Simply Stallone

Photo: Dan Hallman/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

As he approaches his 80s, Sylvester Stallone remains a mainstay of action movies… and much more.

Here the actor, screenwriter, producer, and painter talks about his career, his philosophy, and why retirement isn’t yet in the cards.

Since Sylvester Stallone came to the world’s attention in the mid-1970s, it’s rare for a year to have passed without seeing him in at least one standout movie.

Photo MediapunchREXShutterstock

Where some stars may come and go, returning after a period of exile for the clichéd ‘comeback’ picture, or make a surprise cameo that reminds everyone what star quality they once had, well, Stallone simply hasn’t been anywhere else. One could say he’s as formidable, as relentless, as determined and unstoppable as the majority of the characters he’s played from the action blockbusters of the 80s, 90s and beyond to the iconic boxer who made his name.

OK, so not every single project is a smash, but since that breakout performance as the soulful and sensitive Rocky back in 1976, there have been enough to ensure Stallone has never lost relevance.

“It’s a constant battle to stay relevant and stay successful,” he says. “And let’s be clear, I am not successful all of the time — I do fail! But when it works, like with Rambo and Rocky, it works. I am so glad to have had those guys in my life — so lucky.”

With approaching 50-odd years of yes, let’s face it, a pretty solid example of typecasting, it’s a simple case of opportunities presenting themselves and Stallone taking them. “Not everyone is going to be a star, but everyone wants the chance,” he says. “It’s the opportunity — and then the lack of opportunity drives people crazy, in any aspect of life. So I say: ‘Just let me run, and if I trip I trip — but to not get an opportunity is the worst.”

But make no mistake: this has not exactly been an easy ride, and Stallone has fought hard to carve his career — indeed, at the start (and beyond) he was rather unfairly derided as one-note; lacking ability, nuance, range. Fans and enlightened critics would disagree with such opinions, but the fact remains: this isn’t just dumb luck. Stallone is a true franchiser, an icon whose name is inextricably associated with iconic roles and cleverly working to keep them relevant. Naturally for someone with so much experience, he’s philosophical about it.

“Rocky and Rambo made me very wealthy, but my struggles before then were profound and I always look back and am glad I had to fight for it from the very depths of being out with virtually nothing,” he says.

Photo Eric CharbonneauShutterstock

“I always believe we have three or four crossroads moments in our life. I think back to my early days and I did some film projects that I wouldn’t ever have even contemplated normally, but I was completely broke and needed a break. At the time I was always cast as a mugger or a thug, but I soon learned that every movie I did presented an opportunity. So, go out there and find it!”

If anything, those opportunities have come thicker and faster as Stallone, soon turning 77, seems to be working harder than ever. His gruff hardman-with-a-heart Barney Ross returns this year in the almost definitely preposterously entertaining The Expendables 4; last year’s Samaritan saw him play a superhero who returns after a 25-year absence to help his young neighbor out of a spot of bother; and there’s more comic book action in the hotly anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as Ravager captain Stakar Ogord. And in the midst of all that, he’s done some DC (as the hilarious King Shark in The Suicide Squad) and a number of high-profile video game voices to boot. The overarching link seems to be, unsurprisingly, ‘tough guy’.

“I certainly think the image of the tough guy has evolved a bit over time,” he says. “These days it’s seen more in the superhero genre, whereas when I was getting started they were all regular guys on the street with an axe to grind. It’s interesting to see how it’s all evolved, though at the heart of it it’s still the same thing – you can have all the CGI and special e ects in the world, but you still need a leading man who can look and act in a certain way. If you don’t have that, you have nothing.”

And this is why Stallone endures as evergreen bankable leading man material. Because no matter what those harsh critiques suggested, they’re demonstrably untrue.

“I think a lot of that came from the fact I had quite a bad speech impediment when I was young,” he says. “When you carry something like that with you through life you are always battling and fighting. That’s not to say I think about it these days, but I have become a person who, subconsciously, is always on the back foot and ready to respond.

“That has actually equipped me quite nicely in life because I always feel ready — not necessarily ready to fight like I was in the past, but ready to take up the challenge if someone wants to throw something my way. After a few years you grow to like that about yourself!”

In some ways then Rocky mirrored Stallone’s own life experience, and again he views that character and his portrayal philosophically. “He quickly realizes that he is not special, and that life owes him nothing, but he tries as much as he can to make his life better and to be special. It’s a common misconception that Rocky is a boxing movie — it’s not. It’s more a movie that has boxing in it. It’s actually about a man being reborn once he meets a woman. Boxing is just his job.”

In any case, Rocky is, apparently, done — after making one of those comebacks himself for the Creed franchise — at least for the time being. Stallone co-wrote the screenplays for the first two Creed movies, just as he did for all the Rocky films before them (the original idea came from one of his paintings — his parallel career as an artist continues to this day), but he has now chosen to move away from the genre as the style of making such movies has changed so much and he doesn’t necessarily agree with those directions.

Nevertheless, much of Stallone’s appeal lies in his status as a bonafide ‘man mountain’ and on whatever level people enjoyed those films, and his ongoing action-star exploits even as he approaches 80, there’s some seriously hard graft at play physically.

He refers back to the “traumatic experience that still haunts him” when, as a third-grader, he missed an easy catch in a baseball game because he was scared it might hit him instead; thus began a lifelong regime of physical improvement that arguably gives him the physique of a man 20 years his younger.

At Stallone’s stage of life the majority of his contemporaries would be pottering around in the garden or doing a weekly swim. And while he spends much of his time between movie projects painting and exhibiting his artworks, he has to keep his regular two-hour gym sessions going — aiming for peak physical, and mental, condition.

“It has been a vehicle for setting my mind straight and staying focused,” he says. “I’ve been through long periods in my life when being ripped is just a by-product to what working out really does for me, and I think that applies to a lot of people. It’s a big thing to be getting back to working out as a tool to reinforce strength, first and foremost, but I’ve enjoyed it, particularly compared to some of the routines in the past, especially for Rocky, which were so, so brutal.”

So what’s his secret? “The important thing is to invest in the imperfections. In some ways you’ve got to celebrate them, because they are the things that will inspire you to move forward, to be better, to try harder. I think all of us have a thread which goes through us — we are familiar with fear and what it is, the same with loneliness and isolation; it’s what victory and failure are. I think that if you can tell that story then the audience can relate to it.

“But if you are someone who feels that they are above pain or above fear, then who cares? You cannot be human if you don’t identify with those emotions. Being human means that you are able to balance all of your weaknesses and try to make them a strength, because that’s what life is — life is juggling things every day. It could be beautiful one day. Then, you can get one phone call and your whole life has changed.”

So, what’s next in Stallone’s own life journey? While he has waved goodbye to the icons that made him — John Rambo and Rocky Balboa — he’s really not ready to entertain any notion of his own retirement. “I don’t think anyone is truly retired until they’re in the ground,” he chuckles. “And even then you have some stars who seem to flourish once they’re dead!”

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