Dolph Lundgren: On Healing and Forgiveness at TEDxFulbrightSantaMonica (Full Transcript)

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s about a little boy who grew up in Sweden, in the ’60s and ’70s. His dad was this tall, good-looking army officer. His mom was this pretty but shy linguist. He had a brother and two sisters, and they lived in suburb of Stockholm. And that little boy was me.

I think I remember the first time my dad hit me. I was around three or four, I think I was walking in front of the TV and he kicked me, and I flew into some bookshelves. And I remember there was blood and my mom was screaming. You see, my dad had a lot of problems and he took it out on me and my mom. He never touched my brothers or sisters.

And this started when I was about three or four and went on till I was about 11 or 12. It was a really hard part of my life because I had to go to school with a black eye or, you know, some of my hair was missing because he’d been yanking my head. I think some of you may know what I’m talking about. I understand how you’re feeling.

You see, when you get abused at home, you have two choices, just like an animal: fight or flight. You can either run away, which was impossible for me because I was a little kid living at home; or you can fight back, which I couldn’t do because, you know, I was just a little kid. My dad was my size.

But I learned later there’s a third choice: you freeze. It’s like a gazelle being taken by a lion. You just freeze and go dead; all your emotions are bottled up inside. I would just lie there. When he was hitting me, I wouldn’t even cry. And, by the time I was 11 or 12, I was smoking, I was drinking, I was running away from home on stolen motorcycles, sleeping over in someone’s garage, but my dad always found me. Back home for another beating.

So, my grades at school were terrible, and my dad said, “I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to get rid of this kid somehow and get him out of here.” So, he decided to send me up north, to his parents’, my grandparents’. And they lived in a small town in the northern part of Sweden.

Now, Sweden is a country pretty far north. I mean, Stockholm in the winter gets dark at 2:30 pm. Stockholm was like Miami Beach, compared to the place I was being sent. But my grandparents were quite nice to me, and they took care of me and my grades got better. I discovered ice hockey, and then weight training, and karate, and I started to heal.

And, by the time I was about 17 or 18, I remembered something my dad had told me. Because, you know, my dad was this pretty smart guy, he was very charming, he was a nice guy – most of the time, when he wasn’t going nuts. And he told me, “Listen – Listen, kid, this socialistic country, forget it, you can’t do anything here. If you want to be somebody, you’ve got to go to America.” I always remembered that.

So, I kind of got all the scholarships I could because I didn’t have any money. I got a scholarship to WSU, Washington State University; another one to Clemson. Finally, I got a Fulbright scholarship to MIT, which is the reason I am standing here. And there was just one little snag – because, my fourth year to my last year as a master’s, I was in Sydney, at the University of Sydney, and I was studying engineering on a scholarship, and I was working extra as a bouncer because, you know, that trauma is really helpful when you get into a ring with somebody. So, I became a pretty good fighter.

I was a karate champion and I had what you call a “killer instinct.” So, me and my buddy who was my sparring partner got hired to do some special work at a rock concert, different artists, and one of them was this beautiful black singer, a statuesque lady named Grace Jones. We worked there and, afterwards, she hired some of us to do especial security at her party when she was going to go out and hang out at the nightclubs in Sydney. I didn’t really realize right away why she’d picked this tall, blond, buff guy to be her special security. But, you know, I found out later that evening. I, uh – I ended up in a hotel room, missed a few classes the next day, college – And, you know, she was a world-class artist, totally out of my league. That’s what I thought, but she didn’t agree, you know. So, we ended up having this relationship.

I went to Tokyo to do some karate, she was there doing a commercial. Then I ended up moving to New York. So, I had a couple of months before I was going to start at MIT, and those months literally changed my life because my – what happened was – This was New York city, Studio 54 – I met David Bowie, Michael Jackson. First week I was there, I went to some party. There was a little guy with white hair. He came up to me and said, “Hi! What are you famous for?” He took a picture of me and I’m like, “Nothing, as far as I know.” And he goes, “Hey, I want to put you on my magazine.” Well, that was Andy Worhol, Interview Magazine.

So, finally, when it was time to go back to school, to Cambridge, MIT, chemical engineering just didn’t seem as exciting, somehow. So – But, anyway, I picked this big black motorcycle I had bought, 1200CC, threw Grace on the back, all decked out in leather. I got in my leather pants, I didn’t wear a shirt too often in those days. I drove up to Cambridge, and I think the professors at MIT had a slightly different idea of who this Swedish star student was.

So, when this thing just – “vroom” – went past a window, I think they were sort of shocked, you know. They expected somebody else, slightly smaller, maybe with some Coke-bottle glasses or something, but, anyway, they were as shocked as I was not belonging there. I felt that right away, and three weeks later I was gone. I went back to New York, got an agent – so all other actors – started studying, acting, got up for a couple of movies. One was a “boxing” movie. It turned out to be Rocky IV, and I auditioned for it.

