The actor takes a look back at the legacy of this cinematic champion.

It isn't everyday that you get to interview an icon. However, what other word would you use to describe Sylvester Stallone? As the presence behind Rambo and Rocky Balboa, this man has created two characters that will live on in film history forever. At a recent press junket to discuss the latter film, Stallone was both philosophical and humbled by the amount of admiration both for him and for this newest installment in the franchise of Rocky Balboa.

Why do you think when you do a Rocky film it connects so much with audiences?

Related: Stallone Says Goodbye to Rocky, Is the Character Gone for Good?

Sylvester Stallone:Rocky is a very unusual case in film. I think the country was a little more sedate, at least in the way that they release films. Rocky came out on two screens so it really took a long time... so it burnt it's way into the American consciousness, and I became incredibly identified with it. When I would go against that, everything was held up to Rocky. So if the projects I found myself involved with didn't have a certain kind of heart, or a certain kind of expectancy the audience wanted me to take, I think they felt it was a disappointment or a letdown. Same thing with First Blood. It's the best action film I've done for that reason.

How much do you relate to the Rocky character?

Sylvester Stallone: They're very similar. The issues at work are very personal issues. I've been lucky enough to take what's been bothering me, questions I've asked about life in general, and have the body of Rocky to put it into. If I was asking these questions they wouldn't have the same impact. He's a tough guy but he's childlike. So when he asks questions, it comes to you kind of at a comical angle. The way he speaks, his vernacular, and tense. All the issues, the films that have worked, it's always about something I'm going through. Like, in Rocky III, when he's afraid to fight because of fear, once you acquire everything you ever wanted now you don't want to lose it. That's what that was all about, overcoming fear. Mickey dies and you lose your foundation and it's like now you're facing the world unprepared.

In this one, how do you deal with grief? I see it as I get older and Rocky says it in this film, "The older I get, the more things I gotta leave behind." No one prepares you for that. You think that it gets easier when you get older. It doesn't. As a child you don't deal with loss that often, as an adult you do. It's brutal. This is like how do try and counterpoint that?

How do you think the character of Rocky relates to your life?

Sylvester Stallone: I feel good about being myself and I think that kind of sense of peace is what I was fighting for in this movie. That's why Rocky gets back in the ring. It didn't matter if he was going to win or lose, he was never gonna fight again. He did it. His son saw him, what he used to do... he got rid of a lot things that were holding him back in his life. It's a fantasy but I think that people wish that they could have an outlet in their later years for all their pent up dreams that never got fulfilled.

What was it like to train for this film as opposed to the other Rocky films?

Sylvester Stallone: The training for this was extremely difficult. The things that worked (laughs)... 30 years ago, are a little rusty. I kinda felt like the Tin Man before he got his can of oil. I was very, very stiff. With the help of a handful of Advil every morning... Antonio Tarver hurt his hand sparring with me and I broke my foot. So I'm in a cast, hobbling around the ring. We looked like two mummies. We had to do some scenes in slow motion because it hurt so bad. When we got to Vegas I was really nervous. I had to come down the aisle in front of 9,000 people, I'm not ready at all, and I've got a world champion in there who just knocked out the best pound for pound fighter in the past 10 years.

So I said, "Antonio, I have an idea about how this should work. I think we should just go from this corner, to that corner... I'm not sure how we get there lets just actually move. If you hit me you hit me." The gloves were such that they had a little extra padding, but I got rocked at least 3 times, badly. The second knockdown, when I'm trying to get up, that's real. In the old days I could bounce right up like, "Yeah, that didn't hurt." There's more real fighting in this. We worked in editing, if it freeze frames anywhere, you'll see the contact. It's not like the other films where we missed by 4 feet and you'd hear a hitting sound.

Your film looked really good from a boxing standpoint. Have you tried to a create a legacy for this fighter, like maybe he could have actually existed?

Sylvester Stallone: Especially in Philadelphia, that line has been blurred. But by no means would I ever put Rocky in the categories with Joe Frazier or Mike Tyson. You're right, I think there is a void in identifiable boxers. People like Joe Frazier, they were more than just fighters, they were stylists, they had a presence. We don't have that today because there used to be one division, then two... now there's four or five. The champions are constantly changing and I think it's destroyed the sport.

What has happened, is Rocky has defined determination. Even though you're hurt, you don't have the greatest skill in the world, but if you play with ferocity you sometimes overwhelm your opponent. In the real life world of Rocky they usually get knocked out. Luckily, I'm writing this thing, so he may lose but if he loses it's cool.

