Arts Express: Stallone and De Niro In Face To Face Gab About Grudge Match

It’s commonly said that there are no do-overs in life. But don’t tell that to big screen boxing champs, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro.

Not exactly reprising their cinematic personas as Rocky and Raging Bull respectively decades later in “Grudge Match,” the still buffed and feisty fighters met toe to toe to rib each other, at least verbally, for this rowdy chat about the movie.

If somebody had asked you when you were Raging Bull, if you would do it again now when you’re in your seventies, what would you have said?

ROBERT DE NIRO: No! I didn’t know if I’d still be around!

So what did you think of your co-star and boxing opponent Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, way before he came on board this movie?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: What was that, Raging What?! Raging Bullwinkle. Nah, I’m sick!

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Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in Grudge Match.

Okay, what did you really think of Raging Bull?

SS: I never saw his movie! Was it any good? At first I thought Raging Bull was about like … homesteading!

No! It’s probably one of the most brilliant biographies of all time. It’s just incredible. And it’s timeless, what can you say.

It’s a perfect, perfect performance. Great. Now I know he’s not gonna say that about me! So let’s just move on!

Could you put on a film critic hat for a minute, and say what you thought of Stallone in Rocky?

RD: I never saw it! No, they’re two different styles of films. Obviously. And that’s it.

All of them are very well done, and I was impressed with the ones that I saw. And what Sylvester had done with them as craftsman.

Yeah, in all seriousness. And I thought that scene in one of the Rockys with James Brown, that was great. And I told him that.

Somebody once asked Mick Jagger if he’d still be doing was he does at sixty years old, and he said yes. So if somebody asked you the same question when you were doing Rocky, what would your answer have been?

SS: I woulda punched him! I’d say, are you crazy? No! Because you know, when we started out I thought, okay. Rocky I. And that’s it.

I didn’t know that there would be Rocky 90, 91! It was just one of those things, that just kept going. So, no. The answer is no. No!

And you were inducted into the Boxing Hall Of Fame. What did that mean to you as an actor, and a man?

SS: Well first of all, I was a little embarrassed by it. Because actually, I’m not a fighter. But they looked at it as if it’s someone who helps promote boxing.

So there I was, with Mike Douglas. Not Mike Douglas! He’s one of the toughest men I ever met! As a talk show host, Mike Douglas – I saw him punch out Merv Griffin!

No! Mike Tyson. And Cesar Chavez, Jr. It was amazing. But it was just another validation, that you’re just helping promote the sport.

But I’ve always loved the sport. There’s just something about it. Even when I was what, seven or eight years old.

I was fascinated with this idea, of just two men just showing their hearts. And going for it.

You sure seem pretty trim and fit in this movie, eventually. Did you lose tons of weight, like 35 pounds, for your role?

RD: I didn’t lose 35 pounds. I lost maybe 20 pounds, or something like that. And I worked with a fighter, and he was great.

And we worked hard. I worked as hard as I could. I worked to the point to where we could meet.

And then it was choreographed and laid out, and we would work on it. But we got together, and we worked for a couple of days.

And we just worked it out. Sylvester was terrific, and you know, he made it all happen. I was just following him.

If you could trade your Oscar for a legitimate world championship in boxing, would you do it?

SS: Nah! Because it’s great to be able to interpret it, and try to get the feelings of it. Actually, having been in the ring with a couple of professionals … I made the right choice!

For example, when you meet a Mike Tyson, or any of those fellas, there’s so much drama going on. And then to be able to play that, but then get rid of it.

And I lived with it the whole time. Because you know, it’s a very heavy, heavy traumatic life these guys live.

So yeah, yeah. Even though I did say to Bobby, once you’re in the ring. But no, I know I wouldn’t want to do it. And it’s so short lived, so short lived. Yep.

But it’s edgy. And you gotta get a contrast. But I guess the villain in this character, and the somewhat edgier character is Robert.

You know, I’m kinda like the more forlorn character. And kind of the coward, who went and worked in a steel mill. And just sorta gave up. So I just sorta was like bringing it all down.

What made you go for boxing rounds in a movie, with Sylvester Stallone?

RD: I liked the idea of us doing it. And so … that was it!

Was this something the two of you talked about, before the idea got off the ground?

RD: No, we never talked about it. This came from Pete, I think. I met him at a party.

It was a year earlier, or something. And he said, are you interested in this thing.

Are you saying that alcohol was part of the equation?

RD: Uh, yeah! And then it started. And then we started talking, Sylvester and I.

Did you do any amateur boxing?

SS: Yeah, a little bit. And not well!

If you could trade your Oscars for a career in boxing, would you?

RD: Ha, no! It’s a tough sport, a tough profession. Nah. I mean, if you get banged around a bit, you can see that it’s, I mean I have great respect for fighters. Because it is what it is.

It’s a tough sport. And you pay a price. And if you really want to do it, you do it. And I’m an actor, I’m not a fighter. So … Yep.

Did you have this idea for a boxing comedy for some time with De Niro, and did you talk about it on Copland?

SS: No, actually I had no intention of doing this. I have no credibility in suggesting this! And it was something that I thought was absurd!

I said no, we can’t do this. Nah. Nobody wants to see another boxing film. Especially when you’re approaching one hundred and sixty years old!

How so?

SS: Ah, you’re a little rickety. And your bones are coming out. But then the studio heads called me, and convinced me that I was completely wrong!

But this thing was pretty extraordinary. Because I thought, here you get to prove that you don’t have to be crawling around at a certain age.

