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Sylvester Stallone Gets Candid About Career, Regrets, Feuds: “I Thought I Knew Everything”

At 76 years old, the Hollywood icon is still fighting: On his battle for the 'Rocky' rights, the future of 'Rambo,' his pivot to TV (‘Tulsa King’ and a reality show), and the time he turned down $34 million for a movie role.

You’re sitting with Sylvester Stallone and the word that keeps coming to mind is so simple and grunt-y that it could be dialogue from one of his tough-guy action movies: Big. The man is barrel-chested big. His tanned, lined face is broad with a wide nose and dramatic eyebrows. His luxuriant suede jacket flaps when he shifts like roomy cow drapes (he just picked it up this morning from Ralph Lauren — the man, not the store, because that’s the level of famous Stallone is). His accompanying Rottweiler is massive and sweet and keeps coming back for more pets.

We’re doing this interview in Stallone’s “barn” at his ranch/house in Hidden Hills, California. The space looks like something from Architectural Digest and calling it a barn is like calling a 1966 Shelby Cobra an “old car” — technically accurate but also c’mon. For more than an hour, we discussed the Rocky and Rambo writer-actor-director’s career, which spans back to 1976 and across more than 50 films that have collectively grossed about $3 billion at the box office. According to IMDb, he’s one of only a couple actors to have ever starred in a movie that topped the weekend box office across five consecutive decades.

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SYLVESTER STALLONE Photographed By David Needleman

“Six,” interrupts Stallone, smiling and puffing on his fat cigar. “The shark counts.”

Ah, right — 2021’s The Suicide Squad, where Stallone voiced King Shark. And now, Stallone is back with his first TV show: Paramount+’s Tulsa King, the latest heartland series from Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan. Stallone plays a mafioso released from prison who’s exiled to Oklahoma to rebuild his crime empire. There is also Stallone’s upcoming first-ever reality show, which will chronicle his home life, like Keeping Up With the Kardashians (an idea he will defend shortly). Though Stallone is 76 years old (How did that happen? He isn’t sure, either), the man’s energy and focus do not appear to have waned.

Still, even Stallone admits it’s going to be a struggle to keep his box office streak rolling into another decade: “Seven is gonna be tough.”

There’s a scene in the Tulsa King pilot where your character, Dwight, sleeps with a woman and then she asks how old he is. He says he’s 75 and she flees the room in horror. How did you feel reading that?

I kind of felt kind of how I played it. Like, I’m almost apologizing — I’m sorry. I didn’t know. It crept on me that fast. I’m the oldest guy on the show’s set. I could be some of these people’s grandfather. So [the scene] was quite flattering and also quite depressing.

Do you feel your age?

I feel very immature. I’ve always been averse to the quote “Act your age.” Or “Age gracefully.” How do you age gracefully? There’s nothing graceful about you. The older I get, the more I try to embrace my inner kid. The only way I really feel my age is because I’ve had so many injuries. I’ve had five back operations, three neck fusions, both shoulders done, knees, ankles, fist — you name it. It’s been more than 25 times that I’ve been put out. So that I feel. But after I warm up, I feel really good. I don’t run out of gas.

You’ve said before, “They say people don’t change, but they do.” How have you changed these last 10 years?

“There are only so many bullets left in the gun,” says Stallone of the need to pick great projects at this point in his career.
Stallone at his California ranch house Photographed By David Needleman

A tremendous amount. In the beginning of my career, I was celebrating the fact that I had made it to the point of obnoxiousness. “See, I told you!” That kind of thing. When I look back on my quotes, I think, “God, a little humility would’ve been nice.” I was just with Ralph Lauren and we were talking about our success, which we call “luck.” People ask, “What’s the formula?” And he goes, “There is none, is there?” I go, “No, you just keep doing what you do naturally, and sometimes you arrive at a place you never expected to be.” 

You’ve long said you were motivated by wanting to make up for a slew of unsuccessful movies you made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Is that still the case?

