Drago Bleeds: An Emotional, Career-Spanning Conversation With Dolph LundgrenMGM
Dolph Lundgren met me for lunch at Culina, in the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, although we consumed only coffee. He wore an elegantly tailored pale-gray suit, a pink dress shirt, and a watch whose rotating gold bezel he twisted while mulling his answers. At 57, he remains both physically intimidating and strikingly beautiful, like a canoe hewn from a single tree trunk by artisans from a dead civilization. His profile looks like it belongs on a coin, or perhaps a mesa. The Stockholm-born son of a teacher and an engineer, Lundgren first turned heads in the ’80s, when he began dating model/singer/actress and international superfreak Grace Jones. The shock-and-awe factor of Lundgren and Jones walking into a bar is self-explanatory. Lundgren had nothing on his résumé at the time except a few karate-contest titles and a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney, but he already looked like a star.
Of the martial-arts-trained male action stars who arose in the late ’80s and early ’90s to fill the hole in tough-guy B-movies left by Sly and Arnold’s ascent to the A-list, Lundgren was neither the most classically movie-star charismatic (Van Damme) nor the most ridiculous (reincarnated 17th-century Tibetan monk Steven Seagal). He never found parts memorable enough to detach him in the public’s imagination from his breakthrough role, as the Soviet-bred killer pugilist Ivan Drago in Rocky IV — a job he almost missed out on when producers balked at casting an actor who had a good 7 inches on Stallone. But before slipping into straight-to-video purgatory in the late ’90s, he had quite the run, including the Vietnam-blowback fever dream Universal Soldier; the great, demented cop-versus-extraterrestrial-drug-kingpin sci-fi thriller I Come in Peace; two appealingly disreputable comic-book films (The Punisher and Masters of the Universe, a misunderstood work of mythology that director Gary Goddard wanted to dedicate to Jack Kirby); and Showdown in Little Tokyo, in which Brandon Lee, in his first American film role, tells Lundgren, “You have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man.” He was also in John Woo’s amazing failed TV pilot Blackjack, about which all you need to know is that it’s a film about a U.S. Marshal turned bodyguard with a phobia of the color white, and its climax takes place in a milk factory.
In 1995, Lundgren played the street preacher and cyborg assassin who crucifies Henry Rollins in Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic; it turned out to be Lundgren’s last theatrically released film until 2010, when he joined the face-kicking, kitsch-value-monetizing cavalcade in the first Expendables. But he made more than 20 films during his exile from the big screen, and he closed out this phase of his career on a high note, reteaming with Van Damme for a pair of genuinely brilliant Universal Soldier sequels (2009 and 2012) that spun fever-dreamish riffs on the bleak surrealism of the original’s night-of-the-living-dead-Vietnam-vets premise. Lundgren was a striking presence in both films, bringing the intensity of a super-ripped Klaus Kinski to the role of terrorist replicant Andrew Scott. Metaphorically, the last two Soldier films (both directed by John Hyams) were about stock characters trying to wake up from being stock characters; their un-kitschy use of Lundgren’s persona made you think about how else he’s been underused over the years. What could he achieve, given the kind of pitches to hit that, say, Rutger Hauer gets? (If his work in the new Coen Brothers comedy Hail, Caesar! is well received, we may still find out.)
In the meantime, Lundgren can be seen alongside Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, and Ron Perlman in the more traditionally Lundgren-ate picture Skin Trade, as a cop who goes over the edge after human traffickers murder his wife and daughter. Lundgren co-produced and co-wrote the script for the movie, which he initially developed as a project for himself to direct. When we met in L.A. he’d just flown in from promoting the movie in Australia. I didn’t intend to begin the interview with an existential query; the “man out of time” thing came up after Lundgren apologized for not being familiar with Grantland, admitting, “I still live in the old world — Entertainment Tonight, CNN.”
Do you feel like a man out of time? Let’s just get really philosophical, right up front.
As you get older, it’s sort of a good feeling — you’re not as worried about what people think and all the quick changes, you become a little more philosophical about things, you care about your life more, you appreciate the big picture more, the good things you’ve done. You’re not so attached to the negatives.
Has that stuff just fallen away for you with age, or did you have to work on yourself to get to that place?
