Interviews

David Otunga’s Celebrating Father’s Day by Making an Action Movie With His Son

The WWE superstar and former 'Muscle & Fitness' cover man talks about his amazing journey to the ring, why he loves acting, and his kick-ass martial arts moves.

Before They Were Pro Wrestling Superstars
Jim Wright

WWE superstar David Otunga knows how to put on a show.

With years of experience under the spotlight, the former Muscle & Fitness cover star wanted to put that energy into something special for Father’s Day 2017. So what did he do? Otunga made an action movie with his son.

“It started out as an idea from my son for a birthday present for me, but once that passed, I thought: ‘Why not make it for Father’s Day?’” Otunga told Muscle & Fitness. “We ended up writing a short film, and, of course, I cast him as my son. He was begging to do some martial arts, so we put that in the movie. He had to go through rehearsal and training, and he loved it. It was the most fun thing ever.”

In the short film, which you can watch here, exclusively on Muscle & Fitness, Otunga’s son is kidnapped, and it’s up to Otunga to take out the bad guys and bring him back home. Playing the part of an action hero isn’t much of a stretch for a guy as built as Otunga, and he gets to show off some pretty badass martial arts skills, not much different than the body slamming moves he did in the ring.

“Even before I wanted to be a WWE superstar I wanted to be an actor, specifically an action hero,” Otunga said. “I grew up in the '80s and I idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, guys with great physiques and action movies.”

Acting has been a passion of Otunga’s long before he went to Harvard Law School and stepped into the wrestling ring. Even when he was taking a full course load at the University of Illinois, he snuck in drama classes by double-enrolling at the community college since his school wouldn't allow any more credits on his schedule.

David Otunga, Jennifer Hudson
David Otunga, Jennifer Hudson

That determination has served Otunga well: He snagged roles in the Halle Berry film The Call, appeared on the Tyler Perry-produced series The Haves and the Have Nots, had a role in the Netflix film Sandy Wexler, and appeared on the TV show Criminal Minds—and now he has even more on the horizon. Otunga is starring in the film Live to Tell, which he’s producing—the first time he’s served in that role.

“For this movie with my son I took some inspiration from Tyler Perry, who got started because the opportunities weren't out there, so he decided he was going to create them on his own,” Otunga said. “He wrote them, produced them, directed, and starred in them. So I felt, I'm going to do the exact same thing. It's a different level, but, hey, I'll get there."

Having the film centered around Father’s Day was even more special for Otunga, for a number of reasons. Otunga wanted to give his son something he could remember forever, but it also made him think about his own father. Otunga’s father’s dream for his son was to go to Harvard, but, unfortunately, his father passed away less than a month before he was accepted.

“It was a real bittersweet moment, but that would have been more important to him than winning the lottery, to say his son went to Harvard,” Otunga said. “I decided to go because I wanted to honor my dad.”

Otunga spoke with Muscle & Fitness about the short film, what it was like working with his son, and what Father’s Day means to him.

What did it mean for you to make this film with your son for Father’s Day?

That was the most special part about it. I realize that it's like the best memories I had for me and my dad were when we would do things together, something we're both into; for example, wrestling. I was in love with wrestling and I remember the first time he took me to a WWE live event at the Rosemont Horizon, which is now called Allstate Arena, but back then it was Rosemont Horizon and it was in October of 1986. I still remember it. It was awesome. I got to see Hulk Hogan for the first time and that became something that we did together and I loved it. I loved it that he was into something I was into. The most important thing was just the fact that it was something that I did together with my son. In this day and age that's something that's very important for parents to take an interest in what their kids do—especially fathers, too—for Father's Day, and being involved and trying to be that good role model for your son or daughter. That's really how this came to us. It's like, "This is something I can do with my son and it's a cool thing we can do together that we'll always remember." They're only little for a while.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

It's about establishing that relationship with your son and hopefully it inspires other fathers out there to invest in their kids and do stuff. They don't have to go all-out and produce and fund their own movies, but, you know, find your own way to connect with them on something. If that works, if that improves your relationship with a few fathers and their kids, then I'm happy.

What was it like shooting the film with your son?

My son was begging to do some martial arts. He wanted to do fighting. I was like, "That wasn't really written in there." Then I was like, "All right, we'll put it in." He had to go through rehearsal and training and whatnot. David really surprised me because this was his first time acting in front of a camera, and he was really good.

