Nearly 40 years after Sylvester Stallone introduced audiences to Rocky Balboa, the actor’s return for his seventh shot at the character in “Creed” has propelled him into a surprise awards-season contender — a status he hasn’t claimed for a long time.

“I actually am startled,” says Stallone, 69, in a recent interview at an upscale Beverly Hills hotel. “It’s a character that I love and never thought I’d play again. I didn’t think it would resonate like it did, especially with a newer generation. I never went into the film thinking this is going to be a transformative performance. I just thought Rocky has a lot of issues, a lot of problems. He’s like all of us.”

If Stallone sounds like a retired champ, the story line fits his real life. In the ’80s and ’90s, Stallone — along with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger — ruled the action industry with tough-guy hits like “Rambo,” “Demolition Man,” “Cliffhanger” and “Cobra.” But those kinds of mid-budget action films are no longer an essential part of a movie industry that relies on comic-book sagas and reboots. The real draw of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise isn’t Vin Diesel’s biceps, but the cars. And many of the less macho leading male stars of today — Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, James Franco, Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender — tend to be slender, sensitive types.

Art Streiber; Location: SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

Stallone says that Rocky’s appeal has always been that he’s an Everyman. Although he’s nothing like Rocky in real life — he’s soft spoken, a poet not a fighter, and he peppers references to Shakespeare and Homer in conversation, often sounding like a high-school English teacher — he’s managed to age with his on-screen alter ego in real time. “You just take from your own life experiences, and I’ve had many peaks and valleys,” Stallone says. “It’s confounding, because you think with age you acquire a surety of choice and perception. Quite often, it’s just the opposite. You realize the older you get, the less certain everything is.” He’s had to ask friends if “Creed” really is a good movie. “I’m not sure if I trust my own impressions anymore,” he admits.

The movie, which opened in November, is the first “Rocky” film Stallone didn’t write himself. The Warner Bros. release, financed for $35 million by MGM and New Line, was directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the 29-year-old Sundance wunderkind behind “Fruitvale Station,” who grew up watching the boxing movie series with his dad. In this latest chapter, Rocky isn’t the main attraction. He coaches Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his late rival and pal Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

The surprise success of “Creed,” which grossed more than $100 million domestically, has given Stallone a renewed spring in his step. The performance has earned him his first Golden Globe nomination since “Rocky” and a National Board of Review award as best supporting actor. For many years, Stallone tried to stretch his muscles as a serious thespian without much luck. It’s ironic that the role that typecast Stallone for most of his career, paving the way for all those “Rambo” and “Expendables” sequels, has finally set him on a dramatic path. “It’s changed everything,” says the actor, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jennifer Flavin. “Now my kids will actually listen to me for five minutes. Like, ‘Oh — you got nominated for something.’ I get some respect.”

“Creed” was the hardest “Rocky” for Stallone. He wasn’t sure if he even wanted to step back into the ring, since he’d already concluded 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” which was supposed to be the franchise’s finale, on an upbeat note. “To resurrect Rocky under the premise that you’re dying is a tough sell,” Stallone says of the subplot in “Creed,” in which Rocky’s diagnosed with cancer. “I kept saying, ‘I’d be interested, but can the neighbor be sick, and Rocky helps?’ I didn’t know if people wanted to see him sick.”

Stallone allowed Coogler the freedom to work on the first draft of “Creed” with co-writer Aaron Covington. But Stallone, also a producer of the film, was active in shaping Rocky’s journey — and his dialogue. “When it comes to Rocky,” Stallone says, “his world is the size of a matchbook cover. It’s very tight. The more simplified you keep it, the better.” He recalls studio executives offering notes over the years for the different U-turns Rocky has faced. “Rocky never existed,” Stallone says. “It’s a fairy tale. It’s a myth. I love allegories, and I love very much ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ I wasn’t doing a documentary. I was trying to create a modern-day fable.”

