In ‘Tulsa King,’ Sylvester Stallone Tries Something New: Being Himself – The New York Times

His best-known characters often speak in grunts. But in a new series from Taylor Sheridan, he plays a smooth talker written with his real personality in mind.
Sylvester Stallone plays a crime boss in “Tulsa King,” his first major TV role.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times
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Sylvester Stallone needs an introduction about as much as Rambo needs a bigger knife, or Rocky another punch to the head. But he did want to clarify one thing about himself over tea at the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan last month, ahead of the debut of his new Paramount+ series “Tulsa King.”
Those roles that had made him famous? Those guys weren’t really him. Sure they were tough, and he is tough — at 76, he is still jacked, still doing many of his own stunts, still Sly. But the physical demands notwithstanding, the acting part was kind of easy, he admitted, particularly after so many rounds, so many sorties: eight Rocky movies, five for Rambo.
“It’s really kind of simple to hide behind Rambo or Rocky,” he said — and here he offered a quick and uncanny “How you doin’?,” something like an impression of an impression of his own acting.
“With this fellow here,” he said of his “Tulsa King” character, a silver-tongued gangster named Dwight Manfredi, “you have to be clever.” He also had to be something else he wasn’t used to being on camera.
“The hardest thing in acting is to be yourself,” he said, adding: “And I would say at my age, right now, I’m probably doing my best work because I’m actually playing me.”
That is, of course, the kind of thing actors say. But it’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for Stallone to be himself. As the faded but still formidable Manfredi, he gets to play tough while embracing his own intelligence and idiosyncrasies, and “Tulsa King” caters to many of the same people who grew up watching him brawl and slay his way through the ’80s.
Taylor Sheridan created the series, which premieres on Sunday. Like Sheridan’s hit cowboy drama “Yellowstone” (created with John Linson), “Tulsa King” promises to be an EZ-chair favorite, blending time-honored, dad-approved elements like the western, the gangster flick, a little nonthreatening soapiness, a little mild political incorrectness and a lot of Stalloneness.
For Stallone, “Tulsa King” offers a chance to try some new things: It is his first major role on TV and his first serious role as a mobster — in this case, a crime family capo who has just finished serving 25 years in prison and must relocate to expand operations in Tulsa, Okla.
But it is also in line with a gradual change evident in his recent work, notably the “Creed” films. Stallone is older now, his catalog of injuries is legendary, and his roles have been evolving. The world has evolved, too, including the audience for his particular breed of postwar American he-man — he of the star-spangled boxing trunks and Sammy Hagar soundtrack. The younger film heroes in his wake — they of the spandex suits and green screens — make different movies now, tailored carefully by global conglomerates to avoid injuring their stars or offending Chinese censors. What’s a commie-crushing action star to do?
The answer, it seems, has been to adapt. But within limits. Case in point: a “Tulsa King” scene he showed me on his phone, which involved another man’s face and a very hot electric stovetop.
“I believe when you’re going to do violence, really do memorable violence,” he said. I made a mental note to choose my words carefully during tea.
IN PERSON, STALLONE is a raconteur, a warm guy who sweetens his conversations with references to classical mythology and f-bombs. When he talks, he clasps your shoulder and looks you in the eye. He’ll show you his tattoos and pictures of his dog. We spent time scrolling through photos of his injuries: a few spinal fusions here, a few screws in his back there. He once fell off a horse and “broke” his spleen.
It was charming, even the photo of the gaping hole in his forearm — “just a wound,” he said — from a piece of shrapnel.
“He’s intimidating when he has to be,” Stallone said of his “Tulsa” character — though, as he had established, he might as well have been talking about himself. “When he’s not, he’s trying to actually win you over, like a salesman.”
A longtime horse enthusiast, Stallone first met Sheridan at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, he said, back when Sheridan was better known as an actor. Several years later, after becoming one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters, Sheridan reached out with a pilot script about “the ultimate fish out of water: gangster goes west,” Stallone said. (Sheridan was not available for comment.)
Stallone, meanwhile, said he had always wanted to play a serious gangster, ever since he was rejected from being an extra in “The Godfather.” (“Oscar,” his 1991 mob comedy, didn’t scratch the itch.) He signed on as the lead and an executive producer, and Sheridan handed off showrunning duties to Terence Winter, whom Stallone had long admired for his work on “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos.”
Winter revised the pilot and began writing and overseeing subsequent episodes with Stallone in mind.
“It’s such a gift when you’re writing something with an actor already attached to it,” Winter said. “You’ve got that voice and that physicality in your mind. So this was really already tailor-made for Sly.”
