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Sylvester Stallone Says Infusing ‘Quirky Behavior’ Into Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Tulsa King’ Was Key: ‘You Have to Be Irreverent’

The veteran actor tells TheWrap about playing an “off-kilter” gangster starting over and how he flipped Sheridan’s original take on the character

Spoiler alert: The following article discusses elements of the first two episodes of “Tulsa King.”

Over the course of a half-century-long career, Sylvester Stallone has little room for firsts; but the Oscar-nominated actor, writer and producer is finally making his entry onto the small screen with creator Taylor Sheridan and showrunner Terence Winter’s new Paramount+ series “Tulsa King.” The show finds Stallone portraying the “off-kilter” ex-mafia capo Dwight Manfredi, who is unceremoniously dumped by his mob family in the Oklahoma city after a 25-year stint in prison. While characterizing the veteran actor and ‘80s-era icon as needing no introduction is a woeful understatement, Manfredi enlists guidance wherever he can find it — navigating Uber, understanding pronouns and setting up shop with a local medical dispensary.

“When he’s out in Tulsa, I think it’s really relatable to the audience, which makes him kind of an underdog. He’s 76 years old, completely alone, broke, a stranger in a strange land, completely lost in a foreign culture, and he has to start over, which — if you ask anyone to start over — is a terrifying prospect,” Stallone told TheWrap in a recent interview.

As a writer, the “Rocky” star was also instrumental in shaping the script, which he described as more in line with traditional mobster and tough-guy narratives. The Paramount+ series, which premiered its first two episodes on Sunday, initially featured a gruffer Manfredi, who was more prone to macho impulses than not; as Stallone put it, his character is akin to a “pet tiger” — caring, sure, but deadly if provoked.

“[The show] meant to be a serious, dark drama. And I go, ‘Ah, it’s been done well, let’s make it kind of an unpredictable drama by putting in some quirky behavior,’” he said when describing his input on the character and penchant for ad-libbing.

Below, read on for TheWrap’s edited conversation:

TheWrap: You’ve said in previous interviews that your approach to Dwight was playing him close to yourself. Which elements of your personality would you say you infused with the character, which you’ve called a “unique gangster,” and what about his essence did you want to convey?

Well, the challenge was to be radically different [from] the actors that have come before me that have played, masterfully, gangsters. So I thought, ‘Huh, the one thing I’ve never seen is a gangster who’s a little off-kilter, has a sense of humor, is a prankster and very loose’ — not intimidating, but you know he’s a gangster. It’s like having a pet tiger, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t hurt a fly,’ yeah, he would, he’s a tiger; he can purr and all that but beware. So I thought just always having this misdirection going would keep the audience off balance. You never know what’s coming up after him.

He can throw a bottle at someone and relax with weed at the same time.

And offer him an Advil the next day.

How much did the aspect of chosen family, with the mafia and now the one he’s forming in Tulsa, versus the family you’re born into, factor into your performance or choosing of the project? Dwight is someone who, at the end of the day, is lonely and disoriented in his life.

That’s true. The mobster has a choice — that you have your blood family and then you have your gangster family, and the gangster family takes precedence, literally, over your real family, which is odd but true. And then when you’re rejected by them, there is no going back because you’ve already lost your real family and now you’ve lost your gangster family. 

So when he’s out in Tulsa, I think it’s really relatable to the audience, which makes him kind of an underdog, is that he’s 76 years old, complete alone, broke, a stranger in a strange land, completely lost in a foreign culture, and he has to start over, which — if you ask anyone to start over — is a terrifying prospect. And at that age, to say, ‘OK, you’re 70 years old, get lost, no money, no clothes, no friends, let’s see how you survive.’ 99% of time you’re not going to. It’s interesting how he uses his criminal mentality to manipulate people to actually survive.

Like you said, ‘Tulsa King’ is an underdog, fish out of water story about what it means to start anew. What were some of the key elements of this story where you thought ‘Oh, this is different from past roles or worlds, I want to do this’?

You don’t have to be a gangster when you’re dealing with subjects that are just basic human dilemmas that we all unfortunately have to go through, which is alienation and rejection, fear of failure — that whole bit. I wanted to bring those to this — which I’ve done in ‘Rambo’ and I do it in ‘Rocky’ because that’s just my nature, it’s about redemption — and I think everyone has that redemptive desire. It’ll come out even more in the third and fourth episode, that’s what makes Dwight relatable. You actually forget Rocky was a loan shark collector, he was a thug, and then he’s playing with turtles, so right away you go, ‘Huh, he can’t be that bad.’ So you just use the same elements with Dwight, that he has the same fragility that all of us have, but he just puts it behind and hides it in a suit, but inside he’s scared, too.

Jay Will as Tyson, Sylvester Stallone as Dwight Manfredi and Martin Starr as Bodhi of the Paramount+ original series TULSA KING. Photo Cr: Brian Douglas/Paramount+

I heard that Taylor Sheridan wrote the pilot in a day, after his producing partner had mentioned that you had always wanted to play a “Sopranos” type role. As a writer yourself, I wanted to ask you about the transformation of this script and how your input evolved the character, as well as how you feel the show brings freshness to a familiar and beloved genre.

They came up with the idea, ‘gangster goes West,’ but in the original idea, he was still a gangster; he was a guy who was smashing bottles on people’s heads. He’s a very intimidating guy. Instead of going into the bar and buying a bourbon, in the original, he went in there and just beat these guys to a pulp because they were making fun of him and his suit, and he goes, wham! I go, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ If you’re a stranger, you gotta blend in and make everybody your buddy, you can’t alienate; they’ll take you outside, shoot you in the head, and that’ll be the end of it, in the real world. So it took a while for them to go ‘Well, let’s trust his instincts,’ because it was meant to be a serious, dark drama. And I go, ‘Ah, it’s been done well, let’s make it kind of an unpredictable drama by putting in some quirky behavior.’ And then you see I surround myself with all these people. And I actually found people that, for example, the fella that I hit with a bottle in the store, and I go, ‘Hey, come here jumbo,’ he was just basically a one-line extra and I said, ‘This guy’s got it.’ And throughout the next 10 episodes, he becomes part of the gang. So Dwight just takes all these characters and builds this fraternity.

With that, could you talk about your ad-libbing approach on the show? Were there any favorite moments of adding your own touches? Particularly, I loved the scene where your character asks if Badface has been on life support.

Those lines are exactly what I do [laughs]. I meet this guy, and in the original dialogue, it’s OK, but it wasn’t as absurd. It was like, ‘What are you, a cuckoo clock?’ kind of a thing. Just because I actually called the guy, in reality I said, ‘You look like a cuckoo clock.’ He goes, ‘Thank you, Mr. Stallone, my mother used to call me a cuckoo clock too,’ and I realized this guy is cuckoo, so I just went with it, like he is nuts and he’s a great guy, though. But he just was perfect. You have to just kind of be irreverent, to say things that are so politically incorrect, that at the moment are so tactless. And there’s a lot of that stuff coming up, trust me.

“Tulsa King” delivers new episodes on Sundays on Paramount+. Its first two episodes are now streaming.