The thing of it was, there's this part where he gets kidnapped and he gets to use his martial arts. He waited for it and then when it came, he was supposed to be scared, but every time it came time for that part, he would start smiling because he knew he was gonna get ready to fight. I had to tell him, "You gotta be scared. I'm hurt and this guy's trying to kidnap you." "Okay, I got it. I got it." Then, at the end, he nailed it, the last few takes he was telling me like, "I almost cried real tears." I was like, "Man, you're so good. I need to step my game up now."

Is making films something you guys do together a lot?

We make little videos like shooting Nerf guns or whatever, just father/son time, and so he's just a mini version of me, and I guess I'm just an overgrown kid, because I still just love play fighting and acting and stuff. This was really just the love between a father and son and that's what our little film was about. We didn't really have any direction of what we were going to do with it other than I took my inspiration from Tyler Perry and said, "Hey, I'm gonna create the roles I want." I don't know how we're gonna follow this up. David said he wants to make a superhero family movie.

With everything you do, how do you find time to spend with your family and your son?

It's extremely important that you have to put forth the effort. Sometimes it takes something to make you realize, "Wait a minute. I've lost my focus. I've been focusing on this too much that I'm neglecting time with my family or whatnot," and then that comes down to putting forth the effort and doing what you have to do to make it work. Setting aside time because I firmly believe that if your family life isn't right, you're not going to be successful in anything else. First, that's your core, that's your foundation, your base. You have to be happy in that, and then you'll be able to succeed in other areas of your life. It really just comes down to effort.

What gets you excited about acting? Did you always want to be an actor?

Most people know me from being a WWE superstar, but one of the things that I wanted to do even before I wanted to be a WWE superstar is that I wanted to be an actor, specifically an action hero. That's kind of what got me into bodybuilding, and I talked about this in my Muscle & Fitness article, and I wanted to be just like Arnold, and pro wrestling was something that I wanted to do, too. They kind of go together.

How did your father impact your career path?

My dad grew up in Kenya and he would tell me about different stories and how Harvard was like this almost mythical place where the smartest people in the world went, and how he knew about that school in Kenya. He also told me another conversation how he wanted to be a lawyer but he didn't think he was smart enough. I thought that was crazy because I know a lot of dumb lawyers, and my dad had his Ph.D., two different master's degrees, and a certificate of advanced studies, which is beyond a master's degree. He was pretty much a professional student. He was the smartest person I've probably ever met.

I get the opportunity to go to New York to Columbia University and manage a cognitive neuroscience lab. I was not interested in that at all, but my dad was so proud that I was working there. We would talk every day. While I'm there during this time, my buddy was studying for the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. I call him up, and say "Hey, man, when is the test?" He said: "Dude, it's three weeks away. I'm all stressed out. I don't know how I'm going to do." I tell him, "Hey man, I'm gonna take the test." He's like, "What, the next one?" I said, "No, I'm gonna take this one." He's like, "No, Dave. That's a bad idea. You've only got three weeks. You can't just show up and take this test." I was like, "Well it's just kinda something I'm doing anyway, so I'll just do it." I show up, take the test on three week's notice, and I did very well. I aced it.

I wanted to honor my dad by going to Harvard. But the whole time I'm in law school, I'm still going on auditions and going to acting class and doing everything. Then after going into a law firm I realized that it wasn’t for me, and that’s how I started to move into entertainment and the WWE.

See any good movies lately?

Well, one we just saw, we did Wonder Woman, was great, but mom (actress and singer Jennifer Hudson) didn't get a chance to see it. Especially because it’s a female superhero, so she needs to study up too. My son, he asked, "Hey, is there a Catwoman movie? Because we should have mommy see that." And I was like, "Actually, there is. The reviews weren't great, but...I happen to know the star, and she's pretty cool."

What upcoming projects are you excited about?

Now I'm a commentator with WWE, which is awesome because it allows me to do that and still pursue acting at the same time. I have another film coming up, Live to Tell, which I'm starring in and producing. We're just about to start pre-production. That shoots in Atlanta and it's a powerful film about a school shooting like Columbine, and it has a great, great message and it's very anti-bullying.

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