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He was gangly. No, really, the guy you see on these pages—the man who now plays the hulking, lovable character Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hitting theaters May 5—was a gangly teen. Tall and skinny. Lanky. Shy. Supershy. Awkward. Painfully awkward. Didn’t feel like he fit in. Almost ever.
But the one place he wasn’t awkward, the one place where he always fit in, was the gym. It was his safe haven, his sanctuary, his nest. Growing up in the D.C. area in the ’80s, Dave Bautista always felt at home in the weight room. Like he belonged.
“I was a gym rat,” says Bautista.
“I was a really shy, skinny, gangly, unhealthy kid. Working out helped me build confidence. I really wanted to look more muscular and not so lanky.”
At 15, the half-Filipino, half-Greek kid started messing around with his dad’s plastic weight set, doing bench presses and curls. Two years later, after his dad kicked him out of the house to make room for a baby he was having with his second wife, Bautista would cut class to lift weights. Well, sometimes he would cut class to steal cars, taking them for joyrides and selling off their wheels and radios, but usually he would cut class to lift weights. “I went to school when I felt like going to school, and most of the time I didn’t,” says Bautista, who ended up renting a room at a friend’s place for his final two years of high school. “By 17, I didn’t have to answer to anybody. I was on my own.”
Instead of studying calculus and social studies, he was spending most of his time at the big bodybuilding gym in the area, Olympus Gym in Falls Church, VA. A friend got him a job there, so when he wasn’t lifting, he was working. “I just fell in love with it,” says Bautista. “I practically lived there. It was a second home.”
Then he moved out to San Francisco for a while to reconnect with his mom and got a job as a personal trainer. But he didn’t exactly love showing others the correct way to squat. His clients frustrated him. “I couldn’t really relate to people who didn’t put in the same effort that I did,” says Bautista. “Sometimes I tried to force them to. It kind of turned people off.”
So what is a big, muscle-bound guy without a college education who doesn’t enjoy personal training supposed to do? Be a bouncer, obviously. He got his first gig bouncing at 17. He started in a few bars in Georgetown. In his early 20s, he bounced at this huge dance club in D.C. called Lulu’s. Then he progressed to VIP rooms at parties around town. He had the image that club promoters coveted—the huge, intimidating guy. Back then, he was even bigger than he is now. Much bigger. “Like 350, 360,” he says. “I was huge.”
Occasionally he would get arrested. “When I was bouncing, I had a few assault charges,” he admits. “I was always in a lose-lose situation. Whether I was in the right or not, the cops would show up and I looked like I did, and I was in a fight, and somebody was bleeding and I wasn’t. I usually went to jail.”
But it was a life. “I loved bouncing,” says Bautista. “You get spoiled by it. It’s easy work. You’re kind of hanging out most of the time. You have your days free to do whatever you want. You train, eat, sleep, and go to work. You get off work, you go back to the gym, you go home and sleep all day. And 10 years later, you got nothing to show for it.”
Did he save any money? Ha! He laughs at the question. “I worked to make it through the week,” he says. “I wasn’t concerned about putting a stash away. I was Forrest Gump-ing my way through life. My whole life was kind of accidental.”
The lowest point was one Christmas. By then he had children, and he had no money to buy them presents. He was forced to ask for an advance from a club promoter. “That was when I decided that I needed to do something,” says Bautista, who was closing in on 30 at the time. “I needed to find a real job or some other way to make money. It was like, ‘What am I qualified for?’”
HE CALLS THE decision to try his hand at professional wrestling a “process of elimination.” “Wrestling was really smoking hot at that time,” says Bautista. “It seemed like all the guys on TV were huge. I thought I could fit that mold.”
Soon he found himself in Minneapolis, trying out for the WCW. And failing miserably. The guy holding the tryouts ran him into the ground. At the time, Bautista was 6’4″, 325 lbs, and super-ripped. This guy was maybe 5’10”, 210 lbs. “I think he took offense that I was huge and jacked, and he was not,” recalls Bautista. “I think he thought, ‘This is another big guy who can’t wrestle, and he’s going to come in here and take another spot just because he looks like that, and I’m not going to let it happen.’”
The guy’s efforts worked—momentarily. “I was going to go back and try again after I got into better cardio shape,” says Bautista. “But then I started exploring other avenues.” He reached out to WWE (known then as the World Wrestling Federation), and they suggested he go to a wrestling camp, which is how Bautista wound up in Allentown, PA, for a year, using borrowed money to enroll at the Wild Samoan Pro Wrestling Training Center.
He suffered a few injuries, but over the next 12 months he learned the craft—everything from body slams and suplexes to developing a persona. Once the 6’4″, 300-pounder obtained all the tools to perform, WWE took notice and offered him a low-paying developmental contract. Now he was getting paid to learn how to wrestle—not that he felt like he was on his way to greatness or anything.
SEE ALSO: Top 10 All-Time WWE Bautista Bombs
“I thought it could be over any day,” says Bautista. “Because there were a lot of guys who were on the payroll one day and they were off the next. But I’m really big at seizing opportunities. If you give me an opportunity, I’ll be all over it.”
Bautista grabbed his chance with the WWE and never let go. He made his professional wrestling debut in 2000 under the ring name Leviathan. A couple of years later, he made his televised WWE debut on an episode of SmackDown as a villain named Deacon Batista. The “Deacon” moniker didn’t last, and he soon began to operate simply as Batista. Within a few years, he became one of the biggest stars of WWE, winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship four times and the WWE Championship twice. But still he didn’t feel like he’d “made it.”
“I was multi-world champion and I still went through times where I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to lose my job, they’re gonna fire me, I know they’re gonna fire me,’” says Bautista. “I went through that my whole career.”
