Back as aging Rocky, Stallone is buff and charming as ever
LOS ANGELES—“We better get dinner—we are going to be here awhile,” Sylvester Stallone joked at one point in our recent interview at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, when asked what he would do differently in his life and career if he could. Sylvester, turning 70 next year, was back in Philadelphia, where the first “Rocky” movie was shot.
This city in Pennsylvania, the only World Heritage City in the United States, therefore means a lot to the actor who rose to fame as Rocky Balboa in 1976.
Cut to 2015. In “Creed,” Sylvester now plays an aging Rocky who trains Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his former rival, Apollo Creed, who has passed away. In a symbolic nod to the passing of time, Sylvester made sure that Michael wore the famous American flag boxing trunks that Carl Weathers, as Apollo Creed, wore in the first “Rocky” and which Sylvester himself wore in “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV.”
In person, the tanned actor is still a formidable physical presence. Even in an all-black ensemble, Sylvester’s buff physique is evident. But he’s not intimidating. On the contrary, he is a charming interviewee, prone to smile and laugh.
With wife Jennifer Flavin, he has three daughters. He had two sons with his ex-wife Sasha Czack—Seth, who was born autistic, and Sage, who died of heart disease at the age of 36. He was married to actress Brigitte Nielsen for two years.
Ryan Coogler, who was behind the acclaimed “Fruitvale Station” (also starring Michael), wrote and directed “Creed,” which also features Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson.
How did this project come up?
After “Rocky V,” I was sad how that turned out. I made it my life’s quest if I could just do one more. It’s not easy to get financing for me to play a 60-year-old boxer, who is following up a film that wasn’t as successful, meaning “Rocky V”…
And then this fellow (Ryan) came in from Oakland who had ambition. He wasn’t even born until after “Rocky IV.” He knew the movies better than me. I thought I couldn’t do this, because what Ryan was asking was to go into a very dark place—at least for Rocky—something I wasn’t familiar with.
So, I said, “I don’t think I can do justice to your screenplay.” He does “Fruitvale Station” and he wins award after another award. He’s being offered all sorts of wonderful jobs by the studios but he still wants to do “Creed.” So, I realized that his heart was really into this as much as maybe I was when I was 29 years old doing the first “Rocky.”
[Later] it dawned on me [that] it’s not about Rocky; it’s about Creed, a new character and I am there supporting him.
Were there times when you wished you had the gloves on again?
Yes. It’s tough to take the gloves off mentally, but your body goes, don’t do that anymore (laughs). So yes, I was very excited when I saw that what Michael B. Jordan was doing was extraordinary.
I don’t enjoy being behind the ropes. But again, it’s about acceptance and I realize that I am now basically Burgess Meredith (who played Mickey, Rocky’s trainer and manager).
You were quoted by the LA Times as saying, “Rocky is the one thing I’ve done right.” So, looking back, what would you have done differently in your personal life and career?
I would have approached my private relationships totally differently and looked for less competitive circumstances. Sometimes you get married and you are with someone where you go, oh that’s a very exciting dynamic.
If I have just one regret, I wish I had been a little more versatile (in film) and challenged myself in different areas.
Speaking of relationships, has love ever saved you?
Yeah. Love has the ability to take you to heaven and unfortunately, take you to hell, too. Yet it’s the one thing that is a necessary component to make life worthwhile. The love of something—it might not even be a person but love of whatever you are doing and something that just consumes you.
And can you talk about your love for your children?
I find myself now really paying attention to my children and just letting them grow on their own and not be so dominating.
It’s wonderful because I learned, especially when you have three daughters, that you never win, ever. Children can drive you crazy but they can also drive you to ecstasy with pride. They can make you smile and they do everything.
Adonis didn’t get to know his father, Apollo Creed. How well did you know your father (Frank Stallone Sr., who died in 2011)? Who were the other men that you looked up to?
My father was like Rambo. He was a very tough immigrant, a very hard-working rough guy. I borrowed certain things from him when I was playing Rambo—certain movements because he was very physical. I don’t know if I really ever got to know him because he was very secretive. He didn’t have a big influence on me. He was like an older brother.
So the male image that really affected me was in cinema—primarily mythology when I looked at the films they were making in the 1950s where you had Sinbad, Hercules, Achilles or “The Vikings” and “Spartacus” with Kirk Douglas. They were a tremendous influence on me. I was so influenced by them when I was 10 to 13.
What do you and your wife like to do together?
It’s embarrassing (covers his face with his hands and laughs). It’s throwing Wiffle balls to small dogs (Pomeranian) in the backyard and they bring them back and forth.
Boxers fight to win. What does winning mean to you?
Winning to me is setting goals that you think you can accomplish and not being so ambitious that you are setting yourself up for failure.
You paint, as well. How did painting come into your life?
I was somewhat dyslexic as a kid, so schoolwork and reading were very difficult. Back then, they didn’t know the word dyslexic. That’s when I started painting. Painting led to writing…
How do the Rocky Steps (leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which figure prominently in this movie series, resonate with you?
I get very emotional when I go to the steps because I went there when I was 12 or 13 years old. That is my favorite spot in the world, because everything happened there. It’s a magical place for me. I feel like up there, you see all your successes, and you can relive your mistakes, all your joyous moments and the sad ones.
The other one that really touches me, and sometimes I go back there alone, is Rocky’s house in that nearly desolate street.
Was it important to you to have Rocky have that humorous moment of returning to those steps?
At the very end? Yes. We have seen Rocky run up these steps and now he can’t do it alone. So it was very emotional.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/nepalesruben.