Dolph Lundgren: The Smartest Guy In Showbusiness
Can you remember the last time you saw a camcorder? One of those big, hunking things that you’ve got to grab with two hands and hold up to a squinting eye? Right now, there’s a good chance you have a phone in your pocket that can produce images of far better quality. These machines aren’t exactly ancient, but they’re still a kind of modern antique, formerly ubiquitous, part of the texture of everyday reality, now long gone. Seeing one today, you might think about how advanced we had thought we were, how far we have come in such a short time, how far we may still have to go.
I saw a camcorder recently, for the first time in at least a decade, at a photo shoot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As I walked into the room, full of fellow millennials checking their iPhones, the incongruity of the antiquated device struck me immediately. And then I see the man the camera was filming, another incongruous sight here in the second decade of the 21st Century: the ’80s action star, He-Man himself, Dolph Lundgren.
Lundgren stands on a rotating platform before an orange backdrop, under heat and light, looking like an action figure in a microwave. He’s not an old man, but he seems to have stepped out of a bygone era, when muscle-bound hunks filled the multiplexes, gunning down everyone in sight. That sort of action movie, that variety of masculinity, those violent, patriarchal values: millennials surely remember all that, too. It’s all laughably out-of-step with the values of today, unless they come with a tongue firmly planted in-cheek, as in The Expendables series, which happened to have resuscitated Lundgren’s Hollywood career after a decade in direct-to-video limbo.
I remember the first time I saw Lundgren. I was at home in the middle of the day, too sick to go to school. A basic cable channel was running a Rocky marathon, and I watched the whole thing. Although he speaks only nine lines of English, Lundgren plays one of the most iconic villains of the series: Ivan Drago, the looming, silent Soviet boxer who beats Apollo Creed—Rocky’s rival-turned-mentor—to death at the opening of the fourth installment of the series. During the shoot in Brooklyn, as Lundgren flexes and repositions himself, his mechanical movements reminded me of a scene in Rocky IV, where Russian scientists use computers to measure Ivan Drago’s heart rate and punching power (an inhuman 2000 psi). Rocky IV was what Lundgren called his first “real picture”; thirty-three years later, he will appear as Drago again in Creed II, his 70th role.
Lundgren glowers like the professional villain he is, menacingly twisting his pinky ring. Then, all of a sudden, he rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue, and the room breaks into laughter. He chit-chats amiably with the makeup artists, talks lovingly about apartment-hunting with his daughter. He cheerfully inquires about the camcorder, as surprised as I by its presence. When the shoot wraps, he compliments everyone and poses for Instagram pictures. And when we hop into an Uber back to Manhattan, I find myself conversing with a thoughtful, open individual, nothing like the macho man persona of his movies.
At another shoot, a month later, I mention that I recently met with Lundgren, and the photographer immediately exclaims, “Oh! The smartest guy in show business!” That’s no exaggeration—Lundgren had a full-ride scholarship to earn a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at M.I.T., but he dropped out to pursue a career in acting and modeling, spurred by his girlfriend at the time, none other than the archetype of badass ’80s femininity, Grace Jones. He tells me about the time he took Jones to visit M.I.T. “I had a big black Yamaha 1200 motorcycle, and she was on the back. I wasn’t even wearing a shirt, just leather pants. I don’t think the professors expected that of their Swedish star student. I was going through security at LAX a couple of years back, and some guy ahead of me in a suit says, ‘Hey are you Dolph Lundgren? I’m the M.I.T. professor who approved your application.’ I told him I was sorry I couldn’t continue, but he said he thinks I did OK.”
Lundgren pursued chemical engineering, he tells me, largely because of his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. “My dad was an electrical engineer and an army officer, so I did both. I studied in the military and I wanted to impress him, I guess to get his love, probably, and his approval.” In Creed II, Ivan Drago is now a father himself. That’s what convinced Lundgren to overcome his apprehension about revisiting the character and to take the role. “I heard about it from Stallone two years ago. He told me, It’s about the sin of our fathers,” Lundgren says, doing a solid impression of the Italian Stallion. “I kind of liked that. Even though I hadn’t read the script, it reminded me of my father.”
A month after Creed II hits theaters, Lundgren will star in another picture, as another father, King Nereus, in Aquaman. Although it’s a superhero fantasy, the role hit close to home for Lundgren, as the father of two daughters. It was also an opportunity to branch out, after a career in shoot-em-up and punch-em-down pictures. “For me, it’s a chance to play a dramatic role, without doing any action, no beating people up,” he laughs, adding a caveat: “I do shoot a few people, but not too many.”
Crawling the streets of Manhattan in the Uber, we discuss violence in movies and how it differs from violence in real life, and Lundgren opens up once more about his personal trauma. “In my youth, as a teengager, I had a lot of pain because of my father and what happened to me. You know, he was quite abusive. Martial arts gave me a way out of that. Not just to feel stronger. There’s a meditative aspect to the martial arts. It teaches you inner strength. You don’t think, you don’t worry, because you’re in the moment. It’s like meditating. I think that’s what saved me, to some extent. But it doesn’t really resolve the trauma, because you’re kind of hijacking it to become a good fighter, to become an actor. Now I use therapy and meditation to resolve the conflict within myself.”
I ask Lundgren if he has any advice, after half a lifetime in the movies. He strongly recommends psychotherapy, for everybody, but particularly for people in show business. “You have an antidote for feelings of rejection, self-loathing, self-criticism, all of those things that we all suffer from. But especially in the business of being a performer—you’re very susceptible to that and exposed to it. Have something spiritual in your life and have something that deals with your emotional life.”
It’s not exactly what I expect from Ivan Drago or He-Man. But if you ask me, confronting your trauma so openly, baring your emotions so plainly, is far more manly than punching harder than anyone else has ever punched. It’s also a sign that Lundgren is a dynamic actor and person. As the culture has evolved, so has he. Though he still gets to shoot a few people, when he needs to.