It's a sunny April afternoon in Long Beach, California, and although Sly Stallone is speaking loudly, it's hard to hear him over the ear-shattering roar of million-dollar race cars hurtling around the track across the road as they warm up for the annual Long Beach Grand Prix.
But it's an appropriate place to meet, as the 54-year-old superstar's new film, 'Driven,' is set in the high-octane world of racing. It stars Sly as Joe Tanto, an over-the-hill racer who is brought back by a ruthless car owner (Burt Reynolds) to help talented but troubled rookie Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) who appears to be on the verge of cracking up. Complicating the mix is Sophia, the beautiful girlfriend of a rival (played by gorgeous ex-model Estella Warren) who can't decide between Jimmy and her fiancee Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger), and Joe's sexy ex-wife Cathy (Gina Gershon).
Sly, shorter than you expect at 5-foot-eight, but looking tanned and trim in jeans and a casual blue shirt, is very proud of 'Driven' - which he also wrote and produced, and he's in great spirits. The star is also hoping his audience will turn out in droves for 'Driven' which seems like a perfect fit for his ultra-macho image.
But there's also no doubt that he's been feeling the pressure to prove that he's still one of the top box-office stars in the world. Sure, his larger-than-life creations Rocky (1976) and Rambo (1987) have made him rich and famous for life, but it's also obvious that his career has slipped badly in recent years.
Outside the Rocky-Rambo string of sequels, films like Over The Top (1987), Rhinestone (1984) and Lock Up (1989) performed disappointingly, and attempts to broaden his range by starring in the comedies' Oscar (1991) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) were total disasters.
Stallone bounced back with Cliffhanger (1993), but then Get Carter (2000), Demolition Man (1993) and Specialist, the (1994) failed to achieve blockbuster status. Still, never count him out, especially as he's now reteamed with action-meister Renny Harlin, the director behind Cliffhanger (1993)
Here, Sly talks openly and candidly about his career and life, the pressure of fame and success, and the happiness and joy wife Jennifer Flavin and daughters Sophie Rose and Sistine Rose have brought him.
What's it like trying to make a movie in the middle of all the race car noise?
It was pretty chaotic, chaotically wonderful. At one point while we were shooting some gatecrasher roared onto the track in a Lotus, and he didn't make it once round the track. he slammed into the wall and they took him away in handcuffs.
So how much actual driving did you do?
We did a lot, going about 204 mph. We did 180 mph in the streets of Montreal. I'd say that the noise was so nerve-wracking, and we had to loop over 80 percent of the movie. It gets to you after a while, and when you're on the track you can't even hear. You have a bullhorn up to your assistant's head and you're screaming and she still can't hear.
When's the last time you got a speeding ticket?
(Laughs) I get 'em all the time, seriously
Do cops let you off? Any good stories?
There was a great one, a long time ago. I was driving to the set of Rambo III (1988) in Arizona and I was all alone on this desert strip and I was doing about 145 mph in this Porsche. I'm really flying and then a cop pulls me over of course, and I dump one. And they think this man has to be a lunatic, totally nuts. And I said, (assumes a frantic tone) "Did you see 'em? Did you see 'em? Did you cut them off? Are they still there?!" And he went, "What?" And I said, "There's about eight guys with guns! Shit! I was running for my life. Do me a favor. Take me in, impound the car, they're out to kill me. I don't know what it is. People didn't like Rambo, there's this radical group, they've been threatening me and writing letters, now they finally caught up with me!" Well, the cop escorted me all the way to the border (laughs and imitates cop) "I'll sit with you Rambo, I'll protect you Rocky." And I'm like, "Thank you officer."
What do you drive normally?
The 500 S Mercedes.
You wrote this script, you produced and you star in it. Is this Sly Stallone putting himself back in the driver's seat in terms of your career?
I think it helps. It's certainly being a bit more proactive than I've been lately and to do a film like this is pretty complicated. And if you wait around the script will never come your way because they just don't do these kinds of racing ensemble pieces. So it was either I do it or it wasn't going to get done.
How hard was it to sit down and write again?
It was very, very difficult. I thought it'd be quite easy. I said, 'OK, it'll be like a Rocky (1976) type formula, but that doesn't apply here at all, as there are 15 characters you have to deal with. It's also spanning three different generational groups. You have the 19-year-old racer, the 30-year-old, and the prehistoric racer - me, the Fred Flinstone of racers (laughs).
