Dolph Lundgren, action star, answers all our questions in this exclusive interview.
“Dolph Lundgren – Train Like an Action Hero – Be Fit Forever”, Skyhorse Publishing 2014.
Dolph Lundgren, action film actor from Sweden, will forever be Ivan Drago, the bad guy from Rocky IV (1985), an iconic Cold War film where the US fights the last round against the USSR. Karate champion, recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to study chemical engineering at MIT, he became one of the most prominent of the 80’s action heros, although less present than Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or his mentor Sylvester Stallone. Fans of actioners like ourselves have continued to follow him with devotion since the 90’s in films he sometimes directs himself, and recently in the old-school Expendables franchise.
His book of training tips (Dolph Lundgren – Train like an action hero – Be Fit Forever – 2014) will certainly interest aspiring actors, especially those dreaming of action roles.
Aléric Flair: Your book is an autobiographical and fitness book – why did you combine biography and training tips?
Dolph Lundgren: (Laughs) Well, I combined the biography with the training tips because originally I had an offer to do a biography, and I had always wanted to do a fitness book, for about twenty years. When I started thinking about it I thought, since training has been such a big part in my life I can combine both. I can get some of my story and how I got into Hollywood into the workout book. So in the book I start telling the story of how fitness became a big part of my life, changed my life, and kind of saved my life, and I take it all the way through my Hollywood adventures.
Can you tell us more about sports saving your life?
Dolph Lundgren: The way it started was that, when I was young, I had big problems with my dad. He was kind of a manic-depressive and very violent, and he used to beat me when I was a kid, he used to beat my mom as well. This is back in the sixties. There’s really nowhere to go as a child, when you’re kind of on your own, it gave my self-confidence a big knock, and I was somewhat going in the wrong direction in life: I was hanging out with guys who were stealing motorcycles and drinking a lot. A lot of these people that I hung out with ended up either in jail or dead, this was in the seventies… And then in my case, I got into sports and it saved my life in one way, because it was a way for me to get out of my self-doubt and that depression I was in because of my dad.
So later you went to MIT, to study chemical engineering, did your education help you to create your workout programs?
Dolph Lundgren: Education, I think, is always a good thing because it makes you understand life more, it gives you a perspective on life, how things work and why we are who we are. It gives you a bit of history, natural science teaches you why things work the way they do and how the world works, and that gives you an advantage sometimes because you have other interests. And as far as chemical engineering and training goes, you don’t have to be an engineer to be a good athlete (laughs) but I used to use it quite a bit when I was training because I would be very scientific about things: I would try something and see how it affected my performance, then I would change one variable, I would do more running or more weights and see how that changed it, so I approached it quite scientifically. I guess I still do to some extent. So it’s helpful.
And did your program change with your life experience, is the program the same now as it was in the 80’s?
Dolph Lundgren: Unfortunately the life experience is that you get older (laughs). I was training extremely hard when I was younger but now it goes up and down, sometimes I train really hard, like now for instance. I’m not filming so I can train more, and I try to train longer, work in more endurance, more straining stuff, but I always have to keep in mind the recovery time. And as you age it takes longer to recover and you don’t want to get injured, because if you do it takes longer to get well again. I think that’s the big difference, that I have to watch out for pushing into my maximum performance intensity, because at that level when you’re right at your peak, that’s when you think something can break, so I try to stay away from that. Maybe 80%.
So your book originally was « Fit at Forty », but does it work for every age, and gender, can women use it?
Dolph Lundgren: (Laughs) The book was supposed to be « Fit at Forty » but it took ten more years to finish it. I think it works for everybody, fitness is very basic, there is a lot of complicated equipment now, and different workout routines, and different supplements, but it’s pretty much very basic stuff. The gladiators, two thousand years ago, I bet they were doing push ups, probably running, doing sprints, lifting weights, doing steps, I mean there are some things that will never change. And I try to make my workout programs very varied to give people ideas and various options so that it doesn’t get boring.
So can we give the book to women too?
Dolph Lundgren: I think so, there’s some pretty nice pictures in there! (laughs) [Note: The book contains many photos of Dolph Lundgren training bare-chested.] There’s not that much of a difference, it’s just in certain areas, like men end up putting on weight around the waist more, and women put it on their legs and thighs, because of genetic factors. Women are supposed to give birth to children, that’s why the weight goes around certain areas, for men it’s a different thing. But I think as far as training it’s pretty much the same, men and women are very similar. Some extreme sports like contact karate, not so many women do them but they can, my girlfriend is a karate fighter. So yeah, give it to women for sure.
