While many people offer hard-luck stories about their “humble” beginnings to boost their perceived success, Sylvester Stallone’s journey to becoming one of Hollywood’s most famous, prolific and profitable performer-filmmakers is still a startlingly amazing tale — and one long since forgotten by most people.
The product of a broken home, Stallone was born in 1946 and grew up in the streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Silver Springs, Maryland, and then in Philadelphia. After spending difficult years in the care of foster parents, he was kicked out of 14 schools in 11 years. Later, while attending the University of Miami, his drama department instructors discouraged him from pursuing and acting career — but he persisted.
Making a living from a string of odd jobs (including teaching school in Switzerland), Stallone later managed to find some bit roles in films like “Bananas” (directed by Woody Allen), “The Lords of Flatbush,” “The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue,” and the cult-classic “Deathrace 2000”. But when his career seemed to reach a dead end, he decided to create an opportunity for himself by writing a screenplay he could star in. After painting the windows of his apartment black in order to block out all distractions, Stallone wrote “Rocky” — the tale of a down-and-out prizefighter whose life story reflected his own experiences.
Stallone sold the script to “Rocky” for relatively little money, a trade-off for starring in the low-budget, quickly-made film — which became 1976’s biggest film of the year at the box-office by earning over $50 million. Later came Best Actor and Best Screenplay Academy Award nominations for Stallone and Oscars for Best Picture, direction and editing. In effect, Stallone was the Tarantino of his time: the outsider who gave himself his big break.
Yet at the age of 50, faced with his new daughter’s health problems and an impending marriage, Stallone has perhaps taken the first steps toward redefining his himself and his career with two upcoming films, the big-budget adventure film “Daylight” and the relatively modest drama “Copland,” co-starring Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel.
Not incidentally, Stallone’s son, Sage, who first appeared as an infant in “Rocky,” rejoins his father on screen in Daylight.
Asked if he has perhaps been inspired by Clint Eastwood’s model of success, Stallone paused to reply, “He’s very smart in alternating projects — doing a large film and a little film and a large film and a little film. That way he keeps himself enthusiastic throughout the production.” Smiling, he added, “That’s perhaps the best way to do it.
“But that’s one reason why Eastwood has had the longevity with his career that he has had. Staying interested is one of most difficult aspects of this business.”
[ How’s the baby and how’s the father? ] ^ The baby had open-heart surgery about nine days ago, and, needless to say, it was a very traumatic experience. But the doctors were brilliant and she’s home with her mother now, under 24-hour supervision. She’s just f*****g beautiful. The father is. . . I never thought it would so exciting. The first children I had were really wonderful, but I was always away on location. I was gone 80 percent of the time. This time I decided, if the miracle occurred and her life was spared, I was going to make a drastic change in my life. So, it’s been a wonderful experience.
[ You’ve said “Daylight” could be your last action film, could you elaborate on that? ] ^ As usual, I tend to be overly dramatic at times. What I meant is that, beginning with “Star Wars,” the industry began to revolutionize itself. Special effects and technology became extremely important and action films went from being “Lawrence of Arabia” to these extraordinary special effects events. It wasn’t really a prerequisite that he be a great actor anymore. The human emotion was being transformed into the technological explosion. Toward the end of making “Judge Dredd,” it really had nothing to do with me. It had to do with gimmickry. And that’s fine. There’s certainly a place for that kind of picture. But in those kinds of films, when you see the star in the first few minutes do something that is so extraordinarily inhuman — not possible — you sit back and you look at it the way you’d look at a David Copperfield illusion. At the end of the movie, you don’t walk out saying, “I was moved” or “I was sad” or “I cried,” but “How’d they do that?” You intellectualize but you don’t emotionalize.
The last time I had done a film without this kind of gimmickry was “First Blood” in 1982. After that, my career began to move away from what I think I do best, into something. . . it was completely out of my hands and science took over. Now, I’m just trying to say, “Enough of science.”
But it would be wrong for me to say I would abandon the action genre. But this genre is now two genres. I would call one “adventure” and the other “über-action” or “scientific action.” It has nothing to do with acting. I would do films of this nature again, but only if I could do a smaller film in between it, such as what I did with “Copland” with DeNiro and Harvey Keitel — which more or less keeps me in the realm of real drama. That would be a good balance. But to go beyond and do films that are stretching the bounds of creativity and sometimes almost an insult to people’s intelligence, and I’ll try to avoid that at all costs.
[ What were the mental and physical challenges that “Daylight” offered and were you prepared? ] ^ At first, I was really naive. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it after “Cliffhanger”. I thought I’d gone about as far as I could do with this body of mine. I thought okay, I’ll try this. It sounds simple enough: one location. No problem at all. But I had no idea they were going to build this tunnel that was so full of danger and difficult situations. We didn’t have one clean breath of air for months because of the carbon and the fire and there was about three or four times in there when I was truly terrified. I just had no recourse but to go through with it, but I by no means felt safe. There were a couple of near-death experiences, but toward the end, claustrophobia was building to the point where I started yelling at the tunnel. That was a rather personal habit — and I started yelling at everything that was wrong in my life. It was kind of like a cathartic moment. So this film was more than I bargained for.
