A few spinal fusions, a few screws in his back, but finally playing himself – The Irish Times

Sylvester Stallone needs an introduction about as much as Rambo needs a bigger knife, or Rocky another punch to the head. But he does want to clarify one thing about himself over tea at the St Regis hotel in Manhattan, when we meet before the debut of his new Paramount+ series, Tulsa King.

Those roles that made him famous? Those guys weren’t really him. Sure they were tough, and he is tough – at 76, he is still jacked, still doing many of his own stunts, still Sly. But, the physical demands notwithstanding, the acting part was kind of easy, he says, particularly after so many rounds, so many sorties: eight Rocky movies, five for Rambo.

Stallone is older now, his catalog of injuries is legendary, and his roles have been evolving. The world has evolved

“It’s really kind of simple to hide behind Rambo or Rocky,” he says – and here he offers a quick and uncanny “How you doin’?” something like an impression of an impression of his own acting. “With this fellow here,” he says of his Tulsa King character, a silver-tongued gangster named Dwight Manfredi, “you have to be clever.”

He also has to be something else he isn’t used to being on camera. “The hardest thing in acting is to be yourself,” he says, adding: “And I would say at my age, right now, I’m probably doing my best work, because I’m actually playing me.”

That is, of course, the kind of thing actors say. But it’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for Stallone to be himself. As the faded but still formidable Manfredi he gets to play tough while embracing his own intelligence and idiosyncrasies, and Tulsa King caters to many of the same people who grew up watching him brawl and slay his way through the 1980s.

Taylor Sheridan created the series, which began streaming this weekend. Like Sheridan’s hit cowboy drama, Yellowstone, Tulsa King promises to be an EZ-chair favourite, blending time-honoured, dad-approved elements like the western, the gangster flick, a little nonthreatening soapiness, a little mild political incorrectness and a lot of Stalloneness.

For Stallone, Tulsa King offers a chance to try some new things: it is his first major role on TV and his first serious role as a mobster – in this case a crime-family capo who has just finished serving 25 years in prison and must relocate to expand operations in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But it is also evident in line with a gradual change in his recent work, notably the Creed films. Stallone is older now, his catalog of injuries is legendary, and his roles have been evolving. The world has evolved, too, including the audience for his particular breed of postwar American he-man – he of the star-spangled boxing trunks and Sammy Hagar soundtrack.

The younger film heroes in his wake – they of the spandex suits and green screens – make different movies now, carefully tailored by global conglomerates to avoid injuring their stars or offending Chinese censors. What’s a commie-crushing action star to do?

The answer, it seems, has been to adapt. But within limits. Case in point: a Tulsa King scene Stallone shows me on his phone, which involves another man’s face and a very hot electric stovetop. “I believe when you’re going to do violence, really do memorable violence,” he says. I make a mental note to choose my words carefully during tea.

In person Stallone is a raconteur, a warm guy who sweetens his conversations with references to classical mythology and F-bombs. When he talks he clasps your shoulder and looks you in the eye. He’ll show you his tattoos and pictures of his dog. We spend time scrolling through photos of his injuries: a few spinal fusions here, a few screws in his back there. He once fell off a horse and “broke” his spleen. It is charming, even the photo of the gaping hole in his forearm – “just a wound”, he says – from a piece of shrapnel.

It’s such a gift when you’re writing something with an actor already attached to it

“He’s intimidating when he has to be,” Stallone says of his Tulsa character – although, as he has established, he might as well be talking about himself. “When he’s not, he’s trying to actually win you over, like a salesman.”

A long-time horse enthusiast, Stallone first met Sheridan at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, he says, back when Sheridan was better known as an actor. Several years later, after becoming one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters, Sheridan got in touch with a pilot script about “the ultimate fish out of water: gangster goes west,” Stallone says.

Stallone says he had always wanted to play a serious gangster, ever since he was rejected from being an extra in The Godfather. (Oscar, his 1991 mob comedy, didn’t scratch the itch.) He signed on as the lead and an executive producer, and Sheridan handed off showrunning duties to Terence Winter, whom Stallone had long admired for his work on Boardwalk Empire and The sopranos

Winter revised the pilot and began writing and overseeing subsequent episodes with Stallone in mind.

“It’s such a gift when you’re writing something with an actor already attached to it,” Winter says. “You’ve got that voice and that physicality in your mind. So this was really already tailor-made for Sly.”

Speaking with other members of the production, one gets the impression that Stallone found that tailoring a comfortable fit, a sense he tried to pass along to fellow cast members.

