Sylvester Stallone Talks About "Rocky Balboa"

Sylvester Stallone stars in Rocky Balboa
Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Tarver in "Rocky Balboa.". © MGM

30 years after the first Rocky movie took audiences by storm, Sylvester Stallone steps back into the ring for one last boxing match in the dramatic film, , co-starring Milo Ventimiglia, Burt Young, and Antonio Tarver. The actor/writer/director admits his wife didn’t want him to return to the role, but he strongly believed there needed to be one final chapter for the book to be closed on the film franchise that launched his career.

Stallone brought the iconic character out of retirement for one last shot at the title and set the film after the death of Rocky's beloved Adrian (played in previous Rocky films by Talia Shire).

The Lasting Appeal of the Character Rocky Balboa: Reflecting on the history of Rocky, beginning with the first film, Stallone said, “I think the country was a little more sedate, at least in the way they released films. I mean Rocky came out on two screens, so it really took a long time. It was out there for almost a year. It burned its way into the American consciousness. I became incredibly identified with it, probably inextricably forever. And when I would go against that, everything was held up to Rocky. If the projects I found myself involved with didn’t have a certain kind of heart, or a certain kind of expectancy of the audience wanted to be taken on that kind of journey again, I think they felt it was a disappointment.

It was a let down.

Right after Rocky was F.I.S.T. and F.I.S.T. is a pretty good film, but I think it didn’t have enough of what people were expecting. Then I went with Paradise Alley, which was a character that was kind of disdainful. I mean I liked the character a lot but he was the antithesis of Rocky, so that kind of got people confused.

I never really fit into the character actor category. I would have liked to, but it just didn’t happen. So that’s what I think it is.”

Getting Into Shape for One More Go at Playing Rocky: Stallone admits it was a very difficult experience. “The training for this was extremely difficult and riddled with a lot of injury,” confessed Stallone. “Things that worked 30 years ago are a little rusty. I kind of felt like the Tin Man before he got his can of oil, very, very stiff. But with the help of a handful of Advil every morning I got through it.

There were a lot of injuries. Even the champ broke his knuckle sparring with me and I broke my foot. I’m in a cast hobbling around the ring and we looked like two mummies. I swear to you it was like slow motion. ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Yes, it hurts.’ ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Yes, it hurts.’

When we got to Vegas I was really nervous because I had to come down the aisle with 9,000 people and I’m not ready at all. I’ve got a world champion there who’s just knocked out the best pound for pound fighter in the past ten years. I said, ‘Antonio, I have an idea of how this should work. I think we should go from this corner to that corner to there. I’m not sure how we get there.

Let’s just actually move and if you hit me you hit me.’”

Stallone continued, “The gloves were a little extra work so they had a little extra padding but they hurt because I got dropped at least three times, badly. The second knockout when I’m trying to struggle to get up, that’s real. It is. Now I get it. I wanted Rocky to just bounce right up like, ‘Yeah, it didn’t hurt.’ Like the third time he knocked me down I went, ‘Wow, now I get it!’ It’s called stunned and I was stunned.

There’s more realistic fighting in this. We worked in the editing room so that if you freeze frame anywhere, you’ll see the contact. There’s none of that like the other films where you miss by inches and pretend that was a hit. This one is on the money, unfortunately.”

Sylvester Stallone the Person Versus Rocky the Character: Is there a cross-over between the two?

Stallone answered, “I’m not sure, but they’re pretty similar. All the issues, the ones that have worked, the films that have worked in the Rocky thing, it’s always about something I’m going through. Like in Rocky III when he’s afraid to fight because of fear, because once you acquire everything you’ve ever wanted, now you don’t want to lose it. So that was what that was all about, overcoming fear. And then when Mickey died you lose your foundation. It was like now you’re facing the world unprepared.

When I was younger I had no idea what an older person goes through. And even though I don’t feel that mature I look at the numbers and I am. So I go, ‘Ha, I guess maybe I’m not that different from other people.’ So other seniors - or if you want to say ‘mature adults’ - also have that feeling. Like, ‘God, at the very end I want to feel as though I’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of this life.’ I want to try all things I’ve never tried, and quite often that doesn’t happen.

The dream is to do that, to be fulfilled. At the very end, I think that kind of sense of peace is what I was fighting for in this film. That’s why Rocky gets out of the ring. It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t about winning or losing; he was never going to fight again. It’s just that he did it. His son saw him do what he used to do. He’s proud he brought everything together. He got rid of a lot of the grief he felt for Adrian and now he’s ready to move on with his life. So that’s what that was all about. It’s a fantasy, but I think a lot of people wish they could have an outlet in their later years for all the pent up dreams that never got a chance to be displayed.”