[ Did you ever feel that situation and your growing discontent with your films had an effect on your love for acting? ] ^ I thought I had great feelings for it the whole time, but was quite often very envious when other actors would have beautifully dramatic parts. Parts that would never come my way. When this tragedy happened with my daughter. . . I had never felt emotion like that in my life and I realized what I thought were true feelings in the past ten years were basically superficial. You really begin to question your values when you’re faced with a life and death situation. Her near-death experience opened up a whole new sense of values for me and brought me back to the way I felt when I originally did “Rocky”…when it wasn’t about money, when it wasn’t about action. It was just about feelings.
[ Is there a primary theme or idea that inspires you creatively? ] ^ I would have to say the idea of sacrifice really inspires me. When I can see people doing things that are above what they have to do, I’m truly inspired. For example, when you see people run into a burning building to save a child that doesn’t belong to them, that inspires me. I am constantly moved by the idea of sacrifice. Most of the good films I have done are all about sacrifice and redemption. That’s what moves me. It’s not money. It’s not grandeur. It’s not scope. It’s really about the little things that everyone of us here have inside us and very often when I think a film works that writer or actor has somehow tapped in to a universal feeling of fear, or love or dislike, or passion that every human being carries in their body. It’s just part of the human make-up.
[ What do you feel when you see your son Sage on the screen? He told us this morning that he’d like to become a director. Would you work with him? ] ^ Oh sure. Actually, he knows more about filmmaking than I do on some levels. He has been studying films his whole life, so his knowledge is rather startling. He has also grown up in the world having an amazing amount of pressure being my son. Subconsciously, he purposely tries to go in the opposite direction. For instance, I could never get him to lift a weight or exercise. Every film I do he dislikes. But the film of mine he likes the best is “Deathrace 2000”. I don’t know why. It was the cheapest film I’ve ever done but he loves it. He’s a strange boy.
[ You said you weren’t around very much for Sage when he was growing up. So how was being together for six months on location in Italy while making “Daylight”? How has your relationship changed? ] ^ He purposely stayed away from me. He stayed in his own apartment, made his own friends, and would spend his time investigating famous Italian filmmakers. He just went his own way. The key to his success is he works very hard at keeping that distance, so he’s his own man. He doesn’t try to be muscular. He doesn’t try to wear tight clothes. And he’s not a fighter by any means. I would say that brought us closer together because there is no competition in that sense.
[ How do you separate yourself from other action stars? ] ^ Arnold and Bruce Willis can get away with things that I can’t. For example, they can make jokes about what they’re doing. That makes you realize the action is a show — that no one is really being killed — with a little bit comedy. If I do that, because of “First Blood” and “Rocky,” it comes off as dishonest. It seems my kind of performance only works when I’m trying to be very serious and suffering a great deal. I have to be dramatic to be believable because that’s the way I am perceived. It’s also the way I identify. I don’t like to do comedy-action that deals with life and death. That’s not comedy. to me. But some people get away with it and I can’t fight their success.
[ “Daylight” is really two films — one with a lot of action and special effects and another of ensemble drama. Did you approach these halves differently? ] ^ Very much so. In the original script, my character was a wise guy. He would be working on people, but there was so much blood and catastrophe that after awhile he would begin to take it all too lightly. He’d be sitting there with blood on his hands and he’d be eating a piece of pizza. It was like “Blood, tomato sauce, what’s the difference?” And, I said, “Whoa, we can’t do that.”
So I had to scale down the audience’s expectations of me and the character. Everything that was expected, I tried to just not do. Most importantly, and I don’t know if it comes across in the film, my character isn’t really worried about saving anyone through the first half of the film. He’s doing everything for his own selfish reasons — to relieve his guilt. So it’s only in the end he tries to come through. In fact, we even shot an ending where my character dies. The studio would never let that be in the finished film, but that was the original intention. That also would have been the logical ending.
[ I’ve never heard you speak quite as much as in “Daylight”. Did you have problems with dialogue? ] ^ No. Isn’t it odd? When people say, “You don’t talk a lot,” I ask, “Did you see ‘Rocky’?” I never shut up. The original cut of “First Blood” was three hours long and I had a lot of dialogue. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if this character speaks during the first five minutes and the last five minutes and never says hardly anything else through the whole movie? The producer went crazy. “We paid you all this money to talk,” he complained. I said, “Trust me. Let’s try an experiment.” So we cut all the dialog and the film was a huge success. From that point on, every part I got offered, no one wanted me to talk anymore. I kind of cut my own throat there.