I felt as though I wasted a lot of time. Now I realize there are only so many bullets left in the gun. Very few. When you’re young, you’re just haphazardly shooting wildly and hope you hit something. Now you don’t have the luxury of missing – especially with the family and the kids. I find that to be my biggest regret. Everyone goes, “I wish I’d shown love more” or “I wish I’d spent more time with the kids.” I’m riding that boat. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the reality show that I’ve been taking a lot of shit for.

So why did you do the show?

I thought it would be the ultimate home movie. This is a chance where I’m going to be with my kids under a work condition where they get to see me in action and I get to see them in action. What you will see is the real truth. This is a great opportunity. I don’t look at it as stooping to conquer. But each time you go in a different direction, people go, “Oh God, you must be in trouble.” Just the opposite.

You’ve had this surge of headlines lately about your personal life [Stallone’s wife of 25 years, Jennifer Flavin, filed for divorce in August. The two have since reconciled and, during our visit, they arrived home together]. Does it surprise you that the public is still interested, and is that going to be part of the show?

Stallone with (from left) wife Jennifer Flavin and daughters Sistine and Sophia. The family is filming a reality show for Paramount+.
Stallone with (from left) wife Jennifer Flavin and daughters Sistine and Sophia. Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Of course it’s part of the show. It’s the John Lennon thing: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Hopefully, you’re involved with people who understand the foibles of life and the fragility of it and how rare a real good relationship is. Sometimes I put the work ahead of [my family], and that is a tragic mistake which won’t happen again.

You made more headlines with your Instagram post in July asking Rocky producer Irwin Winkler to give you some of the rights to the character you created. Has there been any movement on that?

No. It’s never gonna happen. It was a deal that was done unbeknownst to me by people that I thought were close to me and they basically gave away whatever rights I would have had. At the time I was so excited to be working and I didn’t understand this is a business. Who knew Rocky would go on for another 45 years? I’ve never used one [line of dialogue] from anyone else — and the irony is that I don’t own any of it. The people who have done literally nothing, control it. 

I read 600 pages of your past interviews to prepare for this, and I never heard you sound as angry as you were in that Instagram post. What triggered that?

They wanted another Rocky. And I was willing to do it. But I said, “After 45 years, can we change the playing field a little bit? Level it out? Can’t I get a piece of what I created all these years ago?”

You wanted this to apply retroactively to the other movies?

No! Just from now on. I didn’t expect to get –– yeah, forget that. [The producers] still get a piece. I don’t want anyone to control it. If I write it and the studio agrees to do it, it’s done. You can’t [make a Rocky sequel] just because you want your children to have a job. Or if you don’t get more money, that you can block it. The other producer, Bob Chartoff, was always very nice. Irwin Winkler was just the opposite.

There was also a Drago spinoff referenced in your post, and you called out [Drago actor] Dolph Lundgren for not telling you about it. Have you two patched things up since then?

Yeah, we did. I’m actually calling him today because he underwent some ankle situation. The Dolph thing, again. This is a classic case of them going around and trying to continually cherry-pick aspects of Rocky without even asking me if I want to join in. I’m not an executive producer on the Creed movies. [Director] Ryan Coogler is. [Star] Michael B. Jordan is. [Winkler and Chartoff’s] children are. Not mine. I’m the only one left out.

Is it going to be weird for you to see Creed III without being in the film?

That’s a regretful situation because I know what it could have been. It was taken in a direction that is quite different than I would’ve taken it. It’s a different philosophy — Irwin Winkler’s and Michael B. Jordan’s. I wish them well, but I’m much more of a sentimentalist. I like my heroes getting beat up, but I just don’t want them going into that dark space. I just feel people have enough darkness.

Both Rocky IV and Rambo III are considered peak Cold War proxy-battle entertainment. Now we find ourselves once again conflicting with Russia. What’s your thought when you look at the headlines as somebody who helped Americans grapple with a similar anxiety back in the day?

Russia was really upset [with those movies]. The horrible thing is that as much as you think cinema is going to change things, there’s a culture of violence when you’re dealing with any powerful militaristic government. I wanted to show two guys fighting instead of 20 million, like they used to do in the old days — send out your best warrior. You send out David and I’ll send out Goliath and we’ll see what happens. Mine was how I wished it could be. What’s sad is I now see how it really is, and it’s incredibly tragic.

