In a freewheeling Cannes conversation that had the thousands in the packed Debussy Theatre howling with laughter, Sylvester Stallone poked fun at his status as the guy the studios went to after everyone else passed, his enunciation skills and a possible version of Rocky involving a boxer who is an undocumented immigrant.
Greeting the audience with perhaps his most famous line of all — “Yo!” — he spent much of the 90-minute conversation with Didier Allouch discussing the two characters that made Stallone a household name around the world back in the 1980s — Rocky and Rambo — both of which continue to spawn films to this day, with the Oscar winner front and center. Though both franchises have been embraced by right-wing ideologues because of their patriotic imagery and America-first undertones, Stallone told the crowd of international journalists and fans that that was never his intention.
“I’m almost like a political atheist,” he explained. “[Rambo] was never supposed to be, by any means, a political statement. It became one. … I don’t think I’m smart enough. That’s not my strength. I’m not a political animal. I never have been. I don’t want to be. I’m just a storyteller. But, oh my God, once Reagan said, ‘I saw Rambo, and he’s a Republican!'”
To that Stallone slapped his forehead and dropped the microphone, drawing applause and laughter.
Ditto for Rocky, which features the iconic image of Stallone with the American flag draped around him. “He’s not not a political animal,” he explained. “Boxers just use the flag of their nation. They’re not saying, ‘We’re better than you.'”
Wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, Stallone recalled during his master-class conversation on Friday afternoon the challenges he faced early in his career. Directors told him he couldn’t speak clearly, the result of a birth defect on one side of his face that made it “hard for me to speak.”
“I knew it was bad when Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘You have an accent,'” he joked. “I have an accent?”
As such, Stallone says he was never the first choice for roles.
“They wanted another actor [to play Rocky] — Robert Redford, Jimmy Caan. They would’ve taken a kangaroo,” he continued.
Playing troubled Vietnam veteran John Rambo was an even tougher sell. “Nobody wanted me to do Rambo. I was the 11th choice,” he said.
But the early rejections taught the actor to “not try to go outside my box,” he says. “Dustin Hoffman is not playing Rambo, and I’m not playing Tootsie. … Every time [I went outside my box], I wound up in a Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”
Rocky won a best picture Oscar, whereas Rocky IV was maligned by critics. But the latter made more money at the box office than its three predecessors. “Therein lies the dichotomy,” he said.
Stallone is in Cannes to promote Rambo V: Last Blood, which he shot a few months ago and is being sold here at the market to international buyers. The 72-year-old said his body is not what it used to be, and rattled off a list of surgeries he has endured. “They have to oil me in the morning. I squeak,” he joked.
But he stressed, “you gotta own it” and not pretend to still be an Adonis. For the new Rambo, he says the titular character is no longer hanging from trees in the jungle but has become “more cunning.”
The talk was filled with zingers from Stallone, who is known more for his action movies than his comedic skills. Although his daughters have teased him about his movies, he said, “How do you think I pay for your school? Shut up.” He described his film Cobra as “What if Bruce Springsteen had a badge and a gun?” One female audience member playfully challenged him to an arm-wrestling match and called for an Over the Top sequel. On his Rocky IV nemesis Dolph Lundgren, who he has starred opposite in The Expendables, Stallone quipped, “Dolph Lundgren walked in and I hated him immediately. Oh yeah, he’s perfect.”
On the set of Rocky IV, Lundgren hit him so hard that it nearly stopped his heart. Stallone says he was rushed to the intensive care unit at the hospital, something that Lundgren took as a badge of honor.
Later tonight, Stallone will appear at the Palais to show new images of Rambo V and to introduce a restoration of Ted Kotcheff’s Rambo: First Blood, which will be screened in 4K DCP in the Grand Théâtre Lumière.
Stallone’s next act is unclear. He said a Cobra TV series is in the works. And he has an idea for a new Rocky. He gave few details but said it would be about a boxer who has entered the country illegally and is dumped back in his home country and has to fight his way back.
“[Rocky] finds this fella in the country illegally and it becomes a whole thing,” Stallone said.
To which Allouch responded, “Donald Trump’s favorite movie?”
It would certainly offer a new spin on the franchise that is going strong with the Creed spinoffs. “That could be different,” Stallone noted. “You throw him out of the country and into another world.”
After a 40-year career, the actor has one motto: “Never stop punching until you can’t lift your arms. That’s how I roll.”