On a picnic bench at a sunny bar in a part of Brooklyn littered with postapocalyptic-looking warehouses used for photo shoots sit a father and son, sort of. The younger man is Florian Munteanu. He’s 28, a boxer and fitness model born and raised in Germany to a family that fled Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist-controlled Romania. The older man is Dolph Lundgren. He’s 61, a damaged Swedish nerd and survivor of Hollywood’s ’80s action wars.
In 1985’s Rocky IV, Lundgren gifted us Ivan Drago, the USSR’s indestructible killing machine. The movie came during the last throes of the cold war and was a riff on realpolitik that was huge in every way: buffoonish, xenophobic, totally thrilling. And Drago—tremendously yoked, nearly mute, and glistening (always glistening)—was a note-perfect embodiment of theoretical Russian evil. He was “Death from Above” built in a lab by white-clad mad Soviet scientists (who basically, come to think of it, invented advanced analytics). He murdered Apollo Creed and broke Rocky’s heart, and we can never forgive him for that. But the reason he’s still stuck in our minds is that his very image sowed fear. As much as Kubrick or any of the French auteurs, Ivan Drago was pure cinema: visuals and sound.
This year, with Creed II, Drago is back—and he’s brought his firstborn, Viktor Drago, along. In a development both stupidly inevitable and undeniably good, Munteanu’s Viktor will fight Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed—the long-lost son of Apollo, the man Ivan killed in the ring. Our global conflicts, our ideals of strength, our relationships with our dads—what hasn’t changed since the moment Apollo hit the canvas? And yet, somehow, the ostensibly 2-D characters are here to grapple with all these revolutions. We are into the fifth decade of the Rocky franchise, and I sincerely hope we have five more to go.
The two large men sit side by side—Munteanu in a rad vintage Bulls zip-up, Lundgren in a tight white T-shirt and Buddhist prayer beads. I feel like their combined breadth could block out the sun. (I knew, of course, that Lundgren was a big fella. Munteanu’s size tripped me up slightly. When we exchanged niceties, the six-foot-four Munteanu clasped a hand on my shoulder, effectively enveloping me; fumbling to correlate my movements, I leaned in to his expansive chest for a hug neither of us was expecting.) In Creed II, they play a tortured—is there any other kind?—father-and-son pairing. In real life, they show off an easier rapport.
Lundgren goads Munteanu into drinking tequila shots, which has them recalling a recent big night out. “Remember the Russian singer? From the Russian restaurant?” Munteanu says. “She’s still texting me!” Then Lundgren switches to goading Munteanu into downing a sloppy joe, an item of food that seems to fully, understandably, confuse the European. Munteanu ends up getting a blue-cheese double burger, which he patiently waits to eat until the bartender brings over a fork and a knife.
Soon after being cast, Lundgren and Munteanu started working out together in L. A. “When you train together,” Lundgren says, “you develop a very pure type of respect for the person.” For Munteanu, it had echoes of his childhood, in Munich gyms with his dad, an obsessive boxing fan. “Immediately, I felt that I went back into the past with my father again.”
When Lundgren shot Rocky IV, he was the same age Munteanu is now. The age difference was its own inspiration. “If I could match him in something,” Lundgren says, “it was enough for me. And I was thinking, as I was watching Florian”—he turns to the young man—“there’ll be a day when you won’t be able to do that anymore. Some people are driven by that. It’s part of my life. And it’s great to see somebody who can do that too and has a bright future ahead of him being that physical person.”
The bar’s gotten noisy. It’s dotted with young people (estimated dates of birth: post–Rocky V, at least) absolutely crushing their after-work frozés. We chat a while longer, loosely. We reminisce about all the muscle-bound greats that Munteanu now hopes to emulate. Sly, of course. Schwarzenegger. Van Damme. Seagal! Claims Lundgren, “You could put a camera on Steven Seagal, he could fight five guys in here right now.” On cue, we look around the room at the competition, young men fulfilling clichés in flannels and beards.
“You think you could fight these guys?” I ask.
Munteanu smiles. Lundgren picks a target for him: “Maybe that fat guy back there. . . .”
Then Lundgren thinks of his own life lived in mirrored weight rooms. “I’m realizing, Shit, how many times have I gone to the gym? Millions and millions? And somehow, I enjoy my physique now more than when I was 27. All the gladiators and great warriors, they have their heroic feats. And even the strongest man at some point is gonna get old and frail. You just want to push it ahead as much as you can.”
I go settle our check, and by the time I come back, Lundgren and Munteanu have swiveled to face each other and have locked into some strain of intensity not accessible to me.
“You have to see why you are who you are,” I hear Lundgren say.
Munteanu, the supplicant, nods with solemnity. “Exactly.”
