Unlike other stars, who seldom show up on time to interviews, Sylvester Stallone arrives early in a rainy morning in Rome, in fact earlier than me. As I enter the room on the top floor of my hotel, I find the super star, looking tanned and dressed in a beige suit, gazing out the window marveling over the majestic views of the Italian capital and nodding his head to the obsequious hotel manager, who is breathlessly pointing out the famous landmarks to him.
Relaxed and humorous, Stallone mumbles something unfathomable in Italian as he parks himself in his seat. His eager hosts exchange confounded looks and then smile ingratiatingly at their important guest as he grabs a bottle of water from the table and says in his trademark deep voice: “Oh, is this water? Beautiful.”
The creator of the two iconic characters, Rambo and Rocky, is in the eternal City to receive a special honour from the mayor, Gianni Alemanno, and to promote his new thriller Bullet To The Head, in which he plays a hitman who forms an unlikely alliance with a police officer to hunt down a common enemy.
Like many of Stallone’s previous movies, Bullet To The Head is imbued with violence and bloodshed and is centred on his character, who has no mercy when it comes to killing bad guys. The veteran action hero admits that the character is not a saint, but he has a code whereas the other guys don’t. “He’s an assassin but he never goes after the innocent,” he stresses. “I want you to pay attention to the ideology or the philosophy that it’s bad guys taking out the worst guys, and if I don’t do it, that bad guy is going to do other bad things to innocent people, so in away my character is the taking out the trash, that’s it.”
Such characters with this kind of duality and ambiguous morality were often the pillar of many of Stallone’s movies, most notably is John Rambo, which along with Rocky Balboa, has defined the action hero’s career in the film business. “Rambo, as bad as he is, there is something that pulls you through,” Stallone enthuses. “There’s a sense of self-sacrifice that he wants to die for a cause, that he was willing to die for this Christian girl even though he’s an Atheist. He believes in nothing but there is something noble about him.”
Having penned 8 scripts, including the Oscar-winning Rocky (1976), Stallone is fully aware of the drawing power and universal appeal of a compelling character in a movie when he writes. “Quite often when I see a film, I go ‘Why am I watching this piece of shit? It’s just so dour and I hate everybody in the movie. It’s just so depressing I can’t relate to anyone.’ All you need in a film is one character that you hook your emotions to and you follow.”
But when he sat down to write the actioner The Expendables, which he also directed, he was faced with the challenge of creating 10 appealing characters. “It’s much harder than say Rocky and Rambo because it was just me but when you’re writing for Arnold and Bruce and Van Damme, you realise what they can do and what they can’t do and how do you make it all work.”
And to make it all work, he had to do over 20 rewrites every day while shooting. “You realise when you’re writing it in your room it looked great and then you get on the set and it’s horrible,” he laughs in his trademark yuk yuk.
Suddenly, Stallone starts puffing and loosening his tie, as if he were being suffocated. “What’s with the heat? Open the windows, please,” he cries, as he unveils his sweating shirt. “Jesus, look at this. I’m going to be dripping through this shirt in a minute. Guys, open it, Everyone’s dying here.”
It turned out that his officious Italian hosts were so concerned for the well-being of their important guest on this rainy day that they turned up the heating to the max, and now transpires that they can’t switch it off. Frankly, I am sweating too.
“I thought it was me,” he jokes, breathless. “I thought I was going through a change of life right here. Just open everything!” he demanded again, as his assistant and hosts race to the windows, flinging them open. “I appreciate it,” Stallone groans, taking a deep breath as if he’s just emerged from the abyss of an ocean. He then grabs a bottle of water and downs it.
He pauses for a moment, recollecting his thoughts. “I try to write what you would like to see,” he continues. “I believe if you can have energy, heart and humour going in a film, it usually works out pretty successful.”
Indeed, Stallone’s films have been a massive success worldwide, making over $4 billion at the box office. Yet, the actor-writer-director has been frequently labeled by critics and the film industry as a vacuous action actor and an inarticulate bum. Stallone, however, often reacted with a self-deprecating humour.
