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In Rocky IV, Ivan Drago uttered just nine lines -- less than 50 total words -- of actual dialogue. Yet Drago became an iconic villain ... and his (mostly) nonverbal villainy returns when Creed 2 hits theaters on Nov. 21. This time, he's training his son, Viktor, as a vehicle for vengeance ahead of his bout with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of Apollo, whom Drago beat to death in the ring.
Luckily for this 1980s movies superfan, Dolph Lundgren is considerably more talkative and arguably just as fascinating as his character. He's a Swedish karate champion, bouncer, would-be Fulbright scholar turned bodyguard, the boyfriend of singer/supermodel Grace Jones and Studio 54 and NYC orgy regular (look it up) turned Hollywood overnight sensation -- and, in case you forgot, He-Man.
When you got the call to revisit your old friend Ivan, what was your initial reaction?
I got a text from [Sylvester] Stallone maybe two years ago, something about sins of our fathers and all that jazz. Initially, I didn't want to do it. I felt Drago should rest in peace in his Soviet trunks back in the '80s. But I saw Creed, so I knew they were good filmmakers, and then I read the script, which was really good. Drago was more multilayered than last time, so I started warming up to it.
Movies like Rocky live or die by the villain, and Rocky IV was my favorite Rocky film because Ivan Drago was Rocky's strongest antagonist. What made him so special?
It was a perfect storm. It was the Cold War and Stallone came up with this great idea to have the Italian from [Philadelphia] fight a Soviet superhuman, played by this Swedish karate champion, a 26-year-old with a good body who just decided to go into show business and who had a lot of skills and moved well for a big guy. It was a powerful film, great role, well-written, and it hasn't aged that much. Even the cinematography, slow motion and freeze frames hold up.
You were seemingly perfect for the role of this monster. Which begs the question: Are you, or were you at the time, an a--h---?
[Laughs] I like your question. No, I was a fighter, so I was a Rocky fan, and I liked Carl Weathers and Apollo, so I felt bad about it; but I was a very polite, well-mannered martial artist who stood in the corner and did what I was told, basically. And if I was told to a kill Apollo Creed, well, so be it. But I used some of my ambivalence in the character. I mean, Ivan isn't quite as aggressive as Mr. T was, for instance. Ivan was more doing what he was told. But no, I wasn't an a--h---; I was just a young kid, star-struck and swept away by Hollywood.
Younger me hated Ivan so much because he was a murdering, 'roided-up psychopath. But older me feels Ivan may have just been a cog in the Soviet system, not unlike a misguided, or misled, Johnny Lawrence in Karate Kid. Which me is right?
The older you. Drago was based on the Frankenstein myth. Dr. Frankenstein is the bad guy, and the monster is a creation who you feel a bit sorry for. You're afraid of him, but you don't want the townspeople to burn him, because you know it's not his fault. People kind of knew it wasn't my fault. It was the system.
What's Ivan been up to since we last saw him in the ring with Rocky?
He's been having a pretty rough time. When the Soviet Union fell, he was thrown out of Russia, lost everything and ended up in the Ukraine, where he lives with his son, Viktor. His wife divorced him -- for a richer man, probably. [Laughs]
You're talking about Ludmilla, played by Brigitte Nielsen? She left you?
Yes, Ludmilla, played by Mr. Stallone's ex-wife in real life. So, Ivan is in very bad shape, angry and hateful. He wants redemption, and he's going to use his son to get what's his, what had been taken away from him 35 years ago by the Soviet Union and Rocky Balboa.
How does Viktor Drago compare to his dad, Ivan?
Viktor is an equally good athlete, a big guy, a dangerous man in the ring. Like his father, he doesn't necessarily follow rules. But the actor who plays him is another big guy who's a very sweet, gentle giant. You know, the dictators in the world are always the short guys, never the big guys. [Laughs]
What was it like to stare down Sly again?
I'm pretty close to him. He's got three daughters and I've got two, so we got a few things in common. But obviously seeing him in the ring with his hat, looking like Rocky, with me in my red outfit -- oh man, it was a trip. To stare him down again brought back memories.
What was your relationship like on the set of Rocky IV?
I was very much in reverence of him. I trained with him for five months, lifting weights every morning for an hour, sparring for 90 minutes, working on choreography in the afternoon six days a week, so I knew him quite well as an athlete. But mostly, he was my boss, the director and producer who'd done many movies, and I hadn't done anything. I was basically taking orders.
