Dave Bautista: A Whole Other Animal

Photos by Per Bernal

At 6'4" and 265 lbs, Dave Bautista seems like an unlikely choice to play Hamlet. The mural of tattoos down his barn-door-size back and the road map of veins running through his shoulders and arms suggest a dude who can bench press more than four plates, win six world titles in WWE, and beat a man into submission inside a mixed martial arts cage. Bautista, of course, has done all the above. But if you think the man known to sports-entertainment fans as “the Animal” can’t put a beating on somebody and then entertain you with a sonnet, you’re selling Bautista short.

Don’t do that again.

The villain of last winter’s James Bond film, Spectre, now has movie stardom in his sights and a stage production of Shakespeare on his bucket list.

 

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It’s especially funny to think of Bautista’s long-term ambition in contrast to his humble upbringing, which was as far from puffy shirts, frilly necklines, and Elizabethan English as one could get. Raised in a tough section of Washington, D.C., Bautista sought protection through weight training. He bulked up to 370 pounds and worked as a bouncer until, at age 30, he decided to take a shot at sports entertainment. Despite a successful run in WWE, Bautista was unhappy with the direction the business was headed (away from the “attitude era” to a more family-friendly product), and in 2010 he left to pursue acting.

“I did some work on a film for a friend,” he says, “and I realized what a horrible actor I was.” The movie, Wrong Side of Town, was directed by one of Bautista’s buddies, who thought he had the look to pull off the character of a Navy SEAL badass. “I was so embarrassed, but it made me want to do it again and do it better.”

He hired an acting coach and hit the streets of Hollywood, eager to establish a full-time film career. “I had a lot of trouble when I started out acting because I’m very self-conscious and a naturally shy person. But [my coach] said, ‘If you can do Shakespeare, you can do anything,’ so we read scenes from Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew. Stage acting in itself terrifies me, and Shakespeare’s dialogue is so tricky. To me, doing it onstage would be the ultimate challenge.”

 

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The other challenge besides shyness, of course, was having the body of a mythic warrior, which didn’t automatically suit him to Shakespearean roles or anything else—except generic tough-guy and villain parts in B movies.

“There were a lot of roles that I turned down,” Bautista says, “and I struggled for years because I didn’t leave wrestling to get stuck in that rut of the cheesy action guy.”

He made an earnest effort to shed some weight and look like a regular guy, but no dice. “I refused to pick up a weight for years and dieted and did cardio. I starved myself down to 250,” he says with a laugh. That’s as low as he could get without being perpetually hungry and miserable. “I’m just a big person with big bones, and I’ve been lifting for 25 years. I’m just a gorilla!”

If his physique wasn’t enough of a handicap, his résumé made matters worse. Although WWE fans know full well that pro wrestlers can dissolve into character, that kind of acting didn’t carry any weight in the movie business. The fact that he had already earned a measure of fame through wrestling without a formal education in theater only served to breed resentment against him.

“I had to convince people that I was serious about acting and not just a wrestler who wanted to be in movies and be famous and make a lot of money,” he says. “I’ve always been a fan of films. I watch all types of films, all across the board.”

 

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While Bautista waited for a big break, he briefly pursued another ambition—and a chance to break the stereotype of being a fake fighter. In 2012 he competed in a professional MMA fight. After a slow start that found him eating several big punches, he managed to take his opponent down and rain down strikes from back mount to earn a stoppage before the end of the first round.

“I was so disappointed in my first fight that I really wanted a second one,” he says. “But at this point in my life and career, that makes absolutely no sense. I was more disappointed in myself because I was so nervous. I just kind of froze up. As soon as the cage door closed, I thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’” Nevertheless, he earned street cred with fans and haters alike, proving that he didn’t need a story line to win a fight.

It took Bautista years to find an agent. “The one I have now turned me down three times,” he says. “And the reason he finally accepted me as a client was because he liked me as a person. And the reason he liked me was because he represented a friend of mine, [mixed martial arts fighter] Cung Le, and I got to know him through Le. He called me one day and said, ‘I have an audition for you, and it’s a real long shot,’ and that was Guardians. He was representing me for literally a week before I went in for Guardians.”

In case the reference is lost on  you (and if it is, where have you been hiding?), Guardians of the Galaxy was the nuclear box office explosion of summer 2014, earning more than $774 million and garnering Bautista high praise from critics. He credits landing the life-changing role of Drax to the casting director, who believed in him, and says he “clicked” with the director after the first audition. “I sat jobless waiting for the phone to ring until Guardians came out,” he says. “I think everybody expected me to be a certain way in it, and I was the opposite. That’s when people started calling me.” In contrast with most Marvel comic heroes who have come to the big screen, Bautista’s Drax is genuinely funny, sensitive, and vulnerable, showcasing the actor’s own self-effacing personality.

 

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Having shed the stigma of wrestler-turned-actor, Bautista was confident he wouldn’t have to play a thug again until he was offered a role in last year’s blockbuster Bond film, Spectre.

“My agent called me and asked how I’d feel about being in a James Bond film, and my immediate reaction was, ‘Fuck, yeah!’ And he said, ‘I figured, but I just wanted to double check because it’s a henchman role.’ But I’m proud to say there are henchmen and then there are James Bond henchmen. The Bond ones are always iconic and memorable. And to be honest, it’s always more fun to be the bad guy.”

Upcoming films will also find Bautista, 46, acting alongside Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, and Melissa McCarthy. He still hopes to return to WWE one day in the way Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson has done so sporadically.

As for whether he is still too big for his britches—in terms of physique—to be a leading man in movies, Bautista is far more concerned with doing good work in interesting roles, and he vows to be true to himself above the needs of any director: “I like training; I like being healthy. I think resistance training will always be a part of my life. It’s where I feel like I’m a fish back in water.” – FLEX