Art Imitates Life: There’s a scene in Rocky Balboa in which Rocky tells his son (played by Milo Ventimiglia) to live his own life. Stallone could really relate to that particular moment from the film. “I’ve played that last scene a lot with my son and I’m sure I’ll play it again many more times. It’s a dilemma, being my son. It’s not an easy thing to be. I pretty much tell him the same thing, ‘You have two choices: to live in the shadow and shrink or step outside. But whatever you do, do not use it as an excuse. That just doesn’t hold water.’”

Page 2: Filming in Philadelphia, the Script, and Motivation

Returning to the City of Brotherly Love: Stallone says that going back to Philadelphia to film was a surreal experience mainly because the city believes Rocky is real – or at least that’s how they treat the character. “No one calls me Sylvester, it’s Rocky. I went back to the neighborhood, which is a very unusual thing for an actor to go back where children were 5-years-old and now you go back and they have four children themselves.

They’ve grown up, literally. ‘That’s Rocky’s house. That’s where he drinks.’ Yeah, for real. For real. It’s an incredible compliment but it’s becomes like this mythic character, like the Phoenix. Does it live? Does it die? They’ve embraced it like no other city you’ve ever seen.

In Philadelphia they throw ice balls at Santa Claus. It’s a tough crowd. You know what I mean with the Eagles? They let you know. They’re not shy. It’s brutal. But they like Rocky. They’ve embraced him as one of their own, because he represents kind of this regular guy who is willing to take the hits and keep going.”

Crafting the Screenplay for Rocky Balboa: The story didn't always begin at the point where Adrian had passed away. “No, and it wasn’t working,” revealed Stallone. “I was using the George Foreman format which would be this: Rocky has a Youth Center in Philly. It’s going broke. He goes to the bank for a loan.

Adrian is still alive. The bank says no. He goes to church for a loan. Nothing. Goes to a pawn shop. Nothing. He goes, ‘You know, I want to go out and do some clubs fights and get the money so I can pay the rent, like George [Forman].’ One thing led to another until finally he’s had 18, 19 of these.

People are saying, ‘Wow, you should continue this.’ It becomes commercial with guys like Don King, which is what happened with George Foreman. You’ve now become a commercial commodity that he can really sell, and that’s what happened with George Foreman. But all Adrian did during the film was, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.’ We’ve seen that. I went ‘Oy!’ So the movie’s about trying to save the gym and the kids. It wasn’t really about any kind of visceral, emotional journey. It wasn’t about just dealing with life. This is all about plot and a simple subject of the gym.

Rocky I was about confusion, loneliness, brotherhood, self-awareness. It was just those subjects and, at the very end, finally not even caring about the victory. It was about the love of Adrian. That’s what it was all about. It’s called the ‘Adrian factor.’ So I said, ‘What I am going to do?’ You have to pull a man’s heart out and take away the thing he loves the most in the world. Take it out of his life and he now plummets into the depths of despair. There’s nothing more traumatic than taking Adrian out of his life. I had to call Talia [Shire] who I had been talking to about the other script. I said, ‘I worked out the plot.

It finally works.’ She goes, ‘Oh, that’s so great. What’s my part?’ I said, ‘Dead. Your part is dead. You’re dead.’ She says, ‘No, seriously,’ I said, ‘Seriously. It opens up and I’m on a folding chair looking at your tombstone.’ She goes, ‘Oh come on!’ I go, ‘Yeah, but I bring roses.’ It’s a true story.

I talked to her the other day and she finally got it. She was very cerebral. She goes, ‘Oh, I get it. It’s the journey and down the River Styx.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s close enough.’ That’s exactly what it is. It’s Dante’s Inferno, down the River Styx. She’s great.”

What Motivates Sylvester Stallone to Succeed?: “Adversity and fear of knowing that I didn’t try. It’s why I didn’t sell the first one. It was because I was scared. I said if I had sold the first one and it turned out really well for someone else, I would probably hate myself for my entire life.

The same thing with this one. I just felt like that the fear of not doing it… My wife was afraid of me doing this film. She was crying, ‘Don’t do this. You’re going to be embarrassed.’ I said, ‘I know, but I’ve just got to try it. I feel it.’

Dixon in the movie, his trainer, says that until a man - and this means a woman, too - has been through a real baptism of fire, when you’re scared, when you’re hanging on, when someone is hurting you, which is life is hurting you, then you’re really going to see what you’re made of and then you’re going to get the only kind of respect in the world that matters: self-respect. That’s pretty much what my journey has been. This has all been about getting Rocky self-respect, and maybe a little bit of that will wipe off on me.”