Sylvester Stallone, interviewed by Mike Read. On paper, it's an odd set-up. In reality, it was one of the weirdest events I've ever been to: Rocky, sitting in Sheffield City Hall, chatting to a man whose most recent headlines came via a cod-calypso, pro-UKIP song that a lot of people thought was racist. In attendance were hundreds of Sly mega-fans who'd flown in from all over Europe. Each of them were prepared to pay £50 to get in and celebrate the life and work of the Italian Stallion.
If they wanted to meet Stallone personally, the ticket price shot up to a staggering £500.
As if that prospect weren't already depressing enough, when we arrived at the venue we were met by a group protesting Israeli attacks on Palestine. Which seemed a little incongruous at first. However, they were quick to explain that they were there to rally against Stallone's involvement with the Israeli Defense Forces, an organisation he's helped to raise money for. It was all very peaceful; candles were lit, songs were sung and leaflets were given out to bemused Rambo fans who were clearly just there to find out how many push-ups Sly can do IRL.
Before meeting any of the fans, I spoke to Angela – one of the protesters, who didn't want to be photographed – about their cause.
VICE: Hi Angela. What have you come here to do this evening?
Angela: What we've come here to do is talk about – through our leaflet – Sylvester Stallone and his involvement with Israel. He attended a fundraising event for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces – who were sent over to Gaza in the summer and killed 2,139 Palestinians, including 490 children. We're addressing the fans because we want them to know that this is what their star has been doing, and he's also signed a letter supporting Israel's right to defend itself. Everybody has a right to defend themselves, but it's very disproportionate. We came to have a peaceful protest – no shouting or speeches; just to give out the leaflets.
How has the response been from the fans?
Perfectly friendly, in as much as people have taken the leaflets and not thrown them back at us or anything. It's been a quiet response.
In the queue, we met people who'd made the trip from places as far as France and Norway to watch Mr Expendables have a chat with the DJ who once stopped playing "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood halfway through on live radio 'cos he realised it had something to do with dicks.
The line stretched back about half a mile, so we had a walk up and down, and chatted with some fans.
Hi guys. Why are you here?
Dee: Big fan of Sylvester Stallone.
Well, yeah – but as an actor or a person?
Both an actor and a person. I think he's quite an iconic person.
Do you have regular tickets, or tickets to the meet and greet?
Just regular tonight, but I met him in Manchester and did a meet and greet. I can't afford it tonight.
Wouldn't you just have the same kind of conversation if you were to do it again anyway?
I've not even thought about it – I don't care. I just want to be in the same room as him. I've waited at the stage door for him for six hours just to see his hand. I've been a fan for 18 years.
What is it you love so much about him to justify standing six hours in the cold to see his hand?
I think because of the character Rocky, and him as an iconic person. What he's gone through in life, he transpires [sic] that on screen through Rocky. It's life, isn't it? It symbolises life. So that, for me, is it.
I've waited at the stage door for him for six hours just to see his hand
Without meaning to get too personal, is that element of there being a struggle in life something you can relate to?
Yeah, definitely. I've had cancer. I'm three years in remission from cancer, so yeah.
So you looked to Sly and Rocky during those times for strength?
Yeah, I looked at things in his life and things that happened in Rocky, and that helped me. The speech in it – that helped me through it, definitely.
Hi guys. Why are you here?
Matt: Love his films – grew up watching Rambo and Rocky.
Adam: I've just come because he wanted to come.
What is it about his films you like so much that you want to come and hear him be interviewed?
Matt: They were just captivating when you were a kid. They're always about someone from the bottom going up to the top, and that's quite an inspiring thing.
It seems a few people appreciate the underdog element in his films. Is that something you can relate to?
Not so much the underdog, but it's just good to see that it's not always the best looking guy or the guy with the most money who comes out on top. And for people in this kind of area, it's something they can relate to in that sense.
What is it specifically that's brought you here tonight?
Barry: Well, obviously I've liked his films over the years, but I like the way he trains. Basically, I want to know about his training regime and what he's done over the years and how he's got to where he is today.
So you're more interested in his personal fitness?
Exactly, yeah. I've got a few books on Sylvester and I've read them, so hopefully I'll be able to ask a few questions.
If you get the opportunity, what will you ask him?
In his midlife, from his forties, what would he do [in his training] that he hasn't done if he were to do it again – you know, based on his knowledge and experience.
Did you pay any attention to the people protesting outside?
No, not really. I'm not really interested. Everyone's got their own opinions; what he stands for, he stands for.
Hi there. Why are you guys fans?
Mark: Lifetime hero.
You all grew up with him as kids?
Ben: We're all just big kids now. That's all it is – we've just never grown up.
