How Dolph Lundgren Went From Chemical Engineer To Action Star

Originally published on August 2, 2015 9:43 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Before he was Ivan Drago, He-Man or an "Expendable," Dolph Lundgren was just another 6-foot-5-inch Swedish male model with a black belt in karate and a degree in chemical engineering.

As even a brief reading of his biography might suggest, Lundgren, 56, has taken an unexpected, winding path to success. But it all started with his starring role in Rocky IV, as the menacing Soviet boxer Ivan Drago.

As he tells NPR's Arun Rath, it was the role that changed his life. And he wouldn't have gotten to that silver-screen spotlight if he hadn't taken a gig as a bouncer — and stumbled upon romance.

Lundgren attends the premiere for The Expendables 3 in Hollywood.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

A Childhood In Sweden, And Dreams Of America

The movie star "Dolph" Lundgren was actually born Hans Lundgren. (He took on the name Dolph, a relative's name from his mother's side of the family, with the release of the Rocky film in 1985.) He grew up largely in and around Stockholm, and excelled in school from an early age.

"I had some allergies when I was younger," Lundgren says, and, as a result, "I wasn't very good at sports. So my kind of way to feel like I was somebody was to answer all the questions the teacher asked."

From early on, Lundgren also dreamed of going to the United States, but, he says, his family couldn't afford to send him: "So the way to get there for me was to get academic scholarships."

Lundgren's aptitude for chemical engineering propelled him to scholarships around the world. There was Washington State University, Clemson University, Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, the University of Sydney in Australia and, ultimately, a competitive Fulbright scholarship to attend MIT.

But that was all before Lundgren met Grace Jones.

A Taste Of Show Business

While in Australia, Lundgren, then a competitive martial artist, got a job as a bouncer through a friend of a friend. That meant he provided security at concerts for artists like Joan Armatrading, Dr. Hook and Grace Jones.

"I was assigned to [Jones'] dressing room," Lundgren recalls. "I think she spotted me out there. And I was just a Swedish kid, I didn't know anything. And I think she kind of liked me."

A night of partying after Jones' show led to a four-year romance and a major course correction on Lundgren's trajectory toward MIT.

"She changed it big time," Lundgren says.

Jones — who was famous not just for her music, but also for her acting and modeling — took Lundgren to New York, where they partied at the legendary Studio 54 and Andy Warhol took pictures of Lundgren. Jones introduced Lundgren to the world of show business.

Meanwhile, Lundgren was still set to begin his Fulbright scholarship at MIT.

"I started sort of thinking, 'Wow, this is kind of cool,' " Lundgren remembers: " 'I don't know if I want to go back to engineering after this.' "

Lundgren carries then-girlfriend Grace Jones to a fashion awards show in Paris in October 1985.
Associated Press

A Short-Lived Scholarship

Lundgren remembers making the trip from New York down to MIT's campus in Cambridge, Mass., riding on a big, black Yamaha motorcycle with Grace Jones behind him.

"The professors are waiting for the star student from Sweden," Lundgren says, "and then they see me ride past outside the window with Grace Jones in the back, all decked out in leather. They probably didn't know what was going on."

After his exposure to show business and the arts, it took only a few weeks for Lundgren to rethink his academic goals, quit the program and return to New York.

"I just knew it wasn't right," he says. Instead of studying engineering, he started studying acting.

Becoming The 'Siberian Bull'

The movie role that changed Lundgren's life almost went to someone else.

When the then-unknown actor went to a "cattle call" audition for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky IV, a casting agent dismissed Lundgren as "too tall."

But given his own aptitude for martial arts and his love for the film series, he says, he couldn't miss the opportunity for a role in the franchise.

So he took photos of himself in boxing gear, and sent them through a series of connections to Stallone.

It happened in like 90 minutes. I went from a total nobody, basically, to Dolph Lundgren, movie star. - Dolph Lundgren

Eventually, while back in Sweden, Lundgren got the call to meet with Stallone in Los Angeles.

After meeting Stallone, training for months and going through a screen test, Lundgren landed the role as the villain in Rocky IV, the towering Soviet boxer Ivan Drago.

Lundgren remembers the premiere of the film in November 1985 as a pivotal moment in his career.

He walked down the red carpet with Grace Jones, still his girlfriend at the time, and "everybody's taking pictures of her," he says, "and I'm kind of there like her boy toy."

But after the audience watched the film, Lundgren says, everything changed.

"I remember coming out onto the street, and suddenly people are taking pictures of me, and not Grace," he says.

