The atmosphere was electric as Ivan Drago climbed back into a boxing ring for the first time in years last weekend in Austin, greeted by the roar of a standing-room-only crowd of movie nerds. They were thirsty for blood, figuratively speaking, because the annual Fantastic Fest’s Fantastic Debates sees two pugilists argue from a podium before duking it out with their fists—in this case, sparring over whether or not Rocky IV is, indeed, the greatest boxing movie of all time.
When Dolph Lundgren took his place in the corner of Rocky’s defender, his allegiance was clear. “If he dies,” Lundgren boomed, heckling the lanky challenger. “He dies.”
The next day, dressed in a sleek suit to present his new horror-actioner Don’t Kill It at the Austin genre festival, the 6-foot-5 action icon chuckled. “Any time I’m in a situation where people are fighting I get a little bit of a charge because that used to be my life,” he smiled. “You always kind of look at the fighters a little bit and size them up.”
Lundgren’s fighter won the debate in true Rocky fashion, by winning over the crowd after being pummeled and bloodied. At 58, Lundgren’s spent more than half of his life being recognized for playing the towering Soviet machine who punished Sly Stallone in the ring and killed Apollo Creed. He couldn’t escape Drago if he wanted to—nor the cult ’80s action films that followed his 1985 breakout role: Masters of the Universe, Red Scorpion, The Punisher, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Universal Soldier.
“It has a lot of significance to me because it was my first big movie. I was in a Bond movie before that, but it was a small role,” he said of his turn in A View to a Kill alongside then-girlfriend Grace Jones. “But it meant a lot and it changed my life.”
“Some movies are classics and some aren’t, and it’s kind of hard to tell when they come out,” he shrugged, perhaps thinking of any of the 50-plus action vehicles he churned out in the years after Rocky IV. “Just because it made a lot of money doesn’t really mean it’s going to be an all-time classic.”
Does he think, as some have argued, that Rocky IV helped end the Cold War? Lundgren chuckled. “I think it had an impact on individuals in both the East and the West. A lot of them in the East. That was one of the first pictures you could get on VHS in Russia and in Eastern Europe, so a lot of people there watched it.”
The ideological commentary represented by Drago and Rocky’s face-off in the film is made even sharper by how surprisingly sympathetic Lundgren made his icy Soviet fighter. It’s one of the reasons fans still love to love-hate the character, and why Lundgren empathizes for his plight.
“There was a political message, but there was another message about fighting and about perseverance, and I think that’s the one that keeps inspiring people,” he said. “Even if the guy was a Russian and you hate him for a while, I think a lot of people kind of admired that character. It was like the Frankenstein myth: He was just the frontman for the system. It wasn’t his fault!”
Rocky IV opened countless doors for the Stockholm-born Lundgren, who remembers seeing the startling realities of Soviet influence in practice while promoting the film.
“I did a press tour in West Berlin, and part of it was jogging along the Berlin Wall,” he began. “There were guards along the wall holding AK-47s watching me run. They’d probably seen the movie, and I always wondered what they were thinking. Because they kept them in pairs, you know—they didn’t know each other, so that if one tried to escape the other would shoot him.”
Being the most famous fictional face of Cold War-era Soviet muscle tethered Lundgren to Russia ever since. “It’s always been a fascinating place to me,” he said. “I like to go there. The people are very interesting and they remind me of Sweden because of their background—they have this enormous, brutal kind of dramatic history. There’s something similar between Americans and Russians. They have a lot in common. They have these huge nations and they’ve been in a lot of wars, they’ve had a lot of hardships, and they’re basically the two nations that beat the Nazis.”
Lundgren is careful to avoid making strong political declarations. “I think that all the stuff with Putin, and the politics… America and Russia, I think they’re not enemies. I think they’re allies, naturally.” After living in Europe for a decade he returned to the States five years ago, relocating to Los Angeles. He mulls over the upcoming presidential election and gingerly offers a dash of unexpected optimism.
“I think that it’s going to lead to some good,” said Lundgren, whose father was an engineer and an economist and imparted a strong academic streak into him. “I have to look at the positive things. People are shooting it down saying both candidates are weak and Trump’s crazy, but I think something good’s going to come out of it. I actually think slowly the world’s actually becoming a better place.”