Did you get everything "out of the basement" with the Rocky character?

Sylvester Stallone: I have to admit, I've had this beast... it's been gnawing at me for 10 or 12 years, how badly Rocky fared and I take all the blame for that. I think it was a reflection of my lack of focus at the time and it just was translated on to film. It really bothered me because there's people that have been so loyal to it. So that beast was finally eliminated. I touched on some subjects and delivered a film that people can relate to, and when he says, "Yo Adrian, we did it." We did it. We got as much out of this fight, out of this cinematic life as we could. Yes, the beast is definitely out.

Did this script always start with Adrian no longer being alive?

Sylvester Stallone: No, and it wasn't working. I was using the George Foreman format. He had youth center in Houston, it was going broke. Rocky had the youth center in Philly, it was going broke. He goes to the bank for a loan, goes to all these places, nothing. He says, "I'm gonna go out and do some club fights and get the money so I can pay the rent." One thing led to another until he's got 18, 19 of these fights and people are saying, "Wow, you should continue with this. " Rocky becomes a commercial commodity that someone like Don King can really sell. All Adrian did during the film was say, "Don't do this, don't do this..." So the movie's about trying to save the gym and the kids. It wasn't about any visceral or emotional journey.

Rocky 1 was about confusion, loneliness, brotherhood, self awareness, it was just those subjects. At the very end, not even caring about the victory, it's about the love of Adrian, that's what it was all about. It's called the Adrian Effect. So what do I do? You have to pull a man's heart out and take away the thing he loves the most in the world. Take it out of his life he now plummets to the depths of despair. There's nothing more dramatic than taking Adrian out of his life.

So I had to call Talia, I'd been talking to her about the other script, and I said, "I've worked out the plot. It finally works." She says, "Great, what's my part in it?" I said, "Dead. The movie opens up, I'm on a folding chair looking at your tombstone... but I bring roses." It's a true story. She finally got it, she's very cerebral.

What was it like working with Burt Young again?

Sylvester Stallone: Burt is that character, that's him. He tends to be a bit more affable, but he... you just put the camera on him and he does stuff that is very unique. He's Paulie like I'm Rocky. This time, he actually had a few more scenes that will be on the DVD, they were taken out of the film because it was just getting too emotional. He was having a nervous breakdown over Adrian but he performed very well. He delivered the goods.

I know you're doing Rambo IV now, are we going to see you doing any other characters from your past?

Sylvester Stallone: Well, we're working on this thing called Rhinestone. No, that would be it because Rambo was a character that I think was not fully expressed in the last one. Even though he was in Afghanistan, it was Russia's Vietnam, it was about 10 days before the movie came out, Gorbachev comes over and kisses Nancy Reagan on the cheek. The Cold War, fifty years old, is over. I'm the bad guy. "Why are you a Red baiter?" I said, "Two weeks ago you're dropping bombs..." Anytime you do a film that deals in political subjects, you never know. Even though I'm doing it again... it's extremely volatile.

It would just be Rambo because that character, I think, is completely out of synch with the way things are. He's so primitive. He's so broken, spiritually. He lives this monastic lifestyle, I think it's an interesting character study. I haven't seen anything like it ever. In his attitude and demeanor, you know he's quite distraught by everything he's been through. Yet, he can't escape it.

Can we expect to see you in smaller films like Cop Land?

Sylvester Stallone: Early on, every time you do a big film you should do a small film. It really keeps you grounded. I would like to direct Poe after this. So I would be behind the camera, which is something I've wanted to do. I've talked about it so much and it would probably bomb anyway but I'll do it. It's one of those tough subjects that is a fantastic character piece. So that's what I will probably do and then after that, who knows?

Was there ever any any fear about doing the Rocky character?

Sylvester Stallone: It's why I didn't sell the first one. It was because I was scared. If I sold the first one and it turned out really well for someone else, I would probably hate myself my entire life. The same thing with this one. I just felt the fear of not doing it, my wife was afraid of me doing this film. She was crying, "Don't do this. You're gonna be embarrassed." I said, "I know, I know but I gotta try it." Dixon in the movie, his trainer says that, "Until a man has been through a real baptism of fire, when you're scared you're hanging on, someone's hurting you... then you're gonna see what you're really made of. Then you're gonna get the only kind of respect in the world that matters, self respect." That's pretty much what my journey is.

Rocky Balboa opens in theaters nationwide on December 20 from MGM Pictures.

Evan Jacobs