It's interesting that you didn't write yourself this big starring role. You're very much part of an ensemble. Why?
I'd gone through - and this is not bragging but showing my inadequacies in being able to get it right - about 25 drafts. And of those, about 20 were about this one man's journey, myself, through this film, and all his trials and tribulations. He'd fallen from a great height career-wise. He was a drunkard with all these problems and accidents because he and his wife Cathy, who's played by Gina Gershon, had this very tumultuous relationship. (Laughs) I'm giving you a little biographical hint here. And he just started to come apart. So he was brought back as kind of like how people should never be. It's like taking kids who are truants and then taking them to prison to see where they'll end up and scaring them straight.
So I was brought back to basically prove to young Jimmy Bly how he should never be, as a bad example. And then the more we worked on it, it became the dark side, a little seedy, and I didn't know where the upside of it was ever going to be. So we began to reduce his role and make it more of an ensemble, so he's just there as a guy who did his job, wasn't very spactacular, would race like hell, sometimes he'd win, sometimes lose, but he had a certain work ethic code, that old school that could be applied to Jimmy. So that all made it more ensemble, and then in the editing we reduced it even more. I originally had a relationship going with the reporter. But that began to de-emphasise the other people, so we put that on the back burner.
And you shot all those scenes between you and the Reporter?
Absolutely. It was a big deal that whole relationship. But it was kind of like, let's feel sorry for Joe, losing his girlfriend because he isn't of the same intellectual echelon. After the season's over, just like with movie sets, people go back to the real world and movie relationships tend to dissipate. Well, it's the same thing in racing. It's a circus atmosphere. And as I'd go back to my rural life and she'd go back to the city, there was no way it was ever going to work. So I felt, nah. That's a whole other movie. So we did shoot it but it we said, "Nah, it's not really flying."
You mentioned this role as being autobiographical. In what way is it?
A lot of it's autobiographical. Racing's very much like the world of acting. You have your front runners and you have guys that are there for the long race, and you have other guys that block for other people, that are called supporting and character actors. It's all the same kind of situation. And you realize that you can't always be No. 1. You just can't be the guy in front all the time. So what you can do is lend support to, and help and nourish and encourage someone else. So it's like your experiences live on in someone else. If you can find some young actor and you can say, 'Listen, don't do this and don't do that and avoid this and that,' and share your experiences, and he does succeed, you can say, 'You know what, I kind of contributed to that.' As an actor did you have to learn you can't always be No.1 the hard way? (Laughs) Unfortuantely I did
Is it tough when you do learn? Do you wake up one day and go, 'I should have known that all along'?
You do. You look back. You have all the answers, but unfortunately success and all the accolades and access to anything and people catering to all your whims can distort your values. You might not think so, but it does. It's like being in the eye of a hurricane. Sometimes you lose that touch with your common sense, and only age and experience brings it back, and you go, "Ahhh," in retrospect.
When did you reach that point where you knew you wanted a different life?
I think we all want different lives. It's not like I never said, 'I gotta get a change.' It's just an evolutionary process and I was very, very lucky to meet an extraordinary women, my wife Jennifer, and that really did just open up a whole new world to me. She really changed my life. But sometimes you just have to go through it all to appreciate it, and there's no other way. Some people are just destined to learn that way. That's what it's all about with Jimmy in this movie. He is starting to go the way that many people do. Their values become distorted and fear starts to set in, because they wonder like him, how long they can maintain this level of excellence? I'm going to be exposed as a fraud. I don't believe in myself.' So they start to create situations for failure, a framework that's almost like a plan. It's like many, many celebrities. You say, 'Why's this guy doing drugs? Why's this guy an alcoholic?' It's very simple why.
So it's an escape?
Sure. And the hardest thing to deal with is freedom. In simple terms, freedom of choice. That means you have to be out there and be responsible for your own decisions, and that's a lot of pressure for some people. They just don't know how to cope with it, so they start to rely on something. If it's booze or drugs, now all I have to do is think about that. They start to reduce the amount of decisions they have to make. Actually, believe it or not but drugs and alcohol simplify their lives. It complicates everyone's lives around them, but they're ok, and the idea of freedom is a very difficult concept for them to deal with, of making everyday decisions. It's just overwhelming and they're not set up for it. They're perhaps more artistic or delicate.
