Dolph Lundgren and directorial debut The Defender [2005]

The guy was omnipresent back in the day, mixing it up with the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Skeletor. Dolph Lundgren has since dominated the action movie landscape. His most recent release, and directorial debut, The Defender, brought with it the signature elements of the balls-out flicks of yore: gunplay, explosions, and swaths of dead mercenaries. Dolph talked to action flick-aficionado Judge David Johnson about his experience directing, playing a villain versus playing the hero, and the state of the action genre today.

Let's start by talking about The Defender, your directorial debut. How was it being on the other side of the camera?
Dolph Lundgren: It was a great experience, but it was a whirlwind. I was already attached to The Defender, but the director got sick. The producer called me and asked if I would be interested in taking over. I didn't sleep for two months after that! Otherwise, it was fun and really interesting.

Had you been thinking about directing prior to this opportunity?
Dolph Lundgren: I had been thinking about directing for a while, yes. As a director, you're the top guy and have the final say about the direction of the movie. I had always wanted that responsibility.

How did your years of experience as an actor in action films help you with The Defender?
Dolph Lundgren: I have my tastes, which I put into my characterizations as an actor. As a director, I can inject those tastes into the whole movie and not just into the role I'm playing.

What lessons are you taking with you to your next project?
Dolph Lundgren: One lesson I took from the experience of making The Defender is not to rush things. My follow-up film was called The Mechanik, and because it's based on my original story, I had a bit more control, and I could do things on the fly a little more, without people constantly looking over my shoulder. Any time that you, as an actor, direct, people aren't really comfortable with it, and you have some nervousness on the producers' side.

The Defender, in my opinion, represented an example of an endangered species: the hard-core, CGI-free action flick. What is your opinion on the state of action movies today?
Dolph Lundgren: I tend to agree with you. When new technology is introduced, people tend to use it a lot and sometimes it grows stale. I've always preferred movies like Scarface and Gladiator, which had more realistic action. Yes, there was some effects work in Gladiator, but the fighting was realistic. If you're facing off against a tiger, you're not going to pull of a couple of double backflips to get away. I'm trying to bring that grittiness and old fashioned action feel back to movies.

A lot of people, myself included, look back fondly at the type of action flicks you were a part of back in the day, the ballsy, red-meat type. Are there any elements from these '80s and 'early '90s action films that you find conspicuously missing from what Hollywood has been producing lately?
Dolph Lundgren: It's always changing. In the '80s there were some guys who were real fighters, real body-builders, real martial artists who got into movies. They may have been limited as actors, but their presence still translated well on screen. The audience knew that guys like Charles Bronson could cause some damage if they hit you in real life. I think that element is largely missing from action movies. There are a few guys like that, The Rock for example, but not many. It'd be good to bring guys like that back. Mickey Rourke jumps to mind. He's a fine actor who also carries that tough guy image very well, and it's great to see Hollywood rediscover him.

How has the advent of the DVD market affected action filmmaking?
Dolph Lundgren: The home video market opened up a lot of financing opportunities. In the past, if a film tanked in the theatres, it was dead, but now that DVD is big, films have more options for success.

You've played villains and heroes. Which do you prefer and why?
Dolph Lundgren: Right now I'm working on two characters for upcoming projects. One is a hero, set in a Roman epic. At the same time I'm working on a villain for another film. It's fun to play a villain because you can have more fun. As a hero you have to be more neutral, because the audience accesses the movie through the hero, so he can't be too crazy. And speaking of villains, I'm thinking of revitalizing my old character from Universal Soldier.

Nice! Your character from that movie had one of the best end death scenes for a bad guy, getting chewed up in that combine.
Dolph Lundgren: (Laughs.) Thanks, man!

For which character are you most commonly stopped on the street and recognized for?
Dolph Lundgren: It's usually for Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, with He-Man in a close second. And sometimes Red Scorpion.

Sly Stallone has announced that Rocky VI will happen. Any talks about bringing back the man, Ivan Drago?
Dolph Lundgren: (Laughs.) No, I don't think so. He's still up in the Siberian gulag I think. Actually, I'm working on another Russian-themed project, and I've been thinking back about the Ivan Drago character a little bit.

So he might make a movie comeback, but in a more subtle manner?
Dolph Lundgren: (Laughs.) Yeah, very subtle!

Finally, one of my favorite movies when I was younger was Masters of the Universe. So tell me... what was it like holding up that sword and saying "I have the power"?
Dolph Lundgren: It was cool, man! It was a pretty heavy sword, but I was more pumped-up and muscular in that film than in any other. In fact, I think I have that sword in my living room somewhere.