Recently, while accepting a Critics' Choice award for supporting actor for his reprised role in the "Rocky" spinoff "Creed," Sylvester Stallone looked out at the crowd and mumbled, "Oh, my God," as they collectively rose and gave him a standing ovation. A few days later, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, the actor smiled at the memory. "There seemed to be some genuine affection [for me] that I didn't know was prevalent," he said, in his low, tough-guy rumble.
What moved the audience to their feet, of course, had less to do with the latest in a string of Stallone accolades (a Golden Globe win, an Oscar nomination). It was more of an acknowledgment that in his 40-year-plus career filled with box-office-breaking highs and truly cringe-worthy lows, Stallone is on the upswing again. Moreover, he reversed his fortunes by giving perhaps one of his most nuanced performances ever at the age of 69, and outside the action genre that Stallone feared he'd be confined to for the rest of his working life.
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"I thought there was just no way I could find my way back into drama," said Stallone, who believes that assuming an ancillary role and leaving the stinging jabs and uppercuts to Michael B. Jordan as second-generation boxer Adonis Creed freed him up to focus on retired palooka Rocky Balboa's slow-stirring melancholia. "When you're reliant on the physicality, you tend to speak more with your body. But I'm the most inactive person in the movie."
Trudging through "Creed" in reading glasses and a tilted pork pie hat, Stallone infuses his character with an aura of wisdom, the kind exuded by a man who has often learned things the hard way. The same can be said for the actor himself, who is ready to laugh at where some of his gut instincts have taken him. For example, of his role as a cynical father in the widely panned "Oscar," a 1991 gangster farce and one of his few attempts at pure comedy, Stallone said, "I tried to make him seem likable. It was like trying to make Ebenezer Scrooge a nice guy. What's the point of the story?"
He spent 2 1/2 years resisting young "Creed" writer-director Ryan Coogler's ("Fruitvale Station") idea for a "Rocky" revival, believing it was, in his words, "a surefire disaster." Dressed today in blue jeans, navy suede shoes and a crisp white button-down shirt that strained at his still-bulging shoulders, Stallone said, "What happened with 'Creed' is nothing short of miraculous. I thought I finally paid tribute to the character that made me [with 'Rocky Balboa' in 2006]. Then years later, facing an avalanche of criticism — 'What? Rocky again?' — this kid pulls it off."
In playing an aging widower and restaurant owner who is biding his time in a lonely routine, Stallone displays sweetness, an emotion that the actor hasn't radiated in recent memory. "When he does action movies, it can get buried in that overt masculinity that those characters have to have," Coogler said. "But in terms of sweetness, that's him in real life — it's just under a few layers. He's been through so much and has had to be so strong all the time. So it's almost like scar tissue, emotionally."
The he-man shield started early. Back in 1978, in the wake of "Rocky's" three Oscar wins, he was struggling to find his footing. Looking back, he places much of the blame for the failure of his feature directorial debut "Paradise Alley" and the lambasting of Norman Jewison's labor union drama "F.I.S.T." on his inability to dial down his swagger. "I failed to read the rule book about humility," is how Stallone puts it now. "My public persona was not as likable as I hoped. I tended to be a bit outspoken. I could see that would make [critics] think, 'OK, let's see if you can back it up with your next film.' And obviously I didn't."
Not much later, he was back with "Rocky II." Three years passed before he turned "First Blood" into a surprise hit. Since then he's toggled between his Rocky and Rambo franchises, the latter of which he calls "a double-edged blessing." "I never planned on playing Rambo," said Stallone. "When I first read the script, I thought, 'This is interesting: The country creates this killing machine, then it turns on its master.' Then I got caught up in it. I became enamored with this less-dialogue-more-physicality. It was more of a challenge, and I didn't see many people doing it at the time. But then it became my trademark."
If he has what he calls a "love-hate" relationship with films that rely on violent gun battles and a high body count, it is because they've always saved him.
During one bleak career stretch, a bit part in "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" was followed by a gig co-hosting "The Contender," a boxing competition reality TV show. "I could see the end was near," said Stallone, who tried to pry Hollywood's swiftly closing door back open with 2006's indie-flavored, generally well-received "Rocky Balboa." He said the concept for his third franchise, the macho gore-fest known as "The Expendables," came after spotting an ad for a '70s-era rock band revival show.
"I thought, 'Why can't I do this with old action guys?' So I just took all these people who couldn't get arrested and saw if we could get arrested collectively," said Stallone, adding that while it put him back in the game, "it's not food for the soul."
As for his future plans, if there's an "Expendables 4" on the horizon, he said it will be Stallone-less. ("I'm officially not in it.") Is there another installment of "Rambo" in our future? "Don't you think that's pushing the manila envelope?" he replied.
Though when it's discussed in the trades "Creed 2" sounds like a done deal, Stallone sounds iffy when asked about it.
"The director is very important, and I don't know how that would work," he said referring to the fact that the sequel would be made without Coogler, who is busy with Marvel's "Black Panther." "If he's not available, I certainly wouldn't want to do it."
When informed of this, Coogler sounded as if this were new information. "I don't know who else he's told that to," he said, adding that "it's very difficult to get Sly to do something he doesn't want to do. But it wouldn't be the first time he's changed his mind about something."
Though Stallone declined to get too specific about his offers post-"Creed," he was upbeat in describing them as parts "that require real emoting, solid dramatic roles."
When asked if his years of fluctuation better prepared him for this phase in his career, he leaned forward and said in a confidential tone, "I wish I'd listened more to all those people around me who have my best interests at heart. Now I listen."