Can you describe a typical week of training using your program?
Dolph Lundgren: My program changes a lot depending on what I have to do. Basically I try to include three different components. One is weight training, it’s the core, for your stability, your muscles, to keep your body strong, your ligaments, and prevent injuries. Then you have cardio-vascular training, to keep your heart and your lungs in good condition. And then you have mobility training, to keep coordination in your movements. I usually try to do weights about twice a week over my whole body. Sometimes, if I’m shooting a big movie like an Expendables picture where I have to look buffed up, I’ll do weights five days a week. And for the cardio it could be running, or it could be karate, in my case martial arts a lot, swimming or hiking or something, I’ll do that twice a week. Then I may throw in another fun workout like a hike, a walk, or biking on one day, so I work out four or five days a week in all. My workouts can go from a little to a lot, if I’m filming it can be half an hour in the morning just to get going, up to two hours if I’m not shooting and I feel strong.
To give advice to actors, what priority should sports have in their life?
Dolph Lundgren: I think in anybody’s life, sports should be a part of it because it keeps you healthy. So I think that’s important to remember whether you’re an actor, a painter, or an electrician, it doesn’t matter. But for an actor it’s always nice to have a nice body, to be slim. You put on a little weight on film, so you want to keep your body slim and keep your mobility so you can move gracefully, especially if you do some kind of action movie or thriller where you have to move. Film is a visual medium so people watch you when you’re moving, when you’re walking… Some of the older actors were great at that, like Robert Mitchum or Clint Eastwood: they have a certain way of moving that you can imitate. They are very aware of their body posture, how they pick up a gun, every small movement is important.
Let’s say I’m an actor, I got a little fat after Christmas and Thanksgiving, not speaking about me, of course (Dolph laughs: “of course!”). A movie director tells me that I have a shirtless scene in one month and he wants me to look good, what can I do for that?
Dolph Lundgren: You should do a combination of weights and cardio, because the weights build more muscle mass and the muscle mass burns more energy, even when you’re not training. The more muscles you have, the more energy you burn, so you need to do weights and I would choose the more basic weight movements. I wouldn’t do any small movements like for your biceps, I would just do leg presses or some squats, bench presses, those types of movements. To warm up do about 8 to 10 repetitions, and then you can go to about 5 to 6 reps, 3 or 4 sets. And then I would do cardio, like the bike, and after that you can do the treadmill. And what’s really good to get slim around the waist is swimming, it’s great for the waist: look at swimmers, they all have a V shape. And of course in your diet, I would cut out carbohydrates and eat more proteins: omelet for breakfast, tuna salad or something for lunch, and you can have chicken or a steak for dinner. How about that?
What about the water thing? For Red Scorpion, you cut down on water a lot in order to get ripped. Can we do that?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, if you have to do a scene with your shirt off and it’s going to be immortalized forever on the big screen, you might as well suffer a bit! (laughs) In that case, three or four days before the scène you start drinking less water and do training where you sweat, going to the sauna, that kind of thing. Instead of drinking water you can drink diet coke or coffee, which is diuretic so you lose more water. That way you lose the water between your muscles and your skin, so your muscles get more defined. But you don’t want to do it for too long, maybe about a week, otherwise you’ll get sick afterwards. [Note: A doctor’s advice is strongly recommended before attempting this.]
In your book you devoted several pages to stretching and relaxation. That could be boring to do, so can we cut that out in training?
Dolph Lundgren: It’s always like that in life, the most important things are boring or require patience. Anything that’s worthwhile is always the hardest. I think stretching is very important as you get older because in your body everything gets shorter, all the tendons, all the joints get stiffer so stretching is very important to avoid being injured. And relaxation, for me it’s more meditation, I meditate every day. I try to do at least half an hour but I can do an hour sometimes, and that’s just sitting still, that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s something I’ve started in the last couple of years. It’s called Vipassanā meditation (or mindfulness meditation), it’s from Buddhism. Basically from Buddhism comes the belief that sitting down, focusing on your mind and watching things come up permits you to deal with anger, hate, jealousy, greed, and lust: the negative human emotions. You’re dealing with those as you sit there, and then life becomes purer and you don’t suffer as much through the day, your ego doesn’t take over so much. I try to do half an hour. But you can buy an attention DVD and do five minutes in the morning. It’s pretty good.
