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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015
He couldn’t stay Ivan Drago forever. The flat-top was bound to go out of style, the Rocky franchise had reached its peak, and besides, he wasn’t even Russian. But here’s the biggest reason why Dolph Lundgren (who’s from Sweden, by the way) had to move on from Drago: Because men get older.
Rocky IV hit theaters 30 years ago, in 1985. Hard to believe, right? Lundgren is 57 now, and naturally, he looks different than he did then. The resemblance is there, of course, since he’s still tall and blonde and handsome, but he’s not carrying quite as much muscle, and his skin has weathered a bit.
The most interesting part? Lundgren is actually better now.
Because real men change, mature, evolve, adapt. Their value isn’t tethered to youth. Lundgren was in Europe for the better part of the ’90s and 2000s—out of sight, out of mind to American moviegoers—but he never stopped working, and he never stopped training.
“Comparing myself now to then, I would say I’m a little more skilled now,” Lundgren says. “I’m more proficient in martial arts. Because at that point [training for Rocky IV] I’d given all that up, because I just wanted to learn how to box for the movie, and I wanted to lift weights. I try to keep the martial arts skill because, one, I use it in my movies, and, two, it makes me feel good to be able to walk into a dojo in Sweden, Australia, or America, wherever I am, and not seem like a chump.”
“Whatever happened to Dolph Lundgren?” was probably asked thousands of times in America following Rocky IV and his role as He-Man in 1987’s Masters of the Universe. What happened was, he went on to have a successful career as a movie star, with more than 60 total acting roles on his résumé as well as a handful of producing, directing, and writing credits. It’s just that most of this occurred outside the United States. For a good while, he was one of the busiest action stars you never heard anything about, at least not in this country.
That all changed about five years ago after he landed a role in the action-star-loaded cast of The Expendables and moved back to America. Since then, he’s appeared in both Expendables sequels as well as several other U.S.-based productions, including Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning with Jean-Claude Van Damme and even a one-off appearance earlier this year on the comedy TV series Workaholics. His latest film, Skin Trade, which he produced, co-wrote, and starred in, is scheduled for release May 8.
So is it fair to say that Dolph Lundgren has made an American comeback?
“Yeah, that’s fair,” he says. “I was in Europe focusing on my kids. I wasn’t focusing on the business. You have to be in America to do well in show business, especially with the types of movies I do, preferably in Hollywood. There’s a certain energy in the States, and that’s the reason I wanted to come here as a kid when I was only 14 or 15. The last five years, I’ve slowly worked my way back into the business and into the popular culture here, and it feels good. Europe is a great place, but somehow in America if you put in the hard work, you know it’s going to pay off, whereas in other places it’s not so certain.”
Much of the hard work Lundgren refers to happens in the gym. He was very active as a child growing up in Sweden, playing ice hockey and starting karate at a young age. (He earned a third-degree black belt as an adult in 1998.) After moving to America for college on academic scholarships and eventually pursuing an acting career, he got more serious about lifting weights. He trained with Sylvester Stallone for Rocky IV and even worked out for a time in the ’80s with Lou Ferrigno at Santa Monica Body Building Center in California.
His workouts have changed since then, but not all that much. At 6’4″, he never had the build to lift prodigious weight; he says he never went above 300lbs or so on the squat or deadlift, even in his younger years. But his training has become more diverse, more fluid than structured.
“I’m more conscious of injuries now than I was when I was 27, so I do more rehab work, more balance work, and more work on the smaller muscles like the rotator cuffs and hip flexors. But I do try to keep some heavy lifting in my routine.
“For being 30 years older, the only difference is I have to take care of myself a little more when I’m not training. In those days you could go out and have 10 tequila shots, stay up all night, and then go to the gym in the morning. If I did that now,” he says with a laugh, “I’d be struggling.”
He typically trains four or five days a week, implementing a variety of training styles and modalities. For example: He does traditional weight training with the squat, bench press, deadlift, military press—and curls—a couple of days a week; he also mixes in more “functional” training by using a Bosu ball and incorporating strongman lifts, particularly heavy sandbag carries; and he keeps up with his martial arts skill training and hits a heavy bag for conditioning. When he doesn’t feel like lifting in the gym, he loads up a backpack with extra weight and goes for a long hike; he swims when an Olympic-size pool is available to him, such as when staying at a nice hotel; he stretches regularly to maintain flexibility for his martial arts; and he also meditates daily.
“I get bored with too structured of a workout,” Lundgren says. “I think there’s a benefit to having a regimented schedule, like getting up at the same time every morning and having breakfast. But if I have a new workout coming up, it’s exciting for me. If I have the same workout for four weeks, and I’ve done that, it just becomes something like self-punishment. I meditate every morning, and that really helps. It’s like they say: Life becomes a glide instead of an effort. It’s true. Life becomes easier. You don’t hold on to things as much.”
Lundgren’s training may not always be regimented, but he stays consistent with it. Always has. This has obviously helped him land roles throughout the years, most of which have required him to be in shape and proficient at fighting, but Lundgren also credits his active lifestyle—not just the meditation—for improving his mental state.
“All the things I do in my training have helped me feel better and more fit but also more balanced,” he says. “And I think it’s helped me deal with a pretty tough business without getting lost in it. It’s paid dividends for me even in just the last year or two. When I moved back to L.A. and did the first Expendables, I started to put more of an emphasis on my training and meditation and focus a little more on my career. But it takes a while for things to develop. You have to do the roles, and then the movies have to be edited and put out there, and people have to see them. So there’s, like, a two-year or more delay before it gets out there in the ether. I’m feeling good about it now, and people are catching up to it a little more. It gives me a grounded feeling.”
At 57, Lundgren is by no means the old man of Hollywood. Stallone is 68, Schwarzenegger, 67. Lundgren looks forward to having many productive years left in him as an actor, writer, producer, and director. He cites Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood as two other Hollywood stars doing some of their best work in middle age and beyond, and he hopes to fall into that category. But as much as he looks to a bright future, he can’t help but look back at himself 30 years ago as Ivan Drago, the role that launched a career still going strong through stints in Europe, Asia, America, and places in-between.
When asked what he sees when he looks at the 30-year-old photos of himself in Rocky IV, Lundgren says, “In painting they used to call it ‘the artist as a young man’—the artist always paints himself younger than he is. There’s a magic kind of energy there when I see pictures of myself as Drago. I see the innocence in my eyes. It’s like a boyishness that’s wonderful and beautiful, but I had to go through so much to get to where I am today. I wouldn’t want to do it again, so it’s a bittersweet experience. It’s like in meditation: You have to accept the impermanence of existence. Nothing is permanent. Everything blossoms and dies. So I think two things: I feel happy for having had the opportunity to be in the business and being in shape, and I’m glad I’m in shape now. I’m trying to squeeze as much out of it as I can. I want to keep acting and producing and directing and being fit…and being thankful that I’m still around.”