,” Lundgren recalls. While he was working a concert, he was spotted by Grace Jones, the Jamaican-American actor/singer.

“I didn’t really realize right away why she’d picked this tall, blond, buff guy to be her special security,” Lundgren reminisces. “But, you know, I found out later that evening. I ended up in a hotel room, missed a few classes the next day. She was a world-class artist, totally out of my league. That’s what I thought, but she didn’t agree. So, we ended up having this relationship.”

Jones, who played the henchwoman in the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill, helped Lundgren get his first movie role. No lines. He’s a KGB agent, seen in the background as a KGB general talks with bad guy Christopher Walken. The choice confronting Lundgren was to pursue chemical engineering or hang out in New York with Jones and the likes of Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson and David Bowie. He spent only three weeks at MIT. Then he got the part of Drago in Rocky IV. That, Lundgren says, is when his troubles really started. While he was finding success in LA, his demons returned.

“I did a lot of bad things to myself,” things that included a failed marriage and two daughters whom he says didn’t really know their father. “And, 25 years later, 40 movies later, yeah, I was a movie star, but I was miserable most of the time,” Lundgren told a “TED Talks” audience in 2015. Stallone to the rescue. Lundgren imitates Stallone.

“ ‘Hey, Dolph, how are you doing? I’ve got this script, so check it out, see what you think.’ Well, the script was called The Expendables. It was a big hit, I was back on the big screen after 15 years.”

After another relationship, Lundgren got into therapy and the fog began to lift.

“You relive your experiences, you cry, scream, you roll up in a little ball, you hit the couch with a baseball bat. I could sort of see my life come back to me. And the meditation helped as well.”

He sought and received forgiveness from his daughters (whom Lundgren claims enjoy the smell of cigars because the aroma reminds them of him). He forgave his father. He began, he says, “this new life.” And he saw others in pain. Lundgren has dedicated a significant part of that new life to helping them. In 2014, he wrote and starred in the movie Skin Trade, about human trafficking.

“I had to play this character in the film where my daughter gets kidnapped and put in a cage. So when I got back to the States I checked out a few organizations. Now, he raises money to support CAST, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. Giving back has been its own kind of therapy for Lundgren.

“If you heal yourself, you can heal others,” he says. “If you do that, it’s just the greatest feeling in the world.”

It takes a smart and tough guy to make that journey.

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