Sylvester Stallone has made hot shot machismo into cinematic art during his nearly five decades in the business, so you'd be forgiven for assuming that he's just as brawny and tough in real life as Rocky and Rambo are on the big screen. In reality, he's about as humble as an actor gets.
Mention the recent award wins and Oscar buzz surrounding his supporting turn in "Creed," and he instantly blushes and looks to the floor, thankful for the kind words. He's so grateful for the critical reception he's been receiving that, at times, it seems he doesn't know what to do with it. But the one thing he does know is that he could've never predicted a comeback role like this would be the same one that started his career.
Joining director Ryan Coogler and co-star Tessa Thomspon at a star-studded dinner in New York City this week, which saw the likes of Rosie Perez and guest moderator Gayle King in attendance, Stallone reminisced on how playing Rocky has always been about the underdog story at its heart. When he was first trying to get his script developed back in the early 1970s, the studio didn't want to cast the scrappy, unknown actor in the iconic role, preferring instead to hire more well-known talent and proven tough guys like Burt Reynolds, Ryan O'Neal or Nick Nolte. Stallone had to fight to be cast, and, of course, the rest is history.
It might have been easier this time around to convince the studio to let him step back into the skin of Rocky (no one can play the character but Stallone, really), but Stallone himself wasn't so sure giving the character another go was such a smart idea. "If someone said, 'Okay, we're going to do 'The Godfather: Part IX,' I'd be like, 'I don't know, is this a money grab?," he said with a laugh. "So they're going to do 'Rocky VII,' and I knew no one would be exactly bringing out the parades and trumpets for it and saying, 'This is just what we hoped! Thank God for this!'"
What finally did convince Stallone to get back into the ring was Ryan Coogler, the award-winning director behind the indie sensation "Fruitvale Station." Coogler had approached Stallone prior to filming his Sundance breakthrough and was kindly rejected. "When he first pitched it, I thought this is the worst idea I ever heard," Stallone said. "I've been trying to avoid dying for years. It was pretty severe."
But "Fruitvale" changed everything, not only for Coogler's career, but also for Stallone, who realized that the director was truly a major find. Despite big offers coming in left and right, all Coogler wanted to do was to make "Creed." Added Stallone, "That's when I realized there had to be some reason he's doing this — it's certainly not for the money."
"It was because of my relationship with my dad," Coogler said of his persistence to make the film. "He was a big 'Rocky' fan and he and I were very close my whole life...For whatever reason, these movies had a power over him. Ever since I was young, he would pop 'Rocky' in on VHS and 'Rocky II' and I'd sit on my couch and look over at my dad and he'd be crying and then he'd be jumping up and down, so fired up."
Just around the time Coogler was graduating from film school at USC and getting ready to go into production on "Fruitvale," his father was diagnosed with muscular atrophy, sending the first-time filmmaker into a reflective tailspin. "It kind of triggered an identity crisis in me of sorts," he reflected. "Is this man still my father? Now that my father isn't strong anymore, now that he can't walk from the car to the house, is he still that same person? Is he still a man? Is this going to happen to me one day?"
These questions galvanized the young filmmaker to pitch a version of Rocky the world had never seen. "I came up with this idea of my dad's hero becoming older, weaker and losing the things that made us recognize him," Coogler said. "Rocky was a guy who, through sheer wit and brute force, could knock out any opponent. That's how we saw him. But watching my dad, I had to ask myself if that was really who Rocky was. If you take his strength away, is he still the same Rocky? But what makes you a man is what it's inside. That doesn't change."
Stallone's internal reckoning of these very questions is a lot of what makes his performance in "Creed" some of the best work he's ever done. The screenplay's use of terminal illness is not a crux or a manipulation of sympathy, it's instead a motivator to explore the legacy and identity of Rocky, and Stallone handles this journey with an understated vulnerability that is simply heartbreaking. But any praise you could possibly give the actor will get instantly redirected by Stallone himself to the true driving force of "Creed": Coogler, who, as Stallone humorously reminded, wasn't even born when "Rocky IV" came out.
"This man deserves total, 100% credit," he said, leading the crowd in a roaring round of applause. "He is a visionary. He worked so hard. He choreographed the fight scenes. This is his vision. He did everything. He gave the atmosphere to us actors to work unencumbered and with such enthusiasm that it's just extraordinary. Coming from Oakland, there's an authenticity to his work that hasn't been jaded, and it's fresh. You see a young man at the beginning of his powers here."
As for what it was like to direct a living legend like Stallone, Coogler tried not to think of it too much as to not "get paralyzed." "Sly is very cautious before he gets into work. As I got to know him I realized that's because he only knows how to work one way, and that's all in," the director said.
Clearly the magic has paid off, as Stallone heads into the Golden Globes this Sunday and the rest of Oscar season as a neck-and-neck favorite for the Best Supporting Actor statue (his only competitor seems to be Mark Rylance from "Bridge of Spies"). To date, Stallone has won nine awards form various critics group and counting, and with over $100 million at the box office, it seems "Creed" has restored the Rocky legacy back to its former glory just as it has brought Stallone back into the limelight.
"It's very unusual," he said of the experience, taking a moment to crack a smile, hold back some tears and collect his thoughts. "I really love actors, drama and art, and I've made choices that weren't exactly the smartest thing to do. It's nice to be invited back to the club and I appreciate it. Thank you all very much."
"Creed" is now playing in theaters nationwide.