If we want to work out at home and do more than the « DL no excuse program » from your book, do you recommend buying additional equipment for the home?
Dolph Lundgren: Sure, I have stuff here, because sometimes I don’t feel like going to the gym, or I’ll have a trainer come to work out or a friend of mine. You can buy dumbbells that are selectorized, put them in a stand and dial in 10 pounds, 15 pounds, those are quite good. They go up to about 75 pounds I think, so you can do squats, bench presses. You can get one of those Swiss balls, those big balls they have in the gym, you can use them instead of the bench. You can do bench presses on the ball, sit-ups on the ball. You can get one of those BOSU balls that is like a half a ball on a stand, which is good for balance work. Also if you want to get a (punching) bag you can do that; skipping rope is good, it’s the best training, great for getting in good condition. Another thing you can do is, if you have a backpack and like hiking you can load it up with 65 pounds and walk up a mountain with that!
Which machines are your favorites in the gym and which do you never use?
Dolph Lundgren: My favorite is the squat rack, that’s the rack where the barbell sits so you can do squats, deadlifts, bench presses, it’s a long barbell so it makes you keep your balance, that’s always better than sitting on a machine. So that’s my favorite. I don’t know what I never use, but there are some machines for your legs that girls use, those types of machines I don’t use very often. The regular leg machines [mimics legs with his fingers] are good for the extension of your curls, on the backs of your legs. Gyms are fun because there are other people there so you get a bit of a kick from the people, from the music, the fact that you went to the gym means that you will work out. If you have this stuff at home and you are lazy then you’re not going to train because you might as well watch TV or some other thing, so why not go to the gym and train?
Dolph Lundgren: When you have a choice, what time is best to go to the gym?
Dolph Lundgren: I like to get it done in the morning if that can happen. If I’m really busy I’ll do it before breakfast, I’ll do a shorter workout because you’re not as strong and you’re a little tired, but on the other hand your blood sugar levels are very stable so you burn fat very easily before breakfast. Otherwise I think the best time to train for me is about two hours after breakfast because then you’re strong, you’ve eaten, it’s still the morning, say around about 10 o’clock or so is the best time, 9 or 10 o’clock.
You were speaking about blood sugar levels, let’s talk about nutrition. In your program you include a lot of protein shakes, do you recommend certain brands?
Dolph Lundgren: Not really because there are different brands all over the world, but usually there is a type called whey protein. Whey protein has the branched-chain amino acid, that’s usually the best one. It’s also important that you like the taste because you need about 20 or 30 grams of protein, either in a pack or you can get the big jar. I usually use one or two scoops, and I mix it with ice cold water from the fridge and a banana. Sometimes I’ll put some berries in there and maybe ice cream if I feel like I deserve it. It’s a quick kind of “pick me up” after you train, so you don’t get that slump, otherwise if you lift weights and you don’t eat for say an hour, you start getting really tired. I think it’s a good time to have it within half an hour after working out.
If we don’t want to take protein powder, what can we eat instead?
Dolph Lundgren: I don’t take protein powder every day, but sometimes when I’m rushing I’ll do it. I like eggs or egg white in the morning for protein. Oatmeal is a great source of protein, especially if you make it with milk. Tuna is good, salade niçoise, grilled chicken… steak is good too. I think that most people don’t eat enough protein if they’re training. You’re supposed to have one or two grams per kilo of body weight, so if you weigh 80 kilos you’re supposed to eat 80 grams of protein a day. So if you have a three-egg omelet that’s about 20 grams, and a chicken breast, that’s about 30, so you’re at 50, and if you have a steak that’s probably 30-40 grams, so that’s about 80… That’s if you have one gram per kilo but if you want two of course you need twice as much. Around 1.5 (grams per kilo) is good.
Let talk about movies. You have directed five films. When you direct, do you ask your actors to follow a specific training regimen?
Dolph Lundgren: Not really. I haven’t directed any movies about athletes. If you play an athlete, or somebody who has special skills, then it’s really good if you can practice those skills. Of course if you play a police officer or a uniform cop, then maybe I will ask you to train with real cops, just to see what it’s like to go shooting real guns with live ammo. If you fire live ammo you have a certain respect for the weapon and you don’t hold it a certain way, you never point it at anybody when you pick it up to check it. Some actors haven’t done these kinds of things, and so they handle the weapon a bit carelessly. I haven’t directed movies about boxers, runners, or martial artists, but if I did then I would ask people to train.
