Sylvester Stallone Interview, Rocky Balboa

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently sat down with Sylvester Stallone at the Los Angeles Press Day to promote his new film, "Rocky Balboa,” in which the writer/director/star returns to the character that launched his career and became a cultural icon around the world. "Rocky Balboa” is the final chapter in the 30-year saga that began in 1976 with "Rocky,” a film that, like its title character, came out of nowhere to box its way into cinematic history – breaking box office records and winning Oscars for Best Picture, Directing, and Editing out of an astounding 10 nominations.

In "Rocky Balboa,” the former heavyweight champion steps out of retirement and back into the ring, pitting himself against a new rival in a dramatically different era. After a virtual boxing match declares Rocky Balboa the victor over current champion Mason "The Line" Dixon, the legendary fighter's passion and spirit are reignited. But when his desire to fight in small, regional competitions is trumped by promoters calling for a rematch of the cyber-fight, Balboa must weigh the mental and physical risks of a high profile exhibition match against his need to be in the ring. In addition to Stallone, "Rocky Balboa” also stars Burt Young, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, James Francis Kelly III, Antonio Tarver and Geraldine Hughes.

For Sylvester Stallone, Rocky strikes a resonant chord because audiences see themselves in the character. With a 30-year span since the release of the first film, Stallone sought to create a story that would connect these ideas to a new generation. "The film’s central truth is that anything is possible if you believe enough. It’s a pretty universal dream to try to rise up and take your best shot at life,” says Stallone. "You may not totally be successful but at least you had the chance. I think that’s the biggest frustration a lot of people have in their own lives -- never getting their shot.”

Producer Charles Winkler notes that "Rocky Balboa” represents the completion of Stallone’s decades long quest to bookend the story with a worthy finale. "Sylvester was a man on a mission,” Winkler says. "He wanted it to end on the right note – a story that could make you a believer again.” Adds producer William Chartoff, "Rocky has never really left Sylvester’s system. To him, it was unfinished business, just as it is to the character’s legion of fans around the world. Though "Rocky Balboa” is really the last sequel, in many ways it’s the most like the original.”

"The first movie was a little film, but written like a masterpiece,” says Burt Young, who has portrayed the complex character of Paulie, Rocky’s best friend and brother-in-law, for three decades and six films. "Ninety-eight pages of street prose. There was no fat. And it was very romantic. Lots of people never fully appreciated how terrifically romantic it was. I was excited by it. It was probably the best screenplay I ever read.”

The title character has, in many ways, returned to the same kind of existence he had in the first film. "He’s literally back where he was at the beginning, all alone, except he has lost his naivete,” says Stallone. "He’s very worldly. There’s a certain calm about him. He carries himself with a weight on his shoulders but with that also comes a kind of enlightenment. He knows more and tries to convey more. He doesn’t have as big a chip on his shoulder that he had.”

Sylvester Stallone is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about the greatest underdog story of our time and what it’s like to come back for one final round of the Academy Award-winning franchise:

Q: Why is Rocky such a lasting character for you?

SS: 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 burned its way into the American consciousness and I became incredibly identified with it, probably inextricably 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 the audience wanted to be taken on that kind of a journey again, I think they felt it was a disappointment or letdown. Because right after Rocky was FIST and FIST was a pretty good film, but I don’t think it had enough of what people were expecting.
Then I went with Paradise Alley, which was a character that was kind of disdainful. I liked the character a lot, but he was the antithesis of Rocky so that kind of got people confused. I never really fit into the character actor category. I would like to, but it just didn’t happen. So that’s what I think it is. I think the benchmark was set at a certain level and when people didn’t get the same sort of feel I think they felt betrayed. Where as Copland worked for them. Do you 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 emotion journey rather than just action for action’s sake. It’s the same thing with First Blood. It’s the best action film I’ve ever done for that reason.

Q: How much could you relate to the Rocky character?

SS: I’m not sure, but they are pretty similar. I would be trying to fool you if I said it was an out of body experience that had nothing to do with me. No, the issues that work are very personal issues and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to take what is bothering me and questions I’ve asked about life in general and have the body of Rocky to put it into. If I were asking these questions it wouldn’t have the same impact as this guy who is innocent. He’s a tough guy, but he’s child-like. So when he asks questions it comes at you from a very comical angle, when he speaks with his vernacular and his pentameter, his rhythm. But all the issues in the films that have worked in the Rocky thing it’s always about something I’m going through, like in Rocky 3 when he’s afraid to fight because of fear.
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 when Mickey dies you are losing your foundation and now you are facing the world unprepared. And this one was about how do you deal with grief? I see as I get older, and Rocky says 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. you think it gets easier 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. A lot of people collapse and lose their zest for life and this is like how do you counterpoint that?

Q: Is this movie your statement about aging?

