Thirty years ago Sylvester Stallone brought to the screen a small indie film about an unknown boxer in Philadelphia who was struggling to make a name and career for himself. Several Oscars and four sequels later, the man is back with the sixth and final fight of the legendary character.
The film has been a long time coming for the once box-office giant who himself has had something to prove and is now in the midst of bringing back another of his successful franchises – Rambo. Receiving great applause from a roomful of New York journalists, Stallone sat down and was eager to talk about his experience of stepping into the ring one last time:
Question: Is there any idea as to why some of the past projects that didn’t connect with audiences as well, and why when it’s Rocky we’re all juiced up again?
Stallone: “Rocky” is a very unusual case in film. I think the country was a little more sedate, at least in the way they released films, I mean “Rocky” came out on two screens so it really took a long time and it was out there for almost a year, so it burnt its way into the American consciousness, and I became incredibly identified with – probably forever. And when I would go against that everything was held up to “Rocky,” so if the projects I found myself involved with didn’t have a certain kind of heart, or a certain kind of expectancy of the audience wanted to be taken on that kind of journey again, I think they felt it was a disappointment, it was a let down, because right after “Rocky” was “F.I.S.T.”, and “F.I.S.T.” is a pretty good film, but I think it didn’t have enough of what people were expecting. And then I went with “Paradise Alley,” which was a character, it was kind of disdainful, I mean I liked the character a lot but he was the antithesis of Rocky, so that kind of got people confused, because I never really fit into the character actor category, I would have like to but it just didn’t happen. So that’s what I think it is. I think a certain kind of benchmark was set at a certain level and when people didn’t get the same sort of feel I think they felt betrayed. Whereas “Copland” worked for them, see what I mean, it wasn’t a financial hit but people who saw it liked it because it had the same kind of heart. So I think that’s what relates best, when I can do films that have a little bit of an emotional journey, rather than just action for action sake. The same thing with “First Blood,” that’s the best action film I’ve ever done for that reason.
Question: How much could you relate to Rocky in terms of people coming up to you and wanting to pose with you?
Stallone: It’s very biographical.
Question: And the stories too, I’m sure people want you to tell stories of working on it.
Stallone: Sure, all the time.
Question: Can you talk about the crossover between Sly the person and Rocky the character.
Stallone: I’m not sure, but they’re pretty similar. I would be trying to fool you if I said one is not an alter-ego but is an out-of-body experience, it has nothing to do with me. The issues that work are very personal issues and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to take what has been bothering me, questions I’ve asked about life in general, and have the body of Rocky to put it into. If I were asking these questions they wouldn’t have the same impact as this guy who is this innocent, he’s a tough guy but he’s childlike, so when he asks questions it comes from you at a very comical angle, the way he speaks in his vernacular and his pentameter and his rhythm. But all the issues, the ones that have worked, the films that have worked in the Rocky thing it’s always about something I’m going through, like in “Rocky III” when he’s afraid to fight because of fear, because once you acquire everything you’ve ever wanted, now you don’t want to lose it. So that was what that was all about, overcoming fear and then when Mickey died you lose your foundation, it was like now you’re facing the world unprepared, and then in this one here it was about how do you deal with grief, because I see as I get older, and Rocky says it in this film, “the older I get the more things I’ve got to leave behind, that’s life.” And no one prepares you for that, and you think it gets easy when you get older, it doesn’t. As a child you don’t deal with loss that often, as an adult you do, and it’s brutal. And a lot of people collapse, they kind of lose their zest for life and this is like how do you try to counterpoint that?
Question: Can you talk about being 60 and playing this part?
Stallone: When I was younger I had no idea what an older person goes through, and even though I don’t feel that mature I look at the numbers and I am. So I go, ha, I guess maybe I’m not that different from other people, so other seniors, if you want to say mature adults, also have that feeling like God, at the very end I want to feel as though I’ve gotten my most enjoyment out of this life, like I want to try all things I’ve never tried. Quite often that doesn’t happen, but the dream is to do that, to be fulfilled and at the very end I don’t think it’s about having money, because I’ve met many billionaires that are not happy. I don’t think it’s about acquisition, having land, having this and that, I think peace of mind as a mature person is number one, where you feel as though, God I’m really at peace with myself, the beast is out, I’ve done most of the things I want to, I raised my children, yes maybe I’ve had to sell out a few times in my life because we all have to sell out on the road of life, but in the very end I made up for that and did it my way and I feel good about being myself. And I think that kind of sense of peace is what I was fighting for in this film, that’s why Rocky gets out of the ring, it doesn’t matter, it wasn’t about winning or losing, he was never going to fight again, it’s just that he did it. His son saw him, what he used to do, he’s proud, he brought everything together, he got rid of a lot of the grief he felt for Adrian, now he’s ready to move on with his life, so that’s what that was all about. And it’s a fantasy, but I think a lot of people wish they could have an outlet in their later years for all this pent up dreams that never got a chance to be displayed.