“The energy that he put in the room, personally, made me feel like I can be myself and put my own self in the character,” says Jay Will, who plays Dwight’s sidekick of sorts, a young driver named Tyson. “There is authenticity in Sly that is very, very in the forefront of his being, sensitive to the world. He doesn’t pin it.”

Andrea Savage, the Veep and I’m Sorry actor, who plays a potential love interest who is also an agent of the US bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives, says she didn’t meet Stallone until right before they shot their first scene together. She didn’t know what to expect, so she improvised by making fun of him. “And he laughed, and I was like, okay, I think we’re good,” she says. “He has such a big persona, when I first got there I was, like, God, it’s like working with a Marvel character or something – this is Sylvester Stallone, you know? – and he’s so, like, fit and, like, coiffed. But he’s really a collaborator, and he’s an artist.”

Winter agrees. “He is really smart and funny and very well read and articulate and sarcastic, and I think part of the fun for me is that’s a lot of the stuff people don’t know about him,” he says. “They’re going to be very surprised to see him perform monologues and see how funny he is and how self-deprecating and how emotional it gets.”

The Ronald Reagan years gave rise to many muscle-bound action stars, but there was no one quite like Stallone. With his Greek-god physique, Roman good looks and big, sad eyes, Stallone possessed a pathos and a scuffed-up patina that other hulks of that age lacked. His characters mean something to people in a way that androids and alien killers do not.

Stallone’s characters were often easy to caricature, punchy and inarticulate, and a long string of swollen sequels and critical flops didn’t help. (He acknowledges that Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was not his best work.) Still, his best-known creations weren’t simplistic. In their day Rocky and Rambo stood for a certain segment of American men in the post-Vietnam, post-industrial era who bore the scars of violence, neglect, and loss of livelihood and purpose. But they had figured out how to survive. However ridiculous some of the sequels became, the original Rocky, which Stallone wrote, and First Blood, which he cowrote, are great movies with big and serious themes.

“I actually hate the word ‘action’ actor, because I call it mythology,” Stallone says. No one is writing The Odyssey any more, he continues, “but that mentality – we need mythological heroes.”

Viewed in this context, the appeal of Tulsa King for an old stallion like Stallone makes sense: when it comes to mythological Hollywood heroes, not even Avengers can compete with cowboys and gangsters.

Stallone can’t play heroes exactly the way he used to, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. “It’s almost unforgivably egotistical if you think you’re going to walk out and be faster than some 21-year-old Green Beret,” he says. “I’ve had to come to terms with that.” But neither has he hung up his spurs, even if his characters now must reckon honestly with the losses and limits of age.

Those limits are not only physical. Based on the two advance screeners provided to journalists, there’s a comedic scene early in Tulsa King in which Dwight accidentally gets stoned and lets loose. He’s been in prison for a quarter-century, and now he feels like Rip Van Winkle. He isn’t angry, just confused – “A phone is a camera!”, “And these pronouns. What the f**k is with the pronouns?” – and although he’s “all for change”, he feels that “somebody keeps moving the goalposts”.

Sheridan’s shows are often characterized as “red-state” viewing – in other words, programs that will appeal to Republicans rather than Democrats, a reductive take given that Yellowstone was the highest-rated drama on US television last season. But Dwight’s stoned monologue is at least a welcome mat for viewers who didn’t have to go to prison to feel alienated or confused by rapid changes in technology and social norms. (Winter says the scene isn’t meant to be expressly political – “not just a statement about wokeness,” as he puts it – but is, “just in general, about how quickly things change”.) The scene will chafe some sensibilities , yet as it continues it takes a turn.

“When I was a kid, in my neighborhood, at least I knew who I was,” Dwight declares to a weary weed dispensary owner played by Martin Starr. Then he shrugs, and his voice quiets. “Or I thought I did,” he says. “But truthfully? Nobody knows nothin’.”

This, too, seems like Stalloneness: humility in the face of the gods. That humility has become more profound, Stallone tells me, as he has grown older and life has become more and more about loss. Children grew up and left. Marriages got rocky. Bodies aged. Friends died.

“From 45 down, it’s subtraction,” he says. “And how do you deal with subtraction?”

Minutes later he answers his own question: you adjust, you go the distance, you rise up to the challenges. As an artist, he still believes in underdog stories, he says, in “man against the system, woman against the system, modern mythology, rising above”. The fight may not look or feel the way it used to, but you keep fighting anyway. (The Expendables 4? Due next year.)

And what do you do when they stack the odds against you?

“You sink or swim,” he says. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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