One film I’m truly proud of — it’s the best action film I’ve ever done because it’s the most truthful — is Rambo IV, dealing with Burma, where they’ve had a civil war for 67 years. But I got excoriated because the movie’s so violent. And it is violent. It’s horrifying. It’s children being burnt alive. That’s what makes civil war worse than anything: It’s your neighbor, all of a sudden, killing you. I was really happy with that film, and I never thought it would ever reach the theater. I thought, “They’re never going to show this.” 

Could you make a conservative-leaning major studio film now? Top Gun: Maverick was pro-military and did huge, but it straddled the line.

A good story is a good story, and if you lean very hard on the politics, you’re asking for trouble. Like everyone assumed Rambo is a conservative. President Reagan posted a picture going, “Rambo’s a Republican.” I went, “Uh oh.” Rambo is totally neutral. He doesn’t even live in this country. He feels scorned by it. And my politics are: “May the best man win.” I voted on both [sides], but I’m definitely in the middle. People assume I’m the same as my character — and I do talk to everybody; I think it’s crazy not to. Actually, I avoid some people because it sends out the wrong [message]. You’re asking yourself, “Do I really need this controversy?”

You said some admiring words about Trump before the 2016 election, but also said you weren’t sure if he would be good at running the country

I just find him a very flamboyant character. It’s almost a movie. You go, “This can’t be real.” Yet it is real. 

You’ve also described yourself as “the most anti-gun person in Hollywood.” Now productions are moving to Airsoft and CG in the wake of the Rust tragedy. Some feel this is an overreaction and that blanks can be safely used. What’s your take?

No one has shot more blanks than me. On Rambo IV, I wanted to show what a .50-caliber could do to a human being. We took a dummy and filled it with 200 pounds of beef. I thought, “When I fire, it will knock the dummy over.” There were no bullets in the gun. It was just the force of the compression in the shell. But it turned the dummy into mist. It blew it apart. Then I turned the .50-caliber to a row of bamboo trees and it literally cut them in half. This is without bullets! 

I’ve had near-misses. I’ve never said this before, but I had a pistol literally go off in my holster in The Expendablesbam, right down my leg. I’ve used weapons that are incredibly dangerous at close range. I’m surprised I haven’t lost a finger or something. It was only a matter of time, and I agree: With special effects, there’s no need to do this.

You supposedly hold the record for the longest consecutive streak of nominations at the Razzie Awards — 13 years. Did that piss you off?

It did. But now I see the humor in it because there are some really good performers in there. I said things about critics like, “Let them try to do it.” I said I love critiques, but now tell me how to make it better in the same paragraph. “That’s not our job.” Well, that’s like going up to a child and going, “You’re a horrible child!” and then you walk out of the room. How about the other side of it? I got a lot of shit for that.

What’s it like for you when a film doesn’t work that opening weekend?

You know when you’re doing publicity. You can tell when you’re being interviewed and the second question is: “So what’s next for Sylvester Stallone?” They start talking about other things. It’s horrible.

Like, we were going to do Rhinestone with director Mike Nichols. He was going to be fantastic, and he fell out. Then a nice fellow [Bob Clark] came in, but he’s the director of Porky’s. I should have known this is not what we started out to do and packed my bag. I hold myself responsible for that.

Or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was supposed to be like Throw Momma From the Train with the mom as this really nasty piece of work. Instead you hire the nicest woman in Hollywood, Estelle Getty, who you wish was your mother. That’s the end of that! Also, I had heard Schwarzenegger was going to do that movie and I said, “I’m going to beat him to it.” I think he set me up.

[We reached out to Schwarzenegger to ask if he could confirm this decades-old rumor that he feigned interest in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot in hopes of luring his box office competitor into making a huge flop: “It’s 100 percent true,” Schwarzenegger wrote. “In those days we did all kinds of crazy things to get ahead in our rivalry. Luckily for us and everyone else, today, we root for each other. Thank God, because we sure don’t ever need another Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”]

You famously did Rhinestone instead of Romancing the Stone. Other roles you have reportedly turned down over the years include Pulp Fiction, Die Hard, Witness, Face/Off and Arthur. Which stung the most?

