interview by Douglas Eby
With thirteen major films in his list of acting credits since starting in 1985, Dolph Lundgren is developing a career that is taking him beyond the macho roles suited to his 6' 5" athletic physique that brought him fame in "Rocky IV" opposite Sylvester Stallone and "Universal Soldier" with Jean Claude Van Damme. He is working with a New York theater troupe he founded called Group of Eight, both producing and acting.
His portrayal in last year's "Johnny Mnemonic" as a flamboyant psycho street preacher earned critical praise: the LA Times said he was"explosively fanatical and funny.. he actually gives the best performance in the movie." Dolph earned a masters degree in Chemical Engineering, and could have gone on to MIT, but made the choice to pursue acting instead. In addition to Swedish and English, he speaks German and "a little" French, and some Japanese.
The first project of his New York film company Thor Pictures was the dramatic feature "Pentathlon" which he co-produced. An accomplished athlete with a second degree black belt in Kyokushin karate, and also involved in swimming, boxing, kickboxing, running, squash and free climbing, he is the leader of the 1996 U.S. pentathlon team, coordinating various planning and promotional activities. Lundgren spoke from his home in Sweden.
Q: You now live in both Stockholm and New York; are you working on some film projects in Sweden?
Lundgren: There are two projects I am working on here, one with the company called the Swedish Film Industry, and another based on a series of novels. But I probably won't get to do those before next year because I have two films in the states that I'll do first. One can only do so much. My interest over here is to do something in Swedish, or in a mix of Swedish and English. And there's a film in the can I did last year that isn't out yet called "Silent Trigger" directed by Russell Mulcahy, that we shot up in Montreal.
Q: What are the projects up next for you?
Lundgren: We'll start one in September, and the other right after that. One is pretty much set, and the other we're still looking for a director, but it will be set in a month or so.
Q: And you'll be going to Atlanta soon for the Olympics?
Lundgren: The team will be going to San Antonio to train, and I'll probably go back to New York for preproduction. then to Atlanta for the duration of the games. I've done four or five different magazine pieces to help promote the team, and some TV and electronic press, and we're doing announcements of the team the beginning of June in New York City at the All Star Cafe. The last Olympic qualifier is in Rome in about three weeks, so we don't know until then who's actually going to be on the team. Not just the Pentathlon, but a lot of the sports have international qualifiers, and some of the teams aren't picked until June. You can't really go full out until you know who is in the team.
Q: You attended the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and were awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to MIT - did you actually attend classes there?
Lundgren: What happened is I went from the Royal Institute down to the University of Sydney in Australia for my last year of undergraduate work. I got that Fulbright and was in Cambridge for about two weeks before I decided to come back to New York and keep studying acting. I had started a little bit before then. I felt it wasn't for me to get involved in engineering any more than I had. Both my father and older brother are engineers, and I guess I felt some sort of duty to the family, but fortunately I decided to go on, and I didn't look back.
I am definitely finding out a lot more about myself as a person through acting. I think that's one reason I was drawn to it. I felt I was very inhibited and shy and insecure in many ways. Sports was one way to make up for that, and I felt there was something about acting, I didn't know what it was, that sort of intrigued me - having to tap into your own personality, into the depths of it, and find out what was really going on.
Q: Has that technical background or some of your training been helpful in terms of analyzing scripts or working with story material?
Lundgren: Yes it has, actually. You know, it was actually working against me in the beginning, because you tend to be very intellectual and analytical, and as far as being an actor that can work against you: you tend to overthink things too much on a dramatic level. But now that I've gotten a little more comfortable with being an actor an working in front of the camera, analyzing material and planning a production, staying on top of every part of it - which you have to do if you're starring in the movie - then it's really been helpful. And on a purely personal level, getting involved in more aspects of life than acting has been helpful.
Q: And you've been getting involved in producing also.
Lundgren: Yes. And even being the pentathlon team leader is a really managerial position; I'm the liaison between the USOC and the team, and I'm the one who organizes the travel, the accommodation ticketing, equipment - and a lot of it is staying on top of scheduling and a lot of rules, and without that kind of academic background I think it could be hard, if I had only been studying acting. Just having the discipline of reading a hundred pages of regulations and picking out what applies to us.
Q: Speaking of discipline, you're still involved with karate and other sports and martial arts. You have a second degree?
Lundgren: That's correct. In the style I do, which is
Japanese karate, second degree is the second highest technical you can
have. Third is the highest, and fourth and above are more honorary. A
number of years ago, when I went to the world championships to do a
demo, Japan offered me a third degree.
I'm a lot older than most second degree black belts, because I stopped training over here when I was about 22. But I didn't want to get it free, I wanted to work for it, and it's been tough finding time to do that; it's a pretty rough grading procedure. But hopefully I'll be able to do it this year or next.
Q: Are you finding some film projects with the kind of complex characters you have been looking for?
Lundgren: Yes and no. I think I've realized that part of my job or my duty to myself as an actor is to find, not just good material, but to work with good directors. And obviously, when you come from an action movie background, which I do, it can be hard; you have to really find material that'll attract a director who perhaps wouldn't want to do action, but there's something in the material that will interest them, and that way I'll get to work with somebody who has more vision and who is more of an artist and who'll give the film complexity. And will allow my performance to have some complexity and won't be afraid of that.
The Swedish project was written by a very good writer, he's pretty famous here. He's written a number of books - one that was made into the film "My Life As A Dog" and directed by Lasse Hallstrom. He wrote the period piece we're putting together, and my character is really interesting. Another one is more of a traditional action adventure movie, and we're working on the script now and trying to find a director who would make something special out of it. And there's another project that's kind of dark and unusual, with an element of the supernatural in it.
