Ivan Drago has been following Dolph Lundgren around for decades.
The unstoppable Russian villain of Rocky IV launched Lundgren's career, leading to a long string of tough-guy roles that played off the actor's good looks and Norse god physique. Drago also gave people the idea that maybe all Lundgren was cut out for was playing physically dominating, emotionless men.
But with Creed II, Lundgren is proving that's not the case. Lundgren delivers the most nuanced performance of his career by embracing physical and emotional damage the actor has lived with for decades; he's crafted an older, beaten-down Drago, one who has been shunned by his people after his defeat at the hands of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) 33 years earlier.
"It was my big break, but it also pigeonholed me," Lundgren tells The Hollywood Reporter of his complicated relationship with Drago. "People think, 'He's a robot and he has no emotions.' Now I can do the opposite, and it's very, very satisfying."
When we pick up with Ivan Drago again, he has spent years training his son, Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), for a match he hopes will redeem the family name: Viktor Drago vs. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the man Ivan killed in the ring.
Perhaps there've been times Lundgren, 61, has wanted to leave Drago behind. But revisiting the character in Creed II allowed the actor to work through issues he's been battling much of his life: being abused by his father, the uncertainty of a faltering career, the way fighting can be an escape from that pain.
"That's what I'm using a lot for Drago," says Lundgren. "He's also a guy who has lost everything and suffered a lot, and I've suffered a lot in my life."
There's a mythology surrounding Lundgren that exceeds that of most of his '80s action contemporaries. Where'd Bruce Willis go to school? Who knows. Who'd Wesley Snipes date before he made it big? No idea. Did Stallone give up some other career to pursue acting? Not really sure.
But pretty much everyone who cares about such things knows Lundgren's basic story. He was an engineering genius who dropped out of MIT in the '80s to pursue the New York lifestyle he was enjoying with then-girlfriend Grace Jones. Back then, he was just a striking-looking, 6-foot-5 Swedish competitive fighter that Jones, the famous model and singer, had picked up in Australia and brought to the set of the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill, where Lundgren earned a walk-on role as a bad guy.
"My dad was quite abusive physically to me and that's why I became a fighter," Lundgren says of his drive in those early days. "That gave me a lot of energy to succeed and to prove to him that I wasn't a failure and that I was strong."
Just as pouring himself into academics and physical activity had provided an escape from childhood trauma, acting became another release for Lundgren. While working as a bouncer in New York, he took some acting classes and auditioned at a cattle call for a boxing movie. A casting agent instantly dismissed him for being too tall, but when Lundgren discovered the film was Rocky IV, he devised a scheme to keep his hat in the ring. He commissioned photos of himself in boxing gear and managed to get them to Stallone, who months later summoned him to the Paramount lot — a meeting that would change the course of both the Rocky franchise and Lundgren's life.
As Lundgren pulled up to the Paramount lot in his rental car, he saw the Hollywood sign in the background and soon was in front of Stallone, long-haired and buffed up for a role in Rambo: First Blood Part II.
"The first time I met Dolph Lundgren, he changed the whole concept. I was seeing the Russian Drago as this Man-Beast, almost animal-like, unbeatable," Stallone tells THR. "Then this supernatural uber-Viking walked in. I said, 'This is what people may look like in 500 hundred years. Genetically perfect, engineered to be the athlete of the future."
Lundgren was star-struck by the actor, who in the eight years since breaking out with two Oscar nominations for Rocky, had become an A-lister; a macho man who also had a sensitive artist living inside of him, the kind of guy who pens a script about a boxer who loves turtles.
Stallone, who wrote and directed Rocky IV — as he'd done for the second and third installments in the franchise — showed Lundgren a binder full of pictures of other hopefuls for the part. The pair took shirtless photos next to each other in boxing trunks, and eventually, Lundgren was forced to vie against two other built blond men for the role by delivering a monologue that would be used in the trailer. While the other guys opted for an over-the-top take on Drago ("I fight all my life and I never lose!"), Lundgren took the advice of his acting coach Warren Robertson, who told him to play it cold, internal.
"It's very hard for actors to do less," says Lundgren. "It's advanced acting, actually, to do less, to play internal. Even though I didn't know what I was doing, it translated very well to the screen, especially with Stallone's closeups that he uses."
He landed the part. Lundgren was living with Jones in New York, so he rented a house in Coldwater Canyon during the five months of daily training with Stallone. Jones would come into the apartment with her entourage after a night of partying at about 4 a.m., and Lundgren would need to be up at five. Stallone was strict on his younger co-star during their training and noticed he was showing up tired. God help him if he ever showed up late.
"I ended up staying at his house for a while to get some sleep. Grace didn't appreciate that," says Lundgren with a laugh. "I was a 27-year-old Swedish kid who was stuck between Sylvester Stallone and Grace Jones. It's not that easy. Sly would basically fire me if I was in bad shape, and Grace was going to kill me or worse."
