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When the first Creed II trailer landed in early summer, the internet, as they say, broke. Michael B. Jordan, reprising his role as Adonis Johnson from Creed, is seen preparing for a fight amid emotional exchanges with the people in his life—his wife, his mother, and his mentor, Rocky Balboa. Though it’s not clear exactly what’s at stake, the tension builds as Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” pulses over a brief training montage. Then the payoff: A fighter, face obscured, enters a boxing ring. He turns to reveal the name on his warmup jacket: Drago.
The hidden face belongs to Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu. A German boxer of Romanian descent, the 27-year-old Munteanu landed the role of Viktor Drago, son of Ivan, after a career of more than 70 amateur fights, a bit of fitness modeling, and a few brief appearances in German television commercials.
Those wondering how a guy with more vowels than acting credits can land one of the most sought-after movie roles in years will need to think beyond the CV and contend with the man himself. Once you see Munteanu in action as Viktor, it’s impossible to imagine anybody else in the role. He’s got the size (6’4″, 240 pounds), the nickname (Big Nasty), and the boxing skills. He’s got a death stare that could bend steel. But it’s his dark charisma, his ability to project intimidation and foreboding, that grabs your attention and won’t let go.
To land the role, Munteanu had a couple of interviews, then taped an audition in Germany, which led to the make-or-break moment: a Skype call with Sylvester Stallone. Sly, who has an eye for these sort of things, liked what he saw in Munteanu and invited him to Los Angeles to meet with the film’s director, Steven Caple Jr. After working with Caple for a few days and meeting other members of the cast, Munteanu got the part.
Just meeting Stallone was worth the trip. “There are not really words to describe that feeling, because he’s a legend to me,” Munteanu says. “When he entered the room—standing next to him, speaking to him, and working with him—it was incredible.”
They say history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. The role of Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV was also earned by an unknown from Europe who caught Stallone’s eye: a Swedish martial arts ace named Dolph Lundgren. As Drago, Lundgren created a pop culture icon, a fearsome villain with a catchphrase (“I must break you”) and a body count, having killed Apollo Creed (Adonis’ father) in the ring. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa avenges Creed in a fight with Drago, and the world is right again.
Creed II, hitting theaters on Nov. 21, is not that tidy. The plot details are a closely held secret, but the film is a true sequel to the critically acclaimed Creed and bears little resemblance to Rocky IV. Gone is the simplistic contrast of the Land of the Free versus the Evil Empire. The fight between Balboa and Drago in Rocky IV was a proxy for a battle of ideologies. Creed II is a film about families, legacies, and personal honor.
Munteanu needed more than his death stare to carry him through the film. Viktor’s relationship with his father is a critical subplot of the story. This emphasis on dramatic interplay places tremendous pressure on a Hollywood newcomer with no previous film credits. But that’s just the way Munteanu likes it.
“Pressure means that people are looking at you, people are expecting something of you,” he says. “Some people break under pressure, but I’m a guy who needs it, because when I don’t feel any pressure, I get too loose, too relaxed. Then it usually doesn’t work out too well. So I love the pressure. It brings the best out of me—simple as that.”
Unlike the one-dimensional Ivan in Rocky IV, Viktor is a fully fleshed-out character, with a well-developed backstory.
“The character’s very complex,” Munteanu says. “Obviously, he’s the villain, because at the end of the day, he goes for the kill. But the movie shows what conditions he grew up in and what kind of a person he is. People will feel for him because he’s fighting for the right reasons. That makes him a good villain.”
When Munteanu dug deep into Viktor, he realized that the two had a few things in common.
“There’s a lot of me in him,” he says. “The only difference is that Viktor is a character who doesn’t smile too much, because in his life, there’s nothing to smile about. He’s fighting for values like family, loyalty. He doesn’t go for money or for fame. That’s why it’s very similar to me, because those are the values that are important to me. Trust, honesty, loyalty, brotherhood, family.”
Caple, himself only 30 years old and a rising talent in Hollywood, says that Munteanu’s range will win over any skeptics.
“Flo’s genuine empathy made him the right choice to play Viktor,” Caple says. “He was able to understand Viktor and live the journey with him. Without giving away too much, he is more than just an athlete onscreen, and I think audiences will be pleasantly surprised when they see his moments outside the ring.”
Caple also noted Munteanu’s resilience in performing under intense pressure.