I had to drink a lot. No! Just kidding. That’s what I used to do more of, being Swedish. I have two things that I’ve started within the last two or three years. One is I started therapy, which I had never done. Psychotherapy — which is really cool, because everybody has issues, and actors have more issues than regular people. And second, I meditate every day. Vipassana meditation. Those two have been very cleansing. It frees you up from negative energy.
Have you done those Vipassana retreats, where you stay silent for days on end?
I haven’t done the retreats — I’ve wanted to. I do it every morning for between a half-hour and an hour usually, depending on what I have to do that day. Just the fact that you sit completely still for up to an hour — it’s amazing. What they say when they talk about it, they say it’s like water with mud. If you stir it up, it’s rubble, but if you set that glass down, then it sinks to the bottom and the water becomes clear. It’s almost like you have to sit still for your mind to stop running in circles — going through all this shit you want to do, that you have done, your dreams, your future, stuff in the past. I think that’s what’s cool about meditation. And that’s the reason I think I started martial arts as a kid — even though I didn’t understand it at the time, martial arts is very meditative. You’re standing there and you can’t think about anything else and your instructor tells you what to do. And when you’re sparring, you can’t think of anything else either, because you’ll get hit. If you try to figure out what to do next, the guy will catch you. You’re right there watching him and you’ve gotta move. It’s meditative in a different sense of the word.
So you’ve found a way to get to that calm, meditative place without the risk of getting hit.
Yeah. I still do martial arts, but I think meditation is a more effective way of doing it, because it’s only focused on the mind — being mindful, being concentrated. Human beings are inherently very worrying, suffering types of creatures, as opposed to animals, because we know we’re gonna die. We know there’s only so much time left. It makes your mind do this crazy spin. But if you can meditate and calm that down, your life becomes less effortful. I think. For me, it’s easier.
You said this has all happened for you in the last two or three years. Was there a reason you started looking into this stuff?
The reason I became an actor [instead of] being a chemical engineer — I was gonna be an engineer, but I found something in the arts. The creativity, the fact that you could lose yourself playing a character — it was something that I really wanted to do. I felt that I had a need for it. I didn’t really connect all the dots, but it comes back to the fact that when I was a kid, I had some traumatic experiences, and I think those experiences helped me become a fighter and an actor. It had to do with my dad mostly, like a lot of young men who end up in contact sports. And after I got divorced a few years back, I met this girl. My new girlfriend. She realized that I had some problems. She said, “You know, you should try therapy.” I was like, “That’s bullshit.” I always heard people say, “Oh, you need therapy,” and I’d always say, “Screw that, I don’t need that. I’m an actor, what are you talking about?”
You thought acting was good enough therapy?
I thought acting was good enough. But there’s a guy who’s an acting coach, who I worked with on a project, who recommended a therapist. And the therapist said, “Yeah, acting is kind of therapeutic, but all you do is hijack your emotion to play a character. You have a lot of anger, you play angry characters, but you still have the anger, so in private life you’re still replaying that emotion, that trauma where it came from.” It does influence you without you knowing what you’re doing.
So you’re like, “That’s bullshit, I don’t need therapy,” and your girlfriend says, “Yes, you do.” She saw through your façade.
What it was was that I knew that my marriage — even though it lasted for 18 years — the reason we broke up, and the reason I had issues that were not resolved with my wife — my ex-wife — and my kids, was that I had some problems, and they had to suffer for some of that, and I didn’t want my girlfriend to suffer. I couldn’t go through this again because it was too painful for me and for my family. That’s why I decided, Shit, I’ll try anything, because I want to stay with this girl.
You didn’t want to inflict the catastrophe of your personality on anybody else.
You want to work it out. Yeah. And I was fortunate enough that I could go back and heal some of the wounds in my previous life, meaning with my ex-wife and my kids. That’s all fine now. I can tell them, “Hey, I did some things I didn’t like, and I didn’t like being like that.” They know I’ve been in therapy. They’ve been up there [with me] sometimes. The therapist will say, “How do you feel about your dad being here?” They’ll say, “It’s good, but I don’t like him to cry or be embarrassed.” But it’s all good for them. Otherwise you’re this monumental figure who doesn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think that’s a good thing for them, because they have to know you’re a human being.
What did you have to apologize to them for? Can I ask?
