DRAGO FAMILY VALUES
Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu – his on-screen son in Creed II – share what it takes to stay in shape at any age
IVAN DRAGO, THE LETHAL SOVIET BOXER FROM ROCKY IV, IS BACK. AND IN CREED II, HE’S BROUGHT ALONG HIS EQUALLY RUTHLESS SON. MH MET DOLPH LUNDGREN AND FLORIAN MUNTEANU TO TALK MUSCLEBUILDING IN YOUR SIXTIES AND LEAVING BODY FAT ON THE CANVAS. THERE’S MORE TO THIS ON-SCREEN FAMILY THAN IRON STRENGTH
It’s a sunny afternoon, and two men sit on a bench outside a bar in Brooklyn. They’re the image of father and son, and that’s what they are – of a sort, at least. The younger man is Florian Munteanu. He’s 28, a boxer and fitness model born in Germany to a family who had fled Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist Romania. The older man is Dolph Lundgren. He’s 61, a bulky Swedish nerd and veteran of Hollywood’s 1980s “action wars”.
In the 1985 film Rocky IV, Lundgren played boxer Ivan Drago, the USSR’S seemingly indestructible killing machine. The movie was released in the last throes of the Cold War and, as a riff on realpolitik, it was huge in every way: buffoonish, xenophobic but utterly thrilling. And Drago – built like a tank, nearly mute, always glistening – perfectly embodied American fears of Russian evil. He was death from above (Lundgren is 6ft 5in), precision-crafted in a lab by whiteclad Soviet scientists. Unforgivably, he killed Apollo Creed in the ring and broke Rocky’s heart. But the reason he has remained in our consciousness more than three decades later is that his very image sowed fear. Ivan Drago was pure cinema “baddie”.
In Creed II – the eighth film in the Rocky franchise – Drago is back and, this time, he’s brought along his son, Viktor (Munteanu). In a development both compelling and stupidly inevitable, Viktor will fight Michael B Jordan’s Adonis Creed, Apollo’s son. Our global conflicts, our ideals of strength, our relationships with our dads: what hasn’t changed since the moment Apollo hit the canvas? More than 40 years since the first Rocky film, these ostensibly two-dimensional characters are here to grapple with all of these revolutions.
The two large men sit side by side, Munteanu in a vintage Chicago Bulls hoody, Lundgren wearing a tight, white T-shirt and Buddhist prayer beads. It feels as if their combined breadth could block out the sun. In Creed II, their characters’ relationship is tortured; in real life, they have an easier rapport. Lundgren talks Munteanu into downing tequila shots, which leads to a conversation about a recent night out. “Remember the singer from the Russian restaurant?” Munteanu says. “She’s still texting me!” Then Lundgren tries to goad Munteanu into ordering a “sloppy Joe”, a minced beef sandwich that clearly doesn’t appeal to him. Munteanu ends up opting for a blue cheese burger, which he patiently waits to eat until the bartender brings him a fork and a knife.
Soon after they were cast, Lundgren and Munteanu started working out in Los Angeles. “When you train together,” Lundgren says, “you develop a very pure respect for the person.” These sessions reminded Munteanu of his youth in Munich, where he’d go to gyms with his dad, an obsessive boxing fan. “I felt I was back in the past with my father again.”
Lundgren was the same age as Munteanu is now when he appeared in Rocky IV. The actors’ age difference inspired him to push harder. “If I could match him in something,” Lundgren says, “it was enough for me. As I was watching Florian, I was thinking, ‘There’ll be a day when you won’t be able to do this.’ Being a physical person is a big part of my life. It’s great to see somebody who can be that, too, and has a bright future ahead of him.”
This Brooklyn bar is a long way from where either of them started. Munteanu was discovered by a Bucharest-based entrepreneur called Eduard Irimia, the founder of a mixed martial arts league called Superkombat Fighting Championship. Irimia has long tried to brand Munteanu as “Big Nasty” and, looking into the actor’s intense, green eyes, framed by his buzz cut, you understand why. Yet, in person, the impression he makes is far more of warm earnestness than of cold intimidation. His Instagram feed features at least three photos taken in front of the same bit of LA angel-wing street art. When I ask him how he finds American food, he answers, “I like it. For example, I like cheesesteaks.”
Lundgren spent his teenage years in Stockholm, immersed in martial arts and differential calculus. His father, a government engineer, pushed him into intellectual overachievement – but he was also full of rage and physically abusive. “My father had problems at work, and he took it out on the family,” Lundgren says. “Mostly me and my mum. The others, he never touched. I loved him and, in many ways, I still emulate him. But there was a period when I really wanted to hurt him.”
In his twenties, Lundgren graduated from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology with a degree in chemical engineering, then continued his studies at the University of Sydney. There, he spent his evenings working as a security guard at rock concerts. One night, pop star and radical aesthete Grace Jones played a show in town. She spotted the genius-brawler and took him up to her hotel suite. Soon, he was accompanying her to downtown New York, where he met Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Michael Jackson. Gianni Versace made him a pair of leather trousers. He partied at the now legendary nightclubs Studio 54, the Limelight and the Tunnel, where – if the stories are to be believed – dealers would brazenly pass around menus listing the drugs on sale in the VIP rooms.
