How Dolph Lundgren Went From Chemical Engineer To Action Star Before he was Ivan Drago or He-Man, Lundgren was just another 6-foot-5-inch Swede with a black belt in karate and a degree in chemical engineering — who turned down a scholarship to MIT for showbiz.
NPR logo

How Dolph Lundgren Went From Chemical Engineer To Action Star

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/345798402/346627797" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Dolph Lundgren Went From Chemical Engineer To Action Star

How Dolph Lundgren Went From Chemical Engineer To Action Star

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/345798402/346627797" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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)

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.