Yeah, you can. My dad was kind of violent, and that’s why I became a fighter, like a lot of young men who have a problem with their dad. It’s not necessarily such a bad thing, because sometimes it can lead to a lot of ambition and drive in life, but what happens is when you’re a kid, if your dad gives you beatings, beats you up, which happened in my case, that’s his frustration. When you’re a kid, humans have a fight-or-flight syndrome. If an animal attacks, you either run, or if the animal is weak enough, and if you have a spear, you can try to kill them. But if it’s your parents, you freeze up. You can’t run because you’re at home, and you can’t fight back because it’s your dad. So that gets locked inside. It becomes like a piece of ice or something, inside you. Then, in order to escape that feeling, you have all these escape patterns. You can drink, you can hurt yourself, you can do violent things like get in the ring and get beat up, and that makes you feel good. Or you can have an extramarital affair and mess around if you’re married, that kind of thing, because it’s a way to escape that feeling inside. I had a combination of all of those things. I always stayed in shape, I always worked out, but that’s why I ended up breaking up with my wife.
You had all of the escape plans going on.
Escape behavior. How can I not have to deal with this feeling of being unsafe? Because if you’re a kid and you’re afraid of getting beat up by your parent or parents, then you’re afraid all the time. You’re never really quite relaxed, and that feeling stays with you. You can’t really enjoy anything, [even] later in life. That’s when you work too much, fight, do bad things to other people, drink, that kind of thing. I did a little bit of all those things. Not on a huge scale, where I ended up in the newspapers, but still enough where my wife and my kids got hurt.
Did you know the whole time that you were carrying this stuff around with you, or have you only come to this realization in retrospect?
I knew it. But it’s like you’re in a fog. You sort of know it, but you don’t, because you can’t get that distance away from yourself before it takes you over again. So I sort of knew it, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I started working on it, then immediately I went back in time to when I was a little boy. You relive the experiences, and by reliving it, you sort of chip away at that piece of ice, or whatever it is, and it becomes smaller and has less influence over you. Sorry — we ended up talking about some heavy shit!
I love it, I appreciate it. I think all my behaviors are escape behaviors, so it’s interesting to hear about someone conquering that. But there are many other things we can talk about. You have had a really interesting career.
You’ve gotta have something wrong with you to take the path I took!
You have a master’s degree in chemical engineering. You just explained what purpose martial arts served in your life, but what was the allure of chemical engineering?
The allure was my dad was an engineer and I was trying to please him. I was trying to prove that I was good enough to get his love, I guess. And I did it. I went all the way to get my degree, then I got a scholarship to a very prestigious school — where he’d wanted to go but he couldn’t, because I guess he couldn’t afford it. MIT, in Boston. When I got that far, there was something internally that said, “OK — now you’ve delivered on that promise to yourself. You’ve proven to him that you’re as good as him and better, as an engineer, so now thank God, I can do what I really want to do.” I didn’t know what that was, but it wasn’t engineering.
So you got into MIT, but then you decided …
What happened was, I got admitted there, and then I went to New York. I got together with this girl, Grace Jones, who was a singer. Avant-garde. She was friends with Andy Warhol and all these people.
How did you guys meet?
We met in Sydney, when I was studying at Cambridge in Sydney. I met her because I did some security on the side at this theater, this arena, and she was there performing. I was picked out by her, me and my friend, to do security at this nightclub after the show. Well, obviously [laughs] she had some other plans in mind, I didn’t realize at the time. I was just this dumb Swedish kid, I didn’t know. I was only 23. Big blond guy. Pretty well built.
But not wise in the ways of the world, at that time.
I wasn’t, nope, but then I was, really quickly, within a few nights. [Laughs.] And then I moved to New York. I was going to spend six months in New York before going to MIT. In that six months, I started reevaluating this decision, but I still went to MIT because I had the scholarship. I didn’t know how to end it. I had an apartment in Cambridge. I came up there for maybe a couple of weeks, and I just knew I had to do something else with my life, and this wasn’t it. I’d already started to do some modeling, a little acting. This was about a year before I got into the movie business.
And that happened through Grace, right? She got you a small part in A View to a Kill.
