PHILADELPHIA — Being cast as the villain Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV" launched Dolph Lundgren's acting career. But he had a brainier path if that didn't work out.
The 61-year old actor holds a master's degree in chemical engineering and was on a Fulbright scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when Stallone cast him as Drago for the 1985 "Rocky" sequel.
Lundgren doesn't regret trading academia for those red boxing trunks with the gold stripes, though he wishes his character had a few more coherent lines.
"It felt really surreal, and, at the same time, it felt like a big moment for me in my career as a person, because that character started my whole career and it's been a great thing for me. But it's also kind of been a negative in one way because the guy was such a monosyllabic guy," Lundgren said. "He was a robot."
This month, Lundgren reprises the role of Drago in "Creed II," as much a sequel to the previous film as it is to "Rocky IV." Lundgren remains grateful to Stallone, not only for casting him in the first place, but for bringing him back in a heartier, more substantial role.
"I got a chance to play a guy who was a real person and who has real problems, especially a father-son relationship. When I see father-son relationships in movies, it always gets me emotional. And I had a chance to be part of that," Lundgren said.
Back in "Rocky IV," Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring, only to lose to Rocky Balboa. But he loses much more than a match.
In "Creed II," we learn he is living in squalor after the embarrassing loss. He is raising his son Viktor, played by Florian Munteanu, to be a boxer and is seeking revenge on Rocky by getting his son to fight the son of the man he killed.
Munteanu said he felt a bond with Lundgren. "It's an honor to play his son," he said. "He wanted to create a father-son relationship right from the beginning."
Lundgren had a unique trajectory that led him to the big screen. He was an engineering student in Melbourne, Australia, when he met actress Grace Jones. While dating, she took him to New York and introduced to him people like Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. It didn't hurt that he was a karate champion when Stallone discovered him.
Since then, he's had a busy action-movie career, which includes "The Expendables" trilogy, portraying He-Man in "Masters of the Universe," and the upcoming "Aquaman." Still, he admits to soul searching when it came to his career path.
"'Why did I quit MIT? Why didn't I continue with engineering? Why did I become an actor?' And it took me a while," Lundgren said.
Now he's at peace with his acting decision: "Whether I'm a good guy or a bad guy, it makes them feel something, and it brightens up their lives. That's kind of what my part in this earth has been, I guess."
This time around, there wasn't a lot of action scenes for Lundgren, and he was fine with that. But he did get in shape to play Drago, who he describes as "one of those guys who who's always in shape."
"No matter how much vodka he drinks, he's going to go to the gym," Lundgren said.