“You think with age you acquire a surety of choice and perception,” Stallone says. “Quite often it’s just the opposite.”
Art Streiber for Variety

Even though Rocky is part of his DNA, Stallone turned to an acting coach to prepare for “Creed” — the first time he’s done that for a role since 1997 drama “Cop Land.” “I just started to understand how you break down moments,” Stallone says. “What are the obstacles you’re overcoming? Who is this character you’re playing? Who do they remind you of in real life?” Stallone compares himself to a professional athlete who enlists a trainer to stay in shape. “You need that perspective to push you over that chasm of fear,” he says.

This was the rare “Rocky” in which he isn’t physically hit. “I’m just carrying over the injuries from the other movies,” he jokes. “I start to walk toward the ring, and I bleed.” It was his co-star who took a beating in “Creed.” During the film’s final fight, Coogler noticed that a slow-motion blow to Jordan’s face didn’t look convincing. Stallone finally suggested that Jordan take the shot for real. “The expression ‘I saw stars’ — I now know what that looks like,” Jordan says. “I was down for a minute.”

Stallone exposed himself to emotional punches that were far more painful. He first met with Coogler in mid-2012. The young director had wanted to make a new “Rocky” because it was a franchise he loved watching as a kid. When Coogler’s dad got sick from a rare vitamin deficiency that caused his muscles to atrophy, he got the idea for a “Rocky” reboot in which the character fell ill. “I wanted to see my dad’s hero go through something similar to what we were going through,” Coogler says.

Yet “Creed” isn’t just a son’s homage to his father. It’s also a dad’s valentine to his boy. In July 2012, Stallone’s son Sage died of a heart attack at 36, shortly after that first meeting with Coogler. Stallone was devastated. Sage had played Rocky’s son in 1990’s “Rocky V,” and Stallone would often think about his son while on the “Creed” set. “I wanted to pay respect to him,” he says, “and share those feelings with people who have undergone a tremendous loss.”

“Creed” honors Sage in a gut-wrenching moment that brings Stallone’s pain to the screen. In a scene midway through the film, Adonis holds up a picture of Rocky’s son, who has moved to Vancouver to escape the shadow of his famous father. The image — a young Sage, wearing boxing gloves, posing with Stallone in front of a punching bag — is from a family album. “I remember the first time I saw the photo, I was heartbroken,” says Coogler, who urged Stallone to give him the picture. “I thought it wouldn’t be right not to have a representation of Sage in the movie.”

“It’s a character that I love and never thought I’d play again. I didn’t think it would resonate like it did, especially with a newer generation.”
Sylvester Stallone

Stallone had originally resisted the idea. “It took a while,” he says, his voice softening. “I really didn’t want to do it–I swear to you. It’s just too painful. It’s rough. There is no closure. There is nothing. The wonderful thing about acting is that it’s a release. I can take some solace in that.”

Stallone, who grew up on the East Coast, was born to a working-class family. He harbored dreams of acting, and was — according to Hollywood lore — dead broke when he wrote the script to “Rocky” in a fever dream. Before he was sucked into the action-movie vortex, he wanted to star as Edgar Allan Poe in a biopic. Throughout his career, the more intellectual side of his personality often came into conflict with the meatheads he portrayed onscreen. To find other creative outlets, he not only launched side jobs as a screenwriter (“First Blood,” “Cliffhanger”) and director (“Staying Alive,” “The Expendables”), he also moonlights as a painter who creates Kafkaesque portraits on large, colorful canvases, with subjects that range from his mother to Rocky himself. “He had an exhibit in Russia,” says Kellan Lutz, a friend. “I would like to buy one or two.”

By now, the story of how Stallone became famous by penning the screenplay for 1976’s “Rocky” in a few days, insisting that MGM cast him as the star, is well known. “Rocky” director John G. Avildsen says that he wasn’t excited to crack open the script, because he had no interest in boxing. “I finally read it,” he says. “On the second and third page, the guy is talking to his turtle, and I was charmed.” Stallone says that the Hollywood movie-making business is markedly different now than it was in the ’70s. “It’s less instinctual and more mercurial,” he notes, explaining how all studio executives make decisions based on numbers. “I think it makes the movies worse. ‘Rocky’ today would have been a footnote in a cancelled office meeting. It just wouldn’t have worked.”