A walk-on part that wouldn’t have changed anybody’s life. When the movie wasn’t out yet, I went out for some other roles, in New York. One was a boxing movie, which turned out to be the next Rocky movie. I was turned down at the table there because I was too tall. Sly had some cut-off height — he was 6-foot-3 or whatever1 and I was 6-foot-5. I [still] wanted the role. I knew I could fight, and I knew the guy was supposed to be Russian, so I said, “This is perfect for me.” I got some photos taken in boxing gear and sent them off, through somebody who said they knew somebody who knew Sly, but of course nothing happened. Six months later, somebody called me when I was in Europe. They flew me to L.A. and I had to meet [Stallone] and audition. It took another six months, but that’s how I got into the movie business.
Right. That’s the first real part. A View to a Kill, you’re in there for like two seconds.
Yeah, that wouldn’t have changed anything. Entering the [premiere] of Rocky IV, I was still just Grace’s boyfriend. Coming out of the theater, things changed.
Was she an influence on your decision to pursue this? She’d sort of picked you out of the crowd. It’s like a reverse Star Is Born situation. She found you.
She saw something in me. Maybe she did feel that I had some special quality that I didn’t realize. When we used to go out in New York, she had an extremely strong charisma. She could walk into any restaurant with any big movie star, and people would still be looking at her. It didn’t matter, because of the way she dressed, all that. But I did hear people say, “Who the hell is that guy next to her? Is he somebody famous?” And they couldn’t figure out who I was. So I guess I had something, which she saw. She didn’t expect it to happen that quickly, I don’t think. But she did influence me — her and her friends, and all their creativity. Now that I’m producing and trying to do more different types of work, I often think back to those days. Andy Warhol in the Factory, and Grace and all of these people that she kept around her. Most of them are dead now. A lot of them died of AIDS and drug overdoses. But it was a very creative time.
Did you meet Warhol?
Yeah, yeah, I met him. I was at a club on the Upper East Side with Grace. She was off somewhere, and I was just walking around, looking. I never drank at the time. I was usually up training in the morning at five or six. This guy comes up to me and goes, “Hi” — an older guy. He took a picture of me and said, “What are you famous for?” And I said, “Nothing, as far as I know.” He goes, “I want to put you in a magazine.” So I ended up doing a shoot for Interview magazine, first by myself, then with Grace. A very interesting guy.
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Was there a point when you knew everything had changed, that you’d gone from “Who’s that guy over there with Grace Jones?” to …
“That’s the Russian guy that killed Apollo, let’s get him!” Yeah — it changed in about a month. It changed immediately. It changed forever. I read some other actor talking about fame once, saying you become famous and you almost go a little crazy, because it’s unnatural that people you’ve never met know you very well. They think you’re their best friend. “Hey, man, meet my wife.” And it’s cool in one way, but it’s not natural. For the person who’s the celebrity, it’s kind of weird, and you have to be very strong not to be destroyed by it, or taken in by it, or changed by it in a negative way. I had to fight that, and that was quite tough.
How did you go about fighting it?
I don’t know. The martial arts helped, the training helped, my upbringing helped. The fact that I had an education maybe helped. You have to [separate] your public persona and your private life, your private persona. It can ruin your life, and it can ruin the life of your kids and your family even more so. That was something I felt very strongly about. My wife as well. Our kids didn’t grow up in Hollywood. They grew up first in New York, then in London, then in Spain, for various reasons, so they still had a special life, but they weren’t smack in the middle of the worst of it, around here. Because in my opinion, then you have no choice in life — you have to become a celebrity. Your frame of reference becomes weird. I didn’t want that. I’ve excelled at other things, and I’m proud of that, and I want my kids to have other skills, instead of just thinking I’ve gotta be an actor like my dad, I gotta be more famous than him, or whatever it is they may get in their heads.
How old are your kids now?
Thirteen and 19. People who meet them are pleasantly surprised that they’re well behaved and normal. Not too many traumas. I had much more than they did, for sure.
That’s the point, right? You’re just trying to pass down less trauma to them than your parents did to you.
That’s the ideal, I’m thinking. I’m sure my dad had a lot of shit to deal with. He grew up in the ’30s. I think that was a tough time, where you weren’t allowed to complain or express yourself. Imagine even further back, in the 1800s. I’m surprised that people could even function, with all the problems and violence and stuff you had to deal with just to survive. It was tough.
Nobody had the luxury to be soft or sensitive or in touch with their emotions.
