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The Expendables - Dolph Lundgren interview

The Expendables

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DOLPH Lundgren talks to us about working with Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham on The Expendables, fighting with Jet Li and trying to steer clear of injuries.

He also reminisces about his Rocky IV experiences, his favourite action sequences, why karate plays such an important part in his life and his fondest memory of The Expendables shoot…

Q. What did you think when Sylvester Stallone first called you?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, I was very excited and surprised and flattered that he had called me. As soon as I had read two pages of the script I knew it was going to be good and I said I wanted to do it.

Q. Had you stayed in touch with him over the years?
Dolph Lundgren: Just by chance, meeting in LA once in a while, and talking about this and that. We’d talk about the old days a lot and shoot the breeze. Then he did Rambo and I actually directed a small movie for the same company that did Rambo. So, maybe we met in the offices once and a few months later he called me.

Q. How would you describe your character, Gunnar?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, he does things a bit over the top. He’s a good soldier but a bit nuts and Stallone has to get rid of him, and then he gets pissed off and goes to work with the bad guys. I think he’s a colourful character who was fun to play.

Q. What was the camaraderie like on set? Is it like the scenes between the expendables in the bar, with a slight sense of one up-manship at times?
Dolph Lundgren: It is very much like that. Of course, me and Sly go way back…. 25 years. Back then, we sparred and worked out twice every day. So, I knew what he was like from a physical point of view. But then I got to meet Jet Li and Jason Statham and all of those guys, and Mickey Rourke I knew from LA, from the ’80s, and I hung out with him very late at night back in those days too. So, yeah it was a good feeling. It’s very unusual these days to have so many main actors in one film. I don’t think it’s ever been done really. I guess the last time was in the ‘60s, with films like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.

Q. Can you take a late night as good as you used to?
Dolph Lundgren: No, not at all! Not at all! I have one once in a while and I’m shattered for days afterwards. So, now I’m fairly strict.

Q. Do you feel the pace of an action shoot like this then?
Dolph Lundgren: A little more, but I’m still pretty fit. I’m probably fitter now, in fact, then I’ve been for 20 years because I’m trying to get my fourth degree black belt, so I’m working on that, and I’ve got a fitness book I’m working on and some DVDs that I’m working out for too. So, what you can’t do is you can’t go out and drink or anything like that and then go to work. I could when I was young, but now you’ve got to watch yourself a little more. Also, you’ve got to watch yourself from injuries because if you get one, it really doesn’t heal. It takes a month instead of a week.

Q. Stallone actually broke his neck while making The Expendables
Dolph Lundgren: Yeah, in the fight with Steve Austin, I heard that. I knew he had a really bad shoulder and had a big cut from some weapon that ripped up a piece of his finger. He had much more action than he did, so I got off pretty easy in this film. I picked up one from Jet [Li]. I also picked up a big one while I was training for the film, because I was sparring and lifting weights, and I had some dirt get into my elbow or something, and I actually had to go to hospital. They then had to cut it open [gestures towards scar on his elbow] to clean it out. I was in there for three days, but I was able to pull out of that and be ready in time for the film.

Q. So, how long did it take to film your fight scene with Jet?
Dolph Lundgren: We shot for a week I think. I shot for two and a half days and they [Stallone and Li] were at it for a week with the stuntmen and other guys, planning things. Stallone would come in and change his mind a lot, or do it a different way and it had to be shot again.

Q. Do you have a long chat about what you want to achieve in a scene like that, given that all three of you have different fighting styles?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, the idea is that we all pitch in, but the schedule was very tough. Stallone would often be doing something else during the night, we’d shoot days, so they’d choreograph the fight, I’d show up and give my points, Stallone would then put in his, Jet would offer his… even though Jet kind of stays back and is very low key. He’d watch the stunt double do it, then he’d get up and just roll cameras and shoot it straight away. You see, he doesn’t rehearse much… he’s done it so many times and is very good like that.

Q. Who’d win in a real fight between you? I have to ask!
Dolph Lundgren: [Shrugs shoulders and smiles] I think I’d have a pretty good shot. But a fight without rules would be very, very interesting… but then you’re going to get hurt. You’d go for the soft areas… the groin and eyes. It would be really ugly. But Jet’s a good fighter, although I suppose I’d have a certain chance with my body weight and karate skills.