[I wasn’t offered] Arthur and Pulp Fiction. Witness killed me. Also, Coming Home. But I couldn’t have done it better than Jon Voight, he was great. Witness was a mistake.

I know what you think is your best film (Rocky Balboa) and your worst (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) so I’ll ask this: What’s your most underrated film?

Believe it or not, I think Get Carter was really underrated. That was a big disappointment. I learned the hard way that [remakes], even if you do it better than the original, there’s a tremendous nostalgia attached to the original. And quite often they’re not done as well. Like the last West Side Story. Why would you mess with something like that? Not only because [of the original’s quality] but because people’s tastes change. Musicals don’t make it anymore. Kids cannot relate to that kind of music. So who’s your audience? It’s crazy. Also, I thought Cop Land was going to do a little better.

What’s the most you were ever paid for a role?

I turned down 34.

You turned down $34 million?! For what film?

We were doing Rambo III. We thought it was going to be the biggest hit — this was before it came out. And I was paid a fortune for it. Then they go, “We want Rambo IV. Here it is: Pay or play, 34.” I go, “Let’s not jump the gun here …”

And that’s in 1980s dollars. [Factoring inflation, $34 million would now be approximately $85 million].

For real. That’s not a joke. Oh boy, what an idiot. Now I think about that and … wow.

You’ve been candid about things you could have done differently and have said you’ve made every Hollywood mistake you can make. Did you ever fall into drug use [aside from once being caught with unprescribed human growth hormone]?

Amazingly, never. I tried it once and it was no good. I was doing Rocky III and had to get down to a certain weight — too thin, actually. I was drinking 20, 30 cups of coffee a day and eating tuna fish. Somebody goes, ’Try this Dexedrine.” And then I didn’t know where I was — I’m directing on a rocket ship. I’m (imitates grinding his jaw) and my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I said, “That’s it.”

You also declared about that period in your life that you “abused power.” Nowadays that phrase typically means something different than when you said it, but still: Did you ever treat women in ways that you regret? [The actor has been accused of sex assault in decades past. He denied the allegations; no charges were filed]

No, no, no, no, no! When I say “I abused power,” it was with my public persona and words. I thought I knew everything, and when I look back on that time it’s deeply mortifying. That’s what I meant.

Do you have a take on so-called cancel culture and the #MeToo movement in the industry? 

I think it’s an evolutionary process that has not reached its conclusion. I don’t know if it’s good or bad yet. I do believe that quite often that people change. Maybe if somebody has a bad marriage or gets fired from their job, they look at things differently. Sometimes a good slap in the mouth – a real hard bash in the face by reality – wakes your ass up and you’re not the same person anymore. 

You once complained, “There doesn’t seem to be enough real men to go around.” That was in 1976. What’s your take on the state of masculinity today?

Did I say that? You see what I mean? That’s what I’m talking about! (Laughs.) It’s not that there aren’t enough real men. I meant there are not enough roles for men to play that kind of outsider. The Steve McQueens, the Dirty Harrys. They’re out of vogue. I think they will come back. I really do. You just change a few things. I don’t know what I was thinking. The ’70s were a very masculine time, my God. Today’s a masculine time, too; you got some of the toughest athletes in the world now.

In so many of your interviews since then, you’re described as wearing a black T-shirt. You have one on now. How many do you own?

Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone Photographed By David Needleman

You can’t go wrong with a black T-shirt. Because you can put a sport coat over it, or take it off [to look more casual]. I see the best designers come out of their show in a fucking T-shirt. Like Armani. Here’s a guy who has access to tons of clothes and he’s in black shirt, black pants, done. It keeps things simple.

Back in the day, you were almost cast as Richard Donner’s Superman. Is there a comic book character you haven’t played before that you’d want to?

I don’t look like any comic book character. Like, I could have never played the Terminator. No one would make a robot with a crooked mouth and voice that sounds like a pallbearer. It just doesn’t work. But yes. Who was the guy Sam Jackson ended up playing?

Nick Fury? With the eyepatch?