I was just reading a book about Lincoln. I just finished it. It’s called Team of Rivals, it’s about him putting together his team, a lot of whom were his rivals in the election. He seemed very modern. His personality seemed very forgiving, very warm, very loving, and that’s why people looked up to him so much. Grant, all those guys, said he was the greatest guy they’d ever met. He had this amazing quality of forgiving people and giving everybody a second chance. I think that was quite unusual in those days. The other guys he was with — Seward and Chase and all those guys — were really rock-hard people. Tough.
People used to shoot each other in duels back then, and it was a relatively normal thing for that to happen.
Didn’t Jackson shoot a couple of people in duels? The president himself! That’s pretty freakin’ tough. And Grant, of course, I’m not sure if he killed people, but I’m sure he would’ve, being in the Mexican War. He sure as hell had seen a lot of dead bodies. Anyway, it’s so tragic — Lincoln and his sons, everybody died from disease or was assassinated. The kid died, then the wife went crazy. Oh, man. Life was just brutal in those days.
Let’s talk about fake violence. You had a pretty amazing run after Rocky IV. But the one movie I have to ask about is Red Scorpion, which was produced with propagandistic intent by Jack Abramoff, allegedly with funding from right-wing South Africans. How much did you know at the time about what was going on behind the scenes?
I was about 29 at the time. A young 29. To me, Abramoff was a pretty good guy. He was good to me, him and his brother. He took me to the White House, walked around the Oval Office when Reagan was still in office. He was obviously very welcome in those circles, and I was a bit impressed by that. The only thing I heard was that Oliver North and him were buddies, and that there was some kind of fund they had, to morally move people along on the various political issues. One was the issue of the Cubans and the Russians. And basically this movie was financed partially from money from one of those funds. And it was gonna show people what assholes [Communists] were, and that they also do bad things in Africa, where America’s doing good things. [In the movie] I was the bad [Russian] guy, but then I realize I’m on the wrong side and I gotta fight for these [African] guys. The movie didn’t do really well. And the Abramoffs disappeared from my radar until I heard he was arrested.
What did you think when he popped back up in the news?
I was a bit surprised. They called me, from Newsweek. I didn’t want to talk to them. I knew they wanted me to badmouth him, probably. He had always been a pretty good guy to me. But I wasn’t completely surprised, because I’d heard those stories about the CIA and Oliver North and all that, the Iran-Contra scandal, weapons for drugs, whatever it was.
What was South Africa like back then?
I remember arriving at the airport and somebody took us through customs. I saw these cops with their German shepherd dogs, and the dogs only barked at the black people. They didn’t care about the whites at all. They were trained to zero in on people with a dark complexion. It was totally different. Also, my stunt double, who was this South African guy that used to be in the army, he complained straight away that they’d passed a new law where they limited the amount of firearms per person to 17. He was upset about that.
I’m going to ask even though I kind of know the answer: Why was he upset about that?
Because he wanted more guns! He wanted to get that 18th assault rifle. He showed me a bunch of pictures from the Angolan border. Terrorists with their heads shot off and their brains splattered. In those days it was snapshots, from an Instamatic. “This guy, look at that guy.” The South African soldiers were pretty seasoned people. That guy, good-looking kid. Looked a bit like me. Thinner. He was a nice guy, very sweet. He broke his neck on the first day of shooting, in a car accident. He had a convertible and it flipped. He broke his neck, but he survived. Then he came back on set with one of those collars. Brett was his name. He had been an Executive Outcome mercenary in Angola. His job used to be to sit and when people came to steal the diamonds, because, y’know, you could almost pick them up off the ground there, they would go up in the chopper, track them down and kill them. Take the diamonds back. That was his job. But he was this nice-looking kid.
I came back to South Africa in ’97 to do another movie and met him again. Someone said, “Oh, Brett — he’s a club owner now, but he has a problem.” I said, “What happened?” And the person says, “Well, he killed two other guys in a knife fight.” He killed two guys trying to rob him. He had this knife — he showed it to me, it’s just, like, a handle with a small piece that sticks out like that. He told me, “It’s much better than a real knife, because if it’s a real knife, they’ll see it. They’ll grab something or try to shoot you. But this thing, you whip it out, and instead of punching them, you just slice them open like that. [Deft, economical slashing motions.] And the guy doesn’t even realize … ” So he killed two guys. And I hung out with him a little bit. Then I heard, two years later, someone shot him in the back of the head and killed him.