SS: I believe 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 think I’m not that different from what other people are going through. There might be other seniors or mature adults that are thinking, God, at the very end I want to feel I’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of this life. I want to try all the things I’ve never tried, and quite often that doesn’t happen. But the dream is to do that, to be fulfilled. At the very end I don’t think it’s about money because I’ve met many billionaires who are not happy.
I don’t think it’s about acquisition, having land and this and that. I think peace of mind as a mature person is number one, where you feel as though, "I’m really at peace with myself. The beast is out. I’ve done most of the things I’ve wanted. I’ve 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 at the very end I made up for that and did it my way and I feel good about being myself.” 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 wasn’t about winning or losing. He was never going to fight again. It’s just that he did it. His son saw him do what he used to do. He’s proud that he brought everything together. He got rid of a lot of the grief he felt for Adrian and now he’s ready to move on with his life. So that’s what that was all about. It’s a fantasy, but I think a lot of people wish they could have an outlet in their later years for all the pent up dreams that never got a chance to be displayed.

Q: What was training like this time and why did you decide to use a real boxer?

SS: The training for this was extremely difficult and riddled with a lot of injury. Things that worked 30 years ago are a little rusty and I kind of felt like the Tin Man before he got his can of oil. I was very, very stiff, but with the help of a handful of Advil every morning I got through it, but with a lot of injuries.  Even the champ broke his knuckle sparring with me. And I broke my foot so I’m like in a cast hobbling around the ring. So we looked like two mummies. I swear to you it was like in 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 90,000 (or 9,000) people, and I’m not ready at all. And I’ve got a world champion in there who just knocked out the best pound for pound fighter in the past 10 years. So I said, "Antonio, look, 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 extra work so they had a little extra padding, but they hurt because I got dropped at least 3 times, badly. The second knockout, when I’m trying to struggle to get up, that’s real. I kept going like this and now I get it! I wanted Rocky just to bounce right back up like it didn’t hurt, but the third time he knocked me down I went, wow, now I get it! It’s called stunned. I was stunned.

So there is more realistic fighting in this. That’s why I worked in the editing room that if you freeze-frame you’ll see the contact. There’s none of that like the other films where you miss by 4 inches and pretend that it hit. This is on the money, unfortunately.

Q: What about the scene with your son?

SS: Yes, 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 of 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 this as an excuse. That just doesn’t hold water.”

Q: Do you want Rocky to have a legacy as a possible real fighter?

SS: 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 a Mike Tyson or other real fighters. But you are right, I think there is a void in real boxers. When you had Joe Frazier and all these other guys it was like 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, then two. Now there is 4 or 5. So you have 5 heavyweight champions so people go, who? So they are constantly changing and I think it’s destroyed the sport. It really has. The best does not rise to the top anymore.

But what has happened is Rocky has become the legacy that has defined determination. Even though you are hurt and don’t have the greatest skill in the world, but if you play with ferocity you sometimes overwhelm your opponent. In the real life world of Rockys they mostly get knocked out. They go into it with heart, but they lose. They rarely win. But luckily I’m writing this thing so he still loses, but he loses cool.

Q: Did you get everything out of the Rocky character?

SS: I have to admit that I’ve had this beast in me that’s been gnawing at me for 10 or 12 years about how badly Rocky fared. And I take all the blame for that. I think it was a reflection of my lack of focus at the time and it just was translated onto film. It’s really interesting. It’s almost like a CAT scan of where you are. And it really defeated all the other Rockys and it bothered me because of the people who had 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, "Yo, Adrian, we did it.” We did it. In other words, we got as much out of this cinematic life, and he just dissolves. And that would be it, so yes, the beast is definitely out.

And training and working in Philadelphia is a very unusual situation because that city does believe that Rocky is real. For real, it is. It’s transcended this kind of, 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 4 children themselves. They’ve grown up there literally. That’s Rocky’s house. That's where he drinks. For real! It’s an incredible compliment, but it’s become this mythic character like the phoenix doesn’t live and die. But they’ve embraced it like no city I’ve ever seen. In Philadelphia they throw ice balls at Santa Claus. It’s a tough crowd. If you play there, you know what I mean with the Eagles. They let you know it. They are not shy. It’s brutal, but they like Rocky. They’ve embraced him as one of their own because he represents this regular guy who is willing to take the hits and keep going.

Q: Did you start writing from the point that Adrian had passed away?

SS: No, and it wasn’t working. I was using the George Foreman format, which would be this: He had a youth center in Houston that was going broke. Rocky has a youth center in Philadelphia that is going broke. He goes to the bank for a loan and Adrian is still alive and the bank says no. He goes to the church for a loan and nothing. He goes to a pawn shop and nothing. So he says he wants to go out and do some club fights and get the money to pay the rent, like George. And one thing led to another until finally he’s had 18 or 19 of these and people said he should continue on this. And he becomes a viable product to guys like Don King, which is 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. So the movie is about trying to save the gym and the kids and it wasn’t about any kind of visceral emotional journey. It wasn’t about dealing with life. I went, boy, this is all about plot and a simple subject, the gym.