Well, what exactly has aging meant to you?

SS: You know, like you’re obliged to start winding down. And you’re kinda like, you’re going against trend.

Plus, you still have something to prove. And I think a lot of people, as they reach sixty and about, they’ll go, you know. I have some unfinished business.

But unfortunately, life does not afford you to go back. And kinda like right the wrong. This is the beauty of fantasy. And imagination.

You know, to be able to have these guys go and correct the moment in their life, that will make their life feel somewhat fulfilled. You know?

So that’s the fantasy. And that’s where I think the empathy comes in with the audience. And if you can follow that, good luck!

And what about your training for this film?

SS: It’s like, I’ve always enjoyed working out. I’ve had a trainer I’ve worked with for a least ten years, he’s great. And actually, just in the training aspect, Bob trained a lot. But it was hard!

How did you get in shape for the movie?

RD: We had a trainer who has worked with Sylvester for about ten years. And he’s great. So he was a big, big help.

So I’m so glad that I met him. In fact I used him – or we used him – on a movie called Hands Of Stone. Where he’s not just a trainer, this guy.

He’s like an authority on boxing. And he reads up on it, he’s very smart. And so he was a big help for me. On both movies.

You lost a whole lot of weight for this movie, along with the training. Was there rivalry between you and Bob, during the training?

SS: I couldn’t wait to fight him! I’d been dying to fight Raging Bull. It’s on. He’s crossed the line! But it was extraordinary.

And he could tell you about that aspect of it. Which will of course be shorter than my time! But yeah, we had to train.

This is like, if you were casting the lead in the Nutcracker Suite, or the Swan ballet, right? And you don’t get to see your lead dancer until the curtain goes up.

He was training in Idaho. Both on our own. So what happened is, he had to work on the East Coast. And I had to work on the West Coast. And we couldn’t get together.

So by the time we got into the ring together, I’m going, oh god. I hope he looks good. So we didn’t know.

So this was really difficult. Usually with the Rocky’s, it was five or six months preparation with the guy. I mean, there you’re working.

We didn’t have the opportunity. That’s why this is pretty extraordinary. And you have to give Bob a little credit, for professionalism.

But the budget was a little tighter. I remember with Rocky 2, they’d build gyms for you. Now it’s gotten to, where we used a clothes line. With four broomsticks! I’m not lying.

Yeah, on an old carpet. In a freezing building. And I got carried over, with a broken leg.

At that time, I had just torn all these tendons. From the hip down, to the boot.

And what I looked like, was a pirate learning how to fight. It was like, ugh, ugh. And I said, is this ever gonna work?

And trust me, this is how it began. You don’t need a big ring, you don’t need anything.

And I just said, okay. Bobby’s style and my style, that’s what it is. And you know, he should be more like his Raging Bull type.

And I have to be more of a boxer. Because basically in our fight characters, we’re both sluggers.

But that wouldn’t look too interesting. So I said, okay asshole. And I had to be in the reverse all the time. I’m going backwards. He’s the aggressor.

So these are the things you work out, But it was just, I think, eventually they shot some documentary footage on it. And it’s interesting, how it was out of this horrible thing.

And that’s why I tell people, if you have a meager beginning and it doesn’t look like there’s any promise to it, just every day it gets a little bit better.

And before you know it, you’re ready to go. It doesn’t have to, you don’t have to start out in a penthouse.

You could start out in a boiler room, and get there! And this one started out as meager as it can be.

And also, with the fight aspect of it, everyone has strong suits. Bobby has a certain way he throws his arms. And it’s a combination.

So you cater to that. Back and forth. And how, do you move to the left, and you move to the right. So there is a little bit of, you know, thought that goes into it.

But the question that’s most important here is, I realize it’s not my movie. And you have to be very sensitive to that.

Because it’s not my thing. My boxing tends to be a little bit more with nine cameras. But Peter is telling a personal story, within a fight.

So I completely defer to the dramatic aspect of what he’s trying to say. Rather than just us beating the hell out of each other.

See what I mean? It was all story points. So it’s definitely his vision. It’s his fault, is what I’m saying! Exactly right.

What do you think it is about boxing, that makes for such great storytelling?

SS: You know, it’s funny. With Rocky, I think that people who don’t understand, they’re not boxing movies or documentaries.

They are biographies. And these guys happen to be fighters. But boxing is just, everyone knows what it’s like to be frustrated, and want to fight back. On any emotional level.

And that’s what we pull from. I just happen to have an affinity for it. And so do a lot of people.

And that’s why there’s probably been more boxing films done, than any kinda film possible.

Except to get probably past the Hays Code. Where you can basically be in your underwear, and sweaty for two hours! And get through the Code at that time.

But I’d like to say too – because I never got to say it! It’s like, what really made this thing fly, is the inspired casting of Kevin Hart.

It really brought in a whole new demographic. And that was really, I thought it inspired.

You know, it’s one thing to see grumpy old men fight. Okay. But then you bring in Kevin Hart, and I thought, wow.

Of course, Kim Basinger brings in a sensuality to it. So I thought it was very, very clever.

And then Alan Arkin. But you know what I hate about Alan? He can just yawn, and it’s funny!

What’s up with you on the holidays?

SS: I’m spending it with the kids, playing with the kids. That’s what the holidays are all about, the kids.

How did you get inside the head of your character?

RD: He’s the guy who is, you know I’m like the bad guy in the beginning. And then … I don’t know. See the movie!

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.