“Rocky has no action; it’s only 4-1/2 minutes of fighting and the rest is 1 hour and 51 minutes of talking,” he exclaims, adding that his first action movie was First Blood by accident, because the film ended up being 3 hours long, so they had to cut everything and leave only the action. “I said ‘Let’s try that’ and the producer’s going ‘But we paid you millions of dollars.’ I said ‘People don’t understand me anyway when I speak so don’t worry about it’,” he laughs.
Stallone’s trademark slurred speech and drooping facial features were the consequence of an accident during his forceps delivery which severed a nerve in his face. The speech impediment made it difficult for the New York-born actor to find substantial work in his early career, other than certain roles that relied heavily on his brawny physique. Hence, in the early 70s he moved to LA, where he intended to make his own way by writing scripts for himself.
He quickly managed to secure some meaty roles and even sell a screenplay The Lords of the Flatbush (1974), in which he starred. His big break, however, came when he penned and starred in the box-office hit, Rocky, about a washed out heavyweight boxer, which earned him two Oscar nominations for acting and screenwriting. Since then, Stallone has made an additional 4 Rocky movies in the 70s and 80s and then revisited it in 2006 with Rocky Balboa, which came following a 10 year of stagnation in his career.
“I just felt like it was a black mark against me so I put in Rocky Balboa everything that I’d been going through for 10 years,” he reflects. “The first and last ones are really my life’s story in a way, but set in Rocky’s body, and then I thought it was going to be over and that’s the end of it and then Avi (his producer) says why don’t you try Rambo?”
Stallone first played the troubled Vietnam vet John Rambo in the action-packed, ultraviolent First Blood (1982), a huge box office hit in the eighties, which spawned Rambo II (1985) and Rambo III (1985), in which Rambo goes to help the Afghan Mujahedeen against the Soviet occupiers.
“I was not happy with Rambo 3,” he exclaims, shaking his head. “Because who knew that the guys I go in and save have become Al Qaeda and the guy I was suppose to be talking to was Bin Laden; that was a bad move. Then one month before the movie comes out, Russia comes over. It was Gorbachev giving Nancy Reagan a kiss on the cheek; everybody loves everybody and I’m the bad guy,” he chuckles, raising his arms despairingly in the air. “I give up, that’s why I never do political movies.”
Accepting his producer’s offer, the pop cultural icon wrote, directed, produced and starred in Rambo (2008), which went on to earn over $100 million worldwide. He then followed it by actioners The Expendables (2010) and The Expendables 2 (2012), which feature many of the 80s action heroes. Now he is contemplating another Rambo.
“I had this idea about going down to Mexico and I thought it could be really very heavy and interesting thing about a guy who goes there after the housekeeper’s daughter disappears: something really simple like Unforgiven. But he is really not going for the girl. He realises he’s going there because that’s who he is. He has to,” Stallone explains.
To maintain his trim figure on screen, the 66-year-old eats the same meal every night for 3 months: chicken, pasta and 2 pieces of bread with a glass of wine. Amazingly, he still does all his action stunts, subjecting himself to debilitating injuries. “I shouldn’t do it,” he quips, shaking his head. “Since Expendables I’ve literally had two back operations; my is neck is fused; I’ve had both my shoulders done; I just had 70 stitches in my leg, that tendon exploded and I lost an Achilles tendon on Expendables. So I’m like a robot but for some reason when it’s time to do it, I just want to do it and it comes at a very serious price.”
Stallone is proud of his injuries, attributing them to the abundance of his energy. “I think I have more energy now than when I started out, perhaps because you see the end is near so you work harder,” he reflects. “Your opportunities are shrinking so every time I go into a film I always approach it as my last so I put as much as I can because it could be.”
But the veteran actor/director is still as busy as when he was in his prime, working on several projects including The Tomb, co-starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Grudge Match, alongside Robert De Niro, and is prepping for another installment of Expendables.
“If you keep setting goals for yourself, you keep moving forward and you keep thinking young.” he says. “It’s like when I started my career I had a gun with 1000 bullets. Now I have a gun with about 8 so you got to be sure everyone is a good shot.”