Q: You mentioned dark - you're in Sweden and come from a Swedish background; we're familiar with Ingmar Bergman's films, but aside from his, do you find the Swedish film style has a darkness that American films may not have?
Lundgren: (laughs) Yes, you're right. It has more of a
melancholic feeling. And the period piece script I mentioned is a
little more like that. It's more of an epic, but it has a certain, what
shall I say, nostalgia - like "Dances With Wolves"; it's pretty large
scale, and has lot to do with nature and the land, and this country's
history. But I do agree with you.
I mean the movies I've made, and intend to make in the future in the English language, most of them will probably be more fast-paced than the average Swedish picture. I'm not a huge fan of all Bergman's pictures, even though I think some of them are wonderful, and his theater productions are really great. But Lasse Hallstrom is not very dark. But people have looked at me here as more of a Hollywood product, whereas in America they look at me the other way around. That's what you get for being an immigrant, I guess - you belong everywhere but nowhere.
Q: Is there anything specific you can comment on about what is helping your process of slowing down and doing more internal work as an actor?
Lundgren: Yeah - that's what I set out to do a few years ago: to focus a little more on the quality of my life - my own life, instead of the quality of my business and my work. And I think I've found a lot more balance, in spending more time in Sweden; we're having a family here, and even moving to the East coast: Los Angeles was very draining for both me and my wife, and New York has much more interesting energy, and interesting people who aren't necessarily in show business - but they're interesting anyway.
I think also what's happening is that I've matured. I believe in film you can only use technique so long, it only takes you so far. And I didn't have any when I started, I was off the street, more or less, but now I have some experience in acting, and studying in New York and doing a few plays. But a lot of your screen presence and your strength on film comes from your own personality, and then, as an actor, allowing that to show.
That's what Jennifer does [Jennifer Lehman is a film acting
coach in L.A. who works with Dolph]; if you use that method, then it's
very important to be centered as a person, because that's what the
camera's going to sense. The way she works is particularly good in
film; she's very much into following your impulses, and very much into
making every time different.
She's really good at seeing when you're not following your impulses, and identifying perhaps what happened when you didn't - what went through your head at that point - and at the same time, reinforcing when you do follow your impulses, so that there's no limitations to what's going to happen in the scene - you don't set anything.
And also a lot of the movies I make, a lot of these more heroic film characters, there are certain things that audiences expect from such a character, and you can't fake that; you have to have some of it yourself, as a man. And I think I'm getting there.
Q: Aside from your family, was there something on a personal level that drew you toward technology that relates to your interest in acting, or are they really very separate?
Lundgren: That's a good question. I haven't thought of that
very much. I suppose there must be a common denominator in there
somewhere. I guess in science, you learn about life, about the world we
live in, and it's exploring what's outside you as a person. There's a
curiosity there that a scientist has, and an actor has; but an actor is
curious about himself, and also in the world around, seeing how people
behave, why they act a certain way. I guess I'm curious about life and
And I suppose that's why I had enough; that part of me that wasn't listening to my dad, that part had had enough of the analytical way and wanted to explore something a little scarier, and that's what happened.
Q: Your acting coach, Jennifer, thinks highly of your potential as an actor and filmmaker. I hope you're able to find projects that will let that talent blossom more.
Lundgren: I appreciate that. She has helped me very much. A lot of acting teachers can be hard to deal with on a personal level, but she is so easy to deal with. We spoke about cameras seeing your soul, and that is what is so special about film acting. She really believes in that, and it suits me very well.
Q: Are you finding you have more confidence to push outside the stereotypes you've been put in before?
Lundgren: I believe I do have more confidence. I think part of the trick and part of the skill I'm trying to acquire is to move outside a certain dramatic structure, a certain genre, which guarantees financing, and guarantees the audience will get something they came for. You can have some freedom to explore different characters and different story structures and work with interesting directors.
I look up to actors who have done that, for instance, to some extent Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, and now Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner. In the old days you had Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston. And Clint Eastwood is a big example of someone who was looked down on or laughed at by the creative establishment, and somehow he found a way to express himself in that genre that came out to be extremely powerful, and probably more powerful than many of the people one would have thought, say twenty years ago, would have been remembered and won all the awards. In the back of my mind, I remember people like that who've managed to do it, and they started off a little like I've started off.
Q: Are you feeling any specific frustrations with your progress in that direction, such as the kind of material you're finding?
Lundgren: Yeah - the material is the bottleneck that exists between your vision and reality. There's not a whole lot of frustration because I think I'm moving forward, but what I've realized you have to do, and I'm doing it this year, is I have to take my time and believe in myself and say 'no' to a lot of things, and I have to be tough with agents and producers, and hold out for something I really believe in.
It's scary at first to do that, because I've been working nonstop since '85, more or less, and listening to other people, and now I don't take that much advice any more. I listen to myself. and I'll listen to my wife - she knows nothing about the business - she's in fashion and jewelry design - and I'll just ask her what she thinks, or her friends, who have no stake, but have good taste and common sense, then make my own decisions, and I've found that if you do that, after a while people start listening a little more.
Because everybody's lost out there in Hollywood, everybody's looking for something to follow, somebody who really speaks with some confidence. And when I do, in my little small part of the business, then people tend to listen more now than they did before.
< edited version published in SOMA magazine, 1996 >
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