Finally, I got the role, moved out here. I was training with Sly Stallone down here, about a mile away from here. And the film was shot and opened 30 years ago, Memorial Day. And I came out of the theater with Grace and people were taking pictures of me, and I’m like, “What happened? Oh, I guess I’m a movie star. OK, great.” But, you know, the problem was this: my troubles had only started, because what happened was that frozen part of me – remember that I told you? – started coming out and kind of running my life.

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Because what happens is this: when you have this trauma, it’s like a soldier with post-traumatic stress. You end up acting on something called escape behavior. You try to escape from something you can’t escape from because it’s inside of you: drinking, sexual affairs, overeating, violence, you name it. I did a lot of bad things to myself, and, 25 years later, 40 movies later, yeah, I was a movie star, but I was miserable most of the time.

I had a failed marriage, two daughters who I loved, but they didn’t even know me. My career was kind of rock-bottom. This was only five years ago, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. Two things happened. I got a call from my old buddy Sly Stallone, “Hey, Dolph, how are you doing? I’ve got this script, so check it out, see what you think.” Well, the script was called The Expendables. It was a big hit, I was back in the big screen after 15 years.

The other thing is I met this girl, fell in love with her, and I knew I was going to embark on the same stupid path I’d been down before. Actually, something happened. Some girl was flirting with me, I gave her my number – The usual: the text, the pictures; she saw it – A few of you may have been there.

She went nuts, we were about to break up, and I said, “I can’t do this. I’ve got to change my life somehow.”

She’d told me before, “Why don’t you try therapy?”

I was like, “Forget about it. It’s for sissies.”

“What about meditation?”

“Ah, do I look like an Indian guru? I don’t think so.”

So, to make a long story short, I took up therapy three years ago, meditation, and it totally changed my life. Suddenly, this fog that I was living in lifted. I did the therapy where you go back in time, you relive your experiences, you cry, scream, you roll up in a little ball, you hit the couch with a baseball bat, you know, anything you’ve got to do to start to attack this part of you, this frozen part of me that was running my life. And slowly it started to become smaller and smaller, and I could sort of see my life come back to me. And the meditation helped as well.

So, the first thing I did: I went back to see my kids, and I asked them for forgiveness for what I had done because I told them what happened with my dad, and I was a guy who didn’t like what I’d done, and they started crying right away. And I realized they had had a lot of pain, and I cried with them. I did the same with my ex-wife, and a few other people I had hurt. And, as a matter of fact, I also, in my head, forgave my dad for what he did, and my mom, for what she didn’t do. And I started embarking on this new life.

It was like a fight worth fighting, to come to terms with yourself, to heal yourself. But what I didn’t realize was there’s another level to that, because, once you start healing yourself and feel better, you see other people around you who need help, who have pain. And faith kind of came to me, and I wrote and produced a movie about human trafficking, called Skin Trade. And I learned about human trafficking, which is a terrible crime. There are 20 million slaves in the world today. It’s a 20-billion-dollar industry, second largest in the world. These people are physically humiliated, psychologically abused. They have no self worth, sort of like how I used to feel. And kind of faith brought me in contact with this, with human trafficking and these victims.

When I came back to LA, I called an organization called CAST, and asked them if I could help – Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. Well, I’ve been helping them ever since, and it’s a great feeling for me to finally give something back. You know, a lot of this human trafficking isn’t just happening in, like, India, and Africa, and over there. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting cases was a girl that was brought over from a Third World country by a very wealthy family. She was kept in a house, they took her passport, kept on the guard all the time, threatened her with violence, threatened her family. You know where the house was? In Brentwood, right here, about a mile from here.

And she didn’t know what to do. They brought this American nanny in to take care of the little kid, and they talked, and the American nanny said she’d help her, but nothing happened, a week passed, a month passed – Finally, they were coming back from the park one day. She was taking care of this kid, and there was this security guy as usual, and there were 15 FBI agents outside of the house. They took her inside and said, “Do you want to stay or do you want to leave?” She said, “I want to leave.” CAST got her into a shelter, re-educated her, brought her back.

She learned a job. She finally ended up getting a green card. As a matter of fact, she met this man from her home country, that she fell in love with, and they got married. And to be part of something like that is just amazing. As a matter of fact, Alice is also pregnant with her new baby, and towards the end of my talk, I wanted to say hi to Alice. Please stand up.

Anyway, I guess, for me, the experience that I told you about is – like, you have to come to terms with yourself. You have to love yourself so you can appreciate those things in others. If you heal yourself, you can heal others. And – I think if you take time to look inside and find that little boy, that little girl, inside yourself – then, you treat them well – and are you ready to look and see a little boy or a little girl next to you that may need some help? Because, if you do that, it’s just the greatest feeling in the world. Thanks.

Thank you.