No matter how accomplished he becomes, Stallone will never utter words more famous than, "Yo, Adrian!" Likewise, Lundgren has appeared in dozens and dozens of films since Rocky IV, but he will never utter words more famous or more chilling than, "If he dies, he dies."
That line came after Drago delivered a fatal blow to Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) during an exhibition fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. For years, rumors have persisted that Weathers threatened to quit while filming that scene because it was so hard being in the ring with Lundgren.
If Weathers was a little worried while filming the fight, who could blame him? While Stallone had five months getting to know Lundgren, Weathers didn't meet the Swedish powerhouse until the day of filming. Lundgren had rehearsed the fight with someone else in Los Angeles, and most of it was improvised on the day.
"When Carl Weathers gets in the ring and then suddenly this 6-5 Swedish guy shows up and doesn't say a word and looks at him like he's going to kill him, I think he looked at it as, 'What the hell? Who is this guy?'" recalls Lundgren. "He was worried, I know he was. Stallone was telling me to go at him. I didn't want to hit him, but obviously, I did hit him in the body a little bit, because that's what you've got to do in order for it to look good."
Then came the "If he dies, he dies" line, which proved to be a surprisingly emotional moment for Lundgren.
"When I had to say the line, my preparation was that I was really feeling bad about it. I didn't like that he died," says Lundgren. "I know in the movie the way it comes out, he's kind of emotionally very brutal. But the way he said it, it's not with a smile. It has some kind of remorse behind it. That's certainly how I felt. I felt really bad seeing him with all the blood in Stallone's arms. I realized at that point I was the villain of the picture. It was going to be rough when this thing comes out."
Rocky IV is peak Rocky in terms of the character's training and physicality, and Stallone urged Lundgren to be as imposing as possible when it came Rocky's turn to face Drago.
"He wasn't against me getting bigger and stronger, and I would wear lifts in some of the scenes to make me even taller. I also stood on a box for a couple of shots, depending on where the camera was," says Lundgren.
Stallone was pushing himself hard during filming: producing, directing and fighting Lundgren in the final bout, filmed in Vancouver, doubling for Russia. Lundgren was worried for Stallone, particularly when his boss asked him to go after him for real during filming.
"I was tired. I was 10 years younger than him. I said I couldn't do it," recalls Lundgren. "I was tossing him around the ring, and I thought he was going to have some kind of collapse or something, physically. I was used to being around guys who were fighters and I could tell when they are tired."
One of Lundgren's punches landed on Stallone's chest, and Stallone ended up in an emergency jet back to Santa Monica, where he was put in intensive care with a swollen heart. Lundgren only found out after the fact, when a producer called him.
"I felt bad about that, too," he says.
He didn't know it yet, but Lundgren had turned in a performance that would follow him the rest of his life.
"Any time I see Dolph, I see Drago. That's how iconic that character was he played," says his The Expendables co-star Steve Austin.
Lundgren went back to his life with Jones and waited for Rocky IV to come out. As he's often recalled it, he walked into the premiere as Grace Jones' boyfriend, photographers shooing him aside to get a shot of Jones. He walked out of the premiere as movie star Dolph Lundgren, Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the image that persists today.
Rocky IV still stands as the top-grossing film in the franchise, not accounting for inflation, with $300.5 million globally. But Lundgren's newfound stardom put a strain on his relationship with Jones.
"We loved each other. There was this kid she picked up in Australia, and he was an engineering student and a fighter and suddenly had become, overnight, quite well known," says Lundgren.
The singer wrote in her 2015 autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, that the beginning of the end of their relationship was when she showed up to his Los Angeles hotel room with a gun, telling his manager she needed to see him. Their relationship was over by 1986. Meanwhile, the newly minted movie star continued to work through issues stemming from his childhood. His Rocky IV success came 10 years after his abusive childhood had ended, and Lundgren says he wasn't mature enough to confront his father about it.
"It's a complicated issue," Lundgren says. "Basically, he was very proud of me and I forgave him. But the underlying issues still troubled me until about five years ago through therapy and meditation and stuff. Now it's come and gone."
After Rocky IV, Lundgren toplined a string of big-budget genre films, including a leading role as He-Man in Masters of the Universe (1987), Frank Castle in Marvel's The Punisher (1989) and a co-lead with Brandon Lee in Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991). For a time, he seemed poised for a career like that of Jean-Claude Van Damme, a fellow fighter and his co-star in 1992's Universal Soldier. But Lundgren says at the time, he didn't have the business knowledge to make that happen.
"I didn't know who he was really," Lundgren says of meeting Van Damme. "He'd done one or two movies, but he was very, very smart. I thought he was very clever with his image and very business savvy — much more than I was at the time."
