There are few action movie stars as iconic as Dolph Lundgren. The man who made his first splash in Hollywood playing the seemingly unbreakable Ivan Drago in Rocky IV has carved out a nearly 40-year career in front of the camera playing everything from He-Man and the Punisher to Konstantin Kovar in the CW show Arrow. And while he’s best known for his work in front of the camera, Lundgren has turned his talents to screenwriting and directing as well. His latest turn, both as an actor and director drops on December 3rd.
Castle Falls takes viewers to a building about to be demolished with $3 million in cash stashed inside. In a race to get the money is a team of bad guys, a correctional officer with a sick daughter (played by Lundgren), and a down-on-his-luck MMA fighter turned construction worker (played by co-star Scott Adkins).
Lundgren, along with actor Vas Sanchez, sat down with Bloody Elbow to talk about the upcoming film, the unexpected positives of working through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the process of bringing their characters to life.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to ask about the occasion where Dolph, then an unknown Swedish soldier, almost won the Karate World Championships in Tokyo as an insane long shot—and possibly did win, depending on who you ask (and how biased the judges were). Or to talk about his life-changing relationship with Grace Jones, or even his remarkable success in getting cast as Ivan Drago out of a cattle call of thousands.
But we had to start by asking why Lundgren chose a career in the arts, despite being a literal genius who won a Fulbright scholarship in chemical engineering to MIT. To our surprise, the “gentle giant,” as co-star Vas Sanchez would call him, was very forthcoming in his answer.
“I was very sensitive growing up, and insecure,” Lundgren says. “My dad was pretty mean to me.” When his life took a surprise turn and he got a chance to act, “suddenly I was comfortable in my own skin.” Acting, Lundgren explained, was cathartic. But there was more to it than that.
“I was in a relationship with Grace Jones, and I was living in New York City, I was friends with Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson, these dynamic people, and it felt like my destiny.”
Lundgren has worked steadily since his star turn in Rocky IV, and has directed a handful of projects. He was looking for another directing opportunity when Castle Falls came his way. After reading the script, Lundgren got to work humanizing the main characters. “I added the sick daughter,” he revealed, “and I gave the character played by Scott Adkins a lot more backstory.”
Any action fan (particularly any MMA action fan) will be well familiar with Scott Adkins. The veteran of the fight film genre has been given a role that fits him well here, as he plays an aging MMA fighter who lacks the killer instinct needed to be successful.
Adkins wears his character like a comfortable pair of jeans in Castle Falls. Lundgren says that COVID had something to do with that. “COVID hit right before we were going to be filming, so there was this long break. Scott and I have worked together many times, on Expendables for example, and during the pandemic we’d just get on the phone and talk about our characters. By the time we got on set we had a familiarity with these roles that you don’t often have.”
Another aspect boosting the performance of Adkins was the natural rapport he had with co-star Vas Sanchez. Audiences may recognize Sanchez from his role on Cobra Kai. The up-and-coming actor can be found in the new take on the Mike Tyson story, Iron Mike, a TV miniseries coming to Hulu.
“He was just a natural,” Lundgren said of the Atlanta-based stand-up comedian and actor. For Sanchez, the audition was nerve wracking, in no small part because he had not expected his call back to include Lundgren himself. “So I enter this small room,” Sanchez recalled, “and there he is, Dolph Lundgren, just this giant of a man and one of my childhood heroes.”
As a kid growing up in Highlands, NC, Sanchez was inspired by The Karate Kid. He dreamed of practicing Okinawan kobudō, and as luck would have it the one karate class in town taught exactly that. He began studying at age 8 and continued through high school, competing in his teens.
So when Sanchez found himself sitting with the 1978 European Karate Champion, he worried his nerves would prevent him from recreating the magic of the two audition videos he had sent in. The first scene had been no problem. “It was just the character of George joking around, and who is George? A Hispanic guy living in the Southeast who likes to make jokes. I’m a Hispanic guy living in the Southeast who likes to make jokes, so I thought, ‘Can do.’”
The second one was trickier. It was George getting beaten up, in serious peril. To create the audition video, Sanchez looked to his own life. “There’s only been a couple of times where I felt in fear for my life,” he admitted. And while that’s two times more than a lot of people, Sanchez cited living in Atlanta and experiencing a couple of “slight muggings.”
When asked to define a “slight mugging,” the actor explained: “you know, when a couple of kids roll up and they have a gun, and so you give them everything you have. They don’t want to hurt anybody, but they do have that gun, so you don’t really know.”
To channel the feeling of fear from those unfortunate encounters, Sanchez had his wife, who is also an actor, rough him up. “I said I needed her to slap me around. She was like, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘Knuck up and hit me.’” The spousal abuse worked, Sanchez got his video, and in his audition with Lundgren, Sanchez learned the director had been so impressed by the video the role was already his.
Sanchez praised Lundgren as a director, saying, “He’s so positive and not aggressive about getting a scene right. He’ll come in and say, ‘That was great, let’s just do it again this way, but you’re doing great’.”
Like many comics, Sanchez has a gift for mimicry, and his impression of Lundgren is spot on. “One day I want to call Dolph and leave him a voicemail and say, ‘Hey Dolph, it’s Dolph. I just wanted to say you’re great, and you need to pick up some kale at the grocery store’. Truly, though, the man is a genius and can talk all day about anything, with the most brilliant, beautiful things to say,” Sanchez added.
Lundgren certainly did his due diligence in taking a simple action movie with a high concept premise and adding a thoughtful commentary on the health care system, a mini-buddy comedy with heart, and plenty of motivation for his characters.
Castle Falls is “out everywhere” Dec. 3.