Sylvester Stallone is attending the Oscars this year as a nominee in the Supporting Actor category for his work on "Creed."
It's his first meaningful appearance at the ceremony since his 1976 film, “Rocky" — which he starred in, wrote and produced — was nominated for 10 Oscars and won three, including Best Picture. Since then, he’s made a living mostly playing action heroes in the "Rambo" movies and "The Expendables" films. And Stallone was comfortable with that ... until a young filmmaker named Ryan Coogler came calling.
When Coogler was still in film school — and had not yet made his critically acclaimed movie, "Fruitvale Station" — he pitched Stallone his idea for "Creed." It was inspired by Coogler's personal experience of taking care of his ailing father — a strong man who had loved the "Rocky" movies, as Coogler told The Frame when he was a guest on the show.
It was around 2011-2012, [when] I went to film school. I was getting ready to make “Fruitvale.” My father got really sick. My world kind of crashed. He had a neuromuscular condition, so he was becoming weaker. In the process he was struggling mentally. I got this idea about telling a story about it. I thought, What if this happened to my father’s hero, to Rocky? That’s kind of when I came up with the idea of the movie.
But Coogler had a hard time convincing Stallone to play an ailing Rocky.
Stallone tells The Frame's John Horn why he turned down the part twice before finally saying yes; why he worked with an acting coach and how that coach forced him to confront his son's death; and what happened when he told Ryan Coogler he wouldn't attend the Academy Awards if the young director didn't want him to.
I was forewarned that there was a new kid in town. He was very inexperienced and he was a USC student, but he had a pitch on "Creed." I'm [thinking], OK, obviously he just wants to take Creed and run with it. I said, "OK, send him over. I'll be obliging, no problem." So he comes over to the office. And he's nothing like I imagined. He's physical, he's like an athlete — buoyant, exuberant. And he keeps pitching. And he goes on and on and on. I say, "Yes, that's cool." And then [Coogler says], Rocky comes down with this horrible, fatal disease. I say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! How did I get into this gig?" I [said], "No, this is not going to work."
I ask him, "What have you done?" He says, "Well, nothing. But I'm working on this thing called 'Fruitvale Station.'" I [said], "Well, good luck with it." I called my agent and said, "Why would you do that? I'm so lucky with the last Rocky Balboa that it ended on an up note. I just never wanted to disrupt that again."
So that was it. End of story, right?
End of story. Then a year and a half passes. He does this movie in 20 days, "Fruitvale Station." He wins Cannes — this award, that award. Now he's walking in armed with awards. And he starts again. I say, "Does [Rocky] still get sick?" He says "Yes! He does! Because this thing is based on my father — he was sick, he was misdiagnosed, and Rocky kind of typifies what I went through with my father, because he watched 'Rocky' every day. Somehow he thought that was very uplifting, maybe somehow psychically medicinal." And I [said], "I understand. I understand you have this obligation with your father and all, but why do I have to get sick?"
And he [says], "Because you're Rocky and that's the whole point — that Rocky is in the fight of his life."
I [say], "Can't it be Burt Young? Can't he get sick? Or how about a neighbor? They come down with this rare ailment, and Rocky helps the neighbor?"
Is your opposition because you know the audience doesn't want to see Rocky sick? Because you as an actor don't want to play him sick? Or because you and Rocky are so closely intertwined as character and actor?
I think it's a little bit of each. But, primarily, I didn't think the audience wants to see sick Rocky. And I mean, sick, weak, nonphysical, non-boxing Rocky. So I passed again. And my agent was mortified. He said, 'Oh my, Sly. He's going to be a young important director. Let's try it. Today you have to do something really, truly uncharacteristic. You have to break the mold a little bit."
So then I explained it to my wife. I say, "I'm not doing it." She says, "Of course you won't, because you're a coward." I [said], "Excuse me? A little blunt, isn't it? Can we work up to that word a little bit, like maybe [I'm] fearful or nervous? She said, "You don't want to try something you could fail at." I [said], "Believe me, I failed at a lot of things. But I don't want to fail at Rocky."
She says, "If you want to take this to another level, if you really want to be an actor, this is the fight — the fight for survival, to keep your mortal soul alive. Everyone's going through this battle. You don't have to be a boxer to identify with it." I [thought], You know what? God, she's right again. And that's when I committed to it. From that point on, I never looked back.
She was right about your being afraid, but was she right because you had to do things you hadn't been doing, and you had to kind of break that pattern. Is that what she was talking about? That you had to roll the dice a little bit?
