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COVER STORY

No Copping Out

A conversation with Sylvester Stallone and director James Mangold on their fable about law and order.

August 14, 1997|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sylvester Stallone is having a problem with his waist.

It's too trim. Too trim at least, for the shirt bagging up around his pants' 31-inch waistline, as a photographer snaps the star and his latest director, James Mangold.

Stallone's slim physique seems doubly miraculous for a man of 51: a year ago, he gained and lost nearly 40 pounds to play Freddy Heflin, a chubby, ineffectual sheriff in Mangold's drama "Cop Land," which opens Friday. It's the follow-up to the director's 1996 Sundance winner "Heavy"--and a project Stallone calls his own "rebirth."

Question: Jim, was Stallone your idea?

Mangold: No, I think it was his agent, Arnold Rifkin. I'd be insane if, when I wrote it and I was starving, I imagined I'd be on a set in two years with Sylvester Stallone . . . and Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. I don't write that way. It breaks the rule about selling a screenplay if you're thinking about known stars.

Stallone: Jimmy was at the disadvantage of watching a great deal of my work, which is the antithesis of the character he was writing. It took great insight and foresight and pliability to say, let's put him in an alien space, and eliminate what he's used as an asset for 19 years.

Mangold: But I sensed from the moment we started talking a desire from him to try something different. I thought, here's this guy who has so much "Freddy" in him. There's an intense tenderness, sweetness and openness to Sly.

*

Q: But putting on the weight was tough, right?

Stallone: Meeting with Jim I said, no problem, I've done this before. Well, I'd done it a little in "F*I*S*T" but mostly it was padding, and I was 30 years old! I didn't realize how much of a crutch [my body] had been. It was like Batman's suit, my armor.

The first 10 pounds I said, this is acceptable. Then, when I began to really go through a metamorphoses and lose any security I had, I started making excuses--before I was hardly introduced to people I'd say, "Uh, this isn't the real me, I'm working on a movie, I'll be back the way I was. . . ." [Mangold laughs] I wasn't ready to play this part.

Usually I've been very cosmetic, exterior, because most action films are cosmetic. You don't realize you have to give up all your crutches to learn how to act through your eyeballs. So Jim stayed on my case. He came down for a fitting and I thought I was huge, I thought I was Koko the Clown. . . .

Mangold: He'd put on a little baby fat! [Laughter]

Stallone: It was nothing! Finally when I realized I had to let it go, that was exhilarating.

*

Q: I heard you let too much go in one scene that got cut.

Stallone [to Mangold]: You tell it.

Mangold: It was a scene early in the film. Freddy wakes up and rolls over in bed. . . .

Stallone: [shakes head] Woof!

Mangold: Sly's gut fell out of his T-shirt, and we all went, Wow! That's gonna be an amazing moment! But it became a moment that wasn't about the movie, it was about a superstar gaining weight. For an audience, that moment was . . . Stallone . . . with a gut!

*

Q: Good line for the poster.

Stallone [grins]: Yeah!

Mangold: We'll put a single frame of it somewhere on the laser disc.

*

Q: So what was the gain-weight diet?

Stallone: 100% carbohydrates. It's called the forbidden diet! Bread pudding, rice pudding . . . the guaranteed-to-kill-you diet. There was a place in New York called the Canadian Pancake House that serves pancakes up to literally 12 pounds. . . .

Mangold: They're the size of manhole covers and I'm not exaggerating.

Stallone: Throughout the film I continued to eat what I thought Freddy would eat--sweet things, adolescent food. Because he's a man that has no aspirations. In Freddy's house there aren't many mirrors. He doesn't like to look at himself, ever.

*

Q: And you're doing all this as you turn 50.

Stallone: I was at my birthday party in Miami about a week before filming and I felt like Freddy at my party. People didn't understand I was doing the movie and they thought, OK, midlife crisis really came crashing down! The Dorian Gray syndrome had run its course!

But for me it was a perfect time. Not only was I 50 but it was the 20th anniversary of Rocky. The birth of my daughter. Everything came together.

And Jim [who's 33] brings an unjaded enthusiasm that I have not really been privy to for 20 years. When you work with older people they tend to be wily, or hurt. . . . He's about the film. Also being in the presence of such great actors, you're forced through common sense and artistic competition to go to an unsafe place.

*

Q: You grew up with an inferiority complex . . . how much of that kicked in working with De Niro and Keitel?

Stallone: All of it. I don't think you ever shed that. All it takes is the confrontation or realization that you're in the presence of greatness, and you begin to question your own talent. So the fear comes in--which fuels you to shore up these insecurities by filling yourself full of preparation. The fear of being an embarrassment to my fellow actors forced me to work harder. That's where fear works in a positive way.

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