Sly is back. It’s a statement that, given the Rocky and Rambo star’s predilection for sequels, you may have heard before. But having sparked an Eighties-style action film revival with The Expendables, the indestructible Italian Stallion is once again commanding $12m a picture.
ShortList was ushered – past two security guards – into Sly’s hotel suite in Rome for a chat with the Oscar-winner, who is about to star as axe-wielding assassin Jimmy Bobo in the Walter Hill-directed Bullet To The Head. It’s all a far cry from the seedy apartment in which Stallone penned Rocky, the film that took three-and-a-half days to write and grossed $40m in a year (of which Stallone received 10 per cent). The immaculately dressed action hero extends a palm the size of a shovel and apologises for not getting up from the chair he is sitting in. It seems he was wounded in the line of duty, of which more in a moment…
Your films made hundreds of millions of dollars in the Eighties and Nineties, so why did Hollywood abandon you in the Noughties?
You mean us action guys? I think – actually I know – that the reason we were scorned was the sequels. Sequels at that time were considered [mimes spitting on the ground], just cheap capitalism and cashing in. Well the fact is, those two or three sequels built a serious rapport with people and we got into their brains in a way that is not possible if we just did one movie.
Hence you’re getting $12m a film again…
Arnold had The Terminator and Predator and I had Rocky and Rambo. We just became ingrained in the consciousness of men.
How competitive are you and Arnie?
I buy a pair of cowboy boots, he buys a pair. I buy a watch, he buys a bigger watch. He always wins. One time I got a new car and – I swear – he went and had a truck specially made in Germany that could drive over my car. It looked like one of those moon exploration vehicles. He’s a very interesting guy because you never know what’s going on in his brain.
You’re sporting some impressive tattoos in your new film Bullet To The Head. Are they real?
They’re real – unfortunately. I have all kinds of chest injuries; I tore my vein during Rocky II and had 60 stitches. If you’ve seen Rocky Balboa, you’ll know how bad they look. It got worse and worse, and people were saying, “Urgh, has he got varicose veins?” So I thought, f*ck it, and covered them with a tattoo of my wife. Then the tattoo started to grow and it went to a skull and before I knew it, I was a mural.
The film is based on a graphic novel – were you a fan?
Yeah, but in the novel my character was a little more sadistic and crazy, with no redeeming qualities. So I changed that and I cut the goatee off because he looked exactly like Barney from The Expendables. But I thought it was interesting, you know – a cop who becomes as bad as an assassin.
You still do your own fight scenes. What’s been your worst injury?
I just got this one – 70 new stitches [he rolls up his right trouser leg to reveal a heavily bandaged calf]. I wish I had a picture, you’d freak. This is from [upcoming film] The Tomb with Schwarzenegger. It’s a little memento. I’ve had both shoulders done, my neck done, two back operations, achilles tendon and now this thing – the peroneal tendon – just ruptured. This is the worst f*cking one ever. I feel like an old athlete. Every time you touch something, it breaks.
Which fight scene in your career pushed you to the limit?
The opening scene of Rambo III was one of the most vicious f*ckin’ fights ever. We were beating each other with Filipino fighting sticks made from mahogany. Our hands were wrapped but every time they came down… BOOM! The stick slides and it will bust you up. I’m with a 6ft 5in guy swinging a f*ckin’ handle and even when you block it… one strike could kill you dead.
Apart from the 70 stitches, you look in great shape. What’s your tip for getting ripped?
When I was shooting Rocky III, I decided to go down to 160lb and ever since then I’ve learned that I have to go on an almost all-protein diet and drain all the water out of the body. But it’s not healthy. As I’m working out I tell myself, “Getting in shape is gonna kill me.”
For real. Bodybuilders get so drained that they have about four or five hours before they’ll have a heart attack. Looking as ripped as I do on the Bullet To The Head film poster is a temporary situation – you can’t maintain it. When I first saw myself [on the poster] I thought, “F*ck, I look sickly!” I’m actually very smooth in real life.
We imagine you have the coolest gym in the world. Is there any truth to that?
