Dolph Lundgren On He-Man Memories, His Scholarly Past, And How Art Imitates Life In The Expendables 2

Appearances can be deceiving, and as audiences learn in Friday's testosterone-fueled sequel The Expendables 2, even Dolph Lundgren's volatile Gunnar Jensen has a few surprising secrets to share. Such as: In addition to being a habitual alcoholic and reformed-but-unpredictable member of the squad, Gunnar's revealed to be a chemical engineering savant and former Fulbright scholar — elements cheekily borrowed from Lundgren's real life.

Long before the veteran of Rocky IV, Red Scorpion, Universal Soldier and, yes, Masters of the Universe earned his reputation as an imposing fixture in the '80s and '90s action realm, Lundgren was a decorated student who followed his economist-engineer father into the sciences and earned a master's degree in chemical engineering. A chance meeting with singer Grace Jones sparked his Hollywood aspirations; shortly after making his debut in A View To A Kill, 1985's Rocky IV and the memorable Russian boxer Ivan Drago marked Lundgren's big break, catapulting him to fame alongside fellow icons stars Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who team up to defeat the dastardly Jean-Claude Van Damme in Expendables 2).

As the golden age of the beefy, brawny action star waned, however, Lundgren turned increasingly to direct-to-DVD fare, but these days Lundgren is content with how things turned out: "I got married, had two kids, brought them up in Europe, got divorced, came back here again, and the kids are okay — they didn’t become victims of Hollywood or anything, so that feels good too."

Later this year the 54-year-old actor (who also writes, produces, and directs) will follow Expendables 2 with another high profile return to his roots, of sorts, in the 3-D sequel Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. And while the bulk of his upcoming slate remains firmly in action territory, Lundgren's turn in Jonas Akerlund's indie Small Apartments marks another surprise move from the erstwhile Ivan Drago.

Read on as Lundgren discusses his evolving image, how art imitates life in The Expendables 2, his mixed feelings about notorious bomb Masters of the Universe (and its forthcoming live-action remake), and why he left a career in science behind for acting in the first place.

In this sequel we learn that Gunnar is a oneime Fullbright scholar and has an advanced degree in chemical engineering, as you do in real life. When Sly first suggested writing elements of your life and background into Expendables 2, what was your reaction?
I laughed, you know, I thought it was funny. Only Stallone could think of stuff like that! I mean, I couldn’t have thought of it. I would have thought, “Nah, that’s too on the nose.” I would have thought of something fictitious, but he’s clever because he knows that people are interested in that, ‘cause he’s probably heard people ask me in press conferences, “Well, aren’t you like a chemical engineer or something?” So he brought that into the movie.

How did people first react when they found out about your scholarly background? Did it take a while for people to realize it?
It’s still not out there. It’ll come out a little bit with this film. But you know, when you do cinema it’s such a strong medium, it overshadows your real personality. If you play a very nice guy, lover, hero on screen but you’re an asshole in real life, it takes a long time for that to overshadow your screen persona; it maybe never will. In my case it may be a bit of the opposite — I play this brutal kind of one-dimensional, two-dimensional character so if you have other things in your real life it’s gonna take a while [to come out]. It’s just happened very quickly the last couple years that people are starting to catch on to it.

Thanks to the internet.
The internet, people read up on it. It’s such a hard climate now. Very few people would have time in their lives [to study] and have to go for acting straight away that to spend seven, eight years in academia would be a waste.

You have one of those legendary Hollywood discovery stories. Looking back, do you feel like you sort of fell into acting?
Fell into acting, well I did. I acted when I was younger but then my dad was an engineer so I started doing engineering and then I kind of fell back into it. I think a lot of it was because I had unresolved issues from when I was a kid and I wanted to be in something where you can emote, rather than just shaking test tubes and looking at dials.

Not so much emoting in the sciences, is there?
Not so much emoting in science, none. [Laughs] Just discussion, but it’s fun. I miss a little bit of it when you’re discussing intellectual matters.