Lundgren’s in an optimistic place professionally, too. In recent years, thanks in large part to the internet and our collective obsession with esoteric trivia, the world’s started noticing the past life that always made Lundgren one of our most interesting action heroes: the fact that, before he became Grace Jones’ bodyguard and then her boyfriend and dove into an acting career, he studied to be a chemical engineer.
A studious kid, Lundgren had been taught by his parents to hit the books hard. His dad encouraged him to move to America. Scholarships got him there in his early twenties, and after studying at Washington State, Clemson, and the University of Sydney, the karate-trained star student won a Fulbright scholarship to MIT.
“When I originally came to America, I was a chemical engineer,” he laughed. “I wasn’t, like, an action guy carrying around a machine gun, grunting out a few words, killing people. But I ended up doing that for 25 years, and that’s great. I love all those fans.”
Lundgren even teamed up with a producer to develop a potential television series based on that premise. “We might even go down to the networks next week. It’s finally coming out to a bigger audience and they can laugh and say, ‘What the hell—that guy was a chemical engineer?’”
He hopes, after three decades of being Ivan Drago, that it helps change people’s perception of who Dolph Lundgren is—and can—be. “Maybe it will help me do things that are a little more fun,” he offered. “Once you do The Expendables, you’re not going to kill more people or have more fun—there’s not going to be bigger explosions around. Any other action after that you’re not doing because you’re learning something new.”
Lundgren signed onto Don’t Kill It, directed by Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider!) to play a twangy, whiskey-guzzling demon hunter named Jebediah Huntley, who breezes into a small Mississippi town when supernatural hell breaks loose. It’s a new kind of role for Lundgren, who spent thankless years uttering few words in countless low-budget action flicks.
He’d been living in Spain with his family when, in 2009, masked intruders broke into his home while he was away and terrorized his then-wife, designer Anette Qviberg. In a stranger than fiction twist, according to legend, they fled when they saw family photos and realized Lundgren lived there. He, in turn, said he sent Bulgarian associates to hunt the men down but never found them. “If they had found them,” he told Esquire, “it would have been bad.”
The incident left Qviberg and the couple’s eldest daughter traumatized, he later told Parade. The couple divorced in 2011, which is when Lundgren moved back to America and started working to refocus his film career.
“I got divorced and I wanted to explore my career a little more, because when I lived in Europe for 10 years I didn’t really care about it,” he said. “I was taking roles here and there and it didn’t really go anywhere. For a long time, I would just take the roles and make the money, and I wasn’t all that concerned about where it would take me career-wise. I was concerned about having a good time, being in Europe, bringing up my kids. Now it’s taken a couple of years to get back into it, and I’m just trying to give it a shot and see what happens.”
He’s taken on new challenges, like the recent comedy Kindergarten Cop 2, playing the Arnold Schwarzenegger role as a new federal agent going undercover with toddlers. But part of this new phase is getting back to directing after helming a handful of his own action vehicles throughout the 2000s. He’s planning to direct another feature next year in Sweden, and hopes to produce another that he describes as “an interesting little drama-thriller thing.”
As a filmmaker, Lundgren’s creative inspirations come from guys like him who’ve paved the way from shooting bad guys onscreen to directing. When he first met Stallone on Rocky IV, the two spent months together training every day for the fight scenes that would become iconic. Stallone brought his old pal back for three Expendables franchise films, and Lundgren counts Sly among his directorial role models. Another one, he says, is the “underestimated” Clint Eastwood. “He’s one of the greatest directors and he’s hung in there for a long time,” Lundgren marveled. “I think some of his biggest accomplishments came after he turned 60. To me that’s inspiring.”
Heading over to introduce the premiere screening of Don’t Kill It in a neighboring theater, Lundgren realized the carnival-themed room we were sitting in inside the Alamo Drafthouse’s Highball was, in fact, a private karaoke room. I learned another delightful bit of Dolph Lundgren esoterica to add to the legend: Action hero, chemical engineer, karaoke fan. As we shook hands goodbye, he sang a line from his go-to karaoke jam, a perfect selection if there ever was one. “I like to do Elvis,” he grinned, flashing a smile. “A little less conversation, a little more action please…”