Question: What was it like to train for this film compared to the other ones in terms that you chose to hire a real boxer to play opposite you instead of an actor. And also wanted to ask you about the scene you had with your son telling him to live his own life, and I was wondering if you’d had that discussion with your children?
Stallone: Yeah, I’ve played that last scene a lot with my son, and I’m sure I’ll play it again many more times. It’s a dilemma being my son, it’s not an easy thing to be, and I pretty much tell him the same thing, you have two choices, to live in the shadow and shrink or step outside, but whatever you do, do not use it as an excuse, that just doesn’t hold water. The training for this was extremely difficult and riddled with a lot of injury, things that worked 30 years ago are a little rusty. I kind of felt like the tin man before he got his can of oil, very, very stiff, but you know with the help of a handful of Advil every morning I got through it, but there were a lot of injuries. Even the champ broke his knuckle sparring with me right here, and I broke my foot, so I’m in a caste hobbling around the ring. We looked like two mummies and I swear to you it was like slow motion, does it hurt, yes it hurts, does it hurt, yes it hurts, and when we got to Vegas I was really nervous because I had to come down the aisle with 9,000 people, on not ready at all, and I’ve got a world champion there who’s just knocked out the best pound for pound fighter in the past ten years. So I said, “Antonio, I have an idea of how this should work, I think we should go from this corner to that corner to there, I’m not sure how we get there, let’s just actually move and if you hit me you hit me. The gloves were a little worked so they had a little extra padding, it hurt because I got dropped at least three times badly. The second knockout when I’m trying to struggle to get up, that’s real. (everyone laughs) It is. Now I get it. I wanted Rocky to just bounce right up like, “Yeah, it didn’t hurt,” and like the third time he knocked me down I went “wow, now I get it, It’s called stunned.” I was stunned. So there’s more realistic fighting in this.
Question: Do you really want there to be a legacy that shows that Rocky could have been a real fighter and really could have been put there against Mike Tyson? I don’t know if he was acting.
Stallone: That was him. Especially in Philadelphia that line has been blurred, but by no means would I ever put Rocky in the realistic category of a Joe Frazier or these real fighters like Mike Tyson. But you’re right, I think there is a void in identifiable boxers. We’ve had Ali, Joe Frazier, because they were more than just fighters, they were stylists, they had a presence. We don’t have that today because there used to be one division, the two, now there’s four or five, so you have five champions, five heavyweight champs, so people go “who?” So they’re constantly changing and I think it’s destroyed the sport, it really has, because the best does not rise to the top anymore. But Rocky, I think what has happened is Rocky has become the legacy, it’s defined determination, even though you’re hurt, you don’t have the greatest skill in the world, but if you play with voracity you sometimes overwhelm your opponent, in the real life world of Rocky’s they mostly get knocked out. They go in there with heart but they lose.
Question: From an acting and a writing standpoint, did you get everything out you wanted with Rocky the character?
Stallone: I have to admit that I’ve had this beast in me. It’s really been gnawing at me for 10-12 years how badly “Rocky” faired and I take all the blame for that. I think it was a reflection of my lack of focus at the time and it was just translated onto film. It’s really interesting. It’s almost like a cat scan of where you are, and it really defeated all of the other “Rocky’s.” It’s bothered me because of the people that have been so loyal to it, so that beast was finally eliminated with this film. I felt as though I touched on the subjects and delivered a film that people can relate to. And then when he says, “Adrian, we did it,” it’s like we did it. In other words we got as much out of this life, out of this movie life, the cinematic life and it just dissolves. So yes, the beast is definitely out.
Question: Can you talk about what it was like going back to Philly and working there?
Stallone: Training and working in Philadelphia is a very, very unusual situation because that city does believe that Rocky is real. No, for real. No one calls me Sylvester, it’s Rocky. So I went back to the neighborhood which is a very unusual thing for an actor to go back where children were 5-years-old, and now you go back and they have four children themselves. They’ve grown up literally, “that’s Rocky’s house. That’s where he drinks.” Yeah for real. For real. It’s an incredible compliment, but it’s becomes like this mythic character like the Phoenix. Does it live? Does it die? They’ve embraced it like no other city you’ve ever seen. In Philadelphia, they throw ice balls at Santa Claus. It’s a tough crowd. You know what I mean with the Eagles. They let you know. They’re not shy. It’s brutal. But, they like Rocky, they’ve embraced him as one of their own, because he represents kind of this regular guy who is willing to take the hits and keep going.
Question: When you started writing this, did you always start at the point where Adrian had passed away?
