He was He-Man and the Punisher back in the ’80s after beating Apollo Creed to death, but Dolph Lundgren is quite literally still kicking – karate, along with chemical engineering, is one of his specialties. Considering all his performances in movies that were supposed to start franchises, it is perhaps a surprise that his longest-running recurring role has been as a villain who got tossed in a wood-chipper by Jean-Claude Van Damme in Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier. Thanks to the miraculous plot device of cloning, he’s back for a third time, though in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning – shot in 3D and veering more towards horror than prior installments (see our review from Fantastic Fest) – it isn’t clear which side he’s on. Except, obviously, the side of awesome.
Given the opportunity to talk to the action icon, we couldn’t just stick to the topic at hand. Fortunately, in person, he is a charming, chatty soul, nothing like the oft-psychotic juggernauts he’s known for playing.
Nerdist: Dolph, it’s great to see you back on the big screen. Does it feel like a comeback to you? Looking at your filmography, it seems you’ve been working pretty steadily in direct-to-DVD. Does this year feel in any way different, or is it just another day, another dollar?
Dolph Lundgren: Nah, it feels different starting 2010, when I did the first Expendables, then the second Expendables and this. What happened, really, was I was married and lived in Europe for 12 years, with two kids, I lived in Spain. Now, there are not too many action movies shooting in southern Spain, you know? So you have to come back to L.A. to get your career going, which I did. Got divorced, unfortunately – it was actually good for both of us, but now I’m back in L.A., since 2010, and just the fact of being here and focusing on my career has changed things quite a bit.
N: Both in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and The Expendables movies, it really feels like you’re doing more method-acting than some of the others – like, I believe that guy on screen is genuinely crazy. How do you approach it – do you talk to shell-shocked veterans and things like that?
DL: I think part of it is the writing of the role, and Expendables was a fun role because he’s not just a tough guy; he’s crazy and tough at the same time, so he’s more fun to play. You just try to find some kind of way into him, why he is that way, and something that works on film, you know, a way of expressing that part. It’s a fun character, and I like the original Expendables; the second one was fun, but it wasn’t quite as deep as the first one, which for me at least was like playing in a real drama – the guy has real problems and we follow him through various steps. But I do, I do prepare quite a bit, and I think a lot of those movies that I made straight to DVD, some of them the writing maybe wasn’t great, and the direction perhaps wasn’t that good, and your work doesn’t really stand out; but then as soon as you start working with better writers and directors, it shows up more.
N: At the same time, it feels like a lot of your ’80s movies that really weren’t highly regarded at the time have had a whole generation of kids grow up who loved them, and now there’s a lot more respect accorded something like Masters of the Universe or Red Scorpion. Does it feel like in Hollywood now there are more people admitting to being fans of those?
DL: Yeah, I hear that quite a bit. I think because they’ve become more classic; it’s all the in-camera effects and they’re old-school in many ways. I think it goes to some extent because I’m still around, and I’m still working, and I still look… fairly good, I guess. It all adds up, and there are fewer and fewer people who’ve been around that long who are still working. They fall off for various reasons, so then you become more unique, because most… 90% of all the guys who do action movies have come up in the last five years, maybe. Except I’ve been around for 25 years, then Sly of course, and Arnold, and Clint Eastwood even longer.
N: Because you really look like a leading guy, has it ever been harder to maybe get character parts that you’ve wanted to get?
DL: Well, yeah, that’s true, but it’s also kind of the opposite: that I perhaps look more like a leading man than some of the characters that I’ve played. I suppose that’s something I’m trying to maybe use a little bit. I’ve played a lot of character roles, but for some reason found it harder to get more leading roles. But I think now being here back in L.A., I’ve got some stuff that I’m working on that’s… you know, I like characters, but it’s also fun to play people who are maybe a little more normal. There’s a little more heart there, a little concern – trying to protect people rather than kill them all the time. (Laughs) I don’t know if it’ll work. We’ll see.