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So you have these amazing experiences, you make some good movies, and then you hit a wall. Arnold, Sly, those guys got to go on and become mainstream A-list stars, but all the big guys from that next generation of action stars, your generation, didn’t really make that transition. I think it’s obvious that with Seagal the problem was ego …
… and appetite, a little bit. And with Van Damme, it was definitely appetite. It was cocaine. He’s confessed about a lot of this stuff.
[Smiling.] Yeah. I know him.
What was it for you?
With my background — I think I’m a little different from some of the guys you mentioned. I was never 100 percent committed to my career. A lot of these guys were smarter than me. They were more savvy with their career choices, and more driven. I was just kind of this guy who used to do engineering, then I was a fighter, then I came to be a movie star. And around ’95 or so, I got married. I started going back to Europe. I bought a place in Sweden, I bought a place in Spain. My wife at the time was Swedish and didn’t like L.A. at all.
So you had your period of dating famous people, but you ended up marrying another Swede.
Yeah, a Swede from my hometown. She only lived a few miles from where I was born. I married her. My mom died around that time. I think I replaced one woman with the next. Not saying I wasn’t in love with [my wife] — I was. But there was a big hole to fill. So I married her and we went back to Europe. I think it was a combination of going back to Europe, having my first daughter, and kind of wondering if show business is really for me. It’s a bunch of crazy people in L.A. running around. Egomaniacs trying to make more money than the other person. Hurting each other. There were a lot of negative thoughts in my mind about the business. I wasn’t really focusing on my acting as much. It wasn’t that interesting to me. I had made money, so I didn’t have to work. I bought a house in Spain, I bought a place in Stockholm. I did movies every once in a while, but it was kind of like [I did it] with one hand tied behind my back. I just went through the motions. I was more interested in making friends in Europe and seeing my kids grow up and trying to get myself straightened out. Because I’d had those escape patterns all this time, meaning I would mess around with women and drink. I tried to stop that. I’d lived a crazy life out here [in California]. And in order to stay on top of what’s happening here, you almost gotta be here all the time. It goes [snaps fingers] like that. All the decisions. Which photo do you want on the poster? This one or that one? We need to know by eight o’clock. That’s just how it is. And I wasn’t around to make those decisions. I think the quality of the movies I was in dropped, and the people I worked with weren’t as talented, perhaps.
You didn’t care as much about the finished product.
I mean, I didn’t care about it as much. It still hurt me when it came out badly, but I always thought, All right — I’ll fix that in the future, or My kids are more important, or I can go to another cool party in Sweden, and people will look up to me. I can live off my past work. But that only lasted for so long.
Are there any movies from your direct-to-video period that stand out for you, either as films or as filmmaking experiences?
I think, when I look back, there’s a certain fondness of all of those movies, because every film had something interesting about it. It’s my life. Even if people didn’t see the movies. Sometimes a fan comes up and says, “Oh I loved you in that picture,” and I say, “Oh, what’s that name again? Was I in that? OK, great. I’ll take it.” But what I remember most from, say, ’95 through the 2000s, is my family life and my kids. As an actor — it feels like it was one movie after another. They all seem like the same thing more or less. I remember them, but nothing stands out as remarkable. The only [important] thing that happened was, in 2002 or ’03, this director got sick before he was gonna direct me in something.2 Sidney Furie, who directed a lot of great movies.3 When they went to replace him, he suggested me, because I had worked on the script with him. I said “Really? You recommended me?” But I ended up directing the movie. That was a bit of a turning point, for me getting interested in film and movies again, and thinking maybe I can somehow make a difference. But I had to relearn and reeducate myself about everything.
The business had changed a lot in that time.
The business changed a lot. And I was based in Europe. I didn’t have connections here anymore. That went on for about four or five years. I still did about three or four movies. And then I got divorced and all of that bullshit, and Stallone called me around that time, about some new script he’d written. Before that, it’s like a black hole. A bunch of movies, but nothing creatively too exciting.