“Flo worked consistently on mastering his role, from memorizing his lines, deepening his understanding of Viktor, choreography, et cetera,” he says. “I think that, because we all have high expectations for this sequel, the collective pressure almost became our strongest support system, and Flo was a major part of that.”
Munteanu remembers the spark of inspiration that helped fuel his fascination with Rocky movies. When he was 10 years old, he wanted to see Rocky IV, which was playing in a local revival theater, but his mother forbade it. “Too violent,” she said. Then one night, his father snuck him out of the house to see the film. When they returned, his mother was waiting for them in Florian’s bed.
He still winces at the memory of her grounding him.
“I’m not intimidated by anyone,” he says. “The only person who scares me is my mother.”
According to Munteanu, his mother is happy now that her son quit boxing to pursue a profession in which the fights are choreographed. But that doesn’t mean you can always take the fighter out of the actor.
During the filming of a boxing scene, Munteanu accidentally unloaded a left hook straight to Michael B. Jordan’s jaw. As Munteanu quickly realized his error, Jordan shrugged it off. “I was very impressed,” says Munteanu of Jordan’s ability to take a punch. “He’s a tough guy.”
Caple remembers other moments when fists were connecting in the heat of the moment. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I’m sure it was actually several times that MBJ was accidentally punched. MBJ got a few in there, too,” Caple says. “Directing the fight scenes was exhilarating.
We had to constantly adjust and readjust choreography to fit the emotional arcs and moments with each sequence. We had a strong stunt team led by Danny Hernandez, who transformed the boxing choreography into something fresh and intense that challenged the guys every day.”
Munteanu says that Jordan, one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, helped him navigate the alien landscape of a big studio film. But the guy he leaned on the most was Lundgren. The older actor went out of his way to create a familial bond with Munteanu.
“Dolph is one of the nicest, most humble, and most grounded people I have ever met,” says Munteanu about his movie dad. “He made it easy for me, because he was always pushing me, asking me to train together, to go out to dinner, to go over some scenes. It would have been a lot harder if he had stayed to himself.”
Lundgren’s paternal outreach is a natural result of understanding the challenges that Munteanu faced during filming.
“I saw him under a lot of pressure,” Lundgren says. “It made me remember when I was like him 33 years ago.”
The two bonded over time and even studied Russian together for the movie. Lundgren, now 60, also helped ease Munteanu through some of the more di cult dramatic moments in Creed II.
“They had great chemistry, and much of that resulted from their mutual respect,” Caple says. “They immediately started working closely to develop the relationship that would ultimately translate onscreen as Viktor and Ivan Drago, and it became obvious how it established a kinship between Florian and Dolph.”
Lundgren also knows what awaits Munteanu after the film’s release: the detonation of celebrity—sudden fame, with all its temptations and distractions.
“Back in the ’80s, obviously there was no social media, there wasn’t this kind of hype. It’s going to be a different type of explosion,” Lundgren says. “Everybody has to find their own way of dealing with fame. It’s unnatural to have somebody who you’ve never met come up to you and want to be your friend. They know every- thing about you, and you don’t know this person from anyone. It’s a strange experience.
Also nearby to help keep Munteanu centered is his personal trainer and best friend, Sandro Wolfinger. A former pro soccer player, Wolfinger has been close with Munteanu ever since they met in high school in Munich.
“He told me years ago that deep inside him he has this talent to be an actor,” Wolfinger says. “He would dream of being an actor in California. Then the opportunity came, and he nailed it.”
Wolfinger travels with Munteanu, trains with him, and makes sure that success doesn’t go to his head. “Everybody wants to be his friend,” Wolfinger says. “Nobody will tell him no. My role is to say, ‘No, that’s bad, dude. Stop it.’ ”
So when did the intimidating boxer earn the title of Big Nasty? Wolfinger says the roots of Munteanu’s alias are rather tame.
“We played video games a lot when we were in school,” recalls Wolfinger. “One day, Florian put his avatar name as Big Nasty. He’s been Big Nasty ever since.”
As intimidating as Munteanu can seem, Wolfinger says that Big Nasty is really a big softie. Munteanu believes that his more sensitive qualities come out in his performance.
“I think that Viktor Drago has the potential to be as iconic as his father’s character,” Munteanu says. “In Rocky IV, Ivan was just a killing machine. It’s totally different with Viktor. He has a big heart. People will fall for him.”