Rocky IV

Q. You yourself gave Stallone a memorable injury when he was confined to his bed after being punched in the heart by you on Rocky IV
Dolph Lundgren: Ah yeah… I think he was in hospital at first. I don’t know if it was me. But he told me to do it because in that fight he gets beaten really badly. I mean I got a couple of shots too. But supposedly he had a heart injury.

Q. How did you feel when you heard that?
Dolph Lundgren: I didn’t feel good! But I just did what he told me and obeyed orders basically. I’ve never hit anyone harder than they tell me too, especially not him because I had too much respect for him back in those days. I do now, too, but especially back then. So, I felt a bit bad. But it’s a good anecdote nowadays because he survived it and we had some fun afterwards.

Q. Do you look back fondly on the whole Rocky IV experience?
Dolph Lundgren: Very fondly. It was my first real film, I met Stallone, I got introduced to the film business. In some ways, it would have been nice if he’d waited for a few years and we’d worked on the script and kind of slowly got into movies and learned the ropes that way. But that’s how it happened for me, I went from, ‘bang’, totally unknown to pretty famous overnight basically. It was a tough experience and hard to deal with, but the film itself was fun to shoot for sure.

Q. How did you go about dealing with that fame at the time? I mean, you do seem to be one of the more private celebrities?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, in the beginning I didn’t know how to be or what to expect. It wasn’t like I’d been in showbusiness or had family in showbiz. I was alone in America and my family was in Sweden. So, I was trying to live up to that and for a while I was a bit lost. But then I think martial arts helped me a lot to keep myself grounded and to be normal. Tomorrow, for instance, I’m going sparring with some fighters who are in the UK… they’re half my age and they’re very good. Look, they get something out of it and I get something out of it, but the one thing I get out of it is that I feel I can’t be a big shot because you’ve got to be a normal guy. Karate has helped me lots, otherwise I might have got lost in substance abuse or something like the things a lot of other people do.

Q. When did you first develop that interest in martial arts?
Dolph Lundgren: When I was about 13 in Sweden. I was very sickly as a kid and had a lot of allergies, so martial arts gave me the chance to feel strong. I then became a pretty good competitor for a while, but then I got into movies and I gave up karate. But then I realised it meant a lot to me and now it comes and goes. Right now, I’m in a cycle where I’m doing a lot of it and I’m trying to squeeze the last out of it before I get too old and get my fourth degree black belt. I’m going to do an exhibition next year at the World Championships. So, I’m kind of into it more now than I used to be.

Q. How do you think it enriches your life?
Dolph Lundgren: I think it gives me an escape, not just from show business but from our Western lifestyle, which is basically materialistic and is very egotistical. I don’t know, you always think of the future… but when you’re doing karate, you’re just standing in a line, you’re wearing a white suit like everybody else and anything you say you have to back up in action. You can’t just run your mouth because that’s a really bad thing to do – you have to back it up, or you’ll get beat up. So, you’re just there and it’s a no mind thing… it’s your body and your heart and your soul. If you can keep going, even though you’re tired. It gives me an escape from everything and it makes me a better person, I hope.

Q. You’ve done a lot to raise the profile of karate…
Dolph Lundgren: Well, I try. I’m more involved now probably. I think I can be a little bit of a role model to some of the younger fighters because they may see somebody who started like they did in the doldrums. Now, I’m a student who managed to use his skills for something better.

The Expendables

Q. How hard will you have to work to get your fourth belt?
Dolph Lundgren: Pretty hard. I was doing some practice in Sweden two days ago. My instructor told me we had to work on quite a bit and the whole session, which was supposed to have been easy, turned into a bit of a nightmare [laughs]. He kept going and going and I realised I had a lot of work to do. But it’s fun, too, because I realised I had a goal. And as you get older, it’s important to have goals. When you’re a kid you have them, but other people can set them for you, such as your parents, your school… so, as you get older it’s nice to have your own goals, which don’t have to do with being more famous, or being in bigger movies, pr making more money. Those things kind of corrupt your soul, whereas something like this makes you a purer person in my opinion. It’s also a reality check. I mean, you’re there and I know he [my opponent or my trainer] isn’t going to give me any favours because of who I am. I mean, I’m good friends with my instructor, but if I fail he’s not going to give me a belt. So, that’s it. I want to earn it.

