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Interview: Sylvester Stallone of 'Bullet to the Head'

On his wishlist, axe fights, what he's learned, and more ...

By James Rocchi Feb 1, 2013 2:42PM

To sit down and talk to Sylvester Stallone is, in many ways, to sit down with pop culture itself. The writer-director-producer made a name for himself with 'Rocky," in the '70s, and then moved on to both dramas and action films, embodying and commenting on the times through several decades. Now, Stallone is older -- and wiser -- and still more than willing to, say, take off his shirt and perform an on-screen axe fight with his six-foot-four co-star Jason Momoa. We spoke with Stallone in Los Angeles about "Bullet to the Head," his theories of action and acting, and on which stars he'd still love to work with.


MSN Movies: You're working with Walter Hill on this, one of the great directors -- and you've wanted to work with him for a while; what combination of timing and circumstance made this happen?


Sylvester Stallone: Well, like I said, I had wanted to work with him ... like you said, about 25 years ago. And this film was ... slowly becoming a disaster in pre-production; I was saying, "Aahhhhh, nobody's going to see this film." Then I thought, "I'm not going to do it unless Walter does it," because I wanted to bring his kind of expertise and his kind of style --  which is much more simplified than today's, less complicated, less cutting angles. You either fill the frame or you sink, which I like.


I love a good old-school, practical-effects, real stunt work action film -- but when you're preparing to do an axe battle with Jason Momoa, how long does that take to choreograph?


Oh my God -- that was a last-minute decision, because ... okay, we don't have the biggest budget in the world -- and the world, unfortunately, has been numbed to every kind of confrontation; they've fought (on-screen) with everything but teaspoons, which they'd probably sharpen up to kill you, too. So I thought "What can we do?" So we're in a building, it's decrepit ... and all of a sudden, there they are -- a memorial to firemen. It's out of nowhere. And I thought "Okay, fire axes." And we're gonna hearken back to, (quoting dialogue) "What are we -- Vikings?" because it's so absurd. But visually ... I haven't seen it.


It's crazy striking on screen, and it looks like a hell of a lot of work.


BING: Walter Hill l 'The Lion in Winter' 


I'll tell ya, it worried the hell outta me. What happens is he'd come down -- and he's so big -- that if the handle of the axe is just a little off, it slides down and hits your hand -- and the pain was like I hadn't felt since "Rambo 3," when we were also using wooden sticks -- "Why can't we use rubber?" "Because it bends!"  And the plastic thing is the kind they use in cars, so that doesn't help either... so... a fun day at the office.


You were involved in the pre-production of "Bullet to the Head" -- were you involved in the casting? Mr. Momoa, Mr. Kang -- they're great people to bounce off of, both in a scene and in a fight. Were you involved in those decisions?


Yeah, you try to somehow work out -- it's the same as a team, and if you get the wrong quarterback, or the wrong fellow over here, there's a gap ... It's the same thing as in "The Expendables";  all these people together, including myself. You're probably not gonna come out and see (one of those stars) in a big action film -- but you put them together, I wanna see that. At this juncture in my career, I've learned that there is no more one-man-band -- that's gone. That dude, that guy, that icon -- Arnold, I, Bruce, the rest of us -- and 25 unknowns, that doesn't happen anymore. So I've learned, at this juncture, you need that support -- and that's what works.


But all of the great action films take a group of great actors and make a fist out of those fingers ...


... Yes ...


You referenced earlier your line of "What are we, Vikings?" in relation to the axe battle; your character has a bunch of those brief mocking asides -- is it nice to bring a little humor to something with so much violence?


You mean, my natural personality? (Laughs) It's great to be able to exhale on film, to show your real inner self. That is primarily the way I am, and I like a sarcastic sense of humor -- and if you can make it a bit witty, people go, "Well, he's Rocky Balboa." I'm not that ethical, I'm not that moral -- and Rocky can't be sarcastic; he has to be that benchmark of nicety ...


Super-earnest.


Yeah, and that's not me! And Rambo, he's too quiet, and that's not me, either! So finally, this is pretty much the way I am, and I think "I want to start playing characters that are (like me). I have a film starting soon called "Grudge Match," with DeNiro, which is a similar character.


And that's reuniting you two from "Cop Land." Do you still have a wish list of people you'd like to work with?


Well, Jack Nicholson -- I'd like to get that under my belt -- and at one time, of course, it was Peter O'Toole, because of all the "talking head" films in the world, I've never been more impressed than by "The Lion in Winter." I think "How did they do that?"


Hepburn and O'Toole, just talking ...


Yeah, and speaking of making a fist, everybody in that movie ...


... A young Anthony Hopkins, a young Timothy Dalton ... everybody in that movie is incredible.


... And the music, by John Barry; people don't realize it, but sometimes I think about acting that maybe you shouldn't take it too seriously, because look at this brilliance ... and yet, no one even knows it. So maybe you should give the audience entertainment, give them what they want ... go out there and grab a fire axe, and have some fun ... (Laughs)


But isn't there an irony in that providing what you call "entertainment," you've created some incredibly iconic characters? I mean, you say "Rocky," people know who you're talking about when you say "Rambo." Does quality entertainment endure just as well as great art?


No question about it. Quality entertainment -- and it's so hard to get that -- I think it's like Picasso's paintings. Even though he's painted, supposedly, 200,000 ... he's known for 60. Well, I think the same thing with quality entertainment. If you do a 50 film career .. and you can take out 8 (that stand out)... you think, "Wow, you're doing pretty good. Unfortunately, I learned that too late ... (Laughs)


For more on "Bullet to the Head," check out our video interview with Stallone and director Walter Hill:

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