N: When you’re shooting a fight in 3D, is it harder to do – more full-contact because you can’t fake the perspective?
DL: Yeah. It is more difficult, because you have to go much closer with the hits, and also there are other aspects: you try to keep it going because of momentum, and your body gets cold and all of that, but 3D can have more technical problems. So it’s a little annoying, and more of a challenge. By the way, I haven’t seen the film yet in 3D, myself; I’ve only seen it in 2D.
N: The 3D’s fantastic.
DL: Is it? Really? OK, I gotta see it.
N: With a guy like Andrei Arlovski, where he has MMA fighting experience and you have karate experience, is it easier maybe to not pull your punches and do a little more full-contact, because you know you’re both used to that?
DL: Yeah, for sure. I mean, Arlovski actually is a great fighter; he just didn’t have experience in taking hits, so we did have problems with him sometimes selling something, where he would say [adopts fake Russian accent] “Okay, just hit me for real! Kick me! Is okay!” And then you kind of go, should I really hit this guy, because then he’s gonna come at me with a fuckin’ chair or something after that? But I had a fight with him in the beginning, and I liked that fight because it feels very real and rough, and he actually, when I kicked him into the corner with all those breakaway chairs – that’s a real kick, because he couldn’t sell it otherwise.
N: As far as you know – and maybe heard from him – how was the character of Ivan Drago received by Russians and Soviets?
DL: They liked him, even though he lost a fight against Rocky. He took care of that other guy with a big mouth, Creed. They like him, and I think at the time Rocky IV was one of the first pictures they could get on home video back in the ’80s, because communists would try to stop everything from coming in to Russia. But on the black market you could get that picture, so for a lot of people in Russia, that’s the first Hollywood movie they saw on video – because you couldn’t show it in the theaters. So when I go to Russia, people are super-star-struck, I mean much more than here.
N: I have to ask, as a lifelong He-Man fan – has John Chu contacted you about maybe playing his father in the new Masters of the Universe movie?
DL: I read about that. I haven’t heard anything, and I guess we’ll see what happens. Are they making that picture now?
N: They’ve hired him as a director.
DL: We’ll see what happens. For me it’s like a fog, back in 1986, but it was fun. It was really cold, wearing that outfit for nine weeks in the middle of winter, just some diapers with leather strings attached to them.
N: It’s kinda legendary how you guys had to sneak back in at night to shoot the final battle because there was no money left.
DL: That’s right, with Skeletor. That was done at Lionsgate studios, the old Lions Gate. The whole thing was crazy, because Cannon were going under at the time, and they were this close to being bankrupt towards the end. I wasn’t aware of that; I was just a kid, but it was a tough situation.
N: Do you have any memories of Jack Abramoff from Red Scorpion?
DL: Yeah! Nice guy… to me. He was a nice guy, him and his brother. I remember they took me to the White House, and I saw Reagan there sitting in the Oval Office working, like 1987 or something like that. He just walked straight in. I remember, he walked past all the security, you know, he was pals with Oliver North and all of those guys, and I suppose there’s some talk that he had access to some money from the CIA, because they were suddenly sponsoring all these movies where the Russians were the bad guys… [laughs] like my film.
N: Final question – for The Expendables 3, who would you like to see brought on board?
DL: God, well… there are so many guys who are in that vein, but there are very few left, I suppose. Like Wesley Snipes, for instance. Well, there’s Jackie Chan, of course, who’d be one of those guys who’s a little bit older; he’s a very nice guy. I heard something about Nicolas Cage – I thought that was a good idea. Avi Lerner works with him a lot. Of course, could they get some of the real old-timers like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood; I guess [Clint] turned it down, I heard. That’s what he said, anyway, which, I understand why, because he doesn’t need to do anything like that. Then there’s that whole bunch of guys who were in The Fast and the Furious, all those guys, like Vin Diesel. I don’t know who Sly’s after, but there’s always Mr. Seagal, if he’s available. We’ll see.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning opens theatrically today, and is also available on-demand in both 3D and 2D versions.