Q. So, what would a typical day of intense training consist of?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, if it’s very intense you’d train two or three times a day. But if you’re training for a grading, there’s the technical part, where you do all the techniques of the basics, and then there’s katas and then there’s sparring. You can either do it one day or two days, and it’s about an hour and a half or two hours of techniques and then it’s about 20 fights… one after the other, for a minute and a half or two minutes. The idea is that it’s full contact, but you get very tired, whether you’re very good or not. So, towards the end of those 20 they can knock you down, but they don’t… they keep you going. They sort of almost collapse you, but enough for them to know you have the spirit, and you can feel very proud of yourself, that you’ve achieved something special. And they know that you earned your grade.

Q. Do you also feel a sense of achievement in having been able to direct your own films?
Dolph Lundgren: Yeah, I feel proud of that. It’s something I stumbled upon, almost like acting. I didn’t plan to be a director but I was working on the script with a director and he got very sick and told the producers they should ask me if I wanted to direct the picture. He was very nice this man who recommended it. When they asked me, initially I said: “What?” But they reassured me that they thought I could do it and I said “yes” and I really found it pretty suitable for me. I’m fit, so I can work long hours, I’ve been an actor, so I can talk to the actors, so I can multi-task. I also understand cameras, I’m a bit technical, and I like music so I can talk to the composer and stuff… so, I really enjoyed it and people seem to enjoy working with me, so that’s why I kept it up.

Q. Did you find yourself offering any input to Stallone?
Dolph Lundgren: A little bit. Not how to shoot it, really, because that’s his job. On a script level, I did suggest things about the relationship between him and Gunnar. There’s more of it in the original script, but he had to cut things out. So, I did suggest some things and he listens to everything. He’s very good like that. And because he’s a writer-director, if you want to change something he can re-write the whole scene right there. So, you can say that something doesn’t work and try it differently. So, that’s cool that he can do it in the spare of the moment.

Q. How hard is it to get a film like The Expendables made in the current economic climate?
Dolph Lundgren: I think it’s quite hard. What he did was he hired Statham and Jet Li first, and then he piled on more and more people I guess to get the budget up a little more. I think it’s the biggest film he’s directed or ever been in, or even close to it. Neither have I, really, or anybody else in the picture except Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis. Yeah, Arnold has been in films bigger than $80 million with The Terminator 2. But still, it is tough. I’m not an expert in budgets, but I think Robin Hood was $150 million and you get Russell Crowe and two or three other big names. But here you get seven or eight guys, at least, so I think they’re being given a lot for their money.

Q. Were you on set the day that Arnie and Bruce turned up?
Dolph Lundgren: No, I wasn’t because that was added on once the film was wrapped. I heard about it because the day after I came in to do some ADR work, some sound work, and Stallone told me about it. It seemed like it was a fun day… they all had a good time and it was special.

The Expendables

Q. You’ve been part of some really memorable action sequences during your career, so what action sequences impress you?
Dolph Lundgren: Oh boy… there’s so many films out today that I get them mixed up like old folks tend to do [laughs]. I mean, I like the shoot out in Open Range… that was really cool. I like some of Clint [Eastwood]’s action stuff. I like some of the action scenes in Gran Torino, where he kicks some ass… they’re not sequences so much as little moments. He does it in such a simple way, but you can really feel the violence, which is really cool. The first Bond film that Daniel Craig did was really well done [Casino Royale], especially the opening chase sequence. But also what I enjoyed was some of the action in No Country For Old Men, which was kind of like an Eastwood style… very simple but you really feel it. You’re sitting there and you really feel like someone’s going to get killed.

I prefer those types of movies to when it’s mindless and it goes on forever and ever and there are fists flying everywhere. Gladiator, of course, had some great action sequences, and I like The Hurt Locker – that was well shot and very tense. It’s very simple, and another low budget movie, and very simply done. But there is some good stuff out of there, for sure.

Q. What’s your fondest memory of The Expendables?
Dolph Lundgren: [Pauses] Fondest memory I suppose… the most immediate memory, when you say it like that, is when I first showed up on the set and they’d been shooting in Brazil… I showed up in New Orleans and they were busy, as usual, but Sly saw me, he walked up and said: “Hey Dolph!” And then he gave me a big hug. Before I knew it, because they were losing light and it was the end of the day, I was doing a scene with him… a confrontation scene where I get to push him. It was just like we were back in the ring 25 years ago. We stopped and reflected on that, and I’m like: “Hey, whatever. It’s been 25 years but it’s kind of cool that I’m back here,” That was a fun moment [laughs].

Read our review of The Expendables

Read our interview with Jason Statham