About that, when a boxer or a martial artist is hired to play in a movie, will he have to learn specific skills to move in front of a camera? Or is it the same?
Dolph Lundgren: You have to learn a new skill. A real boxer keeps everything very tight [Dolph puts his arm in front of him, in a realistic boxer posture] because they don’t want to get hit, so everything is quite small. If you throw a left hook in real life, you would just do that [Dolph demonstrates a blow close to the body]. In a movie, you want to show it more to the camera, make it a bit bigger [Dolph does a wide hook]. So that’s what you would have to teach a boxer, and also how to take a punch. In boxing you don’t want to take a punch because it’s a real punch. In fake boxing you have to watch the fist and snap your head, so you have to work your neck [Dolph demonstrates the move]. There are some skills that I learned early when I did Rocky IV – for five months I was doing it with Sly, before the movie, and then another three months during filming. I’ll never forget that. So yeah, even if you’re a good fighter it can be difficult to do it on film sometimes.
Is it important for you that martial arts are realistic in the movies or does it just have to entertain people?
Dolph Lundgren: That’s a good question. It depends on the genre of the picture. Obviously a real street fight is over in 10-15 seconds maximum. And it’s never going to go to the ground where you roll around in chokeholds, because usually there is somebody else around. In most real situations somebody will hit you with a chair or drag you off the other guy. I haven’t done many movies where the fighting is very realistic, but I think it would be a real challenge to keep it just the way it would be in real life. It would be cool and I don’t know how people would react to it. A lot of movies I’ve done are sort of in-between. I haven’t done superhero movies where people do five backflips and get kicked twenty times in the head and there is no blood. I have done mostly movies that are in-between, where you try to get closer to realism but you still take some dramatic license to entertain your audience.
Let’s talk about acting. Besides physical preparation, can you tell us about preparing for the Gunnar character in the Expendables franchise?
Dolph Lundgren: Sure. That was a great role because it was well-written and it had a lot of color. I play a tough guy who is very loyal in one way, but he is also crazy, he has some substance abuse problems and a kind of emotional imbalance. So it’s fun to work on a character like that because you have a lot of things to work with. Sometimes I try to find a monologue. Film dialogue is short, usually. Not always, not with Tarantino (laughs), where you have big monologues! But in most film scenes I only say one or two lines at a time. In order to warm up the character you want to have more dialogue, so I would try to find a monologue. For instance with Gunnar, it was from a play called Hurlyburly (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurlyburly), of which I had seen (the movie) with Sean Penn many years ago. He plays a drugged-out, coked-out, crazy guy. It’s about three guys in an apartment and basically all they do is smoke pot, do coke, and talk about chicks. So I found a little monologue that I could do to get me in that kind of wild crazed state. I used that for some of the scenes, and for other scenes I would find some other contrasts for the guy when he is very still, doesn’t move much at all and kind of just sulks. Because he was very, very verbal and kind of crazy: “arrgghhhh!” [Dolph plays the guy getting crazy], but in other scenes I tried to keep him where he is just, « you don’t trust me? » [Dolph plays bland, stoned Gunnar] and he is very soft. So that was a fun character to work on, sometimes they are not that well-written. It’s hard to find a role that excites you and makes you think it’s fun to play the character. Whether he is a bad guy or a good guy, or a tragic character, it has to be fun for the actor. You could do a crazy accent or something, that would be fun.
Do you work by yourself or do you use an acting coach?
Dolph Lundgren: Sometimes I use an acting coach. Sometimes I find it very good to work with other actors. Because it’s like sparring. You work on a character yourself, and then you want to try with other actors and see what they say. Because actors are quite smart and they always have good ideas, like « what do you think of this » or « what if I try this » and they’ll say « yeah, yeah that’s great, that’s a good idea »… So what you want to do is to show up on set with a few different ways of doing it. You have one way that you like a lot, and you also have some secrets, some shit that you’re going to pull out of the bag that the other actors don’t know about, and that you haven’t told the director about either, unless it’s a prop that you want, then you have to tell him. Then it’s fun to come on set because you’re really prepared and you have various ways you can go. Maybe the director will say something totally different but usually, whatever he says or she says, you can always use what you’ve worked on.
Of all your movies, which character was the closest and which the furthest from you?