Well, your boss once said that you hit him so hard, you put him "in intensive care for five days with nuns walking around."
I did what he told me [great Sly impersonation]: "Hit me harder. C'mon, hit me." It was early in our fight scene; we were hitting each other in the body, and if you don't hit with some force, it looks fake, so I was really beating him up. Then the producer calls and goes, "Hey, Dolph, you got a couple of weeks off." I'm like, wow, great! Then he's like, "No, Sly's in the hospital." [Laughs] I think part of it was exhaustion and pressure, and maybe it had something to do with Ivan Drago's body shots too.
So, you killed Creed and almost killed Sly. You are an a--h---!
[Laughs] There you go, man. I was a tough individual in those days.
Will Ivan and Rocky throw down in this one?
Well, let's see the movie. But there's surprises. It gets a little physical between us.
Unlike a lot of movie badasses, you're a legit badass -- a martial artist with a black belt in karate and two European Championship wins.
Australian champion, as well. In Australia, I studied engineering and fought at the same time.
So, let's be real. You versus Sly in an alleyway. What happens?
[Laughs] I have the advantage of size, and age, as well. Look, I've knocked a lot of people out of the ring for real, but Sly always impressed me as a fighter. But, yes, in real life, I have pretty good shot of doing well.
After this interview, I have to call my cable company to complain about my phone bill. Should I or should I not sneak "I must break you" into the conversation? [Laughs] Oh s---! I'll remember that next time. I usually only say it at conventions, when I'm asked in front of a thousand people. That or "If he dies, he dies." It's always an awkward moment, but it's charming in one way. There are certain lines in movies that are very powerful but simple. You can have great writers writing beautiful dialogue, like Shakespeare, but sometimes it's those simple lines that stick -- like "I'll be back" or Robert De Niro's "You talkin' to me?"
Help me settle a debate I was having the other night. Give me your top five movie villains.
Well, Hannibal Lecter is on there. Darth Vader. Ivan Drago might be on there, especially if I do Creed 3 and 4. Scarface was good -- I like his performance, but he was the hero in a tragedy. Who do you have?
As you'll see, I'm an '80s kid, so I'm rolling with Darth Vader, Hans Gruber from Die Hard, Johnny Lawrence from Karate Kid, Ivan Drago and, my one non-'80s inclusion, Heath Ledger's Joker. That's a good list. And I'll include Jack Nicholson as either Joker or the guy from A Few Good Men. You can't handle the truth! What's his name? The lying colonel?
Col. Jessup -- good call. Now, here's something a lot of people may not know about you: You have a masters in chemical engineering and passed on a Fulbright scholarship to MIT to pursue acting. How do you feel about your decision?
I followed my instincts and passion. Some of it was tough, but most of it has been wonderful. Most people I meet now are happy to see me. So, I guess I entertained some folks and made them feel good, whether I was a good guy or bad guy. I think that's why I was put on this earth. I'm happy with my decision.
Me too, brother. I'm even happy with your decision to do He-Man -- which was a piece a crap that I loved.
[Laughs.] I wouldn't say it was a piece of crap, but I agree that it was flawed. I do think it has a little charm, that picture. Every time I watch it, usually by mistake on late-night cable, I think it's kind of cute.
Last question: You were a bouncer in Manhattan ...
First in Stockholm -- I lived there when I was fighter -- and in Sydney while I went to school. Then Manhattan.
What's your best story from your bouncing days?
Oh, God. I was a bouncer in New York, before [Rudy] Giuliani kind of cleaned it up, at a place called Limelight, a church that they turned into a nightclub -- blasphemous. [Laughs] I was at the front door, and [actor] Chazz Palminteri was working the back, when a kid pulled out a .38 on somebody. We called the cops. Two NYPD cops pulled up. It was hot, their shirts were open. One said, "Which way did he go?" We said, "He went that way." The cop car made a U-turn and went the other way. The opposite direction. I will never forget that. They didn't even care. That's what we were dealing with.
New York was quite dangerous then, in '81. And everybody was getting robbed, including the brother of Grace Jones, my girlfriend at the time. They took everything but his underwear, basically. That's why I carried a gun all the time. It was against the law, but I did it anyway.
Do you think any of the people you scrapped with as a bouncer later realized, "Holy s---! That was Ivan Drago?"
[Laughs.] It wasn't that many people. But I'm sure there are people that I knocked out on the mat that saw Ivan in Rocky IV and will see him again over 30 years later in Creed 2 and think, "Wait, he knocked me out." Life is a trip.