"It happened in like 90 minutes. I went from a total nobody, basically, to Dolph Lundgren, movie star."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

And now it's time for our series "My Big Break."

DOLPH LUNDGREN: I'm Dolph Lundgren. I'm an actor, producer, director and I work here in Hollywood.

RATH: You might know Swedish action star Dolph Lundgren from his most iconic role as the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV." It might not shock you to find out that before he was famous, Lundgren had a black belt in karate. But what if I told you he was also a gifted student of chemical engineering? And back in the early 1980s, he was studying abroad in Australia and applying for a Fulbright scholarship to MIT.

LUNDGREN: So I remember I wrote this letter to the professor at MIT saying I really want to go your school. And a here are my grades. And they admitted me actually - took me in. But I had six months off. And I met this singer Grace Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSPIRATION")

GRACE JONES: (Singing) I'm hoping to find a new source of information.

LUNDGREN: I had a friend of mine - he had another friend and that other guy he got us all this job to do security at these concerts. And I was assigned to her dressing room. I think I was outside her dressing room. And I think she spotted me out there. And I think she kind of liked me. And, you know, one thing led to another and we actually stayed together for four years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSPIRATION")

JONES: Love from me to you.

LUNDGREN: What happened was I came to New York. I had six months off before going to MIT. And in those six months, because of her contacts, I met Andy Warhol at some party. I was at a club. And some guy comes up and says oh, what are you famous for? And I'm like nothing as far as I know. And he says can I put you in my magazine? He took a picture of me. And it was Andy Warhol.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER)

LUNDGREN: I started sort of thinking like whoa, this is kind of cool, you know. I don't know if I want to go back to engineering after this. And I then went up to MIT to start my school in the fall. And I had this big black motorcycle, you know. And I always wore black leather. And Grace is on the back. She wants to go to Boston to check it out. The professors are waiting for the star student from Sweden, you know, who they kind of admitted on the, you know, special kind of a provision, right? Because he wanted to go to MIT so badly. And then they see me ride past outside the window with Grace Jones on the back all decked out in leather. They probably didn't know what was going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PULL UP TO THE BUMPER")

JONES: (Singing) Pull up to the bumper.

LUNDGREN: I was there for a few weeks. And then I just knew it wasn't right. So I quit MIT and then I'm back in New York studying acting. And I went to this cattle call in New York, you know, just like hundreds of guys lined up. Some girl was sitting there taking notes. And she goes OK, what's your name? And she wrote that down. How tall are you? 6'5". Too tall - she didn't even look up. Next.

And then I saw the poster behind her - "Rocky IV." And I was like, wow, this - I can't let this go. So I took some pictures in boxing gear. And then I sent them off through Warren Robertson, my acting coach, who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Sly Stallone, they said. So I go back to Europe. And some kid calls me in Sweden out of breath like oh, are you so and so? Oh God, I found you. I've been looking for you for months. Sly wants to meet you. I'm like what? Who? Stallone wants to see you. We're going to fly you into LA. I'm like [bleep]. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCKY IV")

LUNDGREN: (As Ivan Drago) My name is Drago. I'm a fighter from the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKY THEME)

LUNDGREN: The movie was opening in November. I think it was '85. I go to the premiere and it was seriously like marching bands, elephants, everything in Westwood. It was crazy, right? Grace and I go in. And, you know, she's wearing a huge hat or something super glamorous. And everybody's taking pictures of her. And I'm kind of there, you know, like her boy toy or whatever. And sit down - movie starts. I remember seeing it. And I could see the - I feel the audience there like who is this guy kind of thing, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCKY IV")

LUNDGREN: (As Ivan Drago) I must break you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

LUNDGREN: This is a very powerful character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCKY IV")

LUNDGREN: (As Ivan Drago) Hold on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

LUNDGREN: So movie plays out. And I'm totally like speechless. And I remember coming on the street and suddenly people are taking pictures of me and not Grace. It happened in like 90 minutes, you know. I went from a total nobody, basically, to Dolph Lundgren, movie star.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKY IV THEME)

LUNDGREN: Funny enough, like 30 years later, I was checking in at LAX here. And the guy in front of me goes hey, aren't you Dolph Lundgren? And I said yeah. And he goes, you know, I'm the professor at MIT who admitted you 30 years ago. And he says I guess you did pretty well. I said, I mean, I said thanks, man.

RATH: And we want to hear about your big break. You don't have to be a six foot five Swedish movie star with a degree in chemical engineering. We promise. Send us an e-mail at mybigbreak@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKY IV THEME) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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