Dolph Lundgren: (Laughing) Oh shit! Well, it’s all me! They are all very close because it’s me doing it! But as you grow, you change as a person, we all change with age; you’re not the same now as when you were eighteen. The Rocky IV character – that’s an iconic character, Ivan Drago – is very much like Dolph Lundgren coming to Hollywood and seeing all this stuff for the first time, like he just came to America. It was very clever of Stallone, he does that for his own characters. Rocky is not the same Rocky in the first one – he’s goofy, funny-looking nose, a bit fat – as in Rocky III, where he’s living in a fancy house, he’s got a Rolls Royce, he’s got the best suits, his face looks great, his nose is straight, so he changes. But I think that first character, Drago, was very much like me in many ways, even though he wasn’t a chemical engineer and he didn’t say much! (Laughs). There is a character I play in Skin Trade, which is a movie I just did. I play a cop who has to deal with human trafficking. In a lot of it he’s dealing with young girls being trafficked, and there are some scenes where I used my daughters. I was imagining what it would be if they were in there, in that cage, and I think those scenes were quite powerful. That shows a different side of me that you haven’t seen much before. So those were close to me, now let’s see which weren’t like me. Well, Gunnar Jensen, especially in Expendables 2, is this kind of drunk thug who just kills people and has about two brain cells, I think that’s far from me! (laughs) He doesn’t have very much in terms of sophistication, let’s put it that way! But he was fun to play too!
And the Universal Soldier character, he was kind of a very cold guy?
Dolph Lundgren: Oh yeah, Universal Soldier… that’s like another crazy guy, not very much like me either. I don’t know what he is, he is some kind of machine…
Which famous athlete, dead or alive, would you like to see in a film? People you would dream about?
Dolph Lundgren: Let’s see, who are my favorite athletes… Muhammad Ali was a great athlete. He’s not dead, but he can’t be in a movie now because he’s too old. Some of the athletes from the old days were pretty tough. There is one guy I was “googling” about the other day because I read a book about Roald Amundsen and going to the South Pole. He discovered the South Pole in 1911, so it’s a hundred years ago. And he had these skiers with him. They had to ski one thousand miles, just think about that! They had no maps because nobody had been there before. These two guys were ski champions from Norway, they lead the pack, they never complained, they just skied a thousand miles, thirty-forty miles a day. When they got to the South Pole, in order to determine his position Amundsen had to send these guys out, say, 30 kilometers, to measure with a sextant the height of the sun so he would know that he was really at the South Pole. One snowstorm and they were dead, they could never find their way back because the only way was to follow the track. These two guys went out there, didn’t ask any questions, came back of course, survived, went back to Norway… Both of them lived quite a long time, I think one of them died in the eighties, so that means when I was around. And when you see pictures of the guy, his face looks like it’s made out of marble, his cheekbones, and you just know that nobody today would have the condition to do what those guys did, no one I don’t think, in the whole world. Those guys are really cool to me.
Last question, besides reading the Dolph Lundgren book in order to get training advice, are there any other actors we can look to for a good lifestyle and training model? You were speaking about Mitchum…
Dolph Lundgren: Well, Robert Mitchum was a cool guy but he went to jail many times, he was smoking too much pot and beating people up, so I don’t know about him! There is one guy who is a good example: it’s Clint Eastwood. He was never a great athlete but he was always in good shape. When you watch his old movies, he was in great shape: he ran, he trained, he lifted weights all the time. He looked great in his sixties, did a romantic part with Meryl Streep when he was 65, and he still makes movies. And every movie is a tough experience, so you know the guy has been through a lot. He’s kind of low-key, never been much in any scandals, seems to be doing well up and into his eighties. I don’t know if he drinks, I know he doesn’t smoke. He’s a good example. Stallone also, he’s in pretty damn good shape for a 68 year-old. You can talk to him about any new rock band, any new movies, he knows everything, it’s like talking to a young man…
Is there one last thing you want to say to the young and aspiring actors of etreacteur.fr about your book?
Dolph Lundgren: (Thinks) Well, I hope that my book can be a bit of an inspiration, you know how everybody has hardships to go through and I had mine, and sometimes I enjoyed being with people in the same situation as me, because it gave me some clues how to get out of it, and I hope I can give some young actors and people that want to be in the business some clues, how to stay at it and not give up, that’s the most important. Patience and perseverance are the most important qualities to make it in show business, talent is good but it’s not enough.
Thank you very much on behalf of the readers of etreacteur.fr.
Dolph Lundgren: Thank you very much! A pleasure, good questions!
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