Creed shows Sylvester Stallone's still fighting fit on the big screen
He may be up for an Oscar, but Sylvester Stallone wasn't even sure he wanted to bring Rocky back to the big screen. Along with the film's lead and director, he tells Susan Griffin why he eventually changed his mind about making Creed
HE HAS already won a Golden Globe and been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Creed, but Sylvester Stallone confesses he was tentative about reprising the role of boxing champ Rocky Balboa for a seventh time.
"I said, 'No, no, no', because it was such a struggle to get the last one done and I was so happy with [2006's] Rocky Balboa and the conclusion of Rocky's story, that I thought we didn't need to go any further with it. I dismissed his idea," says the 69-year-old star.
"But he [the film's 29-year-old director Ryan Coogler] was very adamant about doing it and came back about a year, 18 months later. I thought, 'Well, my story is told', but we have two generations out there since Rocky started and I finally agreed to do it – after I was shamed for my narrow-mindedness."
Coogler, who wasn't even born when the first Rocky film came out in 1976, used to watch the movies with his father.
"It was our thing," says the film-maker, who received great acclaim for 2013's Fruitvale Station, which also stars Michael B Jordan, who plays the lead character in Creed. "I was an athlete, and he would take me out for football, martial arts and basketball. And before I'd have a big game, he'd sit me down and we'd watch Rocky II. That was my introduction to the character and the story.
"We eventually watched them all, and I fell in love with it through him.
"Rocky is a character that people connect with," he adds. "Action fans, drama fans, hopeless romantics, even just movie fans, everyone likes Rocky movies because they have something for everyone."
Stallone, who turns 70 in July, finds the enduring appeal in the character he created incredible. "The impression Rocky has left on people is both confounding and extraordinary to me. I've always felt a relentless responsibility to keep the character intact because of that," he admits.
Creed follows the story of Adonis, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's late adversary-turned-great-friend, as he come to terms with his father's legacy and the impact on his own boxing ambitions.
"It's about a guy's personal journey to figure out who he is on the inside," explains 28-year-old Jordan. "A guy without a father, who's looking for a lot of answers, and he ultimately finds that in Rocky Balboa."
Although reluctant at first, Rocky decides to mentor Adonis – but the Rocky we meet in this movie is more frail and fragile than we've ever seen him before.
"As far as him being sick, it was incredible to see him [Stallone] be as bold as he was," notes Jordan. "You're used to seeing Rocky so strong and a fighter in the ring, so to switch the fight, and now he's fighting for his life, that's pretty incredible. I think he played the role perfectly."
Coogler admits to being "shocked" when he first met Stallone – because he wasn't actually anything like Rocky! "He walks different, he talks different – and then I realise, holy smokes, that's a performance! This dude is like a crazy, brilliant actor," he reveals, grinning.
Stallone did find it a "struggle" to be more vulnerable on screen, though.
"Number one, that's not who he is in life. He's very strong and fit and that's a place he hasn't really been as an actor, so that was obviously something he was concerned about," explains the director. "And also being who Rocky is, he was concerned whether audiences were ready to see the guy like that.
"He deferred it to the younger generation, and the answer's, 'Yeah', because we see our parents and it's a real thing for us, watching people – who you knew as one thing – age and become something else. Once he wrapped his head around that, it was all good."
For his part, Stallone, who has three daughters and a son (another son, Sage, died in 2012, aged 36), found the experience of portraying Rocky's sickness eye-opening.
"I'm like, 'My God, I have a big time responsibility to try and take this very seriously', and I did," he says. "It made me realise the clock is ticking. Any day, age can flip the coin on us and take away our health, so it opened my eyes and made me very aware of mortality."
Long before the production began, Coogler made it clear he wanted real-life boxers appearing opposite Jordan in the ring, but the actor insists he took this in his stride. "I'm super-competitive and I love challenges but I knew Ryan was going to push me to be the best fighter and actor I could be, when it comes to the boxing scenes."
He laughs as he recounts his trainer "standing next to me slapping food out of my hands".
"He was very strict. He had keys to my apartment and it was like boot camp for a year-and-a-half," Jordan recalls. "The diet was probably the hardest thing I had to get over. You get 'hangry' for sure when you can't eat things you want, especially for the first three weeks and your body starts to flush out the refined sugar and the processed food - all the bad stuff you love to eat."
His efforts haven't gone unnoticed, and he already has a few famous fans.
"Will Smith rolled up on me on the red carpet [at the Golden Globes] and told me how much he loved the movie, and that was pretty special. And inside, Denzel [Washington] came out of nowhere and kind of jabbed me in the ribs. There are definitely moments where you've got to sit back and breathe."
Despite its macho status, Coogler believes boxing is a "contradictory" sport.
"You've got these really strong guys coming together but they're in the ring all by themselves and they've got these gloves where they're really incapacitated, so it's a sport where you really need to lean on other people. Fighters have this bond with their trainers," he explains. "It's a very special bond, so we wanted to capture that."
The accolades would suggest they've succeeded, and Stallone hopes this marks the beginning of a successful new chapter.
"What's amazing is this character and story have stayed around without any special effects or car chases. We're not blowing anything up, which is what I usually do" says Stallone, laughing.
"No bullets, no cursing, no sex scenes, nothing. But that's what I think is just so phenomenal, that generations that weren't around when we did the third one, forget the first one, would embrace us and take us to a new level.
"I'm stunned that here we are on the seventh one – but actually, we're on Creed one, so hopefully it'll open up a whole new series."
:: Creed is in cinemas now.