By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
PHILADELPHIA—It’s been 40 years since an underdog boxer named Rocky Balboa jogged up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and subsequently became an international cultural phenomenon. Now, Sylvester Stallone, the writer and legendary star of that iconic film (which has become a lucrative and enduring franchise) returns for yet another round of heartwarming drama and boxing-as-metaphor for never giving up in “Creed.”
He recently returned to the First Street gym in Philadelphia where the part of the 1975 film was shot to talk about the making of his seventh installment of the “Rocky” franchise. It is the first picture in the franchise that he did not have a hand in writing.
“Creed,” directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”), who co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington, centers on Adonis Apollo Creed (Michael P. Jordan), a young up and coming light heavyweight boxer and the son of Rocky’s most formidable boxing opponent (and later his good friend), who travels to the City of Brotherly Love to convince the one-time champ to train him for an all-important upcoming bout.
At 59, Stallone, who won two Oscars for starring in and penning “Rocky,” still looks the solid “Italian Stallion” persona he was back during the Gerald Ford administration, although he has a few wrinkles.
Q: When Ryan Coogler came to you came to you with this idea, what were your immediate thoughts?
Stallone: (laughing) Uh…no? I said, “No, no, no.” It was such a struggle to get the last one done and I was so happy with “Rocky Balboa,” and the conclusion of Rocky’s story, that I thought we don’t need to go any further with it. I dismissed his idea, but he was adamant about doing it. He was very very adamant about it. He came back a year and a half later. I thought that my story is told, but he convinced me that there is a whole other generation out there—two generations— since Rocky started, and their story has not been told. I thought it’s very ingenious, and then I finally agreed to do it after I was shamed for my narrow-mindedness. (He laughs.)
Q: You have a great story about how you created Rocky. Can you believe how this has gone on for so many decades? How does it make you feel? And who do you miss the most from the cast who’s not here anymore?
Stallone: Of course, Adrian. Numero uno. She was the heart and soul of the whole thing. I was just thinking about it the other day, about how everything I have leads directly to the genesis of “Rocky.” But what’s amazing is this character and the stories have stayed around without any special effects, any car chases, blowing up anything, which is what I usually do. Seriously, no bullets, no cursing, no sex scenes, nothing. That’s not Rocky, you know? That’s why I think it’s just so phenomenal. The (younger) generation wasn’t around when we did the third one— forget the first one—that it seemed obvious they would embrace this and take it to a new level. So I am very proud and stunned. Here we are in the seventh one, but it’s actually “Creed” one. Rocky’s story is done, so hopefully this is a beginning of a whole new series and it just continues to go on.
What these guys can do that I can’t do anymore. They’re living it in the here and now, and I pretty much live in the past because that’s where I acquired all my knowledge. I acquire from the past but they are acquiring their life, so the stories Aaron (Covington) will do will be very applicable, very now, as opposed to retro.
Q: It’s touching to see your transformation after Rocky’s been sick and he’s lost a bit of hair. How was the experience for you, especially after playing this character for 40 years? How does this make you feel like your own death and how you want to leave your legacy?
Stallone: Yes, truthfully when you sit in the (make up) chair and you come as one person then you open up your eyes an hour and a half later and you’ve been transformed into a person who’s not healthy, it’s very relatable. This is makeup, but this is what people live through every day, and this is their destiny.
(When I saw myself with the makeup) I went, “My God, I have a big time responsibility to try to take this very seriously.” I did, and it helped with the acting. I became much more sympathetic to other people. Their destiny is pretty fraught with danger and despair and pain. It made me definitely realize that the clock is ticking because age could flip the coin on us and take away our health.
So it opened my eyes and made me very very aware of mortality. That’s why after this interview I’m going to go kill myself. (He laughs.) I don’t really want to stay around long. That was the most depressing question given to me in my life. I was in a good mood until you asked that question.
Q: Do you recall what you and your producer Irwin Winkler initially talked about before you did the original “Rocky?”
Stallone: Actually, we spoke mostly about basically about what Rocky was. His flow, the way he processes. He doesn’t just answer immediately. Or if he has something to say to you, it usually comes around in a roundabout way. It’s just so when you write something for him, it’s more convoluted. It’s usually very gentle. It’s not confrontational. It’s polite. He’s kind of shy in a way. After that, everything just fell into place. It was wonderful.
Q: You turned down $250,000—a lot of money back in the ‘70—from the studios to sell your script to them and have someone else play Rocky. How did you refuse, what went through your mind?
Stallone: It’s easy really. I had mastered the art of poverty. I was looking at my dog as the meal. (He laughs.) To make it in the business, you have to have a certain thing called the stubborn gene. When you don’t adhere to that and you give in, you’re going to regret it.
When (Ryan Coogler) came in, he was very stubborn. He may look nice, but he’s willful. I’m 96 percent wrong most of the time, but that’s 4 percent right, every now and then. There are major crossroads in your life where something is going to determine your future, at least for the next 15 years—sometimes for the rest of your life. Sometimes it’s marriage. It’s certain things. I just said, “This is it!” Yes, 250 grand. It’ll go away, but the scar and the self-loathing and everything else, and (the prospect of) watching Ryan O’ Neill play Rocky, I don’t know. (He laughs.) It was daunting.
Q: Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neill were talked about to play the title character. Would you have been okay with Burt Reynolds?
Stallone: Burt, yes. I like them both; they would have been fine.
Q: There’s a whole sequence in the film set in Liverpool. I know you’re a big Everton Football Club fan. Can you say a little bit about what it was like to shoot there, and talk a little about your love of Everton? Was there any talk about making the Ricky Tomlin character a fan of the other slightly bigger club?
Stallone: Actually Ryan had a lot to do with the Liverpool connection. I was there a few years ago. I went onto the field and it was an extraordinary event because I wasn’t familiar with Everton at the time, and then I began to really love the whole idea. When he came up with Liverpool, I went, “Why? It’s just so foreign. We’re going to go here in the dead of winter? This is a challenge!”
It’s very different, but (Ryan Coogler) wanted to do something that was far away from Madison Square Garden, Vegas, Philadelphia—all of the arenas seen in prior “Rocky” movies. He chose Tony (Bellew, who plays pugilist “Pretty” Ricky Conlan) for his style and I guess his background, so it really was all his decision. I was trying to talk him out of it the whole time, so what do I know? (He laughs.) I’m only kidding.
It was something just to be very unique, and Liverpool is an incredible sports town with some very tough people coming from it and, of course, you have the soccer team and the Manchester team there. There was never a moment’s hesitation, because Tony Bellew is in love with Everton. At one time we thought we were going to use the other team, but that went up in flames real fast when Tony got on board.