“I must break you.”
With those four words, the towering Swede, Dolph Lundgren, achieved film immortality. But his turn as Soviet pugilist Ivan Drago in Rocky IV notwithstanding, it’s been a long, strange trip for the action star, replete with—yes—a Fulbright Scholarship to M.I.T., palling around with Andy Warhol as a club bouncer in New York City, a terrifying hostage situation, and a 15-year gap between studio films.
This weekend will see the release of The Expendables 2, a shoot-’em-up action movie extravaganza crammed with every tough-guy film character from the 1980s and ’90s, including Rambo, The Terminator, John McClane, the Belgian roundhouse kicker from Bloodsport, and … Chuck Norris. It also stars Lundgren, reprising his role from the first Expendables film as Gunnar Jensen, a former M.I.T.-scholar-turned-booze-hound-mercenary, who provides the bulk of the film’s comic relief.
In person, Lundgren is far more convivial than his often monodrone on-screen persona suggests. The face is still chiseled and the hair is still blond—save some Mitt Romneyesque sideburns—and he’s kept himself in incredible shape for a 54-year-old (or anyone, for that matter). Unlike most contemporary Hollywood stars, he isn’t the least bit guarded during our chat, choosing to confront each and every question with a refreshingly laid-back, “been-through-it-al" attitude.
Lundgren wasn’t always so imposing. He grew up a scrawny kid with nagging allergy problems in a suburb of Stockholm. His father, an engineer and economist working for the Swedish government, had a violent temper and used to beat him and his mother regularly.
“He was pretty violent towards my mom and me; he would just beat me up for no reason,” says Lundgren. “So I got into martial arts and boxing to work out my frustrations and anger. I was trying to feel safe.”
Lundgren, who says he’s since forgiven his father, eventually achieved a third-dan black belt in Kyokushin karate, and won the European Championships in karate in 1980 and 1981. The following year, after graduating first in his class with a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to M.I.T.
The summer after graduation, he met singer Grace Jones in Sydney and things took a sharp turn. After serving a brief stint as Jones’s bodyguard, he became her lover, and she got him into “acting, modeling, and all that crap,” he says. By the time he enrolled in M.I.T. in the fall, he says, he had “lost any desire to be an engineer and had been seduced by show business.”
Despite turning his back on engineering, Lundgren says it still manifests itself in other ways, including mixology, or the art of creating custom cocktails. The Dolph Lundgren Special?
“There’s a Swedish drink with ice-cold vodka and a lemon with ground coffee on one side of the lemon and sugar on the other, so you bite the lemon and shoot the vodka,” he says, with a chuckle. “Because of the caffeine … it’s a good one.”
He soon moved with his girlfriend Jones to New York City, where he worked as a bouncer at the notorious New York City club, Limelight, alongside fellow future actor Chazz Palminteri. During the day, he took acting classes. One of his favorite stories from his club days is his first meeting with Andy Warhol at Club A on the Upper East Side. Warhol approached him and timidly said, “Hi, so … you look great. Can I take a picture of you? [Snap] Do you want to be in my magazine?” Lundgren agreed, and was featured in a small story in Interview magazine.
“I later heard that [Warhol] and the photographer made a bet that they could get me to pose naked, but they only got me down to my underwear!” he says with a laugh.
Grace Jones got him a cameo as a henchman in the 1985 Bond film, A View to A Kill, but it was the role of chemically engineered Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV that same year that made Lundgren a star. He has nothing but fond memories of the shoot, including sending Stallone to the hospital for two weeks with a body punch (“I was much stronger than I realized, I think”), or his claim during that film’s press tour that he could knock out Mike Tyson (“I must’ve been drunk!”). But the story that he relishes the most involves his costar in The Expendables 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was friends with his then girlfriend, Jones, from their time making Conan.
“I just started training for Rocky IV and Grace was having an all-night party—big surprise there—and I was trying to get some sleep to train in the morning with Sly,” says Lundgren. “I hadn’t seen Arnold in the longest time. So I get this knock on the door at 4 a.m. and it’s Arnold yelling [in Arnold voice], ‘It’s yo train-a! I am he-ah to check yo abs!’”
After Rocky IV, Lundgren had a few big-budget bombs, including Masters of the Universe—a He-Man movie adaptation, and a gritty comic-book adaptation, The Punisher. His last big hit before 2010’s The Expendables was the 1992 sci-fi action flick, Universal Soldier, starring opposite Expendables 2’s villain, Jean Claude Van Damme. And after 1995’s dud, Johnny Mnemonic, Lundgren would appear in exclusively direct-to-video fare until 2010.
“I was never as ambitious or put 100 percent into it, really,” he says. “I like to have a good time, and I wanted my kids to grow up away from Hollywood—away from all the drugs and things—and my wife didn’t like L.A., so I lived in Marbella, Spain, for 10 years.”
In 2009, while Lundgren was off shooting a film, a group of intruders in black hoods invaded his home in Spain and took his family hostage, including his wife, children, and staff. According to Lundgren, when his oldest daughter screamed, “If my dad was here, this would be different,” the men looked at a family photograph and realized whose home they were looting, gave some of the jewelry back to Lundgren’s wife, and left.
“It was a tough experience,” he says. “I wanted to get these guys and kill them slowly, but I couldn’t find them. I sent some guys to look for them, too.”
Lundgren split from his wife in 2011 and moved back to L.A. As far as the current action-film climate is concerned, he doesn’t seem to be a big fan of the recent trend of kick-ass women onscreen, such as the Angelina Jolies and Gina Caranos of the world.
“I love women but any woman, no matter how trained … almost any man can defeat any woman because it’s just the way the body’s constructed,” he says. “I don’t care if she’s a karate champion, the guy is still going to kill her if it’s a fair fight.”
And, thanks to The Expendables films, Lundgren’s career has received a sizable bump. He’ll be hosting ReelzChannel’s “reality competition,” Race to the Scene. Set to premiere in spring 2013, the TV series will feature contestants competing in challenges inspired by actual movie moments. He’s trying to market a line of workout supplements in the U.S. bearing his name, and recently wrapped not only on an action movie in Asia he’s very excited about, “with a lot of zombies, robots and me,” he says, but is also hopeful for a third film in The Expendables franchise.
“I guess I didn’t feel mature enough or ready to deal with everything earlier in my career,” he says. “Now, I feel stronger and ready for whatever comes next.”