Stallone is gunning to make more “Creed” films. “There’s no doubt that we’re making a ‘Creed 2,’ ” says MGM CEO Gary Barber. Stallone says that he’s not sure Coogler — who is in talks for Marvel’s “Black Panther” — will return in the director’s chair. “There’s a diminishing time acceptance of a sequel,” Stallone says. “Three years is a little much.” But if he’s not back as the director, Coogler will be an executive producer, and he’s already been batting around ideas with Stallone for the next installment.

One option would be a linear story with Adonis that mirrors the plot of “Rocky IV.” “You’ll have him face a different opponent, which I would say is a more ferocious, big Russian,” Stallone says. But Stallone lights up when he reveals another idea they are considering: a “Godfather II”-like sequel set in the past, before Apollo’s death. “There’s a lot there,” Stallone says, adding that he recently bumped into Weathers, who looked as imposing as ever. “I can’t believe I got in the ring with him,” Stallone says. “Even if it was play fighting.”

Coogler is startled to hear that Stallone has already let the cat out of the bag about their plan. “Oh no!” he says with a sigh. “There are no secrets with Sly.” Jordan sounds more skeptical. “So it’s going to be a CGI version of Sly?” he teases, adding that he’d like to be in the next film.

Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith in ‘Rocky’

As for his non-“Rocky” career, Stallone is more ambivalent about continuing as an action star. He hopes that “Creed” finally leads the way to more dramatic roles. “I had never, ever thought of myself as an action person,” he says. “I’m just not that athletic. I’m not naturally a mesomorph. I’m actually kind of thin. But I do like the physical challenge.” He adds that shooting tenptole action movies is physically grueling. “I never got tremendous fulfillment from it. Because it becomes a tug of war between exasperation and exhaustion. Very rarely does it all go well. It’s kind of like one of those triathlons.”

Stallone had previously said publicly that he was working on “Rambo V,” but he thinks the character is done. “The heart’s willing, but the body says, ‘Stay home!’” he says. “It’s like fighters that go back for one last round and get clobbered. Leave it to someone else.” He’s also not involved in the “Rambo” TV series, which focuses on the character’s son. “I don’t want to cast aspersions,” Stallone says, “but it’s delicate to try to replace a character with his son. I’ve seen the son of Flicka, the son of Tarzan, the son of King Kong. It’s a very difficult premise.”

With more than 20 scripts to his name, Stallone admits that he’s struggled to come up with new stories. “I find writing very debilitating, exposing,” he says. “It can be a very noisy, angry neighbor.” He wonders whether he’s inspired by the same material he once was. “What would I write today?” he asks “I don’t know. I would have to retool my thinking and realize it would not be some grand adventure. It would be about something biographical — the journeys of a young man trying to make it in the world.”

As for his Oscar prospects, Stallone is unfamiliar with the award season gauntlet. That may explain why he hasn’t been as present at cocktail parties and lunches as some of the other aspiring nominees. He’s not even sure he should join the campaign trail. “Do you think it makes a difference?” he asks.

If Stallone does land an Oscar nomination, he’ll at least be better dressed for the occasion this time around. He remembers attending the 1977 ceremony in a rented tux. As his car pulled up to the show, his bow tie broke. “Bam!” Stallone says. “The chauffeur said, ‘Hey do you want to borrow my tie?’ I go, ‘Nah I don’t think it’s going to matter.’ I put my collar on the outside. The undershirt was showing. It was just so street. And by the way, I was perceived as being arrogant. No, I’m just poorly dressed. I had no style.”

He lost for actor, but was brought up onstage when “Rocky” was named best picture over “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver.” “I felt as though I peaked in 1977,” Stallone says. “Your film got an award. Now what? It was an incredible amount of success from nowhere.” He likes to tell young actors to savor every moment. “When you’re in the center of the storm, you miss all this incredible energy,” Stallone says. “It’s like a tsunami.”