Things got tough for Lundgren in the years after Universal Soldier. He starred in a handful of big-screen films, but his role in 1995's Johnny Mnemonic would be his last in a wide-release film for 15 years. Lundgren lived in straight-to-DVD exile, and his marriage to ex-wife Anette Qviberg fell apart. He has taken the blame for that, alluding in interviews over the years to poor behavior and infidelities on his part.
"I did smaller indie movies. My career wasn't going that well," says Lundgren of that time. "I moved to Spain with my ex-wife. I had two kids there and I wasn't doing that well. I started drinking too much. I was depressed."
Then in 2009, a miracle. Stallone called to say he was putting together a film — a who's who of movie tough guys from the past 25 years.
The Expendables changed Lundgren's career again, allowing him to return to the big screen in a property whose premise was irresistible to action fans in the same way the idea of seeing The Avengers on the big screen was to Marvel fans in 2012. Stallone assembled guys like Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li and Bruce Willis. He wrote a character for Lundgren named Gunnar Jensen, a chemical engineer and MIT dropout. (Sound familiar?) Two sequels followed, with the series earning $804.1 million globally and a fourth being discussed.
"I went through a lot of hardships before that, where I didn't know what was going to happen to me in my career and how I was going to support my family and stuff like that," Lundgren says.
After years of alternately embracing Drago as part of him and wanting to show what else he could do as an actor, Creed II has proven to Lundgren that he and the Russian boxer were intertwined more closely than he knew. Like Drago, he knows what it's like to be competing at the top of your field and then seemingly disappear. He knows what it means to lose family. And in the sequel, he gets to experience the other side of the father-son equation that shaped his life, with it hinted that if Ivan isn't outright physically abusive to his son Viktor, he's at least inflicting emotional damage by pushing his son so hard.
After reading the Creed II script, Lundgren instantly envisioned playing Drago as older and worn out. (He's still in incredible shape, for the record.) He pitched that vision to director Steven Caple Jr.
"He wasn't sure about that at first, but then he agreed," says Lundgren. "So he made my clothes two sizes too big so I always look like maybe I've lost some weight or something."
There is a startling scene in Creed II in which Rocky and Drago meet for the first time in decades. Drago lays out what his life has been like after losing that fight in 1985. It's a subtle and affecting moment that is crucial to what follows — and featured lines Lundgren fought to keep in the script.
"That scene was rewritten a couple of times. Some things were taken out that I thought were wonderful, and I fought for putting them back in," says Lundgren. "Things were put back in because I said 'I'm not going to shoot it any other way.' People have to understand where I'm coming from, and that's one of the few scenes where we understand what the hell this guy is about. And it was an important scene and I'm very pleased it's in the picture, pretty much in the original version. There were like five versions of it."
"I really just wanted people to feel for both characters at the end of the film," adds Caple. "I wanted to not have the typical bad guy. I didn’t want it to come off as a cartoon. I wanted everything to stay in this grounded place."
While some viewers might be surprised by how good a dramatic actor Lundgren is in the film, Stallone is not among them.
"Dolph is a very deep and extremely sensitive person that people have never given him credit for, because he entered this business as such a remarkable physical specimen," says Stallone. "He was a book judged by his cover, but I always knew how intense he was and is."
Lundgren has always graciously shrugged off comparisons to the other action stars of his generation, noting that someone will always be richer than you or have bigger biceps than you. But he's in the midst of a career moment that might make his contemporaries jealous. A month after Creed II opens, he'll have a role in James Wan's Aquaman for Warner Bros. and DC as King Nereus. When's the last time an '80s action star appeared in two movies poised for such critical and financial success in a single year, much less just weeks apart?
In next month's Aquaman, Lundgren shares the screen with the next generation's larger-than-life action hero: Jason Momoa. He and Momoa spent a few days training together, and have even talked about appearing in something else together down the road, but their first meeting wasn't what Lundgren expected.
"He was in his trailer and he came out. I'd never met him so I said, 'Hi Jason.' And he looks at me and nods his head and didn't say anything," says Lundgren. "And then he comes running up to me, 'Oh! I'm sorry man, I didn't recognize you.' He didn't know it was me because I looked so different [in costume and makeup]."
While Lundgren recognizes it's a special moment in his career, he sounds prouder of how those roles have allowed him to dig deep rather than any attention he might receive because of it.
"I was never in this business to impress people with my physique and try to be badass, because I was already. I was in the military, I was already a fighter, I was a champion. I got into it originally because I like to be creative," says Lundgren. "I had to work out some of my trauma from my childhood but I didn't know how to do it. It took me years to be able to do it on the big screen, but with good, good directors, not some movie no one will ever see. Sometimes it's hard to dig in and really bare your soul in a movie instead of just taking the easy way out."
— Mia Galuppo contributed reporting.