It’s the area of your work I know the least about, too. But the movies that made me really start paying attention to you again were VOD releases — the two Universal Soldier sequels you made with Van Damme and John Hyams. Those were legitimately great films, not just cash-in sequels to an action movie from the ’90s. I think they took a lot of people by surprise.
Hyams is good. I’m working on something with him now. I like him. He’s just relentless. He sticks to his guns. If he wants to do something really brutal, he’ll do it and he doesn’t care. Very few people are like that. They’ll bend to commercial pressure. Most people will. But he doesn’t. He’s good like that. He’s had huge fights. I like it, I think it’s good, but he’s had huge fights with producers and people trying to cut back on his stuff …
That surprises me, that anyone producing movies like these would push for less violence. I would have thought it would be the other way around.
Yeah, but the world has changed. There’s something called being politically incorrect these days, where even though there are people killing each other all over the place, you’re not supposed to show it. You can’t show a woman’s breasts. It’s weird. I don’t know what it is. In the ’60s you could show all that stuff. That was 40 years ago. We’re going backwards.
You co-wrote the script for your new movie, Skin Trade, and at one point you were going to direct it as well. It’s a film about human trafficking; why was this a subject you were drawn to?
I’d directed these movies, co-wrote some small movies, to get my feet back into the game and get interested in film again. Skin Trade was a script I’d worked on for a while, that I’d thought about directing. Then the last film I directed was taken away from me by the producers. I was really upset about it. And I said, “Next time I direct anything else, I need to produce it.” So when I got the opportunity [to make] Skin Trade, I said, “Let me produce this and act in it and not direct, because I need to know more about producing.” The result, in my book, is not perfect. I didn’t have all the control I wanted. There were a lot of people involved in the editing, and so forth. But it did get made. It has some things that I like. It has the right tone, a serious tone. And it’s about human trafficking, and I’m involved with CAST, this organization here in L.A., the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, against labor and trafficking. I’ve done some things with them on CNN and such. [Skin Trade] is about something. I can talk about it as a human being, not just as an actor who kills people onscreen and beats them up.
And it doesn’t end on some false note of resolution. You don’t mislead anybody by making it look as if human trafficking is a problem that can be solved by Dolph Lundgren kicking people in the face.
No, in real life you don’t save everybody and come back home. You can end a movie like that, that’s satisfying, but I think if you want people to think about it, and maybe a year from now it’ll still be with them a little bit, it’ll stay with them more because [the ending] wasn’t totally satisfying and because it was a bit disturbing. I think those movies sometimes have more legs, they have more impact on people than the ones where things are easily resolved.
And you’re going to be in a Coen brothers movie?
Yeah, I have a little bit in Hail, Caesar! which is a funny comedy about the studio system. I play a Russian — surprise, surprise — because in the movie, Channing Tatum, he plays a guy who wants to defect to the Soviet Union because he loves the uniforms. I play a submarine commander.
Is it cool to get calls for a project like this, which, apart from the Russian aspect, is pretty different from anything you’ve done before?
It was cool. It was really cool. I really enjoyed meeting the Coen brothers and watching them work a little bit. To some extent I felt outclassed there when I showed up, but then Channing is like, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe I’m meeting you. You’re my childhood idol.” He was nervous around me! So it was kind of interesting.
However weird it was for you to be there, it was weirder for him to be there with you.
I get it — the characters I play are larger than life in a different way. They were really nice to me. It was a good experience.
But does it feel like a validation in any way, that people are able to imagine you as something more than the karate guy or Ivan Drago?
Yeah, I think so. It’s happening a little bit more now, lately, more so. And it’s kind of interesting. I think because I’ve played so many one-type characters, it’s going to take a while to turn the wheel, but I do feel like it’s coming, and it feels pretty good. Part of that is actually what we talked about before. All of that stuff has changed me and I think when you change the energy, when what you put out into the universe is different, that changes what happens to you. I think that’s where it starts. I don’t think it would’ve happened otherwise. I believe in that.
Besides you, who’s the smartest Expendable?
They’re smart in different ways. There’s book smart, and there’s smart in the business, like Sly. He’s smart. You’re not gonna create three franchises like he has without being smart. But you know who’s very clever also? Wesley Snipes. He’s a well-educated guy, which I didn’t know. He’s very bookish. He reads a lot. I read a lot, too. But I gotta say Sly, otherwise he won’t put me in [Expendables IV].