Was it paranoia? Bautista says it was more like taking nothing for granted. “My feeling is, just never be comfortable,” he says. “Never get too comfortable.”
So is that still the case? “Oh, for sure,” he says. “Even with acting. It’s a constant argument that I have with my agent. I don’t like coming off a job and not knowing when my next job is. I want to know what I’m doing next. Because I got into this really late. And where I fit in this business is even smaller than where I fit in wrestling. There’s just not much room for aging actors that look like gorillas.”
Traditionally, there might not have been much space in Hollywood for 40-something thespians built like oak trees, but Bautista is making room, one successful role at a time. In 2014 he starred in Guardians of the Galaxy, a funny, irreverent, thrilling film that takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about a group of intergalactic criminals who must save the universe. It was a rare comic-book movie that made you laugh, cheer, and possibly even tear up a little.
Bautista played Drax, a guy who takes everything he hears literally, and who also witnessed the brutal murder of his wife and daughter. In seeking revenge for their deaths, he delivered some of the movie’s funniest lines—but he also showed he was capable of being vulnerable and generating empathy. The movie was a surprise box-office smash, raking in $773 million worldwide, the third-highest grossing film of the year. And Bautista’s Drax was a major reason why. It was his chance to show he could be more than, as he puts it, “Tough Guy No. 1”—and he crushed it.
“Guardians made my career, and it changed my life,” says Bautista. “It opened so many doors for me in Hollywood, it’s ridiculous.”
One of those doors led to him starring as Hinx, a villain in the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre. Overall, Bautista had an incredible experience. (“I still get the giggles that I’m actually in a Bond film,” he says.) But there was one aspect that frustrated him. When—spoiler alert—he is launched off a train at the end of a long fight scene with Daniel Craig, his character, who had been silent the entire film, delivers one line: “Shit.” The line was actually taken from a dubbing session that Bautista did after the original shoot—in which he had sounded, according to the filmmakers, “too American.”
Bautista was less than thrilled with the scene’s finished product, especially considering a line that Daniel Craig says after Hinx’s demise—“God, I thought that guy would never shut up”—was removed. “I wasn’t crazy about the voice-over, and I was really upset that they cut out the punchline to that whole thing,” says Bautista. “I wish they would’ve just left me silent. The character was like an homage to a throwback James Bond henchman.”
On the bright side, Bautista has far more lines in the upcoming Blade Runner reboot, Blade Runner 2049. It was a role Bautista had to fight hard for, because the director, Denis Villeneuve, initially thought he was wrong for the part. While in Atlanta for Guardians Vol. 2, Bautista screen-tested for the project and convinced Villeneuve he was the right man after all.
He’ll also have a bigger part in the second installment of Guardians.
“It’s a straight comedy role for me,” says Bautista, adding that audiences shouldn’t expect a repeat of the first movie. “There’s really a different vibe to this film. People will get to know the characters a little more. I hope people love it. I’m sure they will. It’s testing off the charts.”
But he’s not done with Drax, who will be a large part of the superhero battle royale that is 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War (and who knows how many more sequels by the time the MCU’s Phase 4 films debut in 2020). And, to his delight, Bautista will be sneaking in the occasional independent film, like the upcoming Hotel Artemis opposite Jodie Foster.
“I’m really fortunate now because I have big franchise stuff I can fall back on,” Bautista says. “But at the same time, I’m still after the juicy acting roles.”
All in all, things do not suck for Dave Bautista these days. In addition to the acting work, he has an endorsement deal with Muscle Monster energy drinks. Most of Muscle Monster’s athletes are MMA stars like Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Rampage Jackson, and Tyron Woodley, but the company made a special place for Bautista in its lineup just because the company likes him so much. “He’s a pivotal piece of the Muscle Monster program,” says Hans Molenkamp, an athlete rep at Monster. “He’s a big part of the Monster family.”
He’s doing well in love, too. In 2015 Bautista married Sarah Jade, who was Miss Pole Dance America in 2016. Yes, that’s right, his wife is the best pole dancer in the country. Jade recently retired from competition and is putting the finishing touches on her own pole dancing studio in Tampa, FL.
And speaking of construction, Bautista thinks it’s time he breaks down and builds his own home gym. As much as he likes the energy of the big public gym—his sanctuary for some 30 years now—it’s getting harder for him to get in his workouts. “It’s not like fans are asking me for pictures and autographs,” he says. “It’s just because I’m gone for months, so when people see me, they want to catch up. And when I’m at the gym, I want to work out. I’m on a mission.”
Since 2003, Bautista has been collecting vintage lunch boxes. He currently owns more than 250—and about 80 that he really loves. He even gifted lunch boxes to some of the cast when they wrapped Guardians 2. (Chris Pratt received a Knight Rider lunch box; Zoe Saldana, a Charlie’s Angels lunch box.) So when Bautista is asked if there’s anything in this world that he doesn’t yet have that he wants, he does not hesitate. “A 1970s Underdog lunch box.”
It’s a funny answer. But in truth, there are other, less jokey things he wants. Doing stage acting—particularly Shakespeare—is still on his bucket list. One last run with the WWE is still a possibility, though nothing is planned. He loves spending time at home with his wife and his three big dogs, so he’d like to do more of that. He loves being able to lift weights three days on and one day off when his schedule allows. And he wants to keep searching for those projects that will let him express himself—and perhaps convey some of those emotions that were swirling around in him as an awkward youth.
“Now I’m after that acting street cred,” says Bautista. “I want to be respected by my peers and have them know that I’m an actor.”
Could this former gangly kid from D.C. one day win an Oscar? We wouldn’t put it past the big fella.
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