I don't suppose there was much of that happening on this set?
Not that much, but if you’re directing — I directed smaller movies — it’s a bit more like that, because you’re talking to the technical people. You’re talking to the composer and the editor and you have to be multitasking a little more.

Roger Ebert once described your Universal Soldier character as a thankless kind of role for an actor. Ivan Drago, on the other hand, might have been one of your best. What do you think?
I think Ivan Drago was a great character because he was a victim. I think that of all those characters I did earlier were kind of brutal and didn’t say anything, but [Ivan] was kind of the best because he was very charismatic and people cared about him. If you take, for instance, Clubber Lang in Rocky III, it was interesting but you have no sympathy for him. He was someone who just got beat, and you just felt great. Good for Rocky, he kicked that guy’s ass. But with Ivan Drago I think some people felt, “Awww, poor guy. They just used him, he’s actually not such a bad guy!” It wasn’t his fault!

Have you felt over the years more interest from your fans to see more dimension in the characters you play?
Yeah I think so, you feel that. But I always didn’t push it cause I know you can’t push it, and it wasn’t like I was dying to show it and my life would be nothing if I couldn’t show people who I really was. But now it’s happening on its own and it feels pretty good.

I caught your performance in Jonas Akerlund’s Small Apartments, for example.
Small Apartments was crazy, like a zany like Jerry Lewis type of a thing…

Are you tempted to branch out more in that kind of way, with more daring or unexpected indie material and iconoclast directors?
Yeah, I have some other ones I’ve done that are not out yet. There’s one I’m doing this fall called Without You I’m Nothing which is a drama about a girl who comes to L.A. to become a stripper. It’s written by the lead actress and there’s a good role in that, kind of like a crime boss, but he’s an interesting, mercurial type of a guy. So that’s dramatic, there’s no action. I don’t kill anybody.

When you look back on your career and the ups and downs you’ve had over the years, what’s your perspective on where you’ve ended up and how you’ve gotten here?
I feel pretty good about where I am now. In my way I feel like it’s a new beginning somehow, I don’t feel burnt out. I don’t feel like people know me. I feel like I’ve managed to keep sort of a mystery so that even though I haven’t accomplished what a lot of people have accomplished at my age, I still feel like it wouldn’t have worked for me because I wasn’t mature enough to handle it. Now I feel more ready to do other things so I’m pretty excited about the future. I’m glad the path went in that direction because also I got married, had two kids, brought them up in Europe, got divorced, came back here again, the kids are okay they didn’t become victims of Hollywood or anything, so that feels good too.

Your life story would make quite the interesting biopic…
Well I hope I’m still like halfway through it! Finding someone to play that role, that’s a tough one.

It’s been announced that they’re moving forward with the remake of Masters of the Universe. What are your memories from making the original, and given that it notoriously flopped are yours fond memories of that project?
There are some semi-fond memories because I had just done Rocky IV and became very well known worldwide, even though I didn’t know what that meant and it was very hard for me to deal with it. [Masters of the Universe] was my next picture after being the Russian bad guy. I was now kind of the American hero and it was like, “Whoa okay, let me see now how do I do this.” And I broke up with Grace [Jones] at that time, my girlfriend, so it was a hard time for me. My manager — I had to fire a bunch of people that were stealing from me. So it was a good memory in one way, on a professional level, because it was a fun movie and it’s one of the few movies my kids have seen because they’re small and it’s like a PG kids movie. But on a personal level I remember I was a little bit unhappy in life and other stuff.

What advice would you give the people who are making the Masters of the Universe reboot?
Gosh, I don’t know. I thought about that for a second when I read it. Which way are they going to take it — superhero, really violent, CGI-driven? Or if they’re going to do more of a kids thing like Wizard of Oz, sweeter, I don’t know...

Would you go back and turn in a cameo if they asked?
[Laughs] If I’m gonna do anything in that movie, I’m gonna keep my shirt on.

Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.