Yeah. I thought I could have done something like that, where I’m not the main guy. 

Speaking of Arnold, you have been friends for a long time. When you meet up, what do you talk about?

Arnold’s very wise and he loves to talk about philosophies which have got him to where he is. It’s good to talk to a man who actually has put his money where his mouth is, and he’s achieved that. Then we start goofing around and being crazy — just laughing at the old times. I told him: “We are the last two tyrannosaurus.” We’re the last two meat eaters, and there’s not much beef left out there. So we better enjoy each other.

You’re also friends with your other former Planet Hollywood partner, Bruce Willis. Do you still keep in touch? His fans have obviously been extremely saddened by the reports about his health. 

Bruce is going through some really, really difficult times. So he’s been sort of incommunicado. That kills me. It’s so sad. 

For years when you were asked in interviews if you would ever do TV, you would say that you wished you could have done The Sopranos. Tulsa King is the same genre and has Sopranos writer Terence Winter on board. Was that part of the appeal?

Yes. I’ve always wanted to play a gangster. But I wanted to play a unique gangster who is not like a gangster — at least, not when you meet him. He’s actually a guy who likes to cooperate. I thought about Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Like, what if you woke up and you were now in a different profession but you had the same personality? That way, you don’t assume the automatic cliché of a thug who stares at you dead-eyed and (slides into his Rocky/Rambo speaking voice for a moment — just to show) doing the deep voice. But if he has to get heavy, it’s gonna get real heavy. So I said, “I’m gonna play him as close to myself as I’ve ever done in my life.”

That’s interesting because there’s a line in the Tulsa King pilot that sounds exactly like something you would say: “The answer is always ‘no’ until you ask.” Was that yours?

Yeah. Usually they’re very strict about adhering to what’s written on the page. But I tend to go off the page and throw in ad-libs. They were a little disturbed at first (laughs, in a “Ya hire Stallone ya get Stallone” kind of way), but then I said, “Guys, I know what I’m doing. I’m a writer.” You’ll find a lot of Terry’s writing and mine intertwined. It’s primarily his.

So let’s quickly hit some of your upcoming and rumored projects. What’s the latest with the Rambo streaming prequel? 

I think it’s going to happen. I wanted to do it like a Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, where you drop young Rambo in there and he’s this outgoing guy, football captain, and then you see why he becomes Rambo. But what they want to do is a modern-day story where I pass the torch. That’s getting close. 

How’s Expendables 4 looking?

I heard it turned out pretty good. Jason Statham is 80 percent of it. He’s happy with it. 

With everything going on with the Rocky rights, I assume that its streaming prequel isn’t happening? 

It may happen again because now Amazon’s involved. It’s pretty close. There’s a side of me that goes: Is this really going to work? Every time you try to do Son of Kong, Son of Tarzan, it doesn’t work. There’s a certain indescribable formula that happens. If I gave you the novel The Godfather, good luck on casting that today. Good luck selling that whole premise today. 

Is it frustrating that so much in action cinema has become CGI and comic book characters?

Yes, it is. [Great action movies are] like buying a vintage watch. Originally it was $35, and now it’s $35,000. Why? Because it’s handmade. It wasn’t over the top. It wasn’t supernatural. It was something a unique human being could achieve. That’s why I think First Blood is one of the first action films. I relied on body acting to tell the story. The character never talks, but you know exactly what’s going on through the other characters. They’re almost like narrators in his Greek tragedy. The guy never stops moving, and that’s what I call an “action film.” There’s not one CGI shot. The audience goes: That is pretty special.

I just rewatched First Blood. I was struck by Rambo’s four-minute monologue at the end, after all his silence, where he breaks down talking about his friends who died — before audiences even knew what PTSD was.

That scene was a tough one to get past the producers. They didn’t want it. I was supposed to be shot and die. And I go, “There are a lot of veterans who are going to look at this and go, ‘So my only hope is to kill myself?’” I can’t do that. I did 20 interviews with veterans and I compiled it into that moment, all stream of consciousness, with everything just pouring out. I want people to take away some sense of hope when they leave the theater. I don’t want my heroes to die.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.