But I enjoy dialogue immensely, and in “Paradise Alley,” the first thing I ever directed, again it would be monologue after monologue. I would like to get back to that. For me, to play a lawyer or someone who has to use the English language as a tool would be a Godsend. “Daylight” is the first movement in this direction and “Copland” will be the second. This film is very verbal with very verbal actors. Hopefully, I’ll learn to speak again.
[ Could you discuss how your obsession with bodybuilding and fitness began to control your life and career? ] ^ There’s a kind of vanity that sets in. It’s the opposite of anorexia. You become a slave to being in really good shape. More than being in shape. It becomes a way of life. You have a nervousness if you can’t get to the gym. But for “Copland,” I gained about 30 to 35 pounds because that was part of the character I play. But after we wrapped, I thought I’d want to keep about 10 or 12 of the pounds on, which I have. To keep them on, I can’t go to the gym as much. But by not going to the gym as much, I now have more time to dedicate to work and family.
At first I was very critical of how I looked, but then I realized that when you’re a normal person and you’re a little overweight, you develop a personality. You have to use your brains more often. Like you walk into a room. When you’re all pumped up, you make an amazing statement. You just stand there and it’s “Oh, oh, oh!” Right? You you’re just an average person, you make your presence known by interacting, conversing by being intelligent because obviously you’re not physical. It took me a while to get used to that because every time I’d go into a room 35 pounds heavier, I’d start apologizing to people, saying, “This isn’t really me. This looks like me, but it’s not me. This is a movie me. I’m sorry.”
Then I said, “What am I doing?” This is exactly what I wanted to do but now I don’t have the guts or the bravery to say, “This is what I am.” I don’t need an excuse. Just live the part. Once I did that, I found out I now started to think like the character. I really believe if you’re going to play a different character, you have to change something on your body. By that I mean. You can’t just comb your hair another way. Or dye it. Add 10 or 15, 20 pounds and you walk differently. Act differently. Sit differently. Read differently. All of a sudden you take on a different rhythm.
After putting on 35 pounds, it was really interesting to hear my voice get higher. My breathing became more labored. My heart got slower. I had no sense of grace. But that was my character.
[ You have played a lot of superhuman and heroic roles, but has this new outlook changed the way you see those kinds of characters? ] ^ I always thought heroes were physical creatures that would do things physically that would change society, like in Greek legends. In modern society, all that’s changed. The real heroes display what I call quiet courage. Non-physical courage. When I walk through the hospital and I see a mother sitting next to her child that’s been in a coma for six months and she’s still standing there with a teddy bear waiting for him or her to awaken, that’s courage. That’s serious courage. I’ve now redefined what it is for me.
Real courage is exemplified by people that are willing to go into a situation that they know they’re going to fail in but they do it for an ideal. And they give their life knowing they can’t win. It’s a man like Ghandi. It’s like the men in the Alamo; in a situation where they know they’re all going to die. That’s real courage. This all came to me in the past couple of weeks. I was thinking courage was bigger and louder and more. It’s not. That’s just bravado.
[ What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself in the last 20 years? ] ^ That when you stray from what you are, it’s going to be a disaster. You have a certain ability, you have a certain gift. Everyone in this room has a certain thing they do well. When you leave that, the audience senses you’re abandoning what your true essence is. You can never be me, I can never be you. So, when I left what I felt good at, like the earlier films, and moved on to the technological films, like “Judge Dredd,” that’s not me. And I know, when films of mine don’t work, why they don’t work. Because that’s not me, and then, of course, we crash and burn.
[ Have you thought about returning to your roots as a writer and director? ] ^ I look at life, which is quite frustrating at times, through the eyes of a writer. So, I’m always dissecting things and never totally happy with what I see. I’ve been accepting movies that I know I could make better, but I was too lazy to write them. I don’t know for what reason. But again, with this situation with my daughter, I swore that if I can’t work with a wonderful director– a really wonderful director — I’m definitely going to direct it myself. I would love to direct my next film.
I’m in negotiations right now, but it’s difficult, even though I’ve directed six films including John Travolta’s first comeback film, “Staying Alive”. People have forgotten that. It’s kind of frustrating I have to reacquaint myself with people and to almost audition again. I guess that’s all part of trying to do a bit of a career change. The irony is I’m not really trying to do a career change. I’m just trying to do what I used to do. It’s kind of ironic, but I’ll follow it through to the end.
[ Do you have a next project yet? ] ^ I’m definitely going to get married in the next few months. And if I don’t get killed doing one of these films, I’d like to have a hundred kids. I would really love to have many, many more kids. But the change in the next 10 years, I think, will be that I’ll definitely be performing less and directing and writing more. I’m trying to get ready for that change now. This is an important point in my career, I can see it, and I’d be a fool to ignore it.
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