Mark: We've spent the horrendous £500 to get a photo with him.
£500?! That's how much it costs for a photo?
Ben: Shhh – don't tell anyone, he'll get fucking killed.
Mark: My wife would leave me.
So £500 for a group photo?
All: No, each!
Mark: If he doesn't sign something, he's [Ben] going to chin him.
Good luck with that.
Inside, the stage was made up to look like a bit like a Habitat display window: leather couches, some nice lamps, a Union Jack rug and a stars 'n' stripes cushion. Either side of the chairs were framed photos of Sylvester.
The pre-approved questions began to flow, and we learned a few Sly facts: he likes rugby because it's manly, he owns Pomeranian dogs (a sign of sensitivity because they're small and cute) and he'll be starring in a new series of adverts for Warburtons bread. Cue some puns about needing the dough (his Expendables series has earned over half a billion pounds worldwide) and earning some bread.
Then the audience questions started. These, unsurprisingly, ranged from the banal to the profoundly insane.
One woman began a soliloquy about how she has a signed picture of Stallone and Carl Weathers above her bed, how much she loves him and how she respects his dedication, which she can relate to because she's a vegetarian.
However, before long, she was cut short by boos and hissing from all the other irked fans who were getting tired of her waffle and were waiting their turn.
Two guys who'd come over from Germany used the Q&A to pitch a film, to which Stallone replied: "Are you pitching me, you shameless bastard?" He too was bored into silence by the rowdy and impatient crowd, all keen to find out every last detail about Stallone, including a detailed breakdown of his daily bowel movements on the set of Judge Dredd. Weirdly, there wasn't one mention of the Israel-Palestine conflict that greeted us at the door.
"I'm so honoured to be here," came the start of one question, from a quivering wreck of a woman who'd paid through the nose for the premium seats. "Can I ask you one thing: can you say the line, 'You're the disease, I'm the cure' from Cobra?"
Stallone did, and the sobbing continued.
One woman announced she'd named her child after Sly, another got on stage to arm wrestle him.
As the event came to an end, the last question came in the form of a marriage proposal. "He said to me, 'I'll only marry you if Sylvester Stallone asks,'" said a woman, excitedly, raising a question in my mind of whether this man really wanted to marry her. The reverend Stallone then brought them up on stage (amid loud shouts of "Don't do it!") and gave them his blessing.
The woman then said, "No, can you ask him if he wants to marry me?"
Stallone did as asked. The fiancee said yes. The woman ignored him and gave Sly a hug instead.
It was almost time to leave the stage, but not before a ceremonial knife-giving. Something to do with sponsorship resulted in Sly being presented with an official Sheffield steel Bowie knife, which was presented to him onstage by a guy in his eighties who was clearly humbled and a little bewildered by the experience. He made a point of introducing his life-long wife onstage, which was actually a really touching moment, before explaining – off microphone – how the knife was made.
And with that all that was left was for Mike "UKIP" Read to exclaim "Now that's a knife!" in an Australian accent, I died a bit inside, the Rocky exit music came on and everyone rushed to the front for hugs and high-fives, with the lucky few staying on to get their £500 worth of one-on-one Sly photos.
On the way out, we caught a young woman doing the Rocky steps thing and stopped her for a chat.
So you're a bit speechless, are you?
India: Yeah, he's literally – I know they all say he's their biggest idol, but I cannot describe the words of actually seeing him live.
What is it about him you like so much?
He's just so inspiring – I've learned a lot from Rocky and he's got me through a lot in life. It's a massive privilege that I've even been able to see him tonight, because I never thought I would. I'm just speechless. I can't get my words out. Absolutely incredible – the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life.
So the character Rocky is why you love him so much?
Yeah. I was seven years old when my granddad first showed me him, and since then I've literally watched him every single day.
Literally every day, yeah. My favourite is number four.
Did you get to ask him a question in there?
I didn't, no, because I was that scared I thought I was going to faint.
If you had been able to ask him a question, what would it have been?
I would have asked him to sign me so I could have got his name tattooed. I didn't want to ask him anything; I just would have liked a signature so I could get it tattooed, but I'm still going to do that anyway.
You're going to get his name tattooed on you?
Yeah, probably on my back. Probably something out of Rocky, or what he's just said in there about having thick skin and that.
It was a very strange evening, and while I'm utterly bemused as to how someone who charges their fans £500 for a single photo can command so much respect and impart so much inspiration, it's clear that he does. Someone getting through cancer via watching Rocky is not something I ever expected to hear – so fair enough, Sly.
"An Evening with Sylvester Stallone": it brought political protests, bouts of crying, arm wrestling, a marriage proposal and a ceremonial knife-giving, yet I still don't have a fucking clue what that whole three seashells thing was all about.
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