Dolph Lundgren wasn’t as thrilled as you might think when he heard his most famous character, Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, was being pulled from mothballs for the sequel to Creed.
“I went to the premiere of Creed with [Sylvester] Stallone, and the subject never came up, and, frankly, I’ve never thought of playing the character again. Then a few months later, I get this text from Sly, and it says [lapses into note-perfect imitation of Stallone] ‘How’d you like to play that guy again?’ " said Lundgren, who’s made movies with Stallone since his breakout in Rocky IV. “And I was like, ‘Who?’ ”
Who, of course, is Drago, the Soviet giant who kills fighter Apollo Creed in the ring and fights Rocky Balboa in a revenge match for the title. In Creed II, Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is now the champ, and Drago has trained his own son Viktor (boxer Florian Munteanu) to challenge for the title.
“My honest reaction was, I’m not so sure,” Lundgren said. “ I was taken aback. Am I going to have to put on those red trunks again? Get a crew cut, and all of that?”
"All of that” for Lundgren encompasses a lot mixed emotions. Rocky IV helped make him a star, but it also marked him as a certain kind of actor who was offered a limited array of roles.
“Rocky IV helped my career a lot, but it also hurt me a bit because it was playing somebody who was robotic and showed little emotion and killed a beloved character. So I hear about Creed II, and I think they’re going to make me play a bad guy, and another kind of cartoon character,” he said. He became a star before he had a chance to become an actor.
“I had only studied acting for a year before Rocky IV, and then, boom, I was famous. And I never really had a chance to figure out what I wanted to do. Do I want to play guys who kill people for the rest of my life?” said Lundgren, who went on to play The Punisher and also Universal Soldier in a series of movies.
“Drago was like five percent of my personality. The quiet killer. I can do that, but I can do other things. So it’s been a mixed blessing, but mostly a blessing,” he said. Lundgren agreed to return for Creed II when he realized the character he gets to play is more complex than the guy he played in Rocky IV.
“I’m reading the script, and one of the first scenes is Ivan and his son, and it’s a really deep scene, a lot of emotion,” he said. “And I met the director, Steven [Caple Jr.] and he’s explaining to me, I want this movie to be about fathers and sons. To be Shakespearean and mythic, and Ivan is an essential part of that. And I realized this guy is a real director, this is a real movie, and, yeah, I want to be a part of that.”
Lundgren likes the way Caple invites the audience to sympathize with Ivan and Viktor, who in the early scenes (supposedly Russia and Ukraine, but shot in Philadelphia) are training in a context that recalls Rocky’s underdog environment in the original movie.
“In way, it’s exactly how Rocky started. In a [crappy] apartment, no money, no job, in the cold, just a guy with this one hope, and boxing as the means of achieving it.”
Lundgren turned 61 a few weeks ago, had both hips replaced last year, and will star in Aquaman next year as Aquaman’s dad. He has no real complaints about how his own career turned out, Drago notwithstanding.
“I’m not a guy who runs on regret,” said Lundgren, who’s usually too busy — he’s made 70 movies — to complain much about the direction his career has taken.
“Stallone and I ended up making like half a dozen movies together. It’s weird. One day you wake up and you’re like, how did that happen?”