Speaking with other members of the production, one got the impression that Stallone found that tailoring a comfortable fit, a sense he tried to pass along to fellow cast members.
“The energy that he put in the room, personally, made me feel like I can be myself and put my own self in the character,” said Jay Will, who plays Dwight’s sidekick of sorts, a young driver named Tyson. “There is authenticity in Sly that is very, very in the forefront of his being, sensitive to the world. He doesn’t stifle it.”
Andrea Savage (“Veep,” “I’m Sorry”), who plays a potential love interest who is also an A.T.F. agent, said she didn’t meet Stallone until right before they shot their first scene together. She didn’t know what to expect, so she improvised by making fun of him.
“And he laughed, and I was like, OK, I think we’re good,” she said. “He has such a big persona, when I first got there, I was like, God, it’s like working with a Marvel character or something — this is Sylvester Stallone, you know? — and he’s so, like, fit and, like … coifed. But he’s really a collaborator, and he is an artist.”
Winter agreed. “He is really smart and funny and very well-read and articulate and sarcastic, and I think part of the fun for me is that’s a lot of the stuff people don’t know about him,” he said. “They’re going to be very surprised to see him perform monologues and see how funny he is and how self-deprecating and how emotional it gets.”
THE REAGAN YEARS gave rise to many musclebound action stars, but there was no one quite like Stallone. With his Greek god physique, Roman good looks and big, sad eyes, Stallone possessed a pathos and a scuffed-up Everyman patina that other hulks of that age lacked. His characters mean something to people in a way androids and alien-killers do not, as any visit to the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art makes plain.
Stallone’s characters were often easy to caricature, punchy and inarticulate, and a long string of swole sequels and critical flops didn’t help. (He acknowledged that “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” was not his best work.)
Still, his best-known creations weren’t simplistic. In their day, Rocky and Rambo stood for a certain segment of American men in the post-Vietnam, postindustrial era who bore the scars of violence, neglect, loss of livelihood and purpose. But they had figured out how to survive. However ridiculous some of the sequels became, the original “Rocky,” which Stallone wrote, and “First Blood,” which he co-wrote, are great movies with big and serious themes.
“I actually hate the word ‘action’ actor because I call it mythology,” Stallone said. No one was writing “The Odyssey” anymore, he continued, “but that mentality — we need mythological heroes.”
Viewed in this context, the appeal of “Tulsa King” for an old stallion like Stallone makes sense: When it comes to mythological Hollywood heroes, not even Avengers can compete with cowboys and gangsters.
Stallone can’t play heroes exactly the way he used to, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. “It’s almost unforgivably egotistical if you think you’re going to walk out and be faster than some 21-year-old Green Beret,” he said. “I’ve had to come to terms with that.” But neither has he hung up his spurs, even if his characters now must reckon honestly with the losses and limits of age.
Those limits aren’t only physical. Based on the two advance screeners provided to journalists, there’s a comedic scene early in “Tulsa King” in which Dwight accidentally gets stoned and lets loose. He’s been in prison for a quarter-century, and now he feels like Rip Van Winkle. He isn’t angry, just confused — “A phone is a camera!”; “And these pronouns. What the [expletive] is with the pronouns?” — and although he’s “all for change,” he feels that “somebody keeps moving the goal posts.”
Sheridan’s shows are often characterized as “red-state” viewing — a reductive take given that “Yellowstone” was the highest-rated drama on television last season. But Dwight’s stoned monologue is at least a welcome mat for viewers who didn’t have to go to prison to feel alienated or confused by rapid changes in technology and social norms. (Winter said the scene isn’t meant to be expressly political — “not just a statement about wokeness,” as he put it — but is rather, “just in general, about how quickly things change.”) The scene will chafe some sensibilities, and yet as it continues, it takes a turn.
“When I was a kid, in my neighborhood, at least I knew who I was,” Dwight declares to a weary weed dispensary owner played by Martin Starr. Then he shrugs, and his voice quiets. “Or I thought I did,” he says. “But truthfully? Nobody knows nothin’.”
This, too, seemed like Stalloneness: Humility in the face of the gods. That humility became more profound, Stallone told me, as he grew older and life became more and more about loss. Children grew up and left. Marriages got rocky. Bodies aged. Friends died.
“From 45 down, it’s subtraction,” he said. “And how do you deal with subtraction?”
Minutes later, he answered his own question: You adjust. You go the distance. You rise up to the challenges. As an artist, he still believes in underdog stories, he said, in “man against the system, woman against the system, modern mythology, rising above.” The fight may not look or feel the way it used to, but you keep fighting anyway. (“The Expendables 4”? Due next year.)
And what do you do when they stack the odds against you?
“You sink or swim,” he said.
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