If there is one movie that encapsulates the city of Philadelphia in film-goers minds, it is undoubtedly 1976’s Rocky. Not only does the film show off the city’s various neighborhoods as Sylvester Stallone’s underdog boxer Rocky Balboa prepares for the match of his life, but that training montage’s final moments featuring Rocky’s charge up the stairs to the East Terrace of the Philadelphia Art Museum has become an iconic moment in film history. (And one you can see being recreated by visitors to museum almost every single day.)
It was therefore appropriate that for the latest cinematic chapter in Rocky’s life, Creed, Stallone and castmates Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson and the film’s director/co-writer Ryan Coogler all gathered at the top of those stairs to talk to the press about this seventh installment in the Rocky franchise.
For Philadelphia-native Stallone, returning to that iconic film location and to Philadelphia itself, serves as a reminder of his own rise to stardom, fueled by the first Rocky film.
“I started skipping rocks in the Schuylkill River over there when I was twelve years old,” Stallone states before turning to the crowd of fans who were pushing up against the barricades behind the press. “So all you kids out there if you don’t think you can make it up these steps of life, which is kind of represented here by this museum, don’t you believe that. If I can do it, you can do it. It’s just a matter of believing it and being responsible with yourself and pushing yourself to the maximum of your abilities.
“That’s what this film is about. It’s about grabbing hold of an ideal, putting aside your fears, lowering your head and driving forward, and taking the ones you love along with you. Without that kind of support, without that kind of family, without that person holding your hand in the dark, it’s terrifying.”
That drive served Stallone well, as the first Rocky film would earn ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor and Best Screenplay nods for Stallone. The film would win three Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for John G. Avildsen. Five sequels would follow over the years, the most recent being the critically well-received Rocky Balboa in 2006.
Creed, which opens today, sees Rocky moving into a mentoring role, agreeing to come out of retirement to help coach Adonis Johnson (Jordan), the son of his his former rival-turned-friend, Apollo Creed. As Adonis struggles to prepare for a big fight he finds himself having to come to grips with the legacy of a father who died before he was born. Helping him discover himself is Bianca (Thompson), a Philly singer-songwriter whom Adonis becomes involved with.
For the Los Angeles native Thompson, getting into the mindset of a Philadelphia-born and breed character meant spending some time in the city before production began. That time gave her a new appreciation of the city. She also got used to some of it’s unique, local slang, like the term ‘jawn,’ which can be used to describe just about anything.
“I love Rocky, of course, but my favorite character in the film is the city of Philadelphia,” Thompson states. “I just had such an amazing time being here. All I did is hang out. Ryan was like ‘Just get here as soon as possible, please.’ There’s no better way to learn how to be a Philly ‘jawn’ than by spending time in some Philly ‘jawns.’ So, I spent about two months just hanging out. He [Coogler] insisted that I eat Philly cheesesteaks. I ate a lot of those. I had such a tremendous time hanging out in this city. It’s a really unique, special place.”
Jordan’s preparation for the role of the up-and-coming boxer Adonis Johnson was a bit more strenuous.
“Me and Ryan knew about this project a few years ago,” he says. “I secretly was just getting into shape.”
Approximately twelve months before the cameras rolled on the film, Jordan states he began working with real boxing trainers. “I wanted them to treat me like a boxer. I got up and did the road work. I changed my diet completely. Once you’re consistent with your diet change, your body will follow.”
“But you did eat some Philly cheesesteaks!” Thompson jokingly accused her co-star.
“Cheat days!” pleaded Jordan back.
Coogler points out that Jordan did all his own his boxing work for the movie. “Nobody else wore his shorts. He was in there every time.”
“Did I get hurt? I took a few real punches, to be sure,” Jordan admits, smiling. He then adds with a laugh, “Thanks Sly for that one!”
“I know, you deserved it,” Stallone counters, chuckling.
Frustrated with the lack of progress in his attempt to become an actor, Stallone famously wrote the screenplay for the first Rocky film himself and adamantly turned down offers to buy the script from any studio who would not let him play the lead. But while the character is his creation, he is not so precious with it that he discounts other people’s ideas for what may be next for the aging boxer. In fact, he admits that the best ideas for the character “usually comes through other people’s eyes.”
“When Ryan came up with this concept, I wasn’t thinking along those lines [of Rocky mentoring Apollo’s son],” Stallone admits. “But I said ‘That really does open up a whole avenue to deal with a subject that many, many people have dealt with, who have family issues that are out of your control.’ As long as you’re open to other people’s suggestions, there’s more to go. I would like to follow this character until eventually he’s an angel.”