There was a story a couple of years back that went something like this: In 2009, a trio of armed robbers infiltrated a house near Marbella, Spain, and tied up the woman living there. They threatened her with violence unless she revealed the location of the cash and jewelry they assumed must be onsite. Then the robbers noticed a picture in one of the bedrooms of the woman, some lovely children, and Dolph Lundgren. The thieves abruptly left for fear of doing anything else to offend the 6’5” black belt, whose house they inadvertently invaded. And it’s no wonder: The legend of Lundgren should be enough to dissuade all by the most moronic of individuals. Despite having a masters in chemical engineering, and a Fulbright Scholarship to MIT, Lundgren decided he wanted to be an actor. After getting his big break playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, he went on to star films like Masters of the Universe, The Punisher and Universal Soldier.
Even at age 57, the martial artist jumps from one action flick to another and he’s bouncing from his recurring role as Gunner Jensen in The Expendables trilogy to the just-released Skin Trade, which he co-wrote and produced. Lundgren explains how his karate background has helped him stay in shape on and off the big screen for so many decades and why having a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering has paid off in this exclusive interview.
What role has your karate background played in the success you’ve had in physical action films?
When I started back in the ‘80s, there was no real CGI, there was no way to add anything after you shot a scene. You had to make sure you had all the footage and you had all the blood coming out of your mouth when you got hit, or if you wanted to do some kind of jump or whatever it was you who had to do it. So in the beginning my physical training came in very, very handy. Now in today’s films, you don’t necessarily need all those skills because there’s a way to make it look almost real anyway with wires and CGI and green screen, and the audience isn’t really sure anymore what’s real and what isn’t. But we were hoping with Skin Trade that people get a feel that these are the actors doing the stuff, and not the stunt guys.
What is it like for you to wear so many hats now on a project like this?
I think it’s about time. A lot of the action guys like Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone started earlier, but I didn’t because I wasn’t focused so much on my career back then. I just did movies and had a good time, and moved to Europe for 10 years to raise two daughters. It’s just lately that I’ve taken an interest in it, and it’s more satisfying in the long run because you can affect the audience all the way through with the writing and the producing and the directing. So it’s a more fulfilling experience instead of just being one of those pieces in the puzzles.
When you go to your IMDB page it just seems like it goes on forever. You’ve been in a lot of movies over the years.
Too many. [Laughs.]
How do you go about choosing your projects?
It’s very different, you know. Sometimes you’ll get a script and it’s a really interesting character or something I’ve never done. Like in 4Got10 I play a DEA agent who is investigating these murders and there’s some drug theft and stuff involved, but he is really the perpetrator. He is the bad guy. But he’s walking around there and you don’t know that in the beginning of the movie and then you start realizing, “Wait a second, there’s something off with this guy.” A lot of people won’t see it, but it was fun for me. So that’s one way, and another way is Skin Trade, where I got a script and worked on it for seven years trying to get it made.
Why do you think guys like you, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger are still kicking butt on the big screen after so many years?
It’s two-fold. The guys you’re talking about — whether it’s Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or myself — they’re getting older and they like working. Most of these guys don’t have to work. They’re wealthy, and they just do it because they like it. They don’t know anything else and they want to make the more old school action movies. Look what Stallone did with Rambo, which was really a good action movie. And in my case I’m doing Skin Trade because I’m trying to capture something that I never had because I wasn’t that interested in producing or directing. I wasn’t that ambitious like Arnold. I just took it as it came, but now I’m trying to expand a bit more as an actor and do some directing before it’s too late.
Do people still call you “Drago” when you’re out in public?
Yeah, it happens. It depends on their age; like the older guys who are into sports like Rocky IV or Masters of the Universe and the younger kids liked The Expendables. So it’s spanning the generations. It happens a lot, and it’s good. Sometimes I used to think, “Shit, not that again,” but then you realize I should be so lucky because some of these things have become part of pop culture for a reason and that’s not such a bad deal. It’s fun to be able to entertain people and make them feel good.
What was your first encounter with Playboy magazine?
Probably in Sweden back in the ‘70s. I was a teenage boy, so obviously you’re excited and interested in women and what that was all about. Playboy had a sexy, classy allure to it, which was different than some other local versions that weren’t as classy. They were a little raunchier and not as cool.
What’s your pop culture blind spot?
I’d say Twitter. My 13-year-old daughter does my Instagram and she’s really into it. But I never look at Twitter; that’s not me.
Heaven forbid, you’re on death row: What’s your last meal?
Probably something nourishing in case I need it where I’m going. Yeah, like a few steaks, apple pie with ice cream, and a tranquilizer.
What do you consider your favorite mistake in life?
Giving up chemical engineering to become an actor could have been a mistake, when I had a scholarship to MIT, but now looking back it was not such a stupid decision. It was a pretty good mistake.
Has having a masters degree in chemical engineering ever come in handy?
It’s come in handy for my children because I’ve got two daughters and I can help them [in their studies]. I understand their academic choices. I think they also have a bit of inspiration in the back of their minds —their dad may be an action star and running around with a machine gun and blowing shit up, but they know I studied at the university for five years. So when I tell them they have to study, to get an education because nobody can take it away from you and it’s always going to help you, they listen to me. And I’m happy for that.
What pisses you off?
When people aren’t respectful to each other.
What’s the first thing you bought with your first big Hollywood check?
I think it was a Jeep CJ-7.
If you could commit one consequence-free crime what would it be?
Well, maybe I could take over a tropical island and make it mine. Not too big, but nice enough to have a good vacation and invite a few friends over.