How Stallone faced his fears for ‘Creed’

Sylvester Stallone won a Golden Globe for his performance in “Creed” and is nominated for an Oscar for the role.

— There are downsides to being a longtime action-movie hero, as Sylvester Stallone has found out: He’s had four back operations, two shoulder surgeries and a spinal fusion, that one after he fractured his neck filming “The Expendables.” Over the years, expectations of his assumed athletic prowess grew so high that he stopped wanting to play golf or basketball with anyone. When opinions about his acting abilities hit their nadir, around the time he won a Razzie for worst actor of the century in 2000, he half-agreed with his harshest detractors.

“When you become synonymous with blunt-force trauma,” Stallone, 69, said in an interview, his basso profundo voice sounding like it was rising from the Earth’s core, “you’re not really leaving anyone with thought-provoking aftershocks of your performance.”

All of which made an unexpected upside of devoting a career to playing he-men especially sweet.

Stallone’s Oscar nomination, for his supporting performance in “Creed,” the seventh film in the “Rocky” franchise, which won him his last Oscar nominations four decades ago, has left him, by all outward showings, enormously grateful and glowingly proud, if slightly befuddled.

“For somewhat of a borderline misanthrope, this is incredible,” Stallone said. “It’s the pinnacle of my life, professionally. It’s so miraculous.”

Three and a half weeks earlier, he had collected a Golden Globe for his performance in “Creed,” a win that left him so dumbfounded that he failed to notice the standing ovation of the crowd. He had also failed to thank the film’s writer and director, Ryan Coogler, or his co-star Michael B. Jordan, which had prompted tut-tutting from Samuel L. Jackson on Twitter.

“When Sam Jackson called me out on it, I totally agreed,” Stallone said. “Forgetting to thank the director? Believe me. That’s the last thing I would’ve done.”

If Coogler and Jordan were miffed, they hid it well. “I love the guy!” Jordan exclaimed at an after-party that night. Then he, Coogler and Coogler’s fiancee headed for the airport, and Stallone’s private plane, which spirited them across the Atlantic for the premiere of “Creed” in London.

For this interview, Stallone, sartorially impeccable, his face looking as hewn from granite as ever, went to the five-star Peninsula Hotel. The place was impeccable, and, after sitting down, Stallone, who comes across as self-aware, self-effacing and a little silly, slid a plate of macarons and petit fours across the coffee table. “I bought these for you,” he deadpanned. “Very sweet of me, I know.”

He had met Coogler, who he described as “a full-fledged genius, a savant,” 31/2 years ago, before Coogler’s first feature, “Fruitvale Station,” came out.

The younger director came up with the idea for “Creed” when his own father, a devout “Rocky” fan, fell gravely ill (he has since recovered).

Coogler wanted to tell the story of the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s old boxing foe and friend, Apollo Creed.

Set in present-day Philadelphia, the film would explore the city’s vibrant black culture through the eyes of Adonis Creed, who seeks out an aged and ailing Rocky to train him.

Despite landing a meeting with Stallone, Coogler did not think for a moment that the storied actor would agree to the film. So, en route to Stallone’s office, Coogler stopped at a Best Buy to get a Blu-ray of “Rocky II” for Stallone to sign. The movie was his dad’s favorite, and Coogler figured he would never see the star again.

Indeed, Stallone was wholly unconvinced, at least at first, having been happy with the series’ apparent final installment, “Rocky Balboa” (2006), which he starred in and directed, receiving respectable reviews. Yet there was a confidence and buoyancy in Coogler that he intrinsically recognized.

One plot point (spoiler alert) in the “Creed” script that gave Stallone extreme pause, though, was Rocky’s cancer diagnosis. Stallone didn’t like it and didn’t think his audience would either, but Coogler would not budge.

Stallone said his wife, Jennifer Flavin, called him out. “She said: ‘You’re afraid to do something you’ve never done before. That’s called being a coward,’” Stallone said, leaning back in his chair, and laughing. “She was right.”

To prepare for his role, Stallone hired a full-time acting coach, Ivana Chubbuck.

When production began, he was still paralyzed by the devastation of losing his oldest son, Sage, who had a fatal heart attack in the summer of 2012 at 36. He figured his grief would be off limits, but Chubbuck forced him to drill deep.

“You just feel responsible,” he said, of Sage’s death. “That you weren’t there. Here you save all these fictitious people, and you can’t even save your son.”

Once that floodgate opened, he said, his emotions streamed out, shifting both his performance, and his mourning.

He has also found deep solace in the acclaim his performance drew from Hollywood’s establishment. Irwin Winkler, who has been producing films with Stallone from the first “Rocky” on, said seeing Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg leaping to their feet to applaud Stallone’s Golden Globe win was especially gratifying.