Lundgren had won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship for a PHD programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was the culmination of his father’s dream. But the world that Jones, his first real girlfriend, had revealed to him was too thrilling to leave behind. So, he stayed in New York. Then, he landed his role in Rocky IV, which suddenly made him famous. “I was thrown into the business very quickly,” he says. “It was a shock. And the aftershocks continued for seven, eight, nine years.”
“I wanted to relive the nightmare Drago felt”
Lundgren was cast in film after film – as He-man in Masters of the Universe (1987), as an undead Vietnam veteran in Universal Soldier (1992) – despite, as he admits, not being a natural actor. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no skills,” he says. “But I made big money. I could go to Paris and meet a different young lady every night if I wanted.” And amid the success, he’d never truly worked through his anger at his father. “By the time I was strong enough to get back at him for what he did to me, there was no reason to do so. 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 Romanian city of Târgu Mureș without informing any members of their extended family. “Under communism, you lived a censored life,” Munteanu says with a shrug. “They fled by foot and car. They had decided they didn’t want to have children under those circumstances. After the dictator was murdered and they were safe, they had me.” Munteanu was born in the autumn of 1990, ten months after Romanian army generals carried out a coup and executed Ceaușescu by firing squad.
In 2003, long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Munteanus managed to track down every last missing relative. “Since then, we’ve had big reunions,” Munteanu says. “I have 43 male and female cousins!” His family fled the Soviet-aligned Eastern bloc for West Germany in 1985, the same year Rocky IV was released. It’s perhaps ironic that he will now get his big break playing the son of pop culture’s ultimate Soviet villain.
Before filming began for Creed II in Philadelphia last summer, Lundgren revisited his star-making role. “I wanted to relive the nightmare he felt,” he says, referring to Drago’s climactic defeat to Rocky. Spooling out the character’s backstory, Lundgren imagined that Drago had spent the decades since drifting, broke and bitter – abandoned by his country, unable to accept his downfall. “Basically, life turned to hell.”
The shoot was intense: 14-hour days spent scowling and nailing the exacting fight choreography. When it was over, Munteanu had “a little breakdown”. “It
took me a month to be Florian again,” he recalls. “I was saying to 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 unburdened himself of every painful moment he could recall. “I had to share all the dark, deep experiences I’d lived through. He knew everything.” Caple would later use the real-life incidents as triggers to snap Munteanu into character. When that didn’t work, Munteanu gazed at Lundgren. “I was looking into his eyes,” he says. “I could read the pain on his face. So it was easy for me to deliver the pain, too.”
That a Swede and a Romanian-German were playing Russians proved only slightly problematic. They learned their lines phonetically. Meanwhile, Us-russian relations haven’t been this chilly since the fall of the USSR. Creed II won’t play as prominently on the geopolitics as Rocky IV, but Lundgren cracks, “I do think that, marketing-wise, it’s quite good.” When I ask whether Putin makes a cameo, Munteanu laughs. “He did not come to the fight.”
Closer to Home
After food at the bar, we say goodbye to Munteanu and slide into the buttery seats of a black GMC Yukon. The truck crosses the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge and moves slowly, yacht-like, through suffocating midtown traffic. There are a few more questions to ask Lundgren – more personal ones.
Lundgren’s father died in 2000, just as his career began what he calls a “nosedive”. For the next decade, he largely starred in straight-to-video schlock. During those years, his marriage to Anette Qviberg fell apart. They’d raised two daughters in Marbella, Spain. Lundgren knew his connection to Hollywood had frayed, but he was concerned less about his career than about his wellbeing. When he met Jenny Sandersson, his current partner, she pushed him into therapy and meditation. He has spoken repeatedly and openly about how much these have helped.
We glide down 57th Street, heading towards Lundgren’s hotel on Central Park South. He thinks back to his first brush with the city, when Grace Jones brought him here. He’d met Stallone and was auditioning for Rocky IV, but he hadn’t yet scored the role that would change everything. He’d walk across the city, willing himself to become Ivan Drago. Warren Robertson, his acting coach, had told him: “Don’t move at all. Don’t do anything.” So Lundgren practised being as still as possible. He didn’t tell anyone he was up for the part. “I didn’t want them to make fun of me,” he says.
At the screen test, Lundgren faced off against two other towering blonds. The other actors had interpreted Drago as an over-the-top Russian Mr T. Lundgren laughs, imitating their unconvincing Slavic accents: “I will kiiiiiiiiill you!” He played it cool. “I was just standing there, fighting the urge to do something,” he says. He clicked into character and delivered the simple, hushed monologue, 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 slips into a very good Sly impersonation: “You got the part, kid.”
“Other actors envisioned Drago as a Russian Mr T”
Lundgren maintains his muscle with biceps curls, bench presses and rows, laddering the reps: he begins with 30, then does 20, then 15, then 10. “Starting with 30, you get a lot of blood into your muscles, and each set gets easier.”
DRAGOS’ DEN: LUNDGREN AND MUNTEANU, HIS ON-SCREEN SON
LUNDGREN KEEPS HIS PHYSIQUE FIT FOR A LIFETIME ON SCREEN
MUNTEANU BROUGHT REAL-LIFE BOXING SKILLS TO HIS ROLE