Who Are You Calling Expendable?
'80s action star Dolph Lundgren can kick your ass...and do your chemistry homework. A revealing interview with a man of surprising complexity — and staying power
In 2009, a group of armed men broke into Dolph Lundgren’s home in Marbella, Spain. The ’80s action star and his wife had moved to the Mediterranean resort town in the late ’90s in order to raise their two daughters away from the easy temptations of Hollywood. At the time of the break-in, Lundgren was out of town shooting a movie. The burglars tied up his family and household staff. As they began ransacking the place looking for cash and jewelry, Lundgren’s oldest daughter said to the men, ”It would be different if my dad was here!” The intruders laughed. That is, until they noticed Lundgren’s photo in the bedroom. The burglars quickly apologized, untied everyone, and ran off empty-handed.
For most people, Dolph Lundgren’s name may evoke nothing more than a shrug and the hazy memory of a Reagan-era he-man. But even though the 6’4” Swede hasn’t been on Hollywood’s radar for a while, he can still apparently strike fear into the hearts of his fans, even if they happen to be hardened criminals. Back in the mid-’80s, Lundgren rose to fame as the bigger-than-life star of Rocky IV, in which he played the Soviet nemesis Ivan Drago, staring down Sylvester Stallone and telling him in a thick-as-borscht accent, ”I must break you!” Afterward, Lundgren headlined a string of gloriously cheesy red-meat action movies like Masters of the Universe, Red Scorpion, and Universal Soldier, racking up seven-figure paydays.
That’s when most people tuned out.
Then, last year, Lundgren returned to the spotlight as part of Stallone’s dream team in The Expendables. The film was such a hit that Lundgren is currently shooting its sequel in Bulgaria. He has four other films coming out next year. But what makes Lundgren’s story more than just another rise-and-fall-and-rise-again celebrity comeback tale is the complex 54-year-old man beneath the brawny surface. Lundgren has an IQ of 160. He earned a Fulbright scholarship to study chemical engineering at MIT. And he may be the only actor on the planet who helped develop the water filtration system for NASA’s space shuttle program.
”Dolph’s full of surprises,” says Stallone. ”He’s probably the most educated guy in the history of Hollywood, but you’d never know it because he looks the way he does.” Adds Expendables costar Jason Statham: ”Dolph’s a highly intelligent guy, but he can also kick 10 tons of s— out of anybody. He’s living proof that looks can be deceiving.”
Lundgren’s intimidating appearance has always been his biggest asset and his most formidable enemy. He’s been repeatedly written off and pigeonholed as a monosyllabic slab of Scandinavian beefcake whose only talent is doling out beat-downs. But he’s always been more than that. And now Dolph Lundgren won’t rest until you take him seriously.
On a sunny afternoon in June, Lundgren steps onto the patio of his oceanfront home in Marina del Rey looking like a Norse god. His blond hair is still wet from a post-workout shower, and he’s dressed in seersucker shorts and a crisp white dress shirt. His face is all chiseled-granite angles, and his tanned skin makes his teeth seem as big and bright as mah-jongg tiles. Honestly, he doesn’t look all that different from when we first laid eyes on him as Ivan Drago.
Lundgren takes a seat on a lounge chair with a protein shake in his hand and looks out at the ocean. ”It’s nice to live nice,” he says, smiling. Lundgren recently moved back to Los Angeles from Spain after separating from his wife of 17 years, Anette Qviberg (the marriage was his first, and the couple has two daughters, Ida, 15, and Greta, 10). Ostensibly, we’re here to discuss his slate of upcoming films — the ones he hopes will steer his career on a new course. But it doesn’t take long for Lundgren to start unspooling stories about his odd, Candide-like life. For example, when he’s asked about the burglars in Marbella, he says, ”Luckily for everybody, I wasn’t there. My kids would have been in therapy for the rest of their lives after seeing all the blood.”
Lundgren uncorks a big, booming guffaw after saying this, just to let you know that he’s kidding (we think) — that he’s not the brute he’s played in dozens of films. And just to make the point stick, he follows it up by recounting his painful childhood in Sweden. His parents were academics — his father, who Lundgren says died in 2000, was an engineer who worked for the Swedish government, and his mother taught languages. He describes himself as a small, sickly kid with asthma whose father abused him until he was in his teens.
”My father was very physical and very hard on me,” says Lundgren. ”He beat me up, basically. I think that’s why I got into martial arts, to feel strong, like I could hit back. When you love your parents and they hurt you, you start blaming yourself.” Lundgren would eventually win two European karate championships and become a third-degree black belt. In school he focused on engineering, perhaps trying in some small way to make his father proud. Lundgren studied at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and received scholarships to study in the States and Australia. And it was there, in Sydney, that he met the woman who would change his life.
