Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone have played iconic boxing figures on film. Although they have appeared onscreen together —“Copland” anyone?— they never stepped into the ring together as boxing opponents, until now.
In “Grudge Match,” the two play old rivals who never got a chance to settle the score after one of them pulled out of a match that would have determined a champ. A crafty promoter (played by comedian Kevin Hart) gets the two old pugilists together for one final bout. But can they wait long enough to settle their differences in the ring?
De Niro and Stallone recently spoke about their match up and what convinced them to get back in the ring onscreen even though they are well beyond their fighting years.
Q: Where did the idea of you two appearing together in a boxing movie come from? Did you talk about it when you did “Copland” together?
Stallone: Actually, I had no intention of doing this. I have no credibility in suggesting that this came from us. It was something I thought was absurd. I said no one wants to see another boxing film, especially when you’re approaching 160 years old. I thought I might be a little rickety, bones coming out. But then Robert (De Niro) called me and we talked a lot about it with the studio heads, and they convinced me that I was complete wrong. (He laughs.)
De Niro: I like the idea of us doing it. So that was it. We’d never talked about (before). The idea came from (director) Peter (Segal). I met him at a party. We started talking. Then I spoke to (producer) Billy (Gerber) and then (Stallone and I) started talking.
Q: This film has a lot to say about aging. What are your thoughts on getting older and how did you train for this film?
Stallone: I’ve always enjoyed working out but this thing was pretty extraordinary because it proves that you don’t have to be crawling around at a certain age, that you’re obliged to start winding down. You’re going against trend. As long as you still have something to prove—a lot of people when they reach 60 and above, they say, “I have some unfinished business”—but unfortunately, life doesn’t afford you the fact to go back and right the wrongs. This is the beauty of fantasy and imagination. To have these guys go and correct a moment in their lives that will make their life feel somewhat fulfilled. That’s the fantasy, and that’s where the empathy comes in with the audience. (De Niro) trained a lot. It was hard.
Q: Why do you think boxing movies connect with audiences?
Stallone: “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” aren’t boxing movies or documentaries. They’re biographies and these guys happen to be fighters. Everyone knows what it’s like to be frustrated and want to fight back on any emotional level. That’s what we pulled from. I just happen to have an affinity for it. So does (De Niro). So do a lot of people. That’s probably why there have been more boxing films done than any other kind of (sports) film. What made this thing fly was the inspired casting of Kevin Hart—I think it brings in a whole new demographic. It’s one thing to see grumpy old men fighting, but then you bring in Kevin Hart, and I thought “Wow!” And, of course, Kim Basinger brings a whole sensuality to it. So I thought it was really really clever.
Q: If you could trade your Academy Awards for a legitimate championship in boxing, would you do it?
De Niro: It’s a tough sport, a tough profession.
Stallone: Having been in the ring with a couple of actual professionals, I made the right choice. It’s great to be able to interpret it and try to get the feelings of it, for example. Whenever you meet Mike Tyson, or any one of these fellas, there’s so much drama going on and to be able to play it and then get rid of it (after you finish shooting) and not have to live with it, because it’s a very hectic, traumatic life these guys live, so I (like being an actor). I did say to (De Niro), “Once you’re in the ring, those Oscars aren’t going to help you.”
De Niro: I have great respect for fighters because it is what it is. It’s a tough sport, and you pay a price. If you really want to do it, you do it. I’m an actor, not a fighter.
Stallone: Your career as a boxer is so short-lived, usually.
Q: What did you most enjoy about your role?
Stallone: I guess the villainous character, the edgier character is (De Niro’s). I’m the more formal more the forlorn character; the coward that worked in the steel mill and just sort of gave up.
De Niro: I’m like the bad guy in the beginning. I don’t know. Go see the movie!
Q: Did you train together? Was there any rivalry in the training sessions?
Stallone: I couldn’t wait to fight (De Niro). I’ve been dying to fight him. With “Raging Bull,” he crossed the line. (He chuckles.) This was extraordinary. This is like if you were casting the lead in The Nutcracker Suite or Swan Lake, and you don’t get to see your lead dancer until the curtain goes up. He had to work on the East Coast; I had to work on the West Coast. We couldn’t get together. So by the time we got in the ring together, I was thinking, “I hope we look good,” because we didn’t know. Usually with the “Rocky” films, it’s five or six months preparation with the (opponent). We didn’t have that opportunity. That’s why this is pretty extraordinary. I have to give (De Niro) a little credit for his professionalism.
De Niro: I lost maybe 20 pounds. I worked as hard as I could. We’d choreograph it. (Stallone) and I got together and we worked on it for a couple of days. We worked it out. He’s terrific. He made it all happen. I was just following him.
Q: If someone had asked you whether you would be making a boxing picture at 60 when you made “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” what would your answer have been?
Stallone: I would have punched him. I would have said, are you crazy? (He laughs.) When I started out, I thought “Rocky” and that’s it. I didn’t know there would be “Rocky 90.” It’s one of those things that just kept going. So, no.
De Niro: No. I didn’t even know if I’d be around.
Q: You were inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you as an actor, as a person?
Stallone: First of all, I was a little embarrassed because I’m actually not a fighter. They look (at the induction) as someone who helps promote boxing. So there I was with Mike Tyson and Cesar Chavez Jr. It was just another validation that you’re helping promote the sport. I’ve always loved the sport. There’s something about it. When I was seven or eight, I was just fascinated by this idea of two men showing their hearts and going for it.
Q: Did you do any amateur boxing?
Stallone: Yeah. A little bit. And not well.
Q: Sly, what did you think of “Raging Bull?”
Stallone: I never saw it. Was it any good? At first, I thought “Raging Bull” was about homesteading and ranching. (He laughs.) Of course, it was one of the greatest biographies of all time. It’s timeless. What can I say? And he gave a perfect performance.
Q: Robert, what did you think of “Rocky?”
De Niro: I never saw his movie. (He laughs.) No, they’re two different styles of films, obviously. They were well done. I was impressed with the ones I saw. What Sylvester had done is as a craftsman, in all seriousness. One of the “Rocky” movies with James Brown (“Rocky IV”)—that was great.