Stallone: No, and it wasn’t working. I was using the George Foreman format which would be this. He had a youth center in Houston. It was going broke. Rocky has a youth center in Philly. It’s going broke. He goes to the bank for a loan. Adrian is still alive. The bank says no. He goes to church for a loan. Nothing. Goes to a pawn shop. Nothing. So he goes you know I want to go out and do some clubs fights and get the money so I can pay the rent, like George. And one thing led to another, until finally he’s had 18, 19 of these and people are saying, “wow you should continue this,” and it becomes commercial like guys like Don King which is what happened with George Foreman. You’ve now become a commercial commodity that he can really sell, and that’s what happened with George Foreman. But all Adrian did during the film was, “don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” We’ve seen that. I went “oy.” So the movie’s about trying to save the gym and the kids. It’s wasn’t really about any kind of visceral emotional journey. It wasn’t about just dealing with life. This is all about plot and a simple subject of the gym. “Rocky I” was about confusion, loneliness, brotherhood, self-awareness. It was just those subjects, and at the very end finally not even caring about the victory. It was about the love of Adrian. That’s what it was all about. It’s called the “Adrian factor.” So I said “what I am going to do? You have to pull a man’s heart out and take away the thing he loves the most in the world.” Take it out of his life and he now plummets into the depths of despair. There’s nothing more traumatic than taking Adrian out of his life so I had to call Talia who I had been talking to about the other script, and said “I worked out the plot. It finally works.” She goes, “oh that’s so great. What’s my part?” I said, “Dead. Your part is dead. You’re dead.” She says, “No, seriously,” I said, “Seriously,’ it opens up, I’m on a folding chair, you know, looking at your tombstone.” She goes, “oh come on.” I go, “yeah, but I bring roses.” It’s a true story. I talked to her the other day. And she finally got it. She was very cerebral.
Question: What’s it like working with Burt Young again? You guys must have a real shorthand by this point.
Stallone: Yeah, we do. Burt is a character. That’s him. He tends to be a bit more affable, but what can you say? You just put the camera on him and he does stuff that is very, very unique. He’s Paulie. I’m Rocky and he’s Paulie. There’s no getting around it. This time, he actually had a few more scenes that will be on the DVD that were taken out of the film because it was just getting too emotional, because he was also having a nervous breakdown over Adrian or whatever, but he performed really well. There were some very dramatic scenes. I’m in there with him, so I had to cut them, they just didn’t work, but he delivered the goods.
Question: Do you feel boxing is a good way to vent anger and would you want your daughters to box?
Stallone: I wish my daughters would box. I’m so worried about the guys coming up to them. I would love my daughters to smack a guy right off a bar stool. I would feel very, very confident about her going out at night if she could take all the guys in the neighborhood, but that’s not happening. But, boxing is a great way to vent, I don’t know if there’s a better way. I think for women too. There’s just something primal about it. It’s the best exercise of all even if you don’t get in the ring, it’s the best. But, yes I do wish my daughters would fight, but they won’t and boxing is the best release of I think aggression there is.
Question: What’s been your ‘Dixon.’? What’s been the thing that’s motivated you and brought the best out of you?
Stallone: Adversity and fear of knowing that I didn’t try. It’s why I didn’t sell the first one. It wasn’t because I was brave. It was because I was scared. I said if I had sold the first one and it turned out really well for someone else I would probably hate myself for my entire life. The same thing with this one. I just felt like that the fear of not doing it, because my wife was afraid of me doing this film. She was crying, “don’t do this. You’re going to be embarrassed.” I said, “I know, but I just got to try it. I feel it.” So the Dixon in the movie, his trainer says that until a man, and this means a woman too, has been through a real baptism of fire, when you’re scared, when you’re hanging on, when someone is hurting you, which is life is hurting you, then you’re really going to see what you’re made of and then you’re going to get the only kind of respect in the world that matters, is self-respect. That’s pretty much what my journey has been. This has all been about getting Rocky self-respect, and maybe a little bit of that will wipe off on me.
Question: Did you ever consider killing him off at the end? I know a lot of people who will be coming to the movie think he’s going to die.
Stallone: No, you see here’s what got messed up. In “Rocky 5,” I’m glad he didn’t, he was supposed to die. All of that changed and it became kind of like this soapy ending. It became kind of like the feathered fish. He was supposed to die in the street. He’s a street person. I know it’s a morbid ending, but that’s the way it was supposed to go. So we have the other kind of silly ending that was so unfulfilling. It used to be he died a hero. That’s kind of a bold statement. In this one the message of him dying would completely – same reason I wanted Rambo to die, he was supposed to die too, the message is that you if you try to follow your dreams, you die. That’s a bad message (he laughs).Rocky Balboa opens nationwide on December 20.