Right. And I didn't know if I could break that pattern. So I sought help. I went to this acting coach. Her name was Ivanna Chubbuck. And she just broke me down. It's almost as though certain acting habits become calcified. And before you know it, you're like a piano player with one finger. You keep hitting that same note over and over again.
When was the last time you worked with an acting coach?
My God. Probably college.
So what was that experience like, to rediscover the craft of acting with an acting coach? It sounds terrifying.
It is. Because she right away got into really subliminal, exploratory, personal chambers that I wanted to keep closed, like my son's death. I said, "I really don't want to go there. I really don't want to talk about that." She said, "But that's what needs to come out. You need to express that. This is what this character is dealing with. That kind of loss. And that kind of grief ... It's just about you, purging, coming to terms."
So it was very cathartic, to say the least. It destroyed me for a while. But I think it cleared the way for approaching acting now on a much more visceral, emotional level than I had, maybe ever.
Do you remember the first scene you did where Rocky's health was failing? And what that felt like as an actor, and how scary that might have been, or how rewarding to take that plunge and do that scene?
We were in the ring. It's where Rocky is working with the catch mitts and getting punched in the stomach a little bit, even though he's wearing padding, by Michael [B. Jordan]. Rocky says, "Let's take a break." He goes over and he throws up. And for the first time, his legs buckle. And Rocky can't even stand up. All the characters that I've played, I've never had a weak character who literally was stunned by how his body betrayed him — the fear. And so I found myself, in the role — I'm apologizing to him, Rocky's apologizing for being sick. For a guy that's so prideful, he's sorry to be a burden on anyone.
And that scene got very, very heavy between myself and Michael. It got into really deep moments. Hysteria. It kept building and building. The director cut out at a certain point because he was going through some stuff, too. Michael, with his parents. And this thing was just so . . . so soul-wrenching. So hard. We were just purging personal grief that the audience would have never got. But that was the beginning. I said, "Wow, I never experienced anything like this." It felt good and bad at the same time.
When you watch this film, and watch your performance, do you recognize something that's new and different in yourself? Are you surprised by the performance you give?
Yes. [Laughter.] Actually, yeah, I am. I think the more you go through, the better your repertoire of emotions increases. And I realized that there's also been a lot of vanity in action characters. That's usually part and parcel. You're supposed to be somewhat of a physical specimen. So, vanity and narcissism, or whatever you want to call it, creeps in, whether you're aware of it or not. And this is what they'd call a complete non-physical role. A non-physical hero. Someone who is completely helpless in the onslaught of life and health and disease, whatever. He's just a mortal guy. Matter of fact, Rocky is a former champion who lives among ghosts. His wife and brother-in-law. Apollo. Everyone has left him. It was quite a revelation.
We're here, and you're nominated for an Academy Award for supporting actor, and yet Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler did not get in. Do you have slightly mixed feelings about the fact that they weren't recognized as you were?
I do. I do. I can't point the finger at anyone because I'm not part of that committee. But I thought Ryan was just absolutely magnificent, brilliant, fearless, brave — and the reason I'm there. I wouldn't have been nominated without him. He provided the format and, I want to say, the formula. He provided the scenario for Rocky to go through this life-and-death situation. Michael B. Jordan — he's one of these actors that when you look into his eyes, you can see snatches of his soul, little glimpses. So he makes you better. And I thought, My God, what they both went through. And I saw the preparation. We're talking two-and-a-half years. I was a little stunned, to tell you the truth.
And I called Ryan. I said, "I'm sorry. I don't know exactly how to express myself. If you don't want me to go, I won't go."
To the Oscars.
As part of the boycott?
I wouldn't call it a boycott. I mean, I really am proud to be nominated. It's extraordinary. But I wanted to hear what his opinion was.
He [says], "You'd do that?" I said, "I'm talking to you, aren't I?" And he said, "Sly, you earned it man. You were good. Go there and represent us." He's such a sweet guy. And I [said], "OK. I'll do my best."
Sitting here now, seeing how the film has been received, what it has done for you as an actor, and I suspect for your career going forward — do you regret saying no to the film the first time? Or did you need to say no so that you got to the point where you could take a risk?
I think that it all happened sort of for a reason and it built a kind of a climax. Just like the very fact that I am so incredibly honored to be nominated by the Academy. And [winning] at the Golden Globes. It was just absolutely astounding. And that Ryan and Michael are all good with this. And in the end, I think it's all going to work out. I feel like I'm on this passenger plane being driven by some very, very talented people. I'm just trying to enjoy the view while it's here.