There's a great line in the film where Beau tells Sophia she's just a distraction. Have you felt there were times where women just got in the way for you when you were trying to get your career going?
(Laughs hard) Jesus, women got in the way after the career got going. No, women never got in the way. You go out and you seek. You have to be accountable and responsible for your own choices, and I think accountability is something that we don't really face up to. But everything that comes your way is something that you have accepted. You have accepted this. You've gone out and sought to get into that kind of relationship and you sent out that vibration, and now you have to assume the responsibility and have the integrity to go, "OK, I made a mistake and I'm sorry." No one got killed or hurt, but morally you could have done better. And I think there is a kind of backlash, when you live in obscurity and then you have celebity status.
Quite often the pendulum swings so far that you tend to overdo it. You tend to over-compensate. It's like being let in Disneyland and you don't have to pay for any rides and you're first and you got it all. And then you go, "Let me off this thing."
After two failed marriages you're now happily married and you have two little girls with Jennifer. How's fatherhood?
Oh, I love my little girls, adore them.
Is it different having girls? Are you more protective of them
Oh yes, sure. You worry. You know, boys (laughs).
So what about them dating? Are you worried about all that?
Dating? (Laughs) I won't let 'em date till they're 45.
They're rereleasing the 'Rocky' films on DVD. What about all the rumours that there may be another 'Rocky'?
(Laughs) It's kind of a long shot. As a fantasy I'd love to do one more, but I don't think it'd be in good taste. Unless George Foreman comes back.
So what would the fantasy be?
My fantasy Rocky? To sell Hamburger Helper like George and make $200 million (laughs).
What about rumours of a another Rambo?
No, no. I don't know if I look that good in a thong anymore. I'm actually about to start a film with Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Quinn called Avenging Angelo (2001). It's about a girl who's raised among the country club set but her father's really like Gotti, a well-known mobster. And when he's murdered, it's my job to protect her, and I also have to make her aware that she's really a Mafia princess and not Grace Kelly.
Whatever happened to 'Detox'?
It's now called Eye See You (2001) and it's actually a good movie. We shot it in Vancouver and you know why they changed the title? They kept putting up all these signs at the airport when they come to pick you up saying 'Detox,' and I remember Kris Kristofferson saying, 'I'm not walking over there. Everyone will watch me.'
Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets about some of the choices you've made?
Some choices I'm very proud of and others of course you have serious regrets. If we all go through our lives, I bet you 80 percent of the things we've done we regret - 80 percent, really. But that's what life's about - mistakes. Things come at you and you say, !Oh, I'll experiment. Let's try an arm-wrestling thing, let's try that." And they became very, very safe choices, and very physical choices. Did I do myself a disservice? I think so.
But I also did some good at the same time, which is the reason I'm still around. And a lot of those films that didn't work in America worked very well abroad and in places where the language isn't that important but the visual and storyline are. So in a way, it built up a tremendous foreign following, and that's been a huge asset. And of the fans who follow racing, 90 percent are overseas
Like Joe, you've been at the top and slipped. What keeps you going?
I think gravity sets into everything, including careers. And it's not like you although you lose your momentum you lose your desire. If the desire is gone and the perseverance too, then you have to move on. But if you still have a hunger, then I say, "Continue to pursue it," because pendulums swing and valleys do become mountains after a while. You just keep walking there and eventually it starts to go up after going down. And some people are destined or preordained to have a very vacillating life or career. They have tremendous ebbs and flows.
That's been my life, and it's been a very interesting one. And actually, I have very few regrets, because when you do have your peaks, you do see a very rarified aspect of the world, and you also see sometimes a very distorted part of the world. It's not real. And then when you get into the depression, that's when you learn. And that's when it all becomes real and when you know who your friends are, and that's when your values are really set. You can't establish values, I think, when you're at the top. It's not the same. It's just such a small fraction of the population that can relate. So you say, "Oh yes, I understand how other people think." No you don't! You cannot sit there in a G5 and understand how people think. You have to go and ask the guy who puts fuel in the tank what's real, or sit in coach. So for that part you really have to step back and get a grip.