A brooklyn bar is a ways away from where the two men started. Munteanu was discovered by a Bucharest entrepreneur named Eduard Irimia, the founder of a fledgling MMA league called Superkombat Fighting Championship. Irimia is trying his best to brand him Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu. To that end, Munteanu has intense hazel eyes and Anthony Mason–esque buzz-cut stylization. But all calculated intimidation melts away in the purported Big Nasty’s warm puddle of earnestness. His Instagram features at least three photos of him posing in front of the same bit of L. A. angel-wing street art. When I ask him how he likes the food in the States, he answers, “I like it. For example, I like cheesesteaks.”
Lundgren spent his own youth in Stockholm doing martial arts and differential calculus. His father, a Swedish army officer and electrical engineer, pushed young Dolph into brainy overachievement. He was also rage-filled and physically abusive. “My father had problems in his work, and he took it out on the family,” Lundgren says. “Well, mostly me and my mom. The others, he never touched them. I loved him, and in many ways I still emulate him. But I had a period where I wanted to really hurt him.”
By the time he was in his early 20s, Lundgren had moved from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology to the University of Sydney, where he was finishing his graduate degree while freelancing as security at rock concerts. One night, Grace Jones—pop star, actress, radical aesthete—played a show in town. She spotted the genius-brawler and, that very night, took him up to her hotel suite. Then she brought him into ’80s downtown New York. He met Warhol. Bowie. Michael Jackson. Gianni Versace personally made him a pair of leather pants. He partied at Studio 54 and Limelight and the Tunnel, where the VIP rooms came with menus listing drugs available for purchase.
He’d been accepted to a Ph.D. program in chemical engineering at MIT, the greatest technical school in the universe. It was the culmination of his father’s dream. But the world he’d chanced upon—Jones was the first real girlfriend he ever had—was too much to pass up. He chose New York. Then he landed Rocky IV, which made him instantly famous. “I’d been thrown in the business very quickly,” he says, “and it was a shock. And the aftershocks were going on for seven, eight, nine years after it happened.”
Lundgren nabbed role after role—Masters of the Universe, Universal Soldier, Johnny Mnemonic—despite, as he readily admits, not knowing how to act. “I made big money and I could go to Paris and meet a different young lady every night if I wanted.” But onscreen, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no skills.”
Amid the success, though, he’d never truly worked through his anger at his father. “It’s very difficult to raise hands against your parent. By the time I was strong enough to get back at him for what he did to me, there was no reason. To beat up an old man? For what happened years before?”
Munteanu’s family was endlessly supportive. His mother was a lawyer, his father a dermatologist. Seeking the opportunities of Western Europe, they left the small Romanian town of Târgu-Mureș without informing any members of their expansive extended family. “In times of communism, you had to live a censored life,” Munteanu says with a shrug. “They fled, by foot and car. They made the decision that they didn’t want to have children under those circumstances. After the dictator was murdered and they were safe, they made the decision to have me.” Munteanu was born in the fall of 1990, ten months exactly after Romanian army generals carrying out a coup d’état executed President Ceaușescu by firing squad.
In 2003, a decade and change after the fall of the iron curtain, the Munteanus managed to track down every last missing relative. “Since [then], we have [had] these reunions for many years,” Munteanu happily explains. “I have 43 male and female cousins!” His family was splintered by the vagaries of life in the Soviet bloc. They left Romania in 1985, the same year Rocky IV was released. Now Munteanu will get his big break playing the son of pop culture’s ultimate Soviet villain. What can you do? History churns on.
Before shooting Creed II in Philly over the spring, Lundgren revisited his star-making role. “I wanted to feel the nightmare he felt at the end”—after Drago loses to Rocky. Spooling out the character’s backstory, Lundgren imagines Drago has spent the decades since driftless, broke, bitter, betrayed. Abandoned by his country. Unable to countenance his downfall. “Basically, life turned to hell.”
After the shoot—14-hour days of scowling and nailing exacting fight choreography—Munteanu had “a little breakdown. It took me a month to be Florian again. I was telling Dolph: We never smiled once in that movie.” Before filming began, the director, Steven Caple Jr., had Munteanu engage in a therapy session with an acting coach in which he unveiled every painful moment he could recall. “I had to tell all the dark and deep moments I was living in my whole life. He knew everything.” Later, during shooting, Caple would use the real-life incidents as triggers to get Munteanu to snap into character.
And when that didn’t work, all Munteanu had to do was gaze at Lundgren. “I was looking into his eyes. I could read the pain on his face. And so it was easy for me to deliver the pain.”
The fact that a Swede and a Romanian-German were playing Russians was only slightly problematic: The two just went ahead and memorized their lines phonetically. “We’re arguing, trying to get emotional,” Lundgren says, “and we really don’t know what we’re saying.”
