That the whole world isn’t fluent in Swedish is a petty frustration I face on a nigh daily basis. Some words just lend themselves better in the Swedish tongue. Less often it might be a particularly brilliant blog post or maybe an article, or perhaps an interview that I just can’t share without the help of a hamfisted google translation. Only once in a blue moon do you get a radio broadcast with Dolph Lundgren, in which hearing the man in his dulcet mother tongue is a revelation in itself. That he then goes on to break every listener’s heart just makes the translation frustration even harder.
The show in question was Dolph’s stint on Sommar which in cultural comparison comes closest to Desert Island Discs. Broadcast daily between June and August, the format selects a new person everyday to present an hour and a half of music and monologue of their own fancy, and like Desert Island the show is predominantly made up of high profile Swedes. Dolph shared his summer with the likes of Björn Ulvaeus (of Abba), Pernilla August and Robyn, to name a few Swedes you might have heard of. Like Desert Island they throw a few non-celebrities into the fray, and at least one civilian gets selected each year, which in Dolph’s summer was a shy 19 year old who spoke out about bullying.
While the announcement of each summer’s roster is a pretty big deal in Sweden, there’s always a bit of speculation as to how interesting a known celebrity might be once left alone in front of a mic for an hour and half. That enigmatic musician you thought might be interesting turns out to be an absolute bore, while that centre-right politician you previous despised turns out to have a sense of irony and a good ear for a tune. The expectations going in for Dolph were without a doubt rock bottom. Sure, the action star with an MA in engineering alluded to hidden depths, but come on, Ivan Drago solo for 1h+ can’t be that good.
“Alright, this is Dolph Lundgren. I went on a touring holiday in December, a few years ago, when I was home visiting Sweden…” the host chimes in, at breakneck speed. The shock of hearing him speak Swedish (a first for most listeners) is one thing, to hear him then roll on with a bizarro Stockholm/Northern Swedish/Swenglish accent is another. The opening anecdote is about returning to his rural teenage home and getting accosted by a hick as ‘that there film bloke’ which immediate segways into a klämmig [gung-ho] folk tune.
Dolph was born and raised Hans Lundgren in the Stockholm suburb Spånga, one of the very same suburbs at the centre of horror fantasy Let the Right One In, and where I used to train rugby no less. Anemic little Hans was the eldest boy of a military engineer, a towering man who had the boy’s wholehearted adoration. The family fell on harder times as the father’s career faltered, and as a teenager Dolph turned into your run of the mill delinquent. Frustrated with life his father lashed out at his mother and his children, and Dolph speaks candidly of getting used to taking an odd beating every now and then, the awkwardness of hiding heavy cuts from his friends and teachers under a shaggy fringe. “My self confidence fell to nothing. My grades soon followed.”
Escape came in films, Easy Rider, kung fu pictures, and the martial arts. Hans got sent to his grandparents in Northern Sweden, to escape distractions and bad influences, but also to get him away from his aggressive father. The older Dolph reflects how in so many ways he ressembles his father, in his appearance, in his interests, in his love of a striking suit. Like his father he’s prone to a violent temper, but he’d never lash out at women or children, not even on film. His voice trembling Dolph recounts how he cried at his father’s funeral, and wishes he could tell his dad that he understands him, that he forgives him, and that he loves him.
Studies led to Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, then a masters at the University of Sydney, where he moonlighted as a bouncer. Grace Jones pounced on him at her gig in the city, and Dolph quickly got roped into the world of celebrity. Working out daily he was at the peak of his physical abilities, but he couldn’t keep up with his new socialite friends who partied through the night. What was their secret? ‘Who knows?’ asks Dolph, as he cues up Eric Clapton’s Cocaine on the playlist.
On way to starting a Fulbright Scholarship in chemical engineering at MIT Dolph got waylaid, unable to resist the magnetic draw of showbusiness. A bit part in A View to a Kill followed by an impossible audition for Rocky IV, and the rest hardly needs recounting.
Written down the whole screed might sound like a fine candidate for the ‘tragic life stories’ section at WHSmiths, but Dolph doesn’t paint any grand tragedies of a hard-knock-life, and speaks happily of the incredible luck he’s had in life. As absurd as the adjective feels when applied to an on-air celebrity, Dolph just comes across as strikingly genuine. Talking to others a wide reaching consensus is that Dolph was quite possibly the greatest Sommar host there’s been in recent memory. While Jean-Claude Van Damme has bared all in his postmodern pour-your-heart-out action film JCVD, this growing trend of the 80’s action star confessional leaves me hoping that maybe the Seagal will see fit to walk the same path. Grand as it was to see him bumbling along with the Jefferson Parish police force in Steven Seagal Lawman, the real Seagal confessional is still begging to be told.
Dolph however is rolling on to brighter and odder things, the Sommar session leading to a slightly revived profile for the aging action star in his home country. A role as host for the regional heats of the Eurovision selection competition in Sweden is a bigger gig than might first be sniffed at, and his kung-fu kicking, if rather off-key, rendition of Little Less Conversation garnered more than a little attention on YouTube. This summer brings his return to the big screen in Clash of the Washed-Up Action Stars, or a film more commonly known as The Expendables. Lord knows quite how godawful or absurdly brilliant that might be, but contrary to reports in The Onion in 2004, Dolph hasn’t won his courageous battle against fame just yet.