Rocky 1 was about confusion, loneliness, brotherhood and self-awareness. It was just those subjects and at the very end finally not even caring about the victory, it’s about the love of Adrian. That’s what it was all about. I call it the Adrian Factor.

So I wondered what to do. Ah, you have to pull a man’s heart out and take away the thing he loves most and take it out of his life and he now plummets to the depths of despair. And there is nothing more traumatic than taking Adrian out of his life. I had been talking to Talia about the other script so I had to call her and tell her that I worked out the plot and it finally works. She said, "Oh, that’s so great! What’s my part?” I said, "Dead. You’re dead.” She said, "Seriously?” And I said, "Seriously. It opens up on a folding chair and I’m looking at your tombstone.” She says, "Come on!” I said, "Yeah, but I bring roses.” It’s a true story. I talked to her the other day. She finally got it and she’s very cerebral. She says, "I got it. It’s the journey of Sisyphus and down the River Styx!” I said, "Yeah, that’s close. That’s exactly what it is. Dante’s Inferno, down the river Styx, okay.” But she’s great.

Q: What was it like working with Burt Young again?

SS: 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 is no getting around it. This time he actually had a few more scenes that will be on the DVD. They were taken out of the film because it was just getting too emotional. He was also having a nervous breakdown over Adrian or whatever, but he performed really well. There were some very dramatic scenes, but it just didn’t work even though I’m in them with him. But he delivered the goods.

Q: Is boxing a good way to vent anger and would you mind if your daughter started boxing?

SS: I wish my daughters would box. I’m so worried about the guys coming up to them. I would love them to be able to smack a guy right off a bar stool. I would feel very, very confident in 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 is a better way, I think for women too. There is something so primal about it and it’s the best exercise in the world, even if you don’t ever get in the ring. I wish my daughters would fight, but they won’t. And boxing is the best release, I think, of aggression, there is.

Q: Will we see any more of your characters again?

SS: Well, I’ve been working on this thing called Rhinestone…the slimestone cowboy. No! That’s my contribution to birth control. Put that on and nobody wants to touch. Just kidding. That’s what keeps me sane.

No. That would be it. Rambo is a character that I think was not fully expressed in the last one, even though Afghanistan was the downfall. It was Russia’s Vietnam. About 10 days before the movie comes out Gorbechev comes over and basically kisses Nancy Reagan on the cheek and then the 50-year Cold War is over and now I’m the bad guy! It’s true. People asked why I was a red baiter. And I said two weeks ago we were dropping bombs on these guys, but now? It’s true. Anytime you do a film that deals with a political subject you never know, even though I’m doing it again. But it’s extremely volatile.

It would just be Rambo because I think it’s a character that I think is completely out of sync with the way things are. He’s so primitive and his spirit is so broken that he lives his monastic life out in the jungle and I think it’s an interesting character study. I haven’t seen anything like it lately.

Q: Is there a way to bring Rambo back and what about Copland, which was good, but only made $20 million?

SS: Yeah, $20 million. Remember them days? Early on everybody should do a little film every time they do a big film because it keeps you grounded. I would like to direct Poe after this so I wouldn’t even be in it. I would just be behind the camera, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do. I’ve talked about it so much I feel like I’ve made it 50 times! And it will probably bomb anyway, but I’ll do it. It’s one of those tough subjects, but it’s a fantastic character piece. So that’s what I would probably do and then after that, who knows?

Q: The veteran’s journey?

SS: I wouldn’t say this is the veteran’s journey. It’s more like the veteran mentality of the Vietnam War, which is juxtapositioned today. The soldiers today I think are a vastly different breed. I think they are a bit more aware and the other guys were a bit more naïve and they went headlong into these crazy situations. Look at the death toll. 52,000, which by today’s standards is unbelievable. And a quarter million suicides after that from people who were damaged by the war. You bring up things, it’s just in his attitude and his demeanor that you know he’s still quite destroyed or distraught, I should say, by what he’s been through, but he can’t escape it. Damned if you do and damned if he doesn’t.

Q: What has been your motivator to bring the best out of you?

SS: 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 sold the first one and it turned out really well for someone else, I would probably hate myself my entire life. The same thing with this one. The fear of not doing it, because my wife was afraid of me doing this film. She was crying and telling me not to do this and I would be embarrassed. I said, I know, but I’ve got to try it. I feel it.

So Dixon in the movie, his trainer says, until a man, and this means a woman too, has been through a real baptism by fire, when you are scared, when you are hanging on, when someone’s hurting you, which his life is hurting you, then you are going to see what you are really made of and then you are going to get the only kind of respect in the world that matters, it’s self respect.

And 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.

"Rocky Balboa” opens in theaters on December 20th. I invite you to read my review of Rocky Balboa


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