Coincidentally, U. S.-Russian relations haven’t been this chilly since the end of the USSR. Creed II won’t focus as heavily on the geopolitics as Rocky IV, but Lundgren cracks, “I do think that marketing-wise it’s quite good.”
“So no Putin cameo?” I ask.
Munteanu laughs. “He did not come to the fight.”
After leaving the bar, Lundgren and I say goodbye to Munteanu and slide into the buttery seats of a massive black GMC Yukon. The truck crosses the Ed Koch Bridge and moves slowly, yachtlike, through suffocating midtown traffic. I have a few more questions to ask Lundgren. Slightly more personal ones.
Lundgren’s father passed away in 2000, around the same time his career began what he himself calls a “nosedive.” For the next decade, he primarily starred in direct-to-home-video schlock. During those years, his marriage to Anette Qviberg fell apart, largely thanks to his own admitted infidelities. They’d raised two daughters together in Marbella, on the southern coast of Spain, far from Hollywood. Lundgren’s connection to the industry had frayed. He knew that. But he was concerned less about his career and more about his personal well-being. He had some shit to sort out. When he met Jenny Sandersson, his current partner, she pushed him into therapy and daily meditation. He’s spoken repeatedly and openly about how much it’s all helped.
We glide down 57th Street, heading toward Lundgren’s luxe hotel on Central Park South. He thinks back to his first brush with the city, when Grace Jones brought him here all those years ago, back before anyone cared who he was. He’d met Sylvester Stallone and was auditioning for Rocky IV. But he hadn’t yet gotten the role that would change everything.
He’d walk all through the city, practicing his Ivan Drago, practicing being as still as possible. Warren Robertson, his legendary school-of-Strasberg acting coach, told him: “Don’t move at all. Don’t do anything.” Lundgren didn’t tell anyone he was up for the part. “I didn’t want them to make fun of me.”
At the screen test, on a soundstage at MGM, Lundgren faced off against two other massive blond dudes. There were dozens of people behind the cameras with Stallone, all kinds of unidentified important-seeming people in suits. The other big blonds went for an over-the-top Russian Mr. T.
Lundgren laughs, imitating their horrible Slavic accents: “I will keeeeeeel you!”
He played it cool. “I was just standing there, fighting the urge to do something.” He clicks into character, recalling the simple, hushed monologue he delivered. He’s barely talking above a whisper. “My name is Drago. I’m a fighter from the Soviet Union.” That was it. Stallone called him a couple days later. Lundgren was with Jones, down in the Village. Now he clicks into a very good mumbly Sly impersonation. “You got the part, kid.”
Appropriately enough, in 2010, it was Sly who pulled Lundgren out of his home-video purgatory by casting him in The Expendables. “That brought me back to the big screen,” he says. Now, with Creed II, he’s finally getting to do a bit of acting after all these decades in film. “I don’t know why it’s turned out that way. Maybe people get a different energy from me now.”
He also says he’s forgiven his father. “Did you ever tell him that?” I ask.
“I didn’t. I couldn’t talk about it. He’d blanked out anything he’d done. He was in a lot of pain over it. Anybody who beats up their own kid or beats their wife—that’s coming from their trauma. I realized that as I got older. He had a very difficult childhood, too. He was a little, you know, scared boy as well, at some point.”
When he got sick, before he died, Lundgren was there. “I was with him right at the end. And I think he knew that I loved him no matter what.” Even now, Lundgren says, “I think about him every day.”
Repeatedly, Lundgren has found himself with substitute father figures: karate instructors, acting coaches, even Stallone. And unavoidably, playing Ivan Drago again—as the character has bloomed into a twisted, manipulative father seeking redemption through his son—hit a nerve. “It became quite emotional because I got to be the other guy,” Lundgren says. “I got to be him.” Looking at his onscreen son, too, he found it hard not to compare lives. “Florian, he’s much more self-assured,” Lundgren says. “He was given love and attention as a kid.”
Earlier, when we were at the bar, Munteanu and Lundgren had fallen into banter about whether anyone watching Creed II could possibly find themselves rooting for the Dragos. After all, Donnie Creed and Rocky Balboa are the rich guys! The Dragos are down and out, looking for the one thing anyone looks for in a boxing movie: One. Last shot. At redemption.
Lundgren wasn’t so sure. But Munteanu insisted. “People are gonna be shocked. They underestimate him, underestimate his abilities as an actor. Only see him maybe as ‘badass motherfucker who wants to destroy everything.’ They’re going to be fascinated about the way he’s playing Ivan Drago now.”
Is it possible? That the Rocky franchise has now gone on for so long that it might afford Ivan Drago, of all characters, some humanity?
Munteanu assured me: “There will be tears for us.”
Amos Barshad has written for the Fader, Grantland, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine.
This article appears in the December ’18 issue of Men’s Health.
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