Lundgren was 24, doing research on ”nerdy stuff” like reverse osmosis by day and moonlighting as a bouncer at rock concerts in the evenings. One night, he found himself working security for the model-turned-singer Grace Jones. ”I didn’t really know who she was,” he says. ”I just thought she was some weird chick. When she saw me, she was eyeing me. We kind of liked each other straightaway.”
Actually, that’s putting it rather delicately. Lundgren says the two consummated their relationship that first night. Soon they were living together in New York City. Lundgren had just earned a Fulbright to study at MIT, but after getting sucked into Jones’ dizzy vortex of Studio 54 and Andy Warhol’s Factory, he decided to ditch his slide rule. When he joined Jones on the set of the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, the film’s director was so impressed by Lundgren’s imposing physique and male-model looks, he put him on screen as a KGB henchman. ”Roger Moore used to say, ‘Dolph is larger than Denmark!’ ” says Lundgren, laughing. ”I don’t know where that came from, but the whole thing was like a fairy tale. I guess the movies were just kind of my destiny.”
When the 007 film wrapped, Lundgren began taking acting classes and auditioning for movie roles, including one for a boxing film that turned out to be Rocky IV. A few months later, he got a call saying that the Italian Stallion wanted to meet with him in L.A. ”I remember driving through the gates of the Paramount lot, going, Whoa, this is heavy! And then meeting Stallone…. I mean, you couldn’t be bigger than he was in 1985!”
For his part, Stallone says that he knew the moment he set eyes on the Stockholm native that he’d found his Drago, the emotionless heavyweight bred to knock out capitalist pigs for Mother Russia. ”I looked at Dolph, who is probably a thousand years ahead on the genetic curve, and I thought, this is impossible: 6’4” and perfection at every muscle and he can fight!”
During one of Rocky IV‘s scenes in the ring, Lundgren hit Stallone so hard that he bruised Stallone’s heart muscle. The production shut down for three weeks after Stallone was airlifted to a hospital. ”He almost killed me,” says Stallone two and a half decades later. ”I guess we were pushing realism a little too close in that movie.”
Rocky IV came out at the height of the Cold War and became the third-highest-grossing movie of 1985, earning $128 million, just behind Back to the Future and Stallone’s other hit, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Its success changed Lundgren’s life — and ruined his relationship with Jones. ”When I walked into the premiere, I was Grace Jones’ boyfriend,” he says. ”And 90 minutes later, I walked out and all these cameras wanted me and not her. She couldn’t handle that.” Lundgren was flooded with movie offers. Before he could catch his breath, he found himself wearing a codpiece and playing He-Man in 1987’s Masters of the Universe, then a KGB killer in 1989’s Red Scorpion, and a resurrected cyborg warrior with a necklace of human ears in 1992’s Universal Soldier.
That last one, which paired Lundgren with another butt-kicking import, Jean-Claude Van Damme, has snowballed into a cult classic among action junkies over the years. In fact, Lundgren just shot the fourth film in the franchise, Universal Soldier: A New Dimension. Despite their onscreen chemistry, Lundgren says he and the Muscles from Brussels didn’t hit it off right away. ”There was a lot of competition,” says Lundgren. ”He felt a bit threatened because I was bigger. In one scene he kicked my hand really hard, and I told the stunt coordinator, ‘If he does that one more time I’m going to knock him out!”’
Lundgren’s stay at the top wouldn’t last long. By the mid-’90s, heavy-fisted action flicks began to lose their punch at the box office. Heavyweights like Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were scrambling to redefine their macho-man images. This should have marked the end of Lundgren’s career. And for most casual fans, it did. But the actor used his Mensa smarts to engineer a new kind of second act. He began headlining in a string of small but extremely lucrative straight-to-DVD action films, shot on the cheap in Eastern Europe. They weren’t always masterpieces — some of them weren’t very good at all — but Lundgren was still getting paid handsomely to do what he loved and keep his brand alive: ”If you look at someone like Arnold, people constantly underestimated him. At first, people thought he was really stupid — some oaf from Austria. But he proved he was a smart businessman. So on a movie of mine like [2009’s] Command Performance, we shot that for $3 million and had 800 extras and tanks and helicopters. Loyal fans in places like Germany, Japan, and South America will buy the DVD. And because they’re so inexpensive, there’s a decent profit margin.”
Lundgren’s unobstructed view of the azure Pacific makes it hard to argue with his math. Even though he admits that he’d rather be acting in big-studio movies like The Expendables, he insists that he’s proud of the dozen or so direct-to-DVD films on his résumé especially the handful he’s written and directed. ”I would love to have a career like Clint Eastwood’s,” he says. ”He was kind of an underestimated guy who started off in B movies, then went off and did his own thing and directed. And eventually he made Unforgiven.”
After he says this, Lundgren lifts a tiny espresso cup to his lips, and the inevitable follow-up question hangs in the air: Does Dolph Lundgren think he has an Unforgiven in him? A film that will finally show everyone what he can really do?
”Well, I don’t know if I’d take it that far. But don’t count me out. I may surprise you.”
A View to a Kill