Sylvester Stallone hesitates, but only for a blink of those hangdog eyes. Then, in one swoop, he hoists his shirt. He pokes at his chest. He prods his belly. It jiggles, just like a regular guy’s would.
So much for the washboard abs.
For his new movie “Cop Land,” Stallone went more for the washtub look, gaining 40 pounds. He plays Freddy Heflin, a sheriff best described as a good-hearted doofus, and the fat fits the character. Stallone has since lost most of the weight, but the body that built the “Rambo” franchise won’t be deflecting any bullets any time soon.
That’s fine by Stallone, who has a new take on acting as well as on eating. He wants so much to be taken seriously again that he allowed a lowly employee to yell “Fat man walking to the set” every time he stepped out of his trailer. He says the words kept him humbly in character.
“There was absolutely no respect whatsoever,” says Stallone. “When I came in, there were all these sidelong glances and even though people knew I was in the movie, it didn’t matter. It was, ‘Hey, you’re not so special.’ Which was great, exactly what I was hoping would happen.”
Now Stallone is hoping that Hollywood will see him as more than an action-adventure cartoon for the first time in two decades. Without quite denying his past choices (all the Rambos, all the gunfire and derring-do), he says he is a new man today, with a new wife, a new baby daughter, and a new chance at how he is depicted on the silver screen.
It’s all so new, in fact, that Stallone isn’t certain that the risk he has taken will bring him anything but ridicule.
“Oscar nomination for me, please, I can’t even conceive of that, you’ve got to be joking, this is not fake humility, noooo,” Stallone says, in a run-on sentence of uncertainty. Later, he says, “I only saw 26 minutes and I wasn’t sure I held my end up. Everyone is so very good.”
Such stars as Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta fill out the celebrity cast for a movie about the corruption of New York City cops who call a small town across the bridge in New Jersey home.
As Robert Patrick, who played the liquid metal cyborg in “Terminator 2” and is another bad guy in “Cop Land,” puts it, “These guys are the best of the best. You don’t want to show up without your chops down.” Or, as Stallone explains after admitting that he panicked when his first scene turned out to be with De Niro: “They were the stars. I was kind of like the guest star.”
The film, not surprisingly, is packed with acting. There is drama. There is action. There is a poetic speech or two. And then there are the white socks Stallone wears, a touch he added to make Freddy as geeky as possible. In fact, if he’d had his way, Stallone says, Freddy would have worn shower clogs on his day off. Freddy, who is deaf in one ear as the result of his heroic teenage rescue of a drowning girl, is that uncool.
“Freddy is 99 percent of the planet, what I call deserving losers,” Stallone says. “Life has set such high standards for them, and if they can’t reach it, they suffer in silence.”
Besides visiting an institute for the deaf and plugging one ear with silicone for eight weeks, beyond memorizing a script with actual dialogue, Stallone got to do something he hasn’t done in decades: eat with abandon.
There were entire blueberry cheesecakes, stacks of French toast covered with quarts of whipped cream, peanut butter and oatmeal cookies - all washed down with a half-quart of chocolate milk. And that was just for breakfast.
It was heaven at first, Stallone says. But he soon learned that the road to stardom tastes like the road to hell.
His cholesterol level soared, his heart started palpitating, and his veins felt as if they were corroding. In time, he had to force himself to choke down an entire pizza.
“The odd thing is even though it was very stressful giving up a certain lifestyle, I actually felt better. It was like there was a pressure off,” says Stallone, who couldn’t face his own fat in the mirror at the start. “The other is abnormal, if you know what I mean.
“(Body building) was almost a drug. It was my security blanket … I thought everyone should be looking like some Green Beret. No, that’s the inverse. That’s the abnormal.
“I finally became part of the status quo, like I can understand this now,” he adds, hitching his thumbs in his waistband and swaggering with what little remains of his weight gain. “I’m not going to make fun of anyone anymore.”
The muscleman days, in fact, are over. Getting his body back would be too much work at the age of 51, he says. Maintaining it would waste precious writing time, and his brain is what he most wants to flex now. So he’s settling for somewhere in between. That way, he can bulk up or diet down if need be. From now on, he says, the part is what’s important.
“It’s getting there,” Stallone says as he lifts his black pullover. “It was done for a performance, so to stay that way I think would defeat the purpose. I wanted to go back into, say, neutral position, so no matter what comes next I could do that.”
A fat Freddy wasn’t even in the original script. That was a choice Stallone made while developing the character with writer-director James Mangold. Several of the other actors said they were relieved to see him play it that way. They had worried that Stallone’s role would be rewritten to reflect his hard-body image.
“When his name first came up, my mind cleaved in two directions: ‘He can’t possibly want to do this,’ and ‘my god, what if he did,”’ says Mangold. Before the star signed on, he told Stallone, “This isn’t a movie about making you look good; it’s about making you a human being.”
Mangold adds: “He delivered so much of himself. As an actor, he had so far to travel, much more so than anyone in the film. The image of him is burned into your retina. We did everything we could to camouflage that.”
But Michael Rapaport, who plays the pivotal role as a young police officer swept along by events, couldn’t help but see Rocky Balboa standing before him every now and then. He calls Stallone his idol and says he just had to throw a “Yo, Rocky” or two his way. Stallone accepted it as a compliment, even if he gets it dozens of times a day from strangers.
Rocky, Stallone says, was the right character for the right time in his career. Back then, he was an underdog who went on to win a best picture Oscar against enormous odds. Freddy offers many parallels to his life today. As Stallone says, he has also blown opportunities. Now on his third wife, model Jennifer Flavin, his private life has been a tabloid shambles. But, like Freddy, he saw another chance and seized it.
“I’m never offered anything like this. Ever, ever,” says Stallone, who took a steep pay cut to make the $20 million movie. “It was a real crossroads.”
The next step, of course, is a precarious one, and Stallone knows that. He has to follow up “Cop Land” with something of consequence. For his next project, he says he’s discussing a movie about manhood and military justice, with a trial as its centerpiece.
“I think man himself is going to go through much more redefining in the next 20 years than women, because men have been so defined by their jobs, especially physical jobs, that are being eliminated,” Stallone says. “Where does a soldier go? Where does a stevedore go? What does someone do when they realize they’re just flesh and that they have nothing to hang their identity on?”
If they’re Stallone, they expand their waistline. They go from hero to hapless. They take another puff on a cigar, sit back, and hope a middle-aged man can remake himself in front of millions of fans.
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