SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Oscar-nominated “Creed” star Sylvester Stallone stopped by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Tuesday night for one of the week’s many tributes and to accept the Montecito Award from friend and “Rocky” co-star Carl Weathers. When prompted about a sequel to Ryan Coogler’s fresh take on the material, however, he seemed quite reticent, perhaps concerned about diminishing returns or souring such a storybook experience.
“I really have mixed feelings about this, seriously,” he said. “I feel like Rocky, at the end of this movie on the steps, with the help of a young man, and he looks out and says, ‘From here, you can see your whole life’ — it sort of summarizes the whole thing. I don’t know how much further you can push Rocky.”
Ostensibly a career retrospective, the program still never strayed too far from the Balboa narrative, a full-circle experience for Stallone that has already put him in rare air with the nomination, but could send him into the next chapter of his career with an Academy Award for his most lasting legacy in tow.
That sense of legacy was very much on Stallone’s mind throughout the evening, as it has been all season. “I learn that as I get older you have to be really thankful for what you leave behind,” he said. “Hopefully we left something good behind.”
Stallone said that all his life he has been drawn to the “Rocky attitude,” the philosophy of punching through, that everyone is an underdog at some point in time. And that, of course, is why the character resonated then and now. “Just when we think we have it together, something happens — it’s called life,” Stallone said.
At times appearing like a wise sage seated before a classroom of eager learners, Stallone had a number of seemingly platitudinous notions to dispense, but they felt earned, built on the back of experience. “You learn from failure.” “Success doesn’t teach you anything.” “There’s something to be said about struggle.” “Don’t be afraid to be sloppy the first time out — that doesn’t apply to architecture, but it does apply to creative endeavor.”
With that last sentiment, he was speaking of the knocks he took crafting a screenplay like “Rocky,” what it took to see it through as an actor and watch it take life in the culture and define him to this very day.
Stallone told stories of getting into it with one of the sound guys on the set of the 1976 boxing drama, who was so annoyed with the actor he took his name off the film (it was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound, sans the disgruntled individual’s credit). He espoused Norman Jewison’s attention to detail and authenticity (1978’s “F.I.S.T.”) and John Huston’s on-set storytelling (1981’s “Victory”). He spoke about viewing “First Blood” as an incarnation of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and feeling compelled to change the ending to a more hopeful one at a time when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was claiming “20,000 victims a year.” And he recounted finding himself on a low-altitude flight back to a Santa Monica after “anatomical freak” Dolph Lundgren punched him so hard in the chest on the set of “Rocky IV” that four nuns ended up posted at his hospital bed.
He also said he understood what Leonardo DiCaprio must have gone through while filming “The Revenant” after having his own experience with embarking on a tough production in the elements (1992’s “Cliffhanger”). He laughed remembering times in a New York pancake house, packing on pounds for “Cop Land” at a time when he was eager to sink back into drama after years in the action movie limelight. And of course, he beamed about how grateful he is to Coogler for breathing fresh life into his 40-year-old creation.
“He just had a certain sense of relatability,” he said of the 29-year-old filmmaker. “He made it fresh and made it his own. I never in my life would have done this on my own. So that’s why it’s great to take a chance and embrace your fears.”
Stallone came into this race swinging, and as the rounds tick by, it looks more and more like he’ll be the last supporting actor standing on Oscar night. But come what may on that score, on this particular night, as he sipped cognac at a modest after-party and spoke to well-wishers with a gleam in his eye and patience to spare, he looked like a guy content that indeed, he’s left something good behind.