No. Actually it’s about 20ft wide. I’ve had to change every piece of equipment because my joints can’t take the heavy pounding any more. The old days of ground’n’pound? Forget it. My workouts are much more scientific now – I use a lot of Technogym equipment. It has an exercise bike that allows you to pedal while reclining, so you can get your cardiovascular without putting extra strain on your joints.
Is there any junk food you struggle to stay away from?
I love junk food. Saturday and Sunday it is on, with the cheesecake and the doughnuts and the pumpkin pie. I swear to you, I train my daughters to eat like that. Saturday and Sunday, all bets are off.
Do you daughters appreciate your advice?
When I give them advice they say, “Why would I listen to you?” I say, “Look at the house you’re living in and look at the school you’re going to – I must know something!” “Yeah, but you don’t know about modern stuff, Dad – and you’re not as funny as you think you are.” In the movies, I kill guys with an axe. In real life, I can’t control a nine-year-old girl.
What do your daughters’ friends say when you drop them off at school?
My daughters ask to be dropped off a block away. I say, “Are you kidding? You have Rocky and Rambo for a father – everybody loves me!” They’re embarrassed.
To be fair, you did once play a nude repairman…
I came into Hollywood through the service entrance. If there’s a place below the basement, that’s where I was. And yes, the first thing I did was a nude film for 200 bucks [Stallone appeared in 1970 softcore porn flick The Party At Kitty And Stud’s]. That’s why I was never ‘critically acclaimed’.
Do you think your acting skills are underappreciated?
I didn’t work my way through certain acting establishments or Bafta or, what do you call it? Royal… [puts on hoity-toity English voice] Rada! It’s been a real grind. I never really learned how to act; it was on-the-job training.
Given that your films have taken $1.6bn at the box office, does it annoy you that you don’t get the respect you deserve from Hollywood?
It did, it did. But there’s a different kind of recognition now – from the people. There’s an eclectic, sophisticated sort of recognition. I used the challenge of Cop Land to prove a point. Now I go, “OK, I can do those kind of movies. Now let’s see you guys do an action film.”
Have you ever fallen out with any of your fellow Eighties action heroes?
Steven Seagal said that he “didn’t associate with that kind of element” – meaning me. So I slammed him up against a wall.
How did he take that?
At that time, our testosterone was running full bore. He was full of his height [Seagal is 6ft 3in, Stallone is 5ft 10in] and I was full of… um… myself. But we made up. He can be very abstract.
Is it true that, before Rocky, you were so broke that you sold your dog?
Yeah, I sold my bullmastiff Butkus to a little person. [Turns to his publicist] You can’t use the word ‘dwarf’ any more? Let’s just say a little person. I tied my dog up at the store with a sign that said a hundred bucks. I got $50 from this guy called Little Jimmy.
This is the same dog that appeared in Rocky, right?
Yeah. When I sold the Rocky script, I went to see Little Jimmy and begged for the dog back. He lined up his children [Stallone mimes crying], “Oh my kids love the dog.” I said, “You’ve only had him for a f*ckin’ week!” He wanted to fight me and he said he was gonna kill me – he was a crazy little person! I couldn’t fight him – they’d arrest me – so I offered to pay double. Anyway, $3,000 and several threats later…
What happened to Little Jimmy?
I ended up putting him in the movie. Do you remember in Rocky, when the little guy goes, “Hey, did ya win?” and I go, “What are you, deaf?” and he goes “No, I’m short.” That’s him.
Does it hurt when people do impressions of you?
They never do me. They always do a retarded Rocky, like I’m brain-dead.
Do you impersonate each other on The Expendables?
Sure, all the time.
Who does the best impression of you?
Jean-Claude Van Damme. I swear to God. But even he does this: “Ahhhm doin’ daah mooovie with Slaaaah Stallone. How ya doin’, baby?” Now you have him, with a French accent, doing my accent*. Gimme a break!
We can do an impress…
All right, baby, gotta go! [Stallone hobbles out of the hotel suite, as fast as a man with 70 stitches in his calf can.]
Bullet To The Head is at cinemas nationwide from 1 February
(Image: All Star)