“If you know what you’re worth, go out and get what you’re worth.” That’s a line from 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the sixth (yes, sixth) film in the series. It had once been Stallone’s motto. Yet somewhere along the way he’d forgotten it.
He divorced his first wife in 1985; his turbulent second marriage, to actress Brigitte Nielsen, ended less than two years later. Roger Ebert had once predicted Stallone would be the next Brando. While he put on more than 30 pounds for 1997’s Cop Land, his performance largely went ignored. Stallone weathered a series of commercial disappointments in rapid succession. I mention that he seemed poised for the kind of career resurrection Quentin Tarantino specializes in.
“Tarantino did call,” Stallone says. “I was foolish. He called for Jackie Brown—the De Niro part. I said, I’m not sure I can pull this off.” Years later Tarantino tried again with Grindhouse, offering him the role Kurt Russell eventually played. “First, I think it had been offered to Mickey Rourke,” Stallone says, “then he offered it to me. I said, I don’t know if I can pull this off with the girls and whatever.” Stallone was flailing. In 2003, he played the fourth lead in Spy Kids 3. He did two episodes of Las Vegas, the NBC series starring Josh Duhamel. By his own admission, he was not fun to be around.
“I believe we suffer two deaths,” he says, his hands clasped together on the table. “If you feel you’re a creative person, you die twice in this life. And the creative death is a horrible one that can linger for 30 years. You realize you’re done. And you have no outlet for it. It’s a horrible thing. I was saddened by the prospect that I was probably the architect of all of this.” He adds: “We’re all very flawed. And we all think we can get over our flaws. But we can’t. We can manage them. But we are who we are.”
In a way, that’s what makes The Expendables so genius. “We are who we are.” Stallone once again had to write himself out of a hole, betting on himself when no one else would. The Expendables is, ostensibly, about a group of mercenaries who—forget it, it doesn’t matter. The plot (such as it is) barely coheres. It was a hit because audiences wanted to see Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger together on-screen. It was like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but with dynamite. For his part, Stallone likens the film to a reunion tour featuring Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and the Righteous Brothers. In other words: These relics were greater than the sum of their parts. (Sample bit of dialogue: Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back”; Willis scowls, “You’ve been back enough. I’ll be back.”)
Says Terry Crews, an NFL-star-cum-action-hero who appears in The Expendables: “He’d write monologues for all of us. Then it would come time to shoot it and he’d throw it all away. He’d say, ‘Man, they don’t want to see us say all this stuff. But what you just read? That’s what you’re thinking while you’re shooting.’ ”
While the blockbuster seems like a no-brainer now, studio executives balked, as did some of Stallone’s own compatriots. Jean-Claude Van Damme basically accused him of slumming when Stallone tracked him down in Thailand to offer him a role in the first film. Van Damme said: “Sly, I think you are above this. Why are you making this movie?”
“I said, ‘Well, I think it’s financially sound, and it’s what we do, Jean-Claude.’ He goes, ‘I believe you are at the point in your life where you should play a priest in East L.A. helping young people,’ ” Stallone says. “I go, ‘A priest? Does he carry a gun?’ ” The two had words. Stallone called Van Damme “an idiot.” Van Damme must have had a change of heart. He played the villain in the sequel.
Of Stallone, Crews adds, “He truly has shown what faith is: You gotta go when everybody says no.” A fourth Expendables is now in the works. (Stallone says Bill Clinton would be his dream cameo.) Which begs the question: How much longer can this go on? And what’s left for Stallone to prove?
Do you ever think, I’m too old for this shit?
“Trust me. Every day I feel it. I fucking hate it. But there’s no getting around it, you know? I just should not have done so many stunts. But now I warn kids: There’s a check coming due.”
It doesn’t seem possible that you’re turning 68.
“It’s very possible. Get those cataracts out of there.”
What’s it like to see yourself on-screen now?
“I don’t like it. Believe me. I only wish I could do every movie coming out of the sun. And I’m backlit. I’d love to do a desert film. That would be the greatest movie.”
Are you vain?
“I used to be vain. And very competitive. ‘Arnold has size. I can’t get that size. I don’t have the genetics.’ I tried to get more definition. Finally it got to the point where you’re getting [voted] Best Abs in movies? I don’t want to get Best Abs. That’s not the title you want. I guess I think of myself as a filmmaker.”
That’s vintage Stallone—putting a fine point on the changing face of masculinity nearly 40 years after Rocky first premiered. Is Best Abs something men are supposed to aspire to?
Today, Stallone is busier than he’s been in years. He and his wife, Jennifer Flavin, have three daughters—ages 17, 15 and 12—and he’s heavily involved in their lives. (Like any dad, he laments their increasing obsession with social media. Though, considering he once got into a Twitter feud with Bruce Willis over a salary dispute, he doesn’t have much ground to stand on.) When asked about the secret to marriage, he says, “ending fights quickly. Going to bed angry builds up scar tissue. And as you know, nothing grows on scar tissue.”
Surely he’s enjoying his victory lap around town. Stallone’s done eight films since 2010. There’s even talk of a Rocky spin-off, of sorts: Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler is working on Creed, about the grandson of Apollo Creed stepping into the ring. (Rocky would train the kid, and Stallone is game—should the script come together well.) But perhaps there’s something else at work here. Maybe Stallone is running from mortality, too. The topic’s always been on his mind. Even as far back as 1978 he told Playboy, “If I slow down, the omnipotent clock is going to catch me and cut me to pieces with the second hand.”
“You can panic,” he says now. “Or you can just surrender to it and realize it’s an inevitability.” In other words: Of course Rocky is now a musical. Just as Studio 54 is now a scrubbed-clean Broadway theater. Life hasn’t stood still for Stallone, or any of us.
When he’s feeling contemplative he turns inward and focuses on painting, which he once referred to as his “first love.” Look closely at his work and you’ll frequently see a clock somewhere on the canvas. “Father Time,” he says, adding, “We do two things in the world: We race. And we fight. When Rambo said